Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Body of Christ, Broken for You: What Communion Taught Me About Church

It may not seem like such a big deal to stand there holding a tray of bread squares. Don't be fooled. It's a very big deal.

Let me back up. Two years ago I arrived at Prairie College as professor of Old Testament. I was ready to teach and ready to serve. In my first couple of weeks here, a colleague approached me to see if I'd be willing to help serve communion at our convocation chapel. I was surprised at how much this meant to me. Forty years old at the time, I couldn't recall having ever been asked to serve communion before. I've attended church my entire life -- not casually, but devotedly. If there is such a thing, I'm a professional Christian. I've dedicated my life to this faith, to this message. I've been to Bible college and seminary. I spent 15 years as a missionary. But I'm a woman. Perhaps that's why I had never been asked to pass out bread squares and tiny cups of juice to fellow believers.

For chapel we passed the trays down long rows. Somehow I messed up the every-other rhythm or sent the wrong tray first down the row, which meant that people were trying to hold a cup while passing a tray and taking bread. That didn't work very well (these things take practice, of which I had none!). In the end, everyone was served and our job was done. I felt mostly like an imperfect cog in a machine. Happy to help, but nervous and clumsy.

The body of Christ, broken for you (Photo: C Imes)
This year was different. This year at our convocation chapel those of us serving stood at the front of the auditorium. Everyone came forward to receive communion. I held the tray of bread as people passed in front of me. I looked each one in the eye and told them, "The body of Christ, broken for you."

The music was a bit loud. I'm not sure whether most of them even heard me. But something powerful happened as I said over and over, "The body of Christ, broken for you." I knew most of these people by name. I knew many of their stories. Some of them I loved deeply. Others -- to be frank -- not so much. In context of these relationships, those simple words became profound as my heart silently completed each sentence:

"The body of Christ, broken for you . . . whose body is also broken."
"The body of Christ, broken for you . . . whose spirit is crushed."
"The body of Christ, broken for you . . . whose mental health is tenuous."
"The body of Christ, broken for you . . . whose family is estranged."
"The body of Christ, broken for you . . . whose sin is still hidden."
"The body of Christ, broken for you . . . who is growing in grace."

A few people approached who I've never really clicked with. People who annoy me. They've never seemed to like me, either, but they had no choice but to come to me for bread.

"The body of Christ, broken for you."

My words to them were the same as to all the others, and this time the Spirit gently convicted me. Would you withhold love from one I love enough to die for?

I felt ugly places in my heart close over with forgiving love as I silently repented.

I heard a still small voice say to me, "The body of Christ, broken for you . . . who have failed to love." I needed as much grace as every other person I served. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

This story didn't take place in church. It was in a college chapel. But it illustrates one reason why listening to a sermon via podcast can never replace church attendance. Sunday morning is not primarily an intellectual transaction, nor is it primarily concerned with my vertical relationship with God, though it includes both of those dimensions. When we show up together at the foot of the cross, divisions are healed, grace is conveyed from one person to another, and we become just a little bit more like the family of faith God intended. As Kevin Peters said in his message that day,
"Our God is radically relational. . . . God designed us to be connected to him and to each other."
Mark Jonah had introduced communion with Hebrews 12:1-2, focusing particularly on the words, "Jesus . . . for the joy set before him, endured the cross." Mark always assumed that this joy was the joy of heaven awaiting Jesus, an eternal reward for faithfulness. Lately, though, he has been discovering a new dimension of Jesus' joy -- the joy of restored relationships now. Jesus knew that his death would have an immediate effect on relationships here. That joy made his suffering worth it. That joy is the reason we bother with church.

Yes, the body of Christ is broken. But it's brokenness brings life to you . . . and to me.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Book Review: Chris Wright's "Old Testament in 7 Sentences"

This is a very sneaky book.

Choosing just seven sentences to summarize the Old Testament would be a challenge for anyone, but for someone who has spent his entire career deeply immersed in the Old Testament it's almost painful! Which parts can be left out? How can decades of study and teaching be captured in a brief and accessible way? Christopher J. H. Wright is no newbie when it comes to the Old Testament. He has written commentaries on Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Deuteronomy, and Exodus as well as numerous books on OT ethics, preaching, and the mission of the people of God. Wright is just the right person write this book. (Did you see what I did there?)

Christopher J. H. Wright is a giant in Old Testament studies.
Just a few of his many books are pictured here.
(Photo: C Imes, at the Regent College bookstore)
So what makes this book sneaky? Wright acknowledges the difficulty of an endeavor like this. Based only on the table of contents, I made a list of all the things "missing" from the book, important moments in Israel's history and key aspects of biblical theology (image of God, covenant formula, the character of God in Exodus 34, Israel's failure to keep covenant, exile, etc). By the end of the book, Wright had covered everything on my list. Back to my point, Wright has managed to sneak a massive amount of biblical theology in this slim volume. He may have chosen just seven sentences, but attached to each one is a wealth of insight into surrounding texts. His book is a wonderful antidote to Old Testament illiteracy (not to mention Andy Stanley's exhortation to "unhitch" from the Bible Jesus read). It would make a great choice for a Bible Survey course or an adult Bible study. Discussion questions for each chapter are found in the back of the book.

So why would I spend my time reading a basic introduction to the Old Testament when I already have PhD in the subject? I'm always on the lookout for solid resources to recommend. This book in particular piqued my interest because Wright wrote the foreword to my new book. I'm a big fan of his work. He and I agree that the Old Testament law is a gift, and that the exodus demonstrates God's character. We agree that our destiny is not a disembodied existence, but that God plans to renew this world and restore the beauty of creation (see page 27). We share a passion to help believers discover the psalms as way of bringing all of who we are into God's presence (see page 149). Frankly, we agree on just about everything. If you flip through my copy of the book, here's what you'll find in the margin: stars, "exactly," "right," "cool," and "YES!"

Where do you read #ivpress? I brought Wright's book
 along this summer on a 6-hour hike at Lake Louise
in Banff National Park. (Photo: C Imes)
I'm grateful to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy. It's no surprise to me that this was an outstanding read. Wright's The Old Testament in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic delivers what it promises -- a small book with wide-ranging insights. Light enough to bring on a travel adventure . . . inspiring enough to want to read it when you're there.