Friday, June 5, 2020

DEATH & LIFE AT THE TABLE

(Online Holy Communion link here and at bottom of this article)

Holy Communion, or the Eucharist [from the Greek word for “thanksgiving”], is a powerful means of grace. I touched on this briefly in my blog article of 3/9/2018, “Two ‘Means of Grace’ for Healing,” which you might want to read before this one. God has never stopped using means of grace, although most Christians today have stopped thinking clearly about them. But we must be very clear on the Table. For too many years Holy Communion has been treated as merely an act of ritual obedience. The Eucharist must be retrieved for what it is: a means of grace for personal spiritual growth, inner healing and, at times, spiritual warfare.

A Mystery Beyond Human Speculation

The Lord’s Supper is a mystery. Making what’s on the Table fit our theological explanations may comfort human minds, but it often robs Holy Communion of its centrality to Christian life and witness. Disputes about the virtues of one position over another have divided the Body of Christ. It might be best to approach the Table always repenting that we ever tolerated such division. Roman Catholics insist on transubstantiation, the more ancient Orthodox on objective transformation; for Lutherans it’s a sacramental union, for the Reformed a spiritual union, or for many other Protestants, a holy memorial; unfortunately, for some denominations, it was a temporary rite no longer needed. Please, for the sake of our King, put all these rationally-defended theories and viewpoints on hold and bask in the mystery. Heaven will eventually vindicate or obliterate your chosen view. But right now, and for the rest of your earthly life, be a servant subject to our Sovereign Lord, and take Him at His word. With the trust of childlike faith, regardless of your viewpoint, accept at face value what is written in the Book:
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-57, NASB)
And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood,” (Luke 22:19-20, NASB).

And to solidify your meditation on the Eucharistic mystery, plunge your heart deep into what Paul says about the ongoing celebration of this Holy Meal: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16, ESV, emphasis mine). Both Paul’s understanding and Christ’s clear instruction should convince us that approaching this sacred Table is physically the closest we can get to what Jesus accomplished on Calvary. In a mysterious way, to “eat this bread and drink this cup” is to both participate in and “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26, NIV).

A Table of Death

Christ’s crucifixion was a terminus, an end point for many things; His Resurrection, the beginning for many others. The Cross and empty tomb divided time into BC and AD—now renamed BCE and CE, which hasn’t altered that division. They closed the Old Testament with a New Covenant, turning a Jewish story into a global one. For every believer, they end the old life with new birth, as sacramentally portrayed in baptism.

Baptism—a one-time rite for initiation into the Christian community—is a burial of the old life (as in a watery tomb) and an emergence into a newborn life (as from a watery womb). Paul describes this in very plain language: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4, ESV). This break with the old life and entrance into the new life is demonstrated once in baptism, but our ongoing need for replacing old ways of living with Christlike living is repeatedly demonstrated at the Table. There we participate again and again in the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice and empty tomb for the rest of our earthly sojourn.

It’s highly significant that Jesus introduced foot-washing in the context of His Table. He told Peter its purpose in John 13:10 (ESV): “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” Whether or not foot-washing accompanies Holy Communion, the need for cleansing is ongoing. We bring to the Table an array of worldly attitudes and behaviors that we must part with and leave behind. They need to die, and Paul says their death is the work of Christ’s Cross: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world,” (Galatians 6:14, NIV).

God is not into magic. Physically taking the Eucharist does not automatically free us from worldliness. This is why Jesus said, “you are clean, but not every one of you.” Judas missed out, despite having his feet washed by Jesus and eating the new Passover meal. An authentic participation in the body and blood of Christ at the Table is a relational act dependent on personal faith. Just as baptism is a physical confession of faith in Christ’s work on Calvary, so is partaking of the fruits of the Cross presented to us again on the Table. This makes Holy Communion a means of grace—a focal point where God’s power can put to death those vestiges of worldly ways clinging to our lives—as long as we faithfully bring them to Him, remembering that the purpose for His death was to eliminate them from our lives.

Practically, this means spending time in prayer before coming to the Eucharistic Meal, asking the Holy  Spirit to convict us in whatever areas we have participated in those dispositions and deeds that belong to the realm of darkness. It may be helpful to ask Him to show us if we have:
  • any attitude we need to confess and forsake
  • any behavior we need to bring to an end
  • any habit or addiction from which we need to be set free
  • any laziness or laxity needing banishment from our lives
  • any ties we have inherited or formed that need to be severed
  • any obsessions or compulsions that need to be broken
  • anything else in us that needs to die
But the most profound question to be asked and answered is the one Jesus asked of the lame man, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6, ESV). This is the primary question. Do we really want to change? Are we ready to bring to His Table whatever needs to die, whatever needs to end, to cease, to stop? If we do, we will agree with whatever the Holy Spirit points out to us and make it our intention to bring them to the crucifying work of Christ represented on the Table and leave them there.

A Table of Life

If we have made our prayerful preparation and are bringing our worldly trash and baggage to leave at the Table, we will likely approach Holy Communion with tears of grief. It is right to be sorrowful that such things have been held back from our Lord, in spite of having received new birth from Him. But when what the Holy Spirit has shown us is left on the Table, we can then take His life from the Table with tears of joy and celebration. Holiness and wholeness and freedom must fill up those areas where unrighteousness and darkness and bondage have been banished.

This participation in His resurrection life is a relational act of faith in its initiation and its continuation. When you accepted Christ as your Savior, you entered salvation by new birth. But you have been exhorted to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose,” (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV). Jesus stipulated baptism as a physical faith-affirmation of new birth, and He gave us His Table as an ongoing physical faith-reminder of our need to let His resurrection life fill every area of our personal lives.

With the same heart-searching prayer and personal intention, we must come to the Table of Christ’s resurrected life, taking from Him what we need in the area of:
  • attitudes and desires aligned with the mind of Him Who indwells us
  • choices and behaviors that reflect “not my will but Yours be done”
  • habits of devotion to prayer, Bible study and spiritual growth
  • a serious concern for others and commitment to serve them
  • gathering with other Christians for spiritual fellowship
  • waging spiritual warfare against the realm of darkness
  • whatever else God reveals that needs to come alive in us
Christian growth is based not on accumulating knowledge about God and the Scriptures, but on obeying God’s will and making Jesus Lord of our lives. We can’t do that on our own. We’re totally dependent on Christ’s resurrected life in us to empower us to live and grow as Christians. But God has given us physical means of grace to highlight our dependence on Him, and Holy Communion is one of them.

Conclusion

We may not be used to thinking of physical rituals, like baptism and Holy Communion, as truly spiritual activities. We may have a Gnostic view that sees no relationship between the physical and the spiritual, no intrinsic union between the body and the spirit. If so, have ignored God’s many uses of physical means of grace throughout Scripture, but worse, we have fail to uphold the central significance of Christ’s incarnation, bodily death and resurrection. Our faith is incarnational, or it is not the Christian faith found in the New Testament. The fruits of the Cross and of the Resurrection are on the Table, and Christ’s “in remembrance of Me,” includes His words, “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” Embrace the mystery and participate in it.

I hope that all reading this article will discover a new way of coming to the Communion Table. I hope all will start seeing it as a return to the Cross, where Christ’s death brings us life, by putting our old life to death so that we can freely participate in His resurrected life. The following poem makes an apt conclusion, describing the approach both to the Cross and to the Table.

THE DARK SIDE OF THE CROSS

Brokenly we stumble down the twisted trails of life,
Struggling to discover peace in self-made worlds of strife,
Fighting to escape our fears of losing what we gain,
Craving for a feast of pleasures free from any pain.
Yet, upon these broad and damning roads beneath our feet,
There’s a solemn shadow that our steps may often meet.
In the setting sun of earthly dreams there stands a Cross,
Casting hope upon those paths of everlasting loss.

From its slender shade, which seems at first so cramped and tight,
Comes a whispered offer for a journey into Light.
Once, there was no exit; now a doorway stands in view,
Open for the weary passerby to walk on through.

Oh but how it looks constricted, narrow as the grave,
Waiting to convert the seeker’s soul into its slave
By its strong death-dealing nails for fixing limbs to wood:
No more wandering the world we thought we understood;
No more squandering of precious gifts that God bestows;
No more pity for ourselves for self-engendered woes;
No more place for stubbornness within our willful heart—
Selfish thrones must topple, proud dominions fall apart;
No more so-called freedom for our flesh to play the fool;
Only crucifixion, setting Jesus free to rule . . .

Harsh and strict, this pathway through the Cross of Christ appears,
Warning all who enter of its dark side’s loss and tears.
Yet, if we have thought it out and in that way have stepped,
We elude what choked our lives, rejoicing where we wept.

Such emancipation on the Cross’s other side
Opens up to us a realm extremely rich and wide.
Heaven’s light unveils a vast expanse where glory shines.
Holy wealth with pure delight and beauty intertwines.
Far beyond imagination, rapture fills our souls.
Endless joy in useful service flows from godly goals.
What were not true friendships in the world we leave behind
Change to new, real fellowship we’d always hoped to find.
On the Cross’s brighter side, our destination’s clear.
Working out His Word and will, we sense His presence near.

Jesus walked the dying side to hellish depths below
To unlock the living side, where treasures overflow:
Mysteries of faith and prayer, His Body’s bread and wine,
Light of Life, a life of Love, and love for Light Divine.
What He purchased when He hung as “nothing” on the Tree
Was to be our everything: His life in you and me.

So, don’t flee the Cross because you see its darker side.
Don’t keep running off to find a wider place to hide.
Stop and leave the worldly highway, choose no more to roam:
Make the Cross of Jesus yours, and it will lead you home.

— David L. Hatton, 4/6/1993
(from Poems Between Darkness and Light ©1994, 2014)

( For a 10-minute, online Holy Communion
 observance, go to https://youtu.be/lWQtfOM3caY )

Monday, May 4, 2020

WHAT IS SPIRITUAL MATURITY?

The answer to that title’s question is probably more easily described than practiced. Nevertheless, I’ll try describing a personal, biographical answer through sharing my attempts to practice spiritual maturity.

Having become convinced in high school that philosophy was the key to knowledge and that theology was the path to spiritual wisdom, I began my college education trusting the academic study of both to bring me to spiritual maturity. But after getting my B. A. in Bible and still feeling inadequate to enter the ministry, I began seminary studies in San Francisco. That was back in the 1970s, right after the surge and crash of the Hippie Movement, just when the Jesus People Movement was taking off. A few weeks into my seminary studies, my spirit was suffocating, starving in a spiritually dry desert.

About that time, someone in the Jesus Movement introduced me to the writings of Watchman Nee. Despite my Bible college education, I struggled with his book The Normal Christian Life, because, as simple as it was, it presented a depth of Christian experience that was foreign to my knowledge-based ideas of spirituality. In his books The Ministry of God’s Word and The Release of the Spirit, Nee taught that only by a break-through from the Holy Spirit, Who wrote the Word of God, could anyone minister that Word effectively. A senior seminarian I carpooled with trivialized Nee as shallow and simplistic. Since I knew the opposite to be true, his haughty gibe at Nee began to sour my perception of the seminary path. Doubts merged with my sense of spiritual dryness to make me contemplate abandoning seminary. That thought was soon confirmed.

I had been asked to preach at a rescue mission in Oakland, but I purposefully did not prepare a sermon. Instead, praying for guidance, I opened my Bible during the song leader’s last song and my eyes fell on a familiar passage in Romans. Immediately, I saw in my mind’s-eye a vision of Christ on the Cross, being overwhelmed by the sins of humanity, past and future, converging on Him to stifle His very life. Just as described by Nee, when I stood to speak, an unplanned message began to flow out. Somehow I knew what to say and how to say it. But when it came to the vision I had seen of Jesus crying out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? . . . My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” my mouth poured out words to describe what was taking place without the help of my rational thought. When I sat down, I knew God had showed me the inadequacy of studying my way into a spiritual ministry. Shortly thereafter, I quit seminary just before the end of my first semester.

Those living at the Lord's Land in the 1970s
Around that time, the fellow who told me about Watchman Nee had invited Rosemary and I to visit him at a Christian commune near Mendocino called The Lord’s Land. We’d had our first child after Christmas in 1972, and I was still working at a paint factory—our only source of income. On my way to work one morning, I felt the Lord telling me, “Don’t go to work.” Ignoring this as a strange thought, I kept driving. But as I turned onto the road to my job, I heard, “Okay then, there will be no work for you today.” When I got there, the foreman told all of us that there was no work. I quit that day, and Rosemary and I headed off to Mendocino to visit the commune. I discovered later that everyone else was called back to work shortly after I left.

Cross at the bluff - Lighthouse Ranch
Our visit to The Lord’s Land impressed us tremendously. These Jesus People, living in a communal setting, had an amazingly mature level of spirituality. It showed me how my academic education in God’s Word had not trained me to practice the Word, as these young believers were doing. Later we visited the group’s headquarters in Eureka and ended up moving to their original commune called Lighthouse Ranch, housed at an old Coastguard station on Table Bluff near Lolita.
View from the water tower at Lighthouse Ranch

I soon began to grow spiritually in this group, especially under the powerful preaching of Jim Durkin, a Foursquare Gospel minister who led Gospel Outreach, the name they chose for their ministry. Under his evangelistic preaching, several hippie communes had become Christian communes, and I eventually became what they called “a coordinator” of one of them, Living Waters Ranch near Whitethorn, an hour west of Garberville.
Young Hattons at Living Waters Ranch

Every few weeks, we caravanned up to Eureka for a general Sunday gathering of the communes at the War Memorial Auditorium, the only place large enough to hold those meetings. One such Sunday, I clearly remember discussing a question with Jim DeGolyer, another leader who later helped lead Gospel Outreach teams in Guatemala and Ecuador: “What is spiritual maturity?” He offered his idea of it, but suddenly an illustration popped into my head, and this imaginary narrative has stuck with me as a defining answer all these years:

A Christian counselor is approached by a young couple having marital problems. He listens, then prays, asking God, “Lord, I’m helpless to counsel this couple without Your guidance. Please, show me what I’m to say to them.” God tells him to share a certain passage of Scripture with them. It solves their problem. Soon, another couple comes with seemingly the identical problem. Instead of assuming that he has God’s answer, he prays again, “Lord, I’m helpless . . . ,” and God directs him to the same Bible verses as before. The problem is solved.
The next couple, and the next, and the next, 25 times in a row, come to him with what he perceives to be exactly the same problem. Instead of assuming he knows what God wants him to share, he does not turn to that passage to answer them, but always prays with complete sincerity the same prayer, “O Lord, you know what this couple needs, and I’m at a loss to help them without Your guidance. Show me what to say.” Again, God directs him to the same Scripture, which he then uses as his counsel to them. Their marriage is sailing smoothly again.
Some would define spiritual maturity as having the gumption to learn the mind of God from these many episodes where He did not vary in His guidance. After all, how many times does a lesson have to be repeated? Isn’t it obvious that God wants to give that Scripture passage to such couples, whose relational troubles are obviously so similar? For the spiritually mature counselor, absolutely not! Nothing is obvious, because only God knows the human hearts involved. Only He can give them what they individually need for healing.
The example of that counselor’s spiritual maturity is confirmed when the 26th couple arrives with the same problem. He prays the same prayer, desperate for God’s clear direction, and God shows him a different passage of Scripture to share with them. It uniquely meets their need.
Spiritual maturity has nothing to do with how long we have been Christians. Some young believers are far better at seeking and obeying God’s guidance than older ones who have tons of Bible knowledge but a poor track record of personally listening for divine guidance. Yet it is God’s will for all of us to listen to Him directly. Jesus in Matthew 4:4 quoted from Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

From the very beginning, we were to get our guidance from a direct, personal relationship with God, not from an internal, independent “knowledge of good and evil.” In John 10:27 (NKJV), Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” When self-confident of being right about things, based on our own experiences or education from others, we easily end up listening to the voice of our own mind. Guidance from God should always be checked against His Word, for He will not direct us to do anything in conflict with what He has already revealed. God’s Word, however, was not intended to substitute for hearing from Him directly for guidance in areas where His Word does not specifically give direction.

Believe His promise in Psalm 32:8 (NKJV), “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye.” I know it takes faith to trust God to guide, and it takes practice to learn how to hear His voice. But we are all called to spiritual maturity, and we get there by practicing the prayer the little boy Samuel learned from Eli in 1 Samuel 3:9 (NIV), “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.

Jesus, our best example of spiritual maturity, said in John 6:58 (NKJV) that He came “not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” That was His whole ministry, to do and teach what He heard and saw from the Father (John 8:28, 38). We know, as Christians, that is our calling too, because He said, "Follow Me."