Table Manners

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This week's Back to Basics is on the Lord's Supper.

The Lord's Supper is one of the most basic activities of the church.  More ink hit more pages in the Reformation on this topic than on any other, including justification and authority.  Yet the proportion of material on the issue produced in contemporary evangelical circles is very small compared to other, trendier topics. 

Ten years ago I gave a lecture at Oak Hill on the Lord's Supper.  Given the Church of England, context, I drew much of my historical material from classic Anglican sources, especially Cranmer; and my basic thesis was that the modern evangelical church had lost sight of the Reformation emphasis on the Supper as a source of comfort and assurance.  Why, I asked, was the Lord's Supper not emphasized as a basic part of the practice of pastoral care, as it had been in the Reformation?  

After the lecture ended, there followed a stormy question and answer session which I did enjoy but which was somewhat heated.  Revisiting the campus a year later, I was told by the then principal, David Peterson that he was still getting complaints about my talk.   We both laughed.

What I had forgotten, of course, is that in the struggle over who represents authentic Anglicanism, Anglican evangelicals often define themselves over against Anglo-Catholics.   Newman and Tract 90 still cast a long shadow and, while Cranmer's Articles were not as equivocally Protestant as 'the most dangerous man in England' claimed, nor were they as vacuously anti-sacramental as the evangelicals sometimes like to think.

When someone has a problem, we tend these days to focus on the specifics of the issue one-on-one rather than, in the first instance at least, point to the general provisions of God's grace in the preaching of the word and then the administration of the Supper.  This is a function of numerous things, I am sure, from taking our practical cues from a culture steeped in psychotherapy to a modern evangelical culture that finds the Reformation Protestant debates about the Lord's Supper irrelevant.  Yet I suspect that high among these reasons has also to be the modern myth of uniqueness - that we are all so unique that our problems are unique too and thus require individualized, personalized solutions.  One even perhaps sees this in some of the more popular speakers in the broad reformed world today, where personal anecdote, rather than precise textual exegesis, appears to be the foundation of a good sermon: 'Here's how the text moved me and impacted my life; how is it going to impact yours?'

The Lord's Supper is important.  It is important for biblical obedience.  It is important for church discipline.  It is important for comforting the afflicted and the weak.  We neglect it to our very great impoverishment.

My denomination has a fairly clear form for the Lord's Supper.  Part of that is the requirement to give a brief Table address before the distribution of the elements.  This is an important pastoral moment.  Consequently, I always try to strike a balance between fencing of the Table (discouraging from participation those who are trusting in their own righteousness) and pressing the need to participate on those who are perhaps weary and struggling.  

While I always prepare my sermons carefully, I never formally prepare the Table address.  In the week before, I read a few passages or sermons on the Lord's Supper, to sow seeds of a few ideas in my mind.  Then, at the actual service, I make a judgment call before the address on what I think the congregation most needs to hear.  I base this on what I know about the individual needs of congregants and on how I perceive my sermon has been received. It is not an exact science but it is a whole lot more exact than it would be if I did not know the congregants at all and they were simply an anonymous crowd. I know from prayer requests submitted to the elders what some people are facing that week. I can tell from the expressions on people's faces if they are suffering, depressed, perhaps presumptuous or over confident, and I shape what I say accordingly.  I am not sure what the man preaching through a video link-up to a cast of thousands does to make such fine adjustments.

Strange to tell, I have found that Table addresses have been the things which a number of congregants most appreciate - particularly older members who are perhaps more aware of their mortality and weakness than others.

In conclusion, here are some basic books which I have found very helpful in preparing for celebrating the Lord's Supper:

Robert Letham, The Lord's Supper.  Excellent, short introduction to the theology and pastoral importance of the Lord's Supper.  The place to start.

Malcolm Maclean, The Lord's Supper.  OK, this is not a genre known for the surprising and innovative nature of its titles.  But this is a good book, covering the history and theology of the Lord's Supper which is also sympathetic to the Scottish Highland tradition on the issue.

Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley, Feasting with Christ.  Very useful collection of thoughts and meditations on the Lord's Supper drawn primarily from Puritan sources.   Excellent for pondering in preparation for speaking at a communion service.

Finally, two fine collections of sermons and addresses on the Lord's Supper are:

John Owen, John Owen on the Lord's Supper, edited with a fine introduction by Jon Payne.

And the Gold Standard of Lord's Supper sermons, Robert Bruce, The Mystery of the Lord's Supper.

There are other works out there -- those by Keith Mathison and Ronald Wallace come to mind; but the above are a good starting place.




Posted June 27, 2012 @ 3:17 PM by Carl Trueman
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