The Action of a People — Leitourgia and the Lord’s Supper
Liturgy. It is a word despised. Tradition. Your mom and dad’s Oldsmobile. That stuffy old stodgy worship, filled with the “Thees” and “Thous” of Ye Olde Englishe, days of yore gone by and passed beyond our present contemporary expression. Stiff and wooden, the organ plays, reminding us of the wooden teeth of old George Washington. Days gone by, no longer relevant. We are sleeker. Cutting edge. No longer do multiple melodies reign in music. It is the thumping base… driving rhythms of the bass guitar… the sultry voice… moving…. pulsing… pounding… it is energy…
Liturgy… repetition… you speak, we respond… ordered… formal… stuffy… it does not speak to me. it is hard to understand. “make haste o God to deliver me.” but, i need to experience God, feel His presence… if i do not feel, experience for myself, it is not real… your tradition, i cannot relate to it…. your truth does not speak to my experience… i need it to be relevant.
We fear what we do not know. Reject what is outside of our experience. Yet we seek connection, common understanding…. we look for points where we can come together… do not turn me away from the table of the Lord… we commune together, despite our differences… Leitourgia.
“‘Liturgy’ is the name given ever since the days of the apostles to the act of taking part in the solemn corporate worship of God by the ‘priestly’ society of christians, who are ‘the Body of Christ, the church.’ ‘The Liturgy’ is the term which covers generally all that worship which is officially organised by the church, and which is open to and offered by, or in the name of, all who are members of the church.” Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy.
Liturgy. It is often a four letter word in pop Christianity, referring to a “traditional” more formal style of worship that is often rejected and replaced by “contemporary” worship. While never really defined, it tends to consist of popular songs, designated as “praise” songs by their authors, and seeks to provide an experience for the worshipers, with the music running as the underlying theme, the power to move. Yet even in the Contemporary worship services, where tradition is eschewed in favor of what one can imagine, liturgy is still present and active. At least in a sacramental church. Try as we might, we cannot escape it, cannot deny it.
Our Lord, on the night in which He was betrayed, took bread. When He had blessed it, He broke it and gave it to His disciples saying words: “Take. Eat. This is my body, given for you.” Likewise, after supper, He took the cup. When He had blessed it, He gave it to them. “Take. Drink, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant. Poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” Our Lord did not stop there. He continued, “Do this as often as you gather together, in remembrance of me.”
A simple meal. Simple food. Simple words. Simple act. Yet it is a command from our Lord. An observance required of us. Not you. Not me. Us. All together. Jesus instituted this sacrament in a corporate setting, among His twelve disciples. He did not give it to John, or Peter, or James. He gave it to each of them, including Judas, the betrayer. “As often as you gather together, do this.” Not when you feel like it… not alone… but whenever you gather together. It is a special act. An action, that we must do together.
Here Christ brings the disciples together as one body, one group. Apostolic. Heirs of the Gospel. He gives to them bread and wine. The bread He connects with His body; the wine, with His blood. He gives them Himself. “This is my body, given for you.” Given for the purpose of death, His death. Christ gives Himself to them, joins their life to His. His life, become their life. Their life, His life. Christ becomes us, takes our very life and nature in and to Himself. In exchange, He gives us His perfect, sinless life. He clothes us in righteousness. The white robe. To confirm this, He gives us His blood. Jews were forbidden to drink the blood of the sacrifice, to eat any animal with the blood left in it. For the LIFE was in the blood. Yet Christ gives us His blood in the sacrament to drink. His life, He gives us. His life, becomes our life. Our sin is remembered no more. Our failures, His success. Our weakness, His strength. Our pain, His joy.
And if this is not enough, to have it play out in the sacrament, it takes place in real life. For in the exchange granted by Pilate we, humanity, trade the life of Christ for the life of a man. Not just any man. A murderer. A rebel. A wretched sinner. Barabbas for Christ. Bar abbas, for Jesus. Son of the father, for Son of the Father. Son of Adam for the Son of God. For bar here means son; abbas, father. In the passion story, the exchange of the Eucharist plays out in real life — Christ gives Himself, in exchange for the life of man, the old Adam.
When He calls us to the table, Christ calls us together. We are individuals, persons, unique unto ourselves. But in this sacrament, Christ joins us to Himself. In Him, we are made one with other Christians, other believers. In Christ there is unity, not dissension. Love, not hate. Harmony, not discord. Hope, not despair. Fulfillment, not emptiness. Apart from Christ,we have not unity, love, harmony, hope, or fulfillment. In Christ we have all things, and in Him, all things are possible.
Liturgy. Leitourgia. From Leitourgous; Roots (Greek): laos (a people), ergon (deed or work). A people’s work. A people’s deed. The work of a people. The action of a people coming together to perform a work or action together. The action of the people of God. Not hidden, but the work of a people. The people are recognized by others, they know who you are. The work of the people is done in the open, it is not hidden. The action, work, deed that the people do together is how they are known, it is what makes them who they are.
Liturgy is not merely the words spoken in the service. It is the coming together of a people, a people who leave their homes, their work, their every day lives. They join together at a place, at a time to perform a corporate act, an act that they do together. Without individuals gathering, the action does not take place. These individuals carry with them an understanding of the act, their personal experiences, and their own unique needs. Yet this act, this coming together, this gathering at the table of the Lord makes these individuals who they are — Sons, Daughters, Children of the King. Heirs of the Kingdom. A chosen people. A royal priesthood. Without this action, without Christ drawing us together and giving us Himself, we are nothing either individually or corporately. With Christ at the center of it, acting, giving, drawing, distributing, we are made something different than we are individually, separately, apart from one another, and apart from Christ.
Christ acts even now in His church. He acts through those whom He has called to the office of the ministry to act as the apostles once did. At that first supper, Christ not only united the apostles together in Him, He made them stewards of the mysteries of this gift and directed them act in His place, and distribute this gift to disciples who were yet to be made.
Leitourgia describes the whole action of the church, of the body of Christ, not just the formalities of the order of service in the responsive speaking and saying of the Word of God. It cannot be escaped, even if the formalities are replaced by our own, contemporary forms of worship, so long as try to retain the sacramental nature of the Church ordained and established by Christ in the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.
Conformity is not something we like, and in the body of Christ it is somewhat paradoxical. For we are strangers in this world, with heaven as our home. We live in this world, but we are not of this world. When we enter church on the Lord’s day, we step foot into the kingdom of Heaven, not the boardroom or concert hall. The very gathering around the body and blood of Christ is a unique act, unlike any in which we engage in our daily lives. It is an act that requires conformity, unity. For when we gather together as a people and do this act, our very deed confesses what we are, who we are, and why we do what we do.
But with in the body of Christ, it cannot be denied that we do not all have the same understanding of the significance of the act of partaking of the Lord’s Supper. There are differences in how we discern the body in the sacrament, the effect of the sacrament, and its place in our life of worship. We have other differences as well. These differences distinguish us one from another in the Body of Christ. They set us apart, divide us. And while we do not all agree with one another on every point of doctrine, or practice, we are still Christians. We are still members of the body of Christ. So, why should it be that some are not permitted to sit at the Lord’s table with us? As long as a person says that he believes in Jesus and that He, Christ, is present in the sacrament, that is all that matters. Right?? After all, God knows what is in that person’s heart, your heart, my heart… Who are you or any pastor to judge me and deny the sacrament???? Christ did not even deny it to Judas! And he betrayed Him unto death!! I certainly am no Judas, and if Christ did not turn him away, who are you to turn me away??? How dare YOU and YOUR denomination JUDGE ME!!! Taking the sacrament is between me and God alone — God knows what is in my heart.
These are questions that have been asked by believers, well meaning Christians, and people who have been mistreated by Christians on the way to the Lord’s Table. These are questions that continue to arise in our midst, and we need to know how to respond. Peter said “Always be prepared to given answer, to anyone who challenges the hope that is in you.” Let us continue to examine the Lord’s Supper, and why there is such a thing as “closed” communion, and “close” communion. Is there a slippery slope? Are those who practice closed communion too cautious? Judgmental? And what about the outsider who demands that the practice be changed? Judgmental or discriminated against? Valid question or misguided and misinformed? How do you know?
1 Corinthians will be our guide, so read the letter from Paul. Focus particularly on Chapters 10 and 11 as they deal specifically with Holy Communion. Come with a gracious heart, and a faith that cries, “Lord, I want to believe, help my unbelief.”