An Argument for a Substantive Communion

An elderly woman in the front row was having a heart attack. The church had wooden pews and stained-glass windows of various biblical scenes. Speaking from the large maple-wood pulpit, the priest was halfway through his sermon when the woman showed signs of trouble. The couple sitting along the same pew slid over to her to help. In hushed whispers, they called 911. Those around her attended to her, speaking quiet prayers under their breath. The priest kept preaching, and the sermon went on. It went on as the EMTs silently walked down the aisle and treated her. It went on as they wheeled her out and took her to the hospital. God’s word was spoken over the congregation. They were blessed.

I heard that story from some dear friends that attended that church, which is still active and standing solemnly in a small town near my home. I’m not sure every detail I gave is exactly right—but I think that’s the gist of it.

Recently, I had a rather difficult meeting in my church. We are addressing the direction of a particular ministry, and in doing so, we’re evaluating our leadership team. I am so thankful to be in this little community of Jesus followers; these leaders are some of my best friends. I truly admire them. We’re quite the band of trouble makers. So it’s not surprising that when a team member recently stepped down from our tightknit community, it shook our foundation a little.

I won’t try speaking for this team member. She’s one of the most gracious, kind, and loving people I know. I don’t know every detail that went into her decision, but she stepped down gracefully.

She has faced some tremendous oppression under the new administration. The reality is the area in which we live isn’t a safe place for her right now. But she also told me that she found it difficult attending a church in which no one seemed to know what she was going through.

Our church certainly isn’t a wellspring of diversity. The truth is that most of us have navigated the administration change with little to no impact on our daily lives. By no means have I ever heard her complain about our church or accost anyone in leadership. She has been gracious and forgiving with us. And we’ve benefited dearly from her example of Christ.

Even before she left, I thought our church community was failing her, for the most part. We just kept preaching and dancing and worshipping and assuming that she was fine. She had confessed to many of us the struggle that she was going through. And we prayed for her. And we asked her how she was doing. We kept in touch. But we didn’t do much more for her. We certainly didn’t do anything inconvenient. How is it that we claim to be laying our lives down for our brothers and sisters when nothing we do is inconvenient?1 Isn’t the very nature of sacrifice inconvenient?

I want to make this perfectly clear: I’m not saying the Church’s mission is reactionary. Our job is to love.2 And that love doesn’t change with the tide.3 But if our sister is having a heart attack in the front row, ought we stop the sermon and help her? Our mission is love—and that doesn’t change. But doesn’t that very love require us to attend to her?

I think we allow the ins and outs of our traditions to become sacred. The priest must preach the message of God at all costs. It’s holy. We cannot allow the human struggle to distract from that message. But what is the message of God? What is the holiness of God?

Isn’t the whole point of Christianity that God became human and took on our struggles? Jesus’s message was simple: this is the Kingdom. He showed us what heaven is like. He showed us the goodness and purity of his Kingdom smashing into an evil and corrupt world. He showed us how to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, deliver the oppressed.4 He showed us who God is. And if God is holy, and if Christ bearing our sins on the cross is the quintessential expression of God,5 then his holiness bears our sin. It isn’t afraid of our struggles. It embraces them. It takes them head on. He hears us and sees us and knows what we’re going through. He listens to our muffled cries as we bury our head into our pillow at night. Our struggles matter to him. I know this because we matter to him.

Do we worship a God who ignores our problems? If not, why do we let worship become the absence of our struggles? Isn’t worship a lifestyle that radiates love and thankfulness that we praise him from our brokenness? So why do we ignore our struggles? Why do we ignore our humanness? Why do we keep preaching when our hearts are starving for blood?

broken-glass.jpg

In our leadership meeting, we were sharing some of our own struggles and shortcomings. We were praying together and forgiving each other. We were evaluating our community—we were checking our heartbeat.

I told the team that I was struggling with our response to our team member’s resignation. I told them that I felt I was failing her and had failed her. I told them that I thought our church had failed her. I don’t think she would ever claim that we failed her. But I think we did. And I think this situation reflects a symptom of a larger failure in the entire Church (the whole body of Christ).

Someone in the church leadership addressed me, and I want to spark a conversation on his response. I value his opinion, and perhaps even more my good friend who echoed his opinion. I have been and will be praying about their responses.

They suggested that I was shouldering a responsibility that wasn’t mine to carry. My claim was that I (personally) and the church (holistically) was failing my sister. We were failing to address what she was going through, to listen to her, and to live out Christ’s call to love and lay down our lives for her. They asked me if God had given me some specific instruction in the situation. He had—and I am following through with that slowly but surely. If I’m listening to God’s instructions, they claimed, I’m not failing. And inasmuch as I am trusting the church to hear God’s voice in this situation, the church isn’t failing. Our only responsibility is to listen and respond to what Jesus is telling us. We shouldn’t feel uncomfortable listening and waiting. Just because we’re not doing anything concrete doesn’t mean we’re failing.

Moreover, placing the fault on myself and the church is harmful because I’m judging us based on my own expectations, not God’s. I think the point is that we need to have faith in God to watch over our sister. We can’t take on the burden of an entire suffering world because that cross isn’t ours to bear. We’re only called to listen and respond to God’s voice in our little corner of the ring.

If we’ve failed to respond to God’s call in our sister’s life, then we need to repent, ask her forgiveness, and be free. If we’re “carrying around the same weight afterwards, something is wrong,” he said. God’s not calling us to bear shame. He wouldn’t call me to be generally more Christ-like without having specific steps to take right now.

This is what I understood of their response. And I think there’s a lot of truth in it. But I’d like to dialogue with it for a moment.

I have never felt shamed nor burdened by God’s calling, except in that we’re called to bear our cross daily.6 His calling never pushes us down; it always lifts us up. I have felt convicted, certainly, but this conviction always comes with growth. He’s not a father that tells us the size of the hole we’ve gotten ourselves into; he helps us up.

He also talks to us. I believe listening and responding to God’s voice is an essential aspect of following Christ. This Sprit-led life should be equally balanced with a Bible-led life. Each, on its own, is inadequate; we need both. And so, I also believe that engaging with the testimony of Christ as presented in the Gospels and throughout scripture is an essential aspect of following Jesus.

Certainly, I am endeavoring to be aware of God’s voice and presence at all times in my life—while crossing the street, ordering coffee, or writing to you here. But if the woman next to me has a heart attack this Sunday, I’m not going to ask God if he wants me to help her. I already know his answer. And unless God pounds my ear drum with a sledge hammer, I’m going to help her. That’s who I am. That’s who he’s made me to be.

I think this speaks to a deeper reality about who God is calling us to be. But first, I want to tell you a story.

When I was young, I watched how my father treated the people around him. He acted in kindness and graciousness, usually, but always with honesty and integrity. I like to think that I’m a person of honesty and integrity because those are qualities I learned from my dad. He taught me to say please and thank you. He taught me to tell the truth. He taught me language, really. We first learn language by hearing and mimicking our parents.

Once, when I was seven or eight, my dad took me on a trip with him to some hardware store, as he usually did. I was standing by him, looking at all the nuts and bolts in a seemingly endless aisle, when suddenly I was standing by a stranger. Who I had thought was my dad turned out to be an employee in an orange apron. I was terrified for a moment until I heard my dad’s voice calling me from the end the aisle: “Are you coming?”

Jesus speaks to us, and he teaches us how to speak. As we follow him, we start to become like him. We inherit his qualities: love, kindness, patience, humbleness, gentleness.7 We start developing a character that talks like him, walks like him, breathes like him.

As we grow older, we don’t stop talking with our fathers. And if we’re wise, we don’t stop listening to them either. And if we’re lucky, we start living in such a way that makes them proud.

I don’t need to ask God if I should help the woman in the front row because that’s how he raised me. I want to be the kind of person who demonstrates love to the world not by virtue of action but by quality of self. I don’t want to do love. I want to be love. I want to be like Jesus.

My communion with God is substantive—it’s based in reality; it’s meaningful; it’s the substance of God. It’s equally independent and dependent. Jesus is calling us to be whole and unique people whose every fiber and breath comes from him. We listen, we obey, and we talk.

The fabric of this cosmic story is that God wants a relationship with us. He values the way we see and think and hear and be. We see this echoed throughout scripture. In Genesis 18, God listens to Abraham. God responds to Abraham’s advice. God is looking for a Church who will partner with him. He tells his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”8

As a Church, what are we asking in his name? How are we partnering with him? Are we becoming the kind of people who live and breathe the gospels, who respond and listen to his voice, and who demonstrate the kind of character that Jesus is?

We don’t have to take on responsibility beyond what we already have: to love and lay down our lives for those around us. We need to listen and obey. We need to rest in the insurmountable knowledge that we are loved outrageously. This is God’s call—both the whispers in our ear and the testimony of Christ. We don’t wait for his voice with inaction. He’s already shown us how to be.

I believe my words have fallen short of this calling. My intention isn’t to rebuke the Church on its failure. God’s call isn’t shameful. It’s freedom. It’s freedom to be kind unceasingly and love outrageously. I’m horribly sorry that my words have communicated guilt and shame where there are none. The truth is that I am so thankful for my team and for my church. I admire these people, and I look up to them. Where my words fail, hear my heart. I want to ask: can we go further?

Show me how to love like Jesus.


End Notes:

[1] See 1 John 3:16.
[2] See Matthew 22:36-40, John 13:35.
[3] See Hebrews 13:8.
[4] See Matthew 10:7-10.
[5] Read Greg Boyd’s wonderful article on this.
[6] See Luke 9:23.
[7] See 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 1 John 4:8.
[8] John 14:12-14

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