Covenantal Gut Check
Have you ever been hit just below your chest in that sweet spot that knocks the wind right out of you? It's scary. What has really happened is that your diaphragm got its clock cleaned and is now having a spasm. Until it calms down, that tight contraction leaves you gasping for air. In that moment, you are completely vulnerable.
This just happened to my son in his last MMA class. I grew up seeing a lot of that in the Martial Arts classes my dad taught, so I wasn't worried to watch him struggle. It would be devastating if you were truly trying to defend yourself. At that moment, you are at the mercy of your opponent. But the instructor in my son's class did the same thing my dad would always do. He grabbed Haydn by the elbows and stretched his arms over his head.
I told my dad about it on the phone the other day and he said something about how he would never do this with a child, but he did make sure that adults training with him would get the wind knocked out of them at least once. It's part of the training. You don't know what it is like to be that vulnerable until it happens to you. Reality sets in. You're not invincible. Sometimes you can't even take a punch.
A similar reality check sets in every time we gather as a covenant community for the Lord's Supper. Here we learn that we are not all that different from one another. Some of our covenant family members may be stronger in the faith than others. Some gather with confident smiles, and others appear a bit forlorn. But we all get hit in the gut when we are before the table.
I was actually reminded of this by an insightful comment on a blog thread discussing a one of Leon Brown's recent posts. Brown wonders if the atmosphere in our churches provides for honesty about our sinful condition. Here's an excerpt:
Asked differently, should we put a smile on our faces for a hour and a half on Sunday mornings when things are truly chaotic in the home? No sooner than we depart the church building, we are met by disobedient children and dueling spouses. Our pornography addiction resurfaces; our anger meets us again; we are back in reality.
He goes on to ask if there is place for us to show our weaknesses and brokenness beyond the corporate confession of sin. Are we all just faking it?
In the comment I was referring to, Zrim reminds us that God has already provided a means for honest evaluation of our spiritual condition. In this thread he contrasts a practice that some churches have added to worship, that may appear to be a way of genuine openness, to the table:
...what do those who don't respond to the altar-call-of-rededication mean by staying back, that they're free of sin? I'm not sure how it can be otherwise. But in a properly fenced table, open and unrepentant sin is warned to stay away while repentant sinfulness is welcomed, which is to say nobody can imply being free of sin. More differences between altars and tables.
It is important to acknowledge and confess our particular sins for the evil that they really are, knowing that they lead to death. When we come to the table, we are bidden to do just that as we are pointed to the One who really did suffer God's wrath in our place. And amazingly, in this sacrament, we are blessed in him! We are given Christ, spiritually nourished by his body and blood. Zipporah got it right when she told Moses he was a bridegroom of blood (Ex. 4:26). And we see what our sin cost and what our Savior gave on the cross when we come to the table.
Some of us may come overconfident in our own growth, while others come feeling as if they need to share all their failings and injustices with the whole congregation. But there isn't much of a difference between the two. We are all exposed of our own selfishness at the table. We get the wind knocked out of our own stories of domestic, personal, and professional failure to look to the only One who can help us. And we really are being changed. This holy time with God and his covenant community restores us by freeing us from ourselves. The pastor can then send us away with a benediction to go back out to our families and community as salt and light.
Sure, there is a time for sharing our personal struggles with a trusted believer in the covenant community, but God has set the table for good fellowship. Fellow believers have the same thing in common: sin that we cannot overcome on our own, and a Savior who is transforming us into his own likeness. As his Holy Spirit is working in us, he is sitting at the right hand of the Father interceding on our behalf. Before the table, we have that covenantal gut check. Are we one of his? If so we will be ministered to by his Spirit. If not, we are left vulnerable before our opponent. Those of faith leave the worship service knowing that we serve Jesus. And so David Wells reminds us in his book, God in the Whirlwind, "By contrast, to be a servant of Christ is to be free for him, through the gospel, because it is to be free from ourselves. That is the gain" (233).