Friday, October 11, 2013

Nice Table…

While visiting Turkey in August, Tabitha and I toured many ancient churches. In one place, communities carved a complex of breathtaking chapels and crypts into white stone cliffs. In another location, even older networks of underground tunnels were dug into mountainous terrain. For millennia, various cultures hid in these caves while threatening forces sought their extermination.

One such culture was Christian, fleeing persecution from an intolerant Roman Empire nearly 2000 years ago. They dug out places for sleeping, eating, making wine, and burying the dead. And there was a church, in Eastern Orthodox style; priests led worship from the front, beneath an arched nave honoring God. And between this back wall and the standing congregation sat a small rectangular stone. Was it an altar? A table? Would the distinction matter? Maybe… Because in the nearby “newer” churches (10th-13th centuries), similar stone blocks also appeared in cave churches. But these were uniformly set against the back wall, underneath the arch. The change must’ve been intentional. It signaled a changed theology.

I suspect this newer theology was “altar theology,” which is my term, nothing technical. It’s familiar to us, though, since many churches have “altars”, structures that recall ancient animal sacrifice. Labeling one in church makes a claim about Jesus’ role in faith. He, this theory goes, was the Lamb of God whose death took away the sin of the world. In many churches that teach such beliefs, the communion elements- bread and wine- rest on a back wall ‘altar’ during worship. Being so holy, they must be set apart from us sinful masses, brought forward only when priests distribute them for our salvation.

But the really old church carved in protected caves shares something with Plymouth Creek’s sanctuary, right? The resting place of communion elements was in the midst of, not apart from, the congregation. And we describe that piece of worship furniture as “The Table,” not an altar. What’s going on? Something important, or is it simply semantics?

Well, to some, it’s semantics; Altar, Table, no real difference. Sure, where you put it in church could signal something about God’s nearness to God’s people or God’s distance. In the 1960s, many Catholic altars were removed from the back and placed nearer the pews, suggesting an opening to greater respect for people’s inherent goodness. But it remained an altar, by intention, a slab on which sacrifice was offered. And many Disciples of Christ believe similar theology, simply disagreeing about the priest/pastor’s role in distributing bread and cup.

I, however, make a point to always use Table, never Altar, though I respect our right to different beliefs. But here’s mine. Like most Christians historically, I think communion is the center of worship. Preaching’s wonderful. Music rocks. Bread and Cup, though, take center stage. My reason is a) Jesus told us to share them whenever we gather, and I’ve decided to follow Jesus. And b) they represent to me the core of God’s promise. God offers everyone new life, relentless grace, unbounded forgiveness, unto eternity. The bread and cup symbolize the foundation of that promise- Christ resurrected in our midst. In other words, communion to me is a ritual of life restored, not death repeated. Sure, from a purely practical perspective, Christ’s death and sacrifice was necessary before he could rise again. But he rose again! And that’s the critical point.

An altar, to my mind, makes death the center of worship. Yet I believe Christ conquered death unto forever. A Table, by contrast, gathers people together to share and receive elements of life abundant. Bread to nourish our souls. Wine to delight our senses. Resurrection to lead us forward. I’m unsure if that’s what the earliest Christians believed when they huddled in caves, hiding from death. But they placed a stone slab in their midst, and persevered through persecution. And their faith survived to offer us new life still. So the next time you’re in worship, remember their faithful struggles when you join me at the Table. And remember Jesus’ sacrifice, made good through resurrection. Then go invite the world into grace.

Grace and Peace,
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