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.[i] 40 My Father wants everyone who sees the Son to have faith in him and to have eternal life. Then I will raise them to life on the last day.
41 The people started grumbling because Jesus had said he was the bread that had come down from heaven. 42 They were asking each other, “Isn’t he Jesus, the son of Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother? How can he say that he has come down from heaven?”
43 Jesus told them:
Stop grumbling! 44 No one can come to me, unless the Father who sent me makes them want to come. But if they do come, I will raise them to life on the last day. 45 One of the prophets wrote, “God will teach all of them.” And so everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him will come to me.
46 The only one who has seen the Father is the one who has come from him. No one else has ever seen the Father. 47 I tell you for certain that everyone who has faith in me has eternal life.
48 I am the bread that gives life! 49 Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, and later they died. 50 But the bread from heaven has come down, so that no one who eats it will ever die. 51 I am that bread from heaven! Everyone who eats it will live forever. My flesh is the life-giving bread that I give to the people of this world.
52 They started arguing with each other and asked, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”
53 Jesus answered:
I tell you for certain that you won’t live unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man. 54 But if you do eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have eternal life, and I will raise you to life on the last day. 55 My flesh is the true food, and my blood is the true drink. 56 If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you are one with me, and I am one with you.
57 The living Father sent me, and I have life because of him. Now everyone who eats my flesh will live because of me. 58 The bread that comes down from heaven isn’t like what your ancestors ate. They died, but whoever eats this bread will live forever.
59 Jesus was teaching in a Jewish place of worship in Capernaum when he said these things (John 6:22-59, CEV).
When I finally realized that the memorialist interpretation did not do real justice to verses 43-59 I began to seriously doubt my Baptist teaching. I was a Baptist pastor when this began to really unsettle me. I am a slow learner. But, remember, I did ask a lot of questions.
I understand the nuances about this debate over these words, or at least I try to understand them. Again, I edited a book on this subject too: Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper (Zondervan, 2007). In this book I write about how we can respect our differing interpretations about the Lord’s Supper while we also can agree about a great deal. The four views in the book are Baptist, Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic. I believe it is an excellent dialogue between four good representatives of these four views. I seek to set the direction in chapter one and conclude the dialogue in the final chapter.
But back to my story. I took my first communion in wonder and childlike amazement. I was thrilled to come and remember Jesus in the way I had seen others do for as long as I could remember. This never got old to me. Oddly, it must have become “old hat” to many Baptists because when I asked more questions about why we took it so infrequently I was told, “Son, if we took it every week it would become old hat.” I thought that very odd. If Jesus told us to take it, and said that as often as you do so (which sounds like “often” to me) in remembrance of me, then why did we not take it more often? If it would become “old hat” then why did we have preaching every Sunday morning and evening? Wouldn’t preaching become “old hat” after a time? The fact is, it was “old hat” for many cool and unmoved people that I saw around me. I cannot remember seeing anyone weep or be moved to deep joy by the Lord’s Supper, except me in my crazy childlike experience of simple faith. (I am not saying no one was moved but I’m saying that it was not evident to my young sight at the time and now to my remembrance all these decades later.) But I was deeply by moved by communion more than once. I loved communion! I always have loved it. I still do. It brings me to the body and blood of Jesus each and every time I come to this table. It feeds my faith and stirs my soul. It did this even when I was still a Baptist. It has never become “old hat” to me, thus I now worship where I can take it every week (minimally).
Before my eight birthday this “little pilgrim” was a baptized Christian, a communicant follower of the Lamb and a disciple with real hunger in his heart to know and love Jesus more and more every day. I am not saying this to boast, except in the grace and mercy of God. I was arrested by grace at a very young age. I was genuinely moved to follow Jesus and I loved baptism the supper of Christ very deeply. For the life of me I still do not fully understand why the means of grace do not move Christians more than they seem to do. There is power in these symbols, power from God. This power transforms those who faithfully come and receive. I believe in the “real presence” of Jesus in these acts of baptism and communion. We may not agree about what that means but I am quite sure of this, “the real absence” never worked in my life, even when I was seven years of age. Today it will not work at all. I simply could not go back to this kind of faith practice. I do not condemn my brothers and sisters in these traditions but I am not there any more. For this I thank God, hopefully without a shred of pride since I believe the Spirit led me all the way, using both the Word of God and the faithful tradition of the one, holy, catholic church.