Editors Note: The following block-quotes are from Peter Leithart’s Westminster Theological Journal article: The Way Things Really Ought to Be: Eucharist, Eschatology, and Culture
“Despite well-founded objections, ritual theory can serve as a useful corrective to the myopia of some sacramental theology. Evangelical Protestants frequently treat sacraments, despite their location in the textbooks, exclusively in the context of individual soteriology. The central question has been, How is grace conveyed through my participation in the elements of the sacrament? What can the sacraments do for me?”
Typically, this art of remembering is pressed on the individual, in that “preparing for the Lord’s Supper” we make sure that there is no unconfessed sin between us and God. We don’t do much to help the church in the matter by playing quiet, reflective music and modeling participation with our heads bowed and eyes closed. Quite clearly in that we are looking for that quiet moment between us and God.
“Ritual theory, by contrast, explores rites in relation to the faith and practices of the communities that celebrate and enact them; in theological terms, ritual theory situates sacramental and liturgical theology firmly within ecclesiological and thus forces upon us such questions as, What do the rites of the church express about the church’s understanding of herself, her place in the world, and of the human vocation? How are her rites not only means of grace to the individual participant but also formative of the church’s communal ethos and interpersonal relations? Ritual theory thus helps sacramental theology break the frame of the zoom lens.”
When the table is viewed only as sentimental memorial looking backwards, it becomes an introverted time of fellowship between a memory and a person. When the table is viewed through the lens of individual communion with Christ (through the Spirit) today, it is another way of getting our personal Jesus fix.
However, if memory and personal presence are combined with a third aspect, we begin to see through a much broader vantage point the full and vast implications of table worship. If we see the meal that we share as a rehearsal of eschatological kingdom virtues being lived out and embodied here and now, we can being to remind ourselves by practice and repetition the formative practice of what it means to celebrate the finished work of Christ on the cross on our behalf, enjoy communion with those whose rest is won, and find ourselves satisfied from the only food that can quench our longings.
How does the church have her communal ethos shaped by the Table?
“With the current situation of the American church in mind, we can say the following: frequent eating and drinking at the Lord’s table will inoculate the church against the Gnosticism of modern Christianity (not to mention trendy spiritualisms) that would reduce religion to a private, inner, purely “spiritual” experience; a church whose central religious rite includes baked goods is being trained in proper dominion over creation and will refuse resurgent nature worship in both its religious and political guises; a church that celebrates a feast of wine is being formed into a joyful community that contests the equation of Christian seriousness with prudish-ness; a church that celebrates the communal meal is bound into one body and will resist the corrosive individualism of modern culture that has too often invaded the church; a church that shares bread at the Lord’s table is learning the virtues of generosity and humility; a church that proclaims the Lord’s sacrificial death in the Supper is exercising itself in self-sacrifice and becoming immune to the lure of self-fulfillment. Not automatically, but in the context of biblical teaching and a robust community life, the skills and virtues practiced at the Lord’s table will spill over to fill the whole church with a eucharistic ethos. In short, the Supper exercises the church in the protocols of life in the presence of God. The Supper, then, is not “God’s flannel graph” so much as “the church’s role-play.”
As some of my more observant readers have noticed, I have quietly alluded to the fact that I am going to be pursuing a Doctor of Ministry from Covenant Theological Seminary studying Christian Worship. I hope to blog more in the next few days about some of the things that made that program exciting, and I think, the most logical step for my continued study and maturation as a minister of the Word and a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (not to mention a practitioner of worship).
The following are excerpts from “A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future” (emphasis added in parts), and have been some of the more moving and convicting things that I have read on the present day necessity to understand what we are doing as we lead God’s people in worship week in and week out.
“We call for the Church’s reflection to remain anchored in the Scriptures in continuity with the theological interpretation learned from the early Fathers. Thus, we call Evangelicals to turn away from methods that separate theological reflection from the common traditions of the Church. These modern methods compartmentalize God’s story by analyzing its separate parts, while ignoring God’s entire redemptive work as recapitulated in Christ. Anti-historical attitudes also disregard the common biblical and theological legacy of the ancient Church…
“We call for public worship that sings, preaches and enacts Gods story. We call for a renewed consideration of how God ministers to us in baptism, Eucharist, confession, the laying on of hands, marriage, healing and through the charisma of the Spirit, for these actions shape our lives and signify the meaning of the world. Thus, we call Evangelicals to turn away from forms of worship that focus on God as a mere object of the intellect or that assert the self as the source of worship. Such worship has resulted in lecture-oriented, music-driven, performance-centered and program-controlled models that do not adequately proclaim Gods cosmic redemption. Therefore, we call Evangelicals to recover the historic substance of worship of Word and Table and to attend to the Christian year, which marks time according to Gods saving acts.”
Working through Webber’s “Ancient-Future Worship” has once again brought me colliding with statements that conflict not only with contemporary thought, but in many instances, contemporary practice of worship. Consider this:
“I am concerned over how worship has become a program, a show, and entertainment. Once again the problem is a self-centered and presentational approach to worship. If we think worship is about me, or if we are trying to sell people on worship and lure them to receive Jesus into their lives, then I can see the value of all entertaining programs. But once again, presentational worship turns true worship on its head. If worship is truly doing God’s story and calling people to find their life and story by entering God’s story, then the style of worship is prayer.”
A few years ago I taught a study based on Mark Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. In the introduction Dr. Dever pointed out that in many traditional evangelical churches, the time of gathering for corporate worship has become nothing more than a stationary evangelistic rally. I think that point is echoed here by Webber. The influence of Finney and others on worship can be clearly seen as the work of the worship-leader is not bringing people before God to hear and respond to God’s saving work and overarching narrative, but rather to produce a well crafted, emotionally driving, response inducing place where salvation is whittled down to an “event” versus a life-journey. We worry and fret that if we are “too formal”, or “too laid-back”, “too high church” or “not enough substance” that people won’t return, and our churches will fail. I am struck by this reminder again… “worship is doing God’s story”. But so often, we resort not to faith but to pragmatism. This is all good in theory, but this often times falls by the wayside when the pressure of practice meets the demands of a restless congregation.