Recognizing the Body
Why do we do what we do?
Welcome to The Bridge Church. If you’re new here, you’ll undoubtedly notice that we do things a little differently here than you might be used to at other evangelical churches. Perhaps it’s the geography of the service - the way we set things up and use our space; or perhaps it the style of the service - either more formal, or less formal than you might be used to from where you came; or perhaps it’s the form of the service - the way we structure and order the elements of worship over the course of 90 minutes. Whatever you’ve noticed, I want to tell you that much of it is intentional, and there are important reasons for why they are the way they are.
If you’re not new here, perhaps you’ve been here for a while and find our unique way of doing things familiar, or perhaps you’ve been here so long that you remember a time when things were different and perhaps long for a time gone by. I want to take the better part of the next semester on the blog to remind you of why we do what we do, and to help you remember the very intentional reasons we have for the choices we have made. Last time we looked at the role and purpose of corporate confession, and continuing over the next four or so weeks we will be looking at the following aspects of our worship service to better help you understand/remember who we are, why we do what we do, and what are the goals of our choices.
The Geography of Worship - what we want you to notice and experience when you walk into our space for worship
A Peculiar People; a Thankful People - why we start with the offering
Perfectly Balanced as All Things Should Be - how we consider both who we are and who we long to be when choosing a vocabulary of worship (song style and selection)
The Proclaimed Word - rediscovering the public reading of scripture
The Applied Word - why the sermon is dialogical (discussion questions matter)
The Great Unburdening - the liberating power of corporate confession
Recognizing the Body - why we take time every Sunday for the passing of the peace
A Community of Hospitality - how and why we centre the service around the open table
The Power of Presence - why the prayer and ministry time at the end of the service is not just an addendum
Sending - what we bring back into the world
This week we move onto our practice of passing the Peace of Christ in preparation for communion, and why this is NOT the same thing as making everyone in the congregation stand-up and shake hands during the welcome.
"Who is my neighbour?"
That was the question asked to Jesus by the teacher of the Law put on the spot after Jesus reframed the Law of Moses within the Gospels. That question led to one of the most famous parables in the gospels: the parable of the Good Samaritan. I'm sure you all remember how that one went.
And yet here in the 21st century church we have trouble not only seeing those of different ethnicities as neighbours (and we do have that problem! But this isn't about that problem today), we have trouble seeing the people we worship with on Sunday morning as our neighbours! We struggle to see the woman across the room, or the man at our table, or the person we serve next to as our neighbours, and family in Christ and as a consequence we frequently look upon them with bitterness, judgment, or disdain. Even worse, sometimes we just don't think of them at all! Often relegating them to the status of being less than worthy of our concern, like they were just furniture in the room rather than people who Jesus died for and whom we are united to by the Spirit of Jesus.
This is not how the church is supposed to be.
Paul, in his famous lecture to the church in Corinth about the Lord's Supper in 1 Cor. 11 chastises the believers in that church about their utter disregard for their fellow Christians in the way that they approach the table.
"In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat..."
1 Corinthians 11:17-20
Paul is scathing in his sarcasm here, but he's not trying to be cheeky - he's being deadly serious. The church was divided along socio-economic lines between the rich and the poor, with the rich enjoying a lifestyle that afforded them the time to arrive early and enjoy a leisurely meal, along with the expectation of an abundance of food, while the poor, who much like today, had to work longer hours to get by arrived later to the left-overs and a sense that to their brothers and sisters in Christ who were better off, that they didn't really matter. A few verses later Paul drops the mic on the consequences of their disregard when he concludes:
"So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment."
1 Corinthians 11:27-31
Now these verses are frequently cited by some to call people to personal reflection and repentance before partaking at the table. These are good practices, and if you read our last blog entry (or attended worship at our services) you will know that we schedule our prayer of confession right before we come to the table as well. But Paul isn't talking about dealing with sin in a general sense in this rebuke - he's talking about dealing with a very specific sin that was rampant in Corinth, and still lurks in our churches today - a failure to recognize the body of Christ.
Another error that is sometimes made with this text is to make the reference to the body of Christ apply to the bread of the meal - as though a failure to understand the theology of communion is the sin that condemns someone. This is certainly something that we want to be aware of, and this is one of the reasons that we practice a liturgy of communion every Sunday (but that's for the next post), but this isn't the sin that Paul is referring to either.
Rather, what Paul is chastising the Corinthians for so emphatically is the sin of failing to recognize the body of Christ, which is the church. The local gathering of believers of all types who come from disparate backgrounds and circumstances to be united to one another in Christ. The sin of Corinth, and of the church broadly throughout history, is that sin of disregarding the very people we approach the table with and partake in the meal of the church with.
This is where we come back to the question of "who is my neighbour?" Because we honestly don't know. We don't know the people across the table from us in worship, across the aisle from us, or across the room. We're not always very inclined to make an effort to get to know them either. And so we put ourselves at risk of the same judgment that fell upon the Corinthians!
What can be done?
Well lucky for us we don't have to re-invent the wheel here. The Church has had a practice designed to deal with this going back centuries. It's called the Passing of the Peace.
The peace of the LORD be with you;
And also with you.
This simple greeting, practiced by the Church throughout generations, across the centuries, and within many different traditions and denominations has been a central part of the celebration of communion for so many believers. Many of our evangelical brethren have abandoned it in recent times, opting instead for some sort of greeting and handshake moment early in the worship service - but we shouldn't confuse the two practices as they are designed to achieve radically different outcomes.
A "welcome your neighbour with a handshake, hug, or high-five" moment in the worship service, might seem like something designed to "recognize the body" but what it really is designed to do is 1.) make people feel welcomed (which it ironically has the opposite effect for on many people); and 2.) draw attention to the newcomers so that the regular attendees can make sure that they follow-up after the service (which might explain some peoples' problems with goal 1). If we are being generous with proponents of this practice we can say that their goals are both hospitality, and evangelism. But that is not what we aim to achieve when we pass the peace.
The passing of the Peace of Christ is an opportunity to flatten the social structure and hirearchy of the church and to bring the assembly to the table together on level ground. It is a chance to look someone else in the eye, take them by the hand, and bless them as your brother or sister in the Lord, changing your posture and orientation toward them in several significant ways.
1. The Peace of Christ is a blessing
It is not merely a greeting, or a salutation, it is a deeply spiritual thing. It forces you to reconcile in your heart attitudes of bitterness or ambivalence toward people as you declare before God that you wish them blessing. We have largely lost the language of blessing in the church, instead opting for "best wishes," or "thoughts and prayers," but there is power in blessing, and it is power that we have been given in Christ for the benefit of others. Moreover when you bless someone you develop a spiritual bond with them that can overcome many hurts, grievances, and suspicions. The act of blessing helps us to recognize the body as Paul exhorts us.
2. Passing the peace is a cross-generational activity
Sometimes it can be hard to find practical activities that build into our core value of being intentionally cross-generational as a congregation - but this is one of them. When young people look into the eyes of an elderly saint and bless them, or when an adult takes the hand of a young child and pronounces these words the cultural divisions that come with age start to melt away and we affirm to one another that from the youngest child to the oldest senior, we are the body of Christ together. Moreover it breaks down the stigma of otherness that leads us to avoid getting to know people of different ages than our own. Passing the Peace of Christ, in short, makes us the family in practice, that we claim to be in theory.
3. Passing the peace is an action of radical hospitality
Rather than just standing in one place and acknowledging the people around you like you would in a "handshake moment" the passing of the peace is an invitation to get up out of your seat, move around the room and seek out people to bless. Rather than just something that we do our of a perfunctory obligation, we have the opportunity in the passing of the peace to practice hospitality with intentionality. Yes, sometimes it becomes a bit of a mess from which the officiant struggles to regain control and attention - but what a wonderful problem to have when the body of Christ is enraptured by the opportunity to bless and affirm one another in preparation for the celebration of Christ's meal. The table itself, is a table of hospitality and so this preceding rite allows us to affirm that in our own hearts and welcome our fellow diners, just as Christ warmly welcomes us.
And so, we practice this rite not out of dead ritual and form, but out of a deeply intentional and meaningful purpose. So that you, before coming to the table of the Lord, may thoroughly, and transformationally, recognize the body of Christ; and partake of the table in a worthy manner. It is through this simple act that we learn, and re-affirm every single week the answer to the questions "who is my neighbour," and "what is the body?"
In our next post we are going to look at communion proper and attempt to explain why the table, and not the pulpit, is the central focus of our worship. Be sure to check back next week.