The hard driving forces of individualism do not yet stand astride the culture like a colossus. We have divided our homes into mini-apartment complexes and our churches into age and gender- segregated shopping malls. We break the ties that bind any time we find them the least bit binding. We live by ourselves and for ourselves. None of which has yet undone the truth that we are an incurably communal people.
Sociologists have argued for decades, for instance, that children in the inner-city, coming out of unstable homes, often without fathers, naturally gravitate toward the pseudo-family that is gang life. Even the mob mimics the contours of the family. Casa Nostra, after all, means “Our House.”
One need not, however, live in the context of a criminal subculture in order to see faux families at work, to see the parade and charade of ritual togetherness. One can see it driving into Ligonier valley, Penn. Ligonier, before it was the name of a ministry, was (and still is) the name of a small town in western Pennsylvania, the town where I grew up. As you come down into the valley from the south, you see, as you would in most small towns, a sign of welcome. The sign welcomes you to town, but the welcome comes not from all its citizens, but from its leading “families.” That is, there on the sign you will see the logos for Ruritan and the Knights of Columbus, for the Rotary Club and the Masonic Lodge.
I’m no expert on these civic organizations. I’ve never joined one or visited one. Rumor has it, however, that quite apart from the service to the communities, separate from the business deals that are made there, there are sundry rituals and secrets that bind the members together. Which makes perfect sense. For these organizations invariably become not just pseudo-families, but pseudo-churches. They take on the shape of the one great organization wherein communities are served and dominion is exercised, the church of Jesus Christ.
We ought not, because of the obvious similarities, be ashamed of our practices. We do not greet one another with a secret handshake, but with the kiss. We do not wear funny hats, but crowns of gold. And the ritual that binds us together is as plain as it is powerful. There is no great power in bread. There is no great mystery surrounding wine. But Jesus, He is a different matter altogether. There is not just power and mystery, but power and glory.
The Lord’s Supper is a rite, a ritual, a form, and a raging storm of power. Of course there is the power to remind us of our sin. The body wasn’t broken by a car accident. The blood was not shed because of a mishandled kitchen knife. No, we come to the table knowing that we crucified Him. We broke the body, as our sin shed the blood. The very act of eating and drinking the destruction our sin has wrought will penetrate our hearts far better than the most cogent lecture on the doctrine of total depravity.
But there is greater power. For the Table not only tells us of our sin, but tells us of His forgiveness. It is, after all, the Table of the Lord. He invites us there that we might enjoy table fellowship with Him. It is because the Table is a taste of heaven that I catechize my children this way. “What is heaven?” I ask them. “Jesus will feed me,” I have taught them to reply. We enter into His forgiveness and His peace as He lays out before us a table in the presence of His enemies. He bids us to rest not just in Him but with Him.
When we affirm the power of conviction, when we affirm the power of connection with Him, we still, however, miss the Body. For the glory isn’t merely that we commune with Jesus but that as we commune with Jesus, we commune with each other. The Lord’s Table has the power to make of bickering, back-biting, and squabbling siblings the very body of Christ. Just as hundreds of grains of wheat join together to form a single loaf, so too hundreds of grains of wheat join together to form the body of Christ, the very bread of life. The Lord doesn’t set His table for one or for two, but for the teeming multitudes that are His. The Table opens our eyes not just to see Him, but to see Him in our brothers and sisters, that we might love them as we are called.
It all, of course, ties together. When the Table reminds us of our own sin, it helps us look past the sins of our brothers. And when the Table shows us the glory of the Son, we set aside seeking our own glory and so love our brothers better. When we enter into the power of the Table to make of us one, then suddenly the formulaic copies of the world around us lose their appeal. Who needs funny hats and secret handshakes, when Jesus, the one we crucified, when Jesus, the one He raised from the dead, when Jesus, the one who is the express image of the glory of the Father, comes and feeds His bride? May He purify us that we might love Him, and so better love His body, the church.