We have this tendency to treat the assembly in a pagan way. Rather than seeing the Lord’s Supper as a gift and a blessing to be gratefully received from God, we see it as a magic spell. If we get the words right and if we use the exact right ingredients, God will be pleased by our punctilious obedience and compelled to approve our worship as being decent and in order. That is, to please God, each Sunday we must pass a test.
But the deeper we dig into the history and roots of the Eucharist, the more we see that it’s really about God’s initiative to bless us and not a test at all.
Imagine that it’s Christmas morning and your children are waking up, anticipating a tree surrounded by presents. You tell your children to brush their teeth and come downstairs so we can open presents. Your children respond by worrying themselves sick over whether they have properly brushed their teeth for fear that they’ll receive coal and switches rather than Lincoln Logs and Barbies.
In fact, your kids develop a book of rules about how teeth must be brushed. “Brush” authorizes a toothbrush and so forbids dental floss or a WaterPik. Despite how important brushing the gums are to oral hygiene, “teeth” means teeth and not gums, thereby forbidding any brushing of the gums. Careful attention must be paid so that the bristles never once stroke the gums. And switches and coal will surely follow those who brush morning mouth from their tongues!
The children divide over whether the mouth may be rinsed with water afterwards. “Brush teeth” plainly says nothing about rinsing, some say, but others contend that rinsing is not an act of brushing and so not regulated. They believe rinsing is permitted as a matter of expedience. The no-rinsing children treat their rinsing brothers and sisters as not a part of the family at all and refuse to open presents with those whose hearts are so rebellious that they rinse their mouths in plain violation of their parents’ commands. Surely, they believe, their parents will be delighted by their refusal to associate with their brothers and sisters on Christmas morning.
The pro-rinsing children call their non-rinsing siblings “antis.” The anti-rinsing children call their brothers and sisters “digressives.” Both groups set up a publishing house to post arguments damning each other on the family bulletin board.
When they finally make it downstairs to open the presents, all the children are terrified that any mistake will ruin Christmas. Remembering that Christmas is to be a celebration, they smile fake smiles in hopes that their parents will reward them for their show of happiness — but deep down they are terrified.
I am describing, of course, a deeply neurotic family. To live in such fear, with no joy in life, no delight in spontaneity, in constant fear of making a mistake — all because their parents want to give them gifts! — would be dreadful and miserable. In fact, these children have taken what was intended as a blessing and an opportunity for joy together as a family and turned it into misery and division. They don’t need a lesson in hermeneutics; they need counseling.
And yet, to many of us, this is the assembly — not a gift to be delighted in but a test to be taken on penalty of damnation. We smile only when we feel commanded to smile. And the least, most trivial decision becomes gut-wrenching agony because, when we have a choice, we are at risk of a damning mistake. We are at risk of angering a temperamental deity that commands obedience to rules that are often only hinted at. The only relief from our misery and fear is the delight we take in damning our brothers and sisters. At least, we figure, someone else is worse off than we are.
Truly, to act in dread of a God who is trying mightily just to get us to accept his gifts is very sad. Christianity does not have to be that way.