• Chris Smith

Communion & Quarantine

Here's the link to the matzah recipe:

You can also watch the full video here:

In the introduction to Sunday morning’s service I made an announcement about communion and promised that there would be more details this week. Here is a more fulsome explanation of what I was talking about.

Over the past few years I have been leading our congregation on a journey toward appreciating the centrality of the Lord’s table to our worship—first by introducing a standardized liturgy that reflects and reinforces the gospel proclamation at the heart of the practice, then by moving to a weekly celebration from a monthly one, and lastly by introducing the meal to our children and making the table a whole-church affair. Each step along the way has been a deliberate and theologically grounded decision designed to move our congregation forward in appreciation for one of only two church practices that can rightly be called ordinance, and the only practice that we are commanded to do regularly (Baptism, being the other ordinance, is a once-and-for-all activity in the life of a believer). To sum up the teaching that you have received from me, and walked out in practice over the last number of years, we would say that communion is a practice that is for the whole body, whenever the body gathers, as a proclamation of the gospel, and a foretaste of future glory.

We have consequently made communion the centrepiece of our worship gathering at The Bridge Church. It is the one embodied practice of corporate worship that cannot be commodified, commercialized, or served digitally over the internet in an excarnate fashion. And while our theology does not go so far as to make the blessing of the elements a transformative event in which the bread and cup become something wholly different than the natural elements that they are made from, we are convicted of the truth that there is something mystical and unique about the bread broken together as the church, and the cup shared together as the church that cannot be accomplished outside of the proper worship gathering. And so, you can imagine the conundrum that I find myself in, when trying to discern what is the “correct” and “proper” way to address the central movement of our worship service when the church is not able to gather but is instead scattered.

First, let me say that I do believe in extreme circumstances that God grants grace, and that a celebration built upon people connecting virtually with supplies that they could forage for in their own pantries could be legitimate, but I am also cognizant that doing so might undo what has been literally years of coaching and discipleship to take this meal seriously. The question I am wrestling with is not whether communion is important for us (for as we have already demonstrated, it is central), but rather whether it is SO important that we will act against our best practice and theological values to celebrate it in these unusual times? Or whether it is SO important that we will withhold it from the church until we can actually be together and celebrate it the way the meal is intended as the embodied community of Christ when this is all over. To complicate matters further, I feel like I can make solid theological and practical arguments for either approach.

Theologically, we wrestle with the question of what is, and where is the church. Is the church the organized body of believers that meets locally for worship on a regular basis under the leadership of a pastor or elder for mutual accountability and edification? Or is the church any place and any time two or three are gathered in Christ’s name? The answer is of course (maddeningly) both. The universal church (usually differentiated with a capital “C”) is present in every home, every small group, every prayer meeting, or shared meal where two or three who are “in Christ” gather together in fellowship, but the local church (the small “c”) is not so loosely defined. It is where a specific and known group of believers gather together, know each other, and commit to one another under recognized church leadership. While some people believe that the table of communion can be celebrated by anyone as a part of the universal Church, our practice and theology places the administration of the table in the hands of the local church, and specifically under the authority and supervision of the local church Pastor (see the Local Church Constitution of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada Article V). This means that only when the church is rightly formed as a worshipping community should the elements be shared. Any other practice could be construed as a violation of Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 11:33 to “wait for one another” before partaking.

Practically however, we must also ask the question about what constitutes a gathering of the worshipping community in these circumstances? Obviously, Paul never could have conceived of the communications paradigm that we live in today in the 21st Century when he penned those words. The idea of meeting together online was not an option that would have been available to him in his deliberations on the matter. So, is an online gathering as good as a physical gathering? If we can speak to one another, and acknowledge one another, are we not as good, as being in the same room as one another? Is there something significant about sharing a meal from a common loaf, around a common table? Or is the symbolism of the meal more durable than those tangible elements? These are questions that cannot be proof texted or solved by an appeal to scripture.

Even within our own denomination, within our own district, we have a robust conversation going on between pastors (another benefit of our modern communication technology) about that very question. Pastors of similar theological and educational backgrounds are asking these same questions and coming to very different conclusions. It can be said for certain that whatever decision I was to make I would stand in contrast to many of my most respected colleagues. And so the question must ultimately be reduced to a local consideration of what the meal means for this worshipping community at The Bridge Church, and how any decision will affect us.

Communion is too important to not find a way to make this happen, and at the same time, communion is too important to be cheapened by some excarnate approximation of the real thing. So, what are we to do?

After prayer, and study, and consultation with the elders—and in my ordained role as your pastor within the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which charges me with supervising the celebration of the ordinances—I have made the following decision:

Because the celebration of communion is SO important to our faith, and so integral to our practice of that faith as the incarnate body of believers called The Bridge Church, we will be celebrating communion together online on Easter Sunday, April 12 in celebration of the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

This is the meal of the church, and there is something profoundly special about sharing a meal together. And then on Sunday morning, when we worship together online, at the same time, even though we are separated and isolated in our own houses, we will share something that connects us and reminds us of how Jesus can keep us connected even though we are apart. We are doing this not because it is easy, but because for us, communion is that important. This will be achieved by each of us baking a common bread with the recipe attached to this blog and following the helpful video that Penny and Joanna have recorded for us as a guide. We would encourage you to share in this practice (especially if you have children in your home) and use this opportunity to talk about the practice and why we do it with them. As for the cup, we won’t be crushing grapes together, but feel free to use whatever grape juice or wine (or alternative) you have around for that part of the meal (a common cup is much harder to replicate than a common bread). We have elected to do this on Sunday because communion is SO important to us.

But in the same vein, because communion is SO important to us, this Sunday will be the only time we do this until we can celebrate once again together as the people of God.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the book "Silence" (I still haven't seen the movie, but the book is amazing). One of the most poignant scenes for me has been early in the story when the two priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe, first arrive in Japan and find a clandestine group of believers who have not celebrated the Eucharist in a long time since their last priest left and who are desperate for a chance to share this meal again. The author paints a picture of an almost physical yearning for something that the body desperately needs. Now we are not Catholic, and I would not suggest that there is a full theological equivalency here, but the people in the story understood what it meant to feast on the bread of life and the cup of salvation and they would have done anything (including risking exposure to the authorities) to get it.

This is how I hope we will feel about the meal—not about the elements of the meal but the meal itself. Not to replace it with some sort of substitute of eating in our homes, but for us to long, in the deepest part of our being, for the real presence of the church.

I know that this decision will effectively please no one. That those of you who want to continue our celebration on a weekly basis will feel deprived. And those of you who (like me) are convinced that the meal should be reserved for the physical gathering of the local church will feel awkward participating this Sunday. But in light of the circumstances, and the silence of the Biblical witness on these specific matters of online gatherings, this seems like the prudent way to handle things. Should the ban on gatherings persist longer than we anticipate, I reserve the right to reconsider this decision, but until then, this is how we will proceed.

As always, I’m here to discuss, and answer any questions you might have about my decision and how we will move forward.

In prayer for you,

Pastor Chris

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