I will always remember several things about the church building that I worshiped in while I was growing up in Lebanon at First Baptist Church. First, I remember that the sanctuary seemed so large to me as a child when it was actually a medium-sized church. (Baptists called this place we gathered in the auditorium, so far as I remember. I was always put off by that terminology. As I got older I became more sure as to why I found this term off-putting.) Second, I remember the Sunday, in my teen years, when our sanctuary was destroyed by fire early one Sunday morning. The fire began in an old furnace system under the choir loft. Thankfully the fire began before anyone had arrived that Lord’s Day. We worshiped in the parking lot that day. I’ll never forget it as long as I live! Third, I remember counting the lights (and tiles) in the ceiling when I was a child. I also remember trying to figure out what the few images in the building meant, what few there actually were. Fourth, I remember watching the deacons smoke on the front porch and then throw their cigarettes butts out just before worship began! The lawn by the front porch looked like a place for half-smoked cigarettes. (Oddly, we signed a covenant not to drink but so many people smoked! Folks, this was the South, what can I say?) But the most memorable thing about my home church was the table below the pulpit with the words inscribed on it: “Do This in Remembrance of Me.” That table was simple but to my young mind and heart it was very, very impressive. More than once I asked, “Mom, why can’t I receive communion yet?” (How many children ask that as they sit in church watching and wondering? Millions I would think.)
Not long after my baptism in October of 1956, I celebrated my first communion. I wish I had been older than seven at the time but this was the Southern Baptist way. Once you were baptized you were a full-fledged church member thus you would be invited to communion. No real preparation, no catechism, no special doctrinal instruction. Just walk the aisle, get baptized and y’all come! Be from another kind of church (e.g. Methodist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, or, God forbid, Roman Catholic,) and no way you were invited. We reminded you that this table was for us, the faithful followers of the New Testament way, not you. As a college student I recall hearing Dr. Ramsey Pollard (pastor, 1960-1972), former president of the SBC, preach about this at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis. He said the table was only for those of us who were Bellevue Baptist members. That pretty clearly “fenced” the table from the rabble, at least in my mind. But at this point I was already asking more questions and moving away from this sectarian way of faith with a passion. His sermon finished it for me.
Well, the first time I remember taking communion it was very special. I knew nothing about what it really meant. After all, I had not been trained. I did know this much–it was a memorial testimony to Christ’s body and blood given for me. We were pretty straight down-the-line Zwinglian/memorialists about the meaning of the table. Nothing happened here except we “remembered” something that happened in the past. But, as with my baptism, I instantly loved communion. I wanted to come to this table a lot more. But we only had it every three months. Over time, as I recall, we began to take it once a month (maybe). But it was always at night and almost always poorly attended. I wondered a lot about this too. I would quiz my superiors, as always. “Why do we take this so infrequently?” And, “Why doesn’t it have more meaning than just remembering? Isn’t there more to it than that?” (I do not recall when I first deeply pondered John 6 but I think it was at Wheaton College in a late night dorm bull-sessions with a Lutheran from Minnesota. You gotta’ watch out for those Lutherans from Minnesota you know, especially if you’re a Southern Baptist living in far away from home!) Here are the words of our Lord that made me think there had to be more going on in the eucharist than simply a memorial service.
The Bread That Gives Life
22 The people who had stayed on the east side of the lake knew that only one boat had been there. They also knew that Jesus had not left in it with his disciples. But the next day 23 some boats from Tiberias sailed near the place where the crowd had eaten the bread for which the Lord had given thanks. 24 They saw that Jesus and his disciples had left. Then they got into the boats and went to Capernaum to look for Jesus. 25 They found him on the west side of the lake and asked, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
26 Jesus answered, “I tell you for certain that you are not looking for me because you saw the miracles, but because you ate all the food you wanted. 27 Don’t work for food that spoils. Work for food that gives eternal life. The Son of Man will give you this food, because God the Father has given him the right to do so.”
28 “What exactly does God want us to do?” the people asked.
29 Jesus answered, “God wants you to have faith in the one he sent.”
30 They replied, “What miracle will you work, so that we can have faith in you? What will you do? 31 For example, when our ancestors were in the desert, they were given manna to eat. It happened just as the Scriptures say, ‘God gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
32 Jesus then told them, “I tell you for certain that Moses wasn’t the one who gave you bread from heaven. My Father is the one who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 And the bread that God gives is the one who came down from heaven to give life to the world.”
34 The people said, “Lord, give us this bread and don’t ever stop!”
35 Jesus replied:
I am the bread that gives life! No one who comes to me will ever be hungry. No one who has faith in me will ever be thirsty. 36 I have told you already that you have seen me and still do not have faith in me. 37 Everything and everyone that the Father has given me will come to me, and I won’t turn any of them away.
38 I didn’t come from heaven to do what I want! I came to do what the Father wants me to do. He sent me, 39 and he wants to make certain that none of the ones he has given me will be lost. Instead, he wants me to raise them to life on the last day.