On the Lord’s Supper In This Time of Isolation

On the Lord’s Supper In This Time of Isolation
Frank Turk
April 8, 2020

My Dear Friends,

As I have been listening to those of you who have been speaking up about your encouragements and discouragements in this time when we are wise to stay apart for the good of one another, one of the things I hear and deeply appreciate is the tension between enjoying the digital gatherings we are joining through various platforms (Facebook, GroupMe, ZOOM, texts and phone calls, etc.) and the reality that these things make us miss what I am going to call “the real thing” of fellowship together. What we have right now is a pale shadow of what we normally have in fellowship and true “membership” (that is: what we do as members) of what has been our normal christian lives. And what’s actually true is that what we think of as our normal Christian life is actually a pale shadow of what is to come when Christ returns. When we are finally before the throne of God, in the wedding feast of the bridegroom, unshakably and eternally joined together with and because of Christ, that is the ultimate “real thing” of our faith. There will be no pandemics when Christ returns and sets the world in order except, if we can say it this way, the pandemic of His goodness which creates His kingdom, far as the curse is found.

We have a glimpse of that final peace and rest when we are together. It comes from our common ground in Christ, in His Gospel, and in the belief that as we love God we will love one another. The goodness of God is found when we are together not merely as an audience to some message, or even as a guild of apprentices learning the secrets of Jesus’ trade, but when we are together as friends who are closer than brothers, overflowing toward each other with the gifts of joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, trustworthiness, self-control, and love. We can rightly sing, side by side, “I'm so glad I'm a part of the family of God! Washed in the fountain! Cleansed by His blood! Joint heirs with Jesus As we travel this sod, For I'm part of the family, The family of God!” And that is when we are receiving right now a taste of the blessings which Christ has bought, and we are able to look forward with hope for the better portion still to come.

Now: what does this have to do with the Lord’s Supper? Some of you are keeping a tally. We missed celebrating it together in March, and we will miss celebrating it in April -- which will feel like it is a double-miss because we are also missing it as part of our celebration of death and resurrection of Christ over the weekend of Easter. How strange will it seem to read Christ saying to His disciples, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (which will, coincidentally, also come up in your reading plan) How slack will it seem to hear that and not to partake in the supper to remember it? Isn’t it, after all, a command of Christ to “do this in remembrance of Me?” Do we really have the liberty to put this command of Christ aside for a while as we seem to be doing right now?

The elder board has been considering it, and we have some thoughts to share in this matter which we hope you will each find useful and trustworthy as we try to navigate through this complicated time together as a church. We want to live wisely and faithfully now. We want to be diligent that we continue to build one another up. (Eph 4:14-16) We want to ensure that we are not losing sight of being a true church rather than becoming a hangout of faces on a small screen.

The first thing which seems right to say is that even though we have put aside some of our practices right now, the perception of the elder board is that these concessions to the requests and requirements of our civil authorities are meant to be for a limited time. Regardless of how some public officials in other places have spoken (or misspoken) about their directives, our elder board believes that the local public officials are seeking to be prudent without being overly-strict. They are not calling out Christians (or religious people generally) as targets for their policies. They are actively seeking the public good, and we will follow their authority in this matter as their authority is also set forth by God for these matters (consider Rom 13 and 1Tim 2). But that said, we see these guidelines and orders to have a foreseeable end in mind. We believe that, for the good of our body in general, we are wise to follow those guidelines for the sake of safety, especially for those who would be vulnerable if infected. Because it does seem right now that there is a near-term end to these guidelines, we are willing to wait for that time to come so that we can come together in a way that is both described by Scripture and common to our practice for celebrating the table together.

The second thing which follows is to say that there is a significant difference between “waiting” and “abandoning.” Right now we are conscientiously waiting for a time when we can do all the things which, frankly, we understand as demonstrating faithfulness and the worthy manner by which we should eat and drink together in remembrance of Christ. It is not the same kind of waiting we do as we wait, month by month, for the third Sunday in which we schedule the ordinance. This waiting is more like traveling from where we used to be to where and when we will be together when we arrive on the other side of this trial.

Consider it this way: I am married to Tara, and in that covenant, we follow the words of Christ, “what God has joined together let no man tear asunder.” Yet I leave Tara all the time to travel for work. When I leave Tara to travel for work, am I violating the command of God not to tear my marriage asunder? It may not be obvious to everyone, but the answer is “no” because I am not traveling away forever. That time away is actually part of the work of staying together. I am traveling as part of the work I must do to provide for her and for my family. I am away from them and the normal order of our life from time to time as a function of the work I must do for them.

In this season which the world is labeling over with many words that sound like nothing will ever be the same again, we are going to have to travel through it as we do through so as part of the good work God has set out before us (Eph 2:8-10). For us, that has to mean we wait with faith and hope, and with an eye always turned toward God for whom none of this was a surprise. We are going to travel through this season for a time, and when it ends we will return to the normal order of our example of the household of God (God willing). We are committed not to abandoning the commands of Christ, but we are cautiously waiting now for a time when we can resume our normal order of following Him.

The third thing which seems right to talk about is the meaning of the Lord’s table. I think it would be possible to write a whole 4-volume reference set on this question, but Jesus, who always says what we need to know perfectly, says it briefly this way: “do this in remembrance of Me.” (NASB, including the capitalized “Me”) That seems too simple an answer, but because it is scripture it probably goes down farther than you might think on first reading. I can think of at least 5 things Jesus implies by this:

1. “Remember what I am doing and will have done for you.” He means that what He is now doing, and has been telling his disciples about since Peter’s confession in that Jesus is the Christ, is the redemption work He is doing for His people. This is evident as he explains the “covenant in [His] blood” which this meal is now set up to remind us of. The supper is meant to remind us that God has bought us for a high price.

2. “Remember what my work makes of you.” He means that His work is not just a performance which we observe, but it is a transaction which changes us. In John’s account Jesus says He is changing us from slave or servants to friends; when Peter considers the work of Christ for us he says, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” When we remember that he has done it for us, we must remember what has been done and how we have been changed by Him.

3. “Remember therefore what you mean to each other.” As John also tells us Jesus said this: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Here Jesus points to the deep connection between the power of His sacrifice and meaning of the Second Great Commandment. Not only does God want us to love one another, but God’s defeat of sin and enmity also causes us to love one another and in fact helps us to love one another as fellow heirs in the grace of God.

4. “Remember the reason and the power which causes your unity.” Christ has declared that those whom the Father gives to Him cannot ever be lost. We belong to Him forever, which brings us together in a way which cannot be broken.

5. “Remember I am coming back to you.” As Jesus introduces the supper in Luke 22, He does something which you will miss if you are not paying attention: He tells us “I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” There is a time coming when Jesus, who gave us this meal to remember Him by, will sit at a table with us and eat it a last time as it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. The table we celebrate with each other is a reminder of that table Christ is setting for us before His father, in the presence of all His people, in which we will celebrate His victory and His setting right to all things in a victory over sin and death.

I think we could come up with another 20 things Jesus means either directly or indirectly by His institution of the supper, but these 5 things have something in common: they call our attention away from “me personally” to something greater than ourselves, something which Christ will build, against which the gates of Hell cannot stand. The act which Christ ordained to remember these truths requires a community to celebrate it. It points to the reasons that this community exists. It explains what the community is for.

This implied fact of coming together is amplified by Paul’s explicit statement about the reason and need to come together in 1 Cor 11:17-34. His concerns there are targeted not at the general purpose of gathering as a church, but the specific purpose of rightly conducting the Lord’s Supper. In that passage, the explicit statement that this is the unique purpose to “come together” is repeated over and over, contrasting with the Corinthians’ natural motivations to find ways to divide from one another. The Lord’s Table is explicitly the coming together of His people to remember Him and what He has done for all of us.

In this, there is a difficult path to navigate in celebrating it when we are all necessarily separated for good and wise reasons. This brings me back to the idea of “the real thing” of fellowship. The real thing, in speaking of the Lord’s Supper, requires us to be together. It is a part of the act of worship that cannot be transmitted digitally or networked electronically. The togetherness is baked into the act of remembrance. For that reason, in this season we are not seeking to build a second-best method of trying to follow the command of our Lord to remember him without the necessary circumstance of being together.

We are praying that this season of our life as a church will come to a close soon, and we hope you are praying for that as well. We hope that as you find yourself reflecting on what we are missing in this time of separation and distance, you are praying that we can again come together and demonstrate the full life of our church in obedience to God and in love for one another.

Frank Turk On Behalf of the Board of Elders

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