Wednesday, October 26, 2005

communion as medicine (a short reflection)

Taking the Lord’s Supper reminds us of the sufficiency of Christ and his cross. Communion reminds us that Jesus is enough. His death on the cross for us is enough. His body and blood is enough. He is all we really need.

In the book of Colossians, we find two images that relate indirectly to the significance of the Lord’s Supper. Both images are found in one place (Colossians 1:21-22): “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation…”

When I read those verses I’m reminded first off that we were once God’s enemies, but through Christ and his forgiveness we can be God’s friends. That’s what the Lord’s Supper is all about. We were created to be God’s friends (the story goes), but we decided to walk away from God. God could have justifiably punished us with a death sentence for this, since any time we walk away from the One who gives life, we lose life. But, the good news is: God wasn’t indifferent about our decision to walk away. Because God loved us so much, He decided to chase after us by sending His Son Jesus to bring us back to Him. Rather than strike back at us, God chose to forgive us. The Bible tells us that Jesus’ death on the cross was the vehicle through which God chose to forgive us because, through the cross, God at one and the same time showed justice and mercy. He was just in that Jesus as a Man paid the penalty that all mankind should have paid by dying in our place, and he was merciful in that Jesus as God paid the infinite penalty that only God could have paid. Jesus, the innocent one, sacrificed Himself so we could be friends with God again. And, since the Lord’s Supper reminds us of the Body and Blood of Jesus, it reminds us how God and Humanity became friends again. That’s what the Lord’s Supper means. But, that’s not all: there’s another image here!

The thing I love about Scripture is that you can get multiple things out of a single passage. So, here’s the other thing I saw in this text: Christ makes us not only God’s friends; His Body and Blood also make us whole, complete, and healthy. That’s what the words “holy” and “without blemish” signify. These words contain the idea that God is our healer. Body and soul. Thus, God’s medicine to cure our sickness is both spiritual and physical. This idea had big implications for the Gnostics, whose teachings Paul was counteracting in writing the letter to the Colossians (and it also has big implications for us today). Here’s how:

One of the features of Gnosticism was their unique view of the physical universe (including our bodies): they believed that all material things were either evil (at worst), or peripheral to our existence (at best). This resulted in several “brands” of Gnostic spirituality; one brand was Stoicism. The Stoics believed that our bodies were evil and should therefore be tamed with extreme asceticism. We could call the path to salvation in the Stoic system “The Road of Self-Flagellation”. To tame the body, the Stoics did things like whip themselves.

Another brand of Gnostic spirituality was represented by the Epicureans. They believed the body was peripheral to existence and therefore they could do whatever they wanted with their bodies. Because of this, they held drinking parties, took hallucinogenic substances, and engaged in sexual orgies.

Those two groups represented Gnosticism outside of Christianity, but it took on a different form within Christianity. One group of “Christian” Gnostics was called the Docetists. Because of their belief that the body itself was evil, the Docetists taught that Jesus wasn’t really a human--he only seemed to be human. This was a big deal for the early Christians because, first of all, they believed that A. Only God could save, and B. Only that which God became could be saved. Therefore, if Christ wasn’t human, humans weren’t saved by his work. Second, it was important that Jesus was human because they believed that Christ’s redemption extended to all of creation. Indeed, they believed that Christ was the creator of creation. Paul writes “…by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…” This flew in the face of the Gnostics who believed that creation was evil or peripheral.

That’s why early Christians emphasized: if Christ is the Savior of the world, He is not only the one who saves our souls; He is also the one who saves our bodies. The creation, far from being evil itself, has simply been “subjected to frustration” by Satan and sin. So, Paul taught the early Christians that creation (which had been marred and wounded by Satan and sin) experiences healing by God’s participation in creation in the real person of Jesus.

This is where communion comes in: Our participation in the saving life of Jesus Christ is not just something we experience in our soul, but something we physically partake of in the communion elements. That’s why Paul tells us that we appear before God “without blemish”. We were once sick, blemished; now we are healed, whole and holy.

So, when leaders in the ancient church thought about communion they thought of it as medicine. One leader (Gregory of Nyssa) wrote: “Man has a two-fold nature, composed of both body and soul. Both must therefore play their part in joining those who would be saved to him who leads them to life. The soul is united with him by faith…But the way in which the body comes to participate in its saviour and to be united with him is different. Those who have been deceived into taking a poison use another drug to counter its harmful effects. Moreover the antidote, just like the poison, must enter a man’s system, so that its healing effect may be thereby spread throughout his whole body. Such was our case. We had eaten something that was disintegrating our nature…” [Here he is referring to the “forbidden fruit”!] “It follows, therefore, that we were in need of something to restore what had been disintegrated; we needed an antidote which would enter into us and so by its counteraction undo the harm already introduced into the body by the poison. And what is this remedy? It is the body which proved mightier than death and became the source of our life.”

So, imagine yourself sitting in an emergency room. There, you are joined by many other people. And every single one has a sickness that must be cured or death will be the result. As you talk with everyone there, you discover that the root illness is the same. That is to say, everyone has been infected with the same disease: sin and rebellion against God. And you realize that everyone, everyone has this sickness, whether they are in the emergency room with you or not. And you realize that this sickness has even, in many ways, affected our bodies, literally. And the communion elements, signifying the physical body and blood of the Lord Jesus, are the antidote. Jesus’ forgiveness is the remedy. He is the healer, body and soul. In taking Him inside (in believing) you partake of health, life, and wholeness because His “is the body which proved mightier than death and became the source of our life.”

No comments: