Women Deacons and Apostles in the Letters of Paul: Gender Roles in the Church Part 3

In my first post in this series, I highlighted what I believe are some of the central issues to be considered when exploring the role of women in the church, and in the second post I examined the place of women in Jesus’ pre-ascension ministry. In this third installment, we’ll take a look at notable women mentioned by Paul, and my upcoming final installment will analyze Paul’s instructions about women (1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy) in light of all the evidence previously examined. The argument I’m attempting to develop in this series is that taking Paul’s statements about restrictions on women in isolation from other Scripture and then applying them to all people, in all churches, in all times, and in all places is a misunderstanding of Paul’s intention.

(And just to reiterate before I proceed: this topic is not my personal soapbox; I am simply doing my best to publicly and clearly articulate my position out of a sense of responsibility as a woman in ministry. I hope doing so will be a help to those who wrestle with the issue. Please see my comments on this in Part 1.)

Recall what I pointed out in Part I concerning the tension that is apparent between the various passages on women in the church. I believe resolution of this tension is key to a correct understanding of what Paul’s view actually is. First, let’s look at the kinds of roles held by two of the women who are specifically named and esteemed by Paul. 

Phoebe the Deacon and Junia the Apostle

In Romans 16:1, Paul says:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.

The Greek term that is translated here as “servant” is diakonos, which occurs 29 times in the New Testament, sometimes translated as “minister” and sometimes “deacon.” It’s the same term that Paul uses to describe himself in Ephesians 3:7-10:

of which I was made a minister [diakonos], according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. (Emphasis, mine.)

One might even argue that Paul’s description of his duties (preaching and teaching) are at least partly characteristic of the responsibilities of a diakonos. Does this mean that his words in Ephesians 3 could reasonably be considered indicative of some of Phoebe’s duties? I don’t think that’s a stretch, given that the same term is used in both places. Now, I am not a Greek scholar. I acknowledge that there may by linguistic reasons why diakonos is translated as “servant” in some places and “minister” or “deacon” in others.

In I Timothy 3:8-13, Paul says this about the specific office of Deacons: 

Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Phoebe

Phoebe

I find it remarkable that women are included as the recipients of these instructions on the office of deacon. Some commentators have tried to make a distinction within this passage and say that Paul is talking about “deacons” and “women” completely separately; but that strikes me as a very strange handling of the passage. If Paul intended such a distinction, it seems completely illogical to plop the statement about women right in the middle of his short discourse on deacons. Rather than making a distinction, it seems to me that Paul is being pointedly inclusive of women in his words about the diaconate.

Go back and look again at the above-mentioned passage from Romans, and pay careful attention to what Paul says to the Roman church concerning Phoebe. He exhorts them to “receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you.” She is to be received with honor and respect, and they (not just the women!) are to help her with whatever she needs in her ministry. Obviously, Phoebe is a servant leader in the church. 

Perhaps it could be argued that even if Phoebe is a deacon proper, her duties as a female deacon would have been different from those of a male deacon. That seems speculative; as Dr. Ben Witherington, in his work, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, says: 

Phoebe is not only a Christian sister, she is also a deacon of the church in Cenchreae, one of the ports of Corinth. The form ousan diakonon suggests that she had an ongoing ministry. She seems to be the first mentioned deacon in Christian history. She should not be called a deaconess because the masculine form of the word is used here and because the specific order of women church workers called deaconesses did not exist for another three hundred years. (p. 382)

In Romans 16:7, Paul very briefly mentions a woman by the name of Junia, who he says is “outstanding among the apostles” (NASB). Some Bible translations phrase the passage to read “well known to the apostles,” which communicates something a bit different. Which rendering is correct? N.T. Wright argues that recent scholarship has shown that the passage cannot mean “to the apostles.” Moreover, there is solid evidence that the very early church understood the passage to mean that Junia, like Andronicus (possibly her husband), was a well-known apostle. For example, an early Church Father, John Chrysostom (c. 347-407 AD), wrote, “Oh, how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be counted worthy even to be called an apostle.” (It is also worth noting that, as Bishop of Constantinople, Chrysostom put a female deacon, Olympias, in charge of all the deacons serving at the great basilica of Hagia Sophia.) 

I have to (briefly) mention the fact that some translators have used “Junias,” a male name, in this passage. However, there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of this name; it never occurs in any ancient literature or inscriptions, while the name Junia occurs hundreds of times. 

These are not the only two women that Paul mentions in his epistolary greetings and exhortations, but they are the two that play most strongly into the question of women’s roles in the church.

Stay tuned for Part 4, where I’ll compare/contrast this data with the prohibitions in I Corinthians 11 and I Timothy 2, and hash out what the cultural context of these letters means for a correct understanding of how they apply to churches in other places and times.

 

The Life of the Mind: Commanded and Commissioned (Audio Recording)

On Mother’s Day Sunday, I gave a sermon entitled, “The Life of the Mind: Commanded and Commissioned.” It is an exhortation to all Christ-followers along with an explanation of how a strong life of the mind is important to the vocation of motherhood.  You can go HERE to listen on my church’s website, or you can go to our iTunes page HERE and download it for free. Just for fun, here’s a photo from that day.  :-)

DSC05147

Photo Credit: Tom Liskey

Women in the Ministry of Jesus: Gender Roles in the Church Part 2

In my previous post, I shared a bit about my experience with the gender roles controversy and emphasized the need for careful resolution of the tension we find among the biblical texts that relate to women in the church. I now wish to examine some of the Scriptural evidence pertaining to the status and responsibilities of women in Jesus’ pre-ascension ministry. (In part 3, I’ll deal with Paul’s epistles.)

 We certainly shouldn’t minimize the fact that The Twelve—the dozen men Jesus hand-picked to be his principal learners and leaders—were all men; that is significant. But, we also cannot ignore the fact that there were others, including women, who learned and ministered under the direction of Jesus. They were part of his travelling entourage (Luke 8:1-3), carried out duties that would eventually be done by deacons and deaconesses, and, as we will see later, some were collectively referred to as disciples, as well. This was extremely counter-cultural! As Dr. Ben Witherington puts it: “For a Jewish woman, the possibility of being a disciple of a great teacher, of being a travelling follower of Jesus, of remaining single ‘for the sake of the Kingdom,’ or even of being a teacher of the faith to persons other than children, were all opportunities that did not exist prior to her entrance into the community of Jesus.”

christ-samaritan-woman-at-well-living-water-simon-dewey-3Jesus turned both the religious and social norms upside down, and where women were concerned, His actions were undeniably equalizing. Recall the account of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). As far as the Jews were concerned, Samaritans were unclean half-breeds, and moreover, Jewish men were not supposed to speak to strange women in public. What does our Lord Jesus do? He sits down with a promiscuous Samaritan woman out in broad daylight at the town’s common water well and has one of the most important theological discussions recorded in John’s Gospel. He explicitly identifies Himself to her as the Messiah! She abandons her water jar and runs into the town to tell everyone who will listen—and many believed based upon her testimony (4:39). A woman was the first evangelist to Sychar in Samaria.

I wish I knew her name.

Throughout my latest study of women in the Gospel narratives, what has surprised me is realizing how often I’ve made a mistaken generalization instead of carefully identifying who the Gospel writers meant to include when they used the word “disciples” in any particular passage. When I’m reading along and come to the phrase “the disciples” or “His disciples,” my mind automatically registers that as “The Twelve.” I know there were more disciples than The Twelve; I’m just saying that when I’m reading the Gospels, my brain defaults to the exclusive circle all too often as I’m trying to rush forward to the main point of the passage (shame on me).

There’s one particular cross reference that I really like. The synoptic Gospels record Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection. For example, in Matthew 16:21 we read, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Compare this to Mark 8:27-34, where a distinction is made between what Jesus says to the disciples (including the death/resurrection prediction) before he calls the general crowd to him. My point is, the Scripture tells us that the disciples were the ones that he spoke his prediction to (he voiced this prediction several times, and it should be noted that at least once it was to The Twelve, exclusively). But then notice what happens immediately after his resurrection, when the prophecy has come true.  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women (“the women who had come with Him from Galilee”—Luke 23:55) set off to embalm Jesus’ body:

 Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.  And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. (Emphasis, mine.)

Take note: the angels tell the women to recall what Jesus told them would happen. This indicates that when Jesus foretold to “his disciples” his betrayal, death, and resurrection, the women were included in that group. The women ran back to tell The Eleven (Judas is gone) about what the angels had told them at the open, empty tomb. Women were the first to discover and proclaim the Gospel of the Lord risen.  

Women, whose testimony wasn’t of much worth in that culture, were entrusted by God with the most important message in all of human history, and they delivered it to the men who had been closest to Jesus.

And the men thought they had made it all up.

I wonder if there was ever an “I told you so.”  ;-) 

Level Ground at the Foot of the Cross: Gender Roles in the Church, Part 1

I’ve never written or spoken publicly on the issue of gender roles in the church. My philosophy about my personal ministry work has long been: “Lord, here I am, send me, and I will go.” A prayer I pray persistently is, “Open the doors I am to walk through, but seal tight the ones that would displease you.” I trust that the Lord hears me and knows my heart, and I proceed in my work with caution, doing all I can to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. (Although, I do admit that sometimes I plead for the proverbial neon sign.:-) )

I’ve given public lectures by invitation, and I’ve taught classes for churches of which I was a member. At Houston Baptist University, I teach a course I designed on Science and Christianity, and many (but not all) of my students are Christians. Once in a while, over the course of my years in ministry, my audience has been exclusively female, but that has, surprisingly, been the exception rather than the rule.

Don’t get me wrong; I love teaching a room full of women! In fact, I recently developed a talk entitled “Womanhood and the Life of the Mind,” which is based upon some of the material in the cover article I wrote for the spring issue of Christian Research Journal, “Motherhood and the Life of the Mind.” I gave the talk for the first time at a beautiful women’s tea in Richmond, Virginia last weekend, and it was a sweet time of sharing my heart and doing my best to encourage sisters in Christ towards developing a more robust intellectual life. The content of the talk really isn’t gender-specific, with the exception of my exhortation to mothers and grandmothers about mentoring children intellectually. It’s a Scripture-based exhortation to love the Lord with our minds so that we can be and make excellent disciples.

The morning after I delivered the talk in Richmond, the event organizer sent me a note, and something that really stuck out to me was her remark that the men who had worked as servers at the tea (in spiffy black bow ties, no less!), who had stood in the back of the room during my talk, approached her at church the next morning to tell her of their appreciation for what I’d had to say.

I’m painfully aware that there are some Christians who would condemn me for teaching within the walls of the church where men are in attendance and/or condemn the men for listening to my teaching. More than once, I have received indirect criticism for teaching mixed audiences. At a church where I served as a Sunday morning class teacher, the disapproval from some was subtle but unmistakable. Fellow members (thankfully only a very few), who had been gracious and friendly in the years prior to me assuming a teaching role, immediately began doing the cold-shoulder routine, and when I would smile and greet them in the hallway, the response was always a tight-lipped, begrudging half-smile with a curt nod. I know that, in their eyes, my teaching was a form of open disobedience, of outright sin. Nevermind that some of my male class members were open about how the knowledge I shared from week to week was helping them have more effective faith conversations at the workplace and with their own children. Some might reply: “Well, God can even use sinful actions for His own glory.” 

I have often been asked to articulate my position on the role of women in the church, and, honestly, I’ve just avoided the controversy as much as possible; it gives me a headache. But, at the end of the day, the fact that I am a woman who teaches in churches means that I truly need to be willing to talk about it, to justify my actions on biblical grounds. So, I’ve been reading more deeply, more broadly, and meditating upon the words of Scripture pertaining to this issue. 

How do we define “teaching in the church”? By “church” do we mean specific brick-and-mortar locations? Or, do we mean teaching the people that make up “the church” regardless of the setting in which the teaching happens? If we mean the latter, then any and all Scripture-related teaching a woman does, whether in the university setting, a home-based study, on television, by writing books, or even blogging counts as “teaching in the church.” Obviously, there’s no way to limit the readers and hearers to women. Do we mean that Scripture is referring to the teaching that goes on only in the worship service setting on Sunday morning? That would imply that worship only happens in specific corporate gatherings on specific days. We know that’s not true.  What’s the deal, then? 

This post will be the first in a short series, because I hope to give this topic more than a cursory treatment. I want to wrap up this first installment by highlighting what I think is a key general observation about the relevant Scripture.

st_junia2.jpg_w540Within the New Testament, there seems to be significant tension among various passages that communicate, whether implicitly or explicitly, anything about the place of women in the body of Christ. For example, if some of the words of Paul are taken at plain face value and applied to all Christians in all times and cultures, they seem to be at odds with Jesus’ attitude towards women and even with some of Paul’s other remarks and actions regarding women. When we find such tension, it’s intellectually and theologically irresponsible to ignore it, or worse, to pick out a “proof text” that seems to justify our preferred view. There is complexity that must be explored for a comprehensive and viable understanding. What we need is a harmonious integration of the texts that pays very careful attention to the cultural context in which the passage was written, recognizes the nuances of the original language, and considers the intended audience of an epistle. 

New Testament scholar (and retired Anglican Bishop) N.T. Wright is fond of saying, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” We are made male and female for purposes beyond procreation, I am certain. Separately, we have been given some special ways in which we are uniquely equipped to serve the body. But in addition, the testimony of Scripture seems to indicate that, whether in the marital union or the corporate church, men and women together reflect the image of God most fully, and this includes some overlap in our roles as Christ followers. The question is, where is the overlap and how far does it extend?

In my next post, we’ll examine Jesus’ attitude towards women, particularly how women were treated and used in his pre-ascension ministry. Remember, this was before the birth of the church proper, which happened on the day of Pentecost (a day commemorated as a Principal Holy Day in my church tradition). It will be interesting to compare and contrast the Gospels with Paul’s epistolary instructions to various churches of his day.

Preparing Heart and Mind for Holy Week

This is the first year that my family and I have been part of a Christian tradition in which the historic church seasons are formally observed, and we looked forward, with much anticipation, to what the Lord wanted to teach us through the Lenten weeks of solemn reflection, prayer, and lamentation. We attended our church’s Ash Wednesday service for confession of sin and imposition of ashes. It is such a wonderful mystery how that experience is, all at once, heart-rending and beautiful! We are dust, and to dust we will return. Yet in our unworthiness, we have glorious hope…

My husband and I had prayed, independently, that God would reveal to us how He wanted us to fast for these 40 days, and an answer was not immediately forthcoming. A few weeks went by, still with no clear idea of what we should sacrifice. “We make really terrible Anglicans!” I was thinking to myself (only half-jokingly). 

Then, in the middle of the season, as I sat in the dusky silence of the predawn hour, contemplating the prayers, canticles, and Scripture of the Daily Office, the Holy Spirit made it suddenly clear to me what the appropriate sacrifice was for me–for us–this year. It was something that could be done all at once, so it didn’t matter that we were already well into Lent. I kept the epiphany to myself for a day or two, until my husband said one morning, “You know, I think we’re supposed to make this particular sacrifice for Lent…” and I smiled, my heart reveling in the undoubtable direct confirmation. This is just one example of how blessedly evident the Spirit has been. Oh the stories I could tell you about all the marvelous ways He has shown up lately…

So here we are, just a couple of days away from Holy Week. I’ve been reflecting upon the final days of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry–the sorrow, the urgency, the sense of spiritual isolation, the bittersweet time with his dearest friends…the abandonment.

This Sunday, we will commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the time of year when the city was filling up with those coming to celebrate Passover.

The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:12-13)

When Jesus looked at the jubilant faces around him, what did He feel? These people were celebrating triumphantly. They didn’t see what was coming–a bloody cross, a broken body, a darkened earth. Our Lord Jesus probably felt many things, but nothing more than love…love for the world he was about to sacrifice himself for. 

holyweekAnd thus our Holy Week will begin, with Hosannahs, declarations, and waving palm branches. But we do know what followed that day, and that makes observance of these days indescribably meaningful. 

The week continues with additional opportunities for quiet prayer and Holy Communion. Maundy Thursday is the remembrance of Jesus’ last supper with His disciples, the night he instituted Holy Communion in the breaking of bread and sharing of wine–and the night he washed His disciples’ feet. “Maundy” is from the Latin word Mandatum, which is translated “commandment” and refers in this context to Jesus’ commandment to love one another. In the Anglican tradition, Maundy Thursday may include feet washing and something called “the stripping of the altar.” In The Anglican Way, Fr. Thomas McKenzie describes the stripping this way: 

This can be somber or dramatic, or both. The holy objects that we normally use in worship–the candles, books, chalices, hangings, etc. –are hastily removed…When we treat the holy things of the sanctuary as common, we are showing that the Son of God was treated as a common criminal, a man of no account. Afterward, we’re invited to stay before the now-barren altar. We wait with Christ, as he asked his disciples to do in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36), but no matter how much we love him, eventually the sanctuary empties. Everyone leaves him.

Some churches may use a black pall on the altar to symbolize the impending crucifixion day. Recession from the church occurs in silent solemnity. 

Good Friday (“Good”=”Holy”), the day that commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion, is when the Stations of the Cross are visibly represented. These stations are spots to meditate upon each major scene of the final hours of Christ’s Passion. Then, Holy Saturday recognizes the dark, mournful day during which Jesus’ body reposed in the garden tomb. 

Then comes Resurrection Day: a grand celebration–the feast day that tops all other feast days. In church tradition, Easter is an entire festal season, lasting 50 days! The mood of worship is joyous, and the church is adorned with white flowers, white fabrics, white candles. Hearts, minds, bodies, and all the trappings of worship proclaim that Christ is risen, He is risen indeed.

Note: There are two songs in particular that I listen to a lot during this season and I’d like to recommend them to you: Chris Tomlin’s “At the Cross: Love Ran Red” and Kari Jobe’s “Forever.” 

New Resource!! Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side by Natasha Crain

The question I receive most often from my seminar attendees is: What books would you recommend for parents and for elementary-age children? Typically, I point parents to introductory-level apologetics texts that will provide a foundation upon which they can gradually build. For preteen children, the pickings are rather slim, which was one of the main motivations behind my Young Defenders apologetics storybook series. Beyond this, however, there were no resources (that I know of) specifically designed for the training and encouragement of parents in the area of actually teaching apologetics and worldview to their children in an interesting and effective manner.

Enter: Natasha Crain. 

I first learned about Ms. Crain’s work through social media groups. Her blog, Christian Mom Thoughts, quickly became a favorite of mine, not only because of the excellent, well-researched content, but also because of the winsome, yet no-nonsense writing style. When she announced her book deal with Harvest House Publishers, I was ecstatic. I knew it would be a ground-breaking and desperately needed tool for parents, especially those in my own stage of life (parenting preteens). As an early pre-reader of the manuscript, I was not disappointed. Ms. Crain had written a book that would serve the Christian parenting community well.

The content of Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side is both intellectually rigorous and non-intimidating (no easy feat!). It gently and systematically guides parents through 40 key apologetics topics, including the existence of God, science and creation (my favorite!:-) ), objective truth, the identity of Jesus, and the reliability of Scripture. In this way, it serves as a fantastic introduction to apologetics, but the wonderful and unique thing about Ms. Crain’s book is that it approaches all of this from the perspective of a parent desiring to have instructive conversations with their kids. The final chapter of the book, “10 Tips for Having Deeper Faith Conversations with Your Kids,” is the crowning touch that demonstrates how to communicate the imparted knowledge to young minds.

If you are a parent and/or someone involved in children’s ministry in any capacity, I strongly encourage you to get a copy of Keeping Your Kids on God’s SideEven if you are already well-grounded in apologetics, you will likely benefit from its approach and the practical advice it offers. I will be suggesting it to every parent I encounter.

Communion: Holy Sacrament or Mere Sign?

I’ve been a Christian for most of my life. For that reason, it is difficult for me to admit that for more than three decades, I never stopped to investigate the concept of sacrament. In fact, if you had asked me only six months ago to define the term, I wouldn’t have been able to give an entirely correct response. I have no excuse for this gap in my theological knowledge; I’m sure it was mentioned at some point in my Essential Christian Doctrine courses in grad school, though I have no solid memory of it. Over the past year, as I have explored the liturgical/sacramental traditions of Christendom through research and, more recently, through church attendance, some pivotal questions have surfaced.

Why do sacramental/liturgical traditions view and conduct things like communion and baptism so differently? It certainly isn’t about aesthetic preference; it’s about theology, about the very essence of these practices. Is there a “right” and “wrong” way to carry these out? What is meant by “sacrament”? Please understand that it is not at all my intention to criticize any perspective; rather, I wish to articulate why my personal view has dramatically changed.

The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and sacramental/liturgical Protestants don’t all have the same view on the number and exact nature of the sacraments. For example, the Roman Catholic church recognizes seven: baptism, Eucharist (Holy Communion), confirmation, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and marriage. Sacramental/liturgical Protestants, such as Anglicans and Lutherans, only recognize baptism and Holy Communion as sacraments, since these were instituted by Christ. He participated in them and they are commanded by Him.

Even though all of the above traditions hold these two sacraments in common, there is a difference (in general) between the non-Protestant and sacramental/liturgical Protestant beliefs about them. For instance, the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches hold to transubstantiation–the belief that the bread and wine are quite literally mystically transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ’s body. Most sacramental/liturgical Protestants would deny this but affirm that, in a very real yet mysterious way, Christ is present in Holy Communion and His once-and-for-all sacrifice is thereby symbolized.

I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, and many of my family and friends are still members of that denomination. I have enormous admiration and respect for their commitment to the right handling of Scripture, diligent personal Bible study, and emphasis on close community. Typically, the practice of communion in non-liturgical/sacramental Protestant churches (at least in my 30+ years of experience) is a quarterly worship service add-on. The officiant invites believers to participate and then reads the Scripture that records Christ’s last supper with His disciples prior to His crucifixion. Sometimes there is a moment of silence during which believers are meant to privately examine their hearts and repent from sin. Plates are passed with tiny cups of grape juice and small fragments of bread or unleavened wafer (the elements). Prayers of blessing are said over each prior to consumption. Communion is done as a symbolic practice of remembrance of Christ’s work for us.

I have a personal confession to make: In all my years as a Christian participating in communion, I have never been able to get over a sense of awkwardness and incompleteness in the ceremony, though I didn’t have an explanation for why. I did look forward to “communion Sundays,” as I craved an atmosphere of solemnity and visible, tangible acknowledgement of the meaning and holiness of the meal.  But I often felt as though something was missing. I remember how on many Sundays, I would place my empty juice cup in the tiny cupholder bolted to the back of the pew in front of me, and the thought going through my mind as I did so was, “Is that it?”

In 1 Corinthians 11:24-28, the Apostle Paul recounts Christ’s words about Holy Communion:

the-last-supper-large-image-zoom

“The Last Supper” by Harry Anderson

And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 

There are three things that really stand out to me about this passage. First of all, the practice of communion was commanded by our Lord. “Do this,” He said. Second, He calls the practice a remembrance, and Paul explains that it is a proclamation of Christ’s crucifixion. Third, Paul gives a sober warning about the necessity of coming to the table in a worthy manner–having confessed our sin with a penitent heart.

The book of Acts, our earliest text of church history, tells us that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42) and that “on the first day of the week” they “gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7). Sunday, the Lord’s resurrection day, was recognized through gathering together and observing Holy Communion. The indication is that this was a weekly act of Christian devotion that was accompanied by specific prayers. The writings of the Apostolic and other Ante-Nicene Fathers are further testament to the importance of Holy Communion in the early church. 

In the Anglican tradition, which I and my family have recently entered, Holy Communion is a sacrament. What does that mean? The simplest way to explain it is that it is “an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Holy Communion is a means by which our faith is fortified, by the grace of God, in a deeply incarnational way. We are creatures of body and soul, and therefore such outward, physical expressions of worship feed our whole person. There is beautiful mystery in how this happens…yet it does! I believe this is exactly why Christ commanded the practice. I love how Rev. Gavin Pate of All Saints Dallas put it: “It is a meal of sustaining grace, embodying the prayer of Jesus, that Our Father would ‘give us this day our daily bread.'”

At my church, HopePointe Anglican, Holy Communion  is a serious and beautiful affair that I have found deeply nourishing. We kneel together at the rail in front of the Lord’s table as a visible communion of believers hungry for Christ. When the broken bread is pressed into my upturned palm, I am told, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” When the wine chalice is presented to me, I am told, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Afterwards, it is difficult to stand, as I want to remain there indefinitely, prostrate before my holy God. My heart cries out, “Lord Jesus, I remember!”