Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fast and Feast, Flesh and Spirit

For someone who just joined a congregation in a mainline denomination three weeks ago, I was awfully hard on that segment of American Protestant Christianity in my last post. All criticisms aside, the orthodox majority of mainline Protestants have done some things better over the last century than most evangelicals have. They have done particularly well with two areas I am keenly interested in—the Sacraments and the social aspect of the Gospel, both emphases that have prevented them from falling into the Gnostic scheme of spiritualizing all the trappings of religion away, at least not to the extent that most evangelicals have.

When it comes to its official statements in its Book of Common Worship, the Presbyterian Church USA is one of the most solid of the mainline churches when it comes to its sacramental theology and its sacramental liturgies. Its baptismal liturgies incorporate the beauty of the best Reformed language about the Sacrament and handle with nuance and subtlety the dialectic theological concerns in play in Reformed thought on the Sacrament. Its Eucharistic liturgies incorporate elements of patristic liturgies, giving them an awesome sense of history and mystery and a catholicity that resonates with believers from the Christian traditions of Wittenberg, Geneva, Rome, and of Constantinople and points north and east. The PCUSA has also done a fantastic job in its work with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in bridging the centuries-old rift that developed between the Reformed and the Lutherans due to their differences on the Sacraments. Needless to say, I am thrilled to officially be a member of this denomination.

In her sermon last Lord's Day, our pastor, Reverend Nancy Carle, did not address the Sacraments but did deal nicely with the issue of fasting as a discipline we are called to practice especially during the season of Lent but also as an ordinary practice of our spirituality. She took the anti-Gnostic track of defending the practice by discussing the importance God places on the actions we perform in and with our bodies. We are not to think of ourselves as having competing and dichotomous fragments of ourselves labeled spirit and matter, with spirit being good and mighty and flesh being somehow lesser or weaker. She pointed to the fact that God called materiality and flesh good and very good when he created it in the beginning and that God assumed flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ, who physically died and bodily rose from the grave. Likewise, she noted the Christian belief in the general resurrection of the dead as stated in the Apostles' Creed. It is in the context of such an embodied spirituality that fasting is an appropriate and necessary activity for Christians. In the season of Christ's suffering and death, we are to show our thanksgiving and joy by bringing our bodies into subjection and offering them as a sacrifice to he who was and is our all-sufficient sacrifice.

With the embodied nature of our spirituality under discussion last Lord's Day, it was appropriate that the contrasting theme of feast also appeared in the service. The idea of fasting as a means of feasting on Jesus Christ came up during the sermon, and, during the children's feature, Nancy discussed with the youngsters the ample material for feasting our worship together provides. She pulled out a hymnal and intimated to the children that a great feast for our ears was set in the music of the church. She pulled out a Bible and pointed to the great feast for our hearts that God's Word is. She also pointed to the congregation and the choir assembled behind her and noted what a feast of wisdom is set before inquiring minds in all the lessons God's people can teach us.

Most naturally, then, my mind made the progression to something else that is as central to our life and worship together as the spoken and written Word of God. Also, with the matters of the mental, emotional, and spiritual feasts set before God's people in worship being dealt with, it was only natural that I should think of the physical feast of the Church. My eyes went from the pastor and the children gathered on the other side of the sanctuary back to the centrally-located altar, hoping against hope that I was mistaken that no feast of Christ's body and blood lay there ready and waiting for us to consume, but, alas, I was not mistaken. No bread. No wine. No literal feast was to be had this day. In good Presbyterian fashion, our fare today was destined only to be words.

Well, my time for complaining is over. Presbyterians have not historically celebrated the Lord's Supper often. Many are now doing so weekly, but many more still are not. The fact is that Presbyterianism is centered on the Word. Well, the entire Church is centered on the Word of God—both the testimony about him and his Father we call Scripture and the God-Man himself, Jesus Christ. The Word of God is speech by and about God as well as the flesh and blood human being that was and is God. Just as Jesus did not come in words alone but also in the flesh when he walked the earth, so too does he not, or, at least should not have to, come by words alone today. In this sense, it is perfectly Presbyterian to make the Sacraments as central to our worship as the Bible is. Since Christ has gone to be present in heaven at the right hand of the Father, through the power the Holy Spirit the Sacraments are the means, in addition to the speech of Holy Writ, by which we continue to commune with him in a fleshly way.

Do I overstate the need for God to engage us at every level of our being, or, conversely that we need to engage God at every level of our being? Doesn't Scripture say, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all" (John 6:63). This is the verse that the Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, used to support his position on the Lord's Supper at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529.

At this fateful meeting, the Protestant princes and theologians of Germany and their counterparts from Switzerland were assembled to bolster the Protestant movement and unify it in the face of the threat from the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Zwingli and the Swiss Reformed camp agreed on virtually all major points of doctrine with Luther and his followers. However, Luther and Zwingli quarreled bitterly on the question of the Lord's Supper.

Luther took quite literally Christ's words at the Last Supper, "This is my body. This is my blood." He was quite unwilling to budge on this point. He felt that the statement was just too strongly put in Scripture to spiritualize it away. He did not quite accept the Roman Catholic view either, but this was primarily because it was expressed in terms more associated with Aristotelian philosophy than the Bible.

Zwingli found Luther's view to be outright idolatry. He found repugnant the idea that God is present "in, with, and under" the physical elements of bread and wine. On this point, John Calvin would later agree with Zwingli, but his reason for rejecting the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist was thoroughly biblical. As for Zwingli, the basis of his reasoning was philosophical.

Calvin could not reconcile the idea of Jesus Christ the human being sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven while simultaneously being present on a thousand altars. He was worried about inadvertently endorsing the "Monophysite" heresy (which is the elimination of the distinction between Christ's humanity and divinity, namely that "the humanity of Christ is absorbed into his divinity just as a drop of rain is into the sea"), but he nevertheless still affirmed that Christ is spiritually present in the Sacrament and that it contains a divine blessing for believers and a curse for unbelievers.

Zwingli, on the other hand, could not reconcile Christ's physical presence in Communion with his Platonic understanding of the relationship between spirit and matter. For Zwingli, matter was inherently inferior to spirit and could not carry the weight of spiritual reality. As a result, Zwingli's interpretation of that great Eucharistic chapter, John 6, hinged upon verse 63: "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all." (I find it remarkable that a theologian who was as otherwise skilled as Zwingli was could fail to recognize that following his exegetical reasoning on the Lord's Supper to its most obvious conclusion would be to empty the Incarnation of any significance as well!)

At any rate, Luther thought Zwingli had performed a rational emptying of the Lord's Supper and thus uttered, "We are not of the same spirit." (Yay Luther! Even though these words were disastrous for Protestant prospects for church unity and I have some points of departure from Lutheran views of the Lord's Supper, I still have to admire Luther's stand for historic Christianity here.) It was at this point in history that we can mark the definitive split between the Reformed and the Lutherans. Though Calvin took a view of the Sacrament somewhat closer to Luther's view, he helped deepen the split between his followers and Luther's by signing a statement of agreement with Zwingli's followers in the Consensus Tigurinus of 1549. The Reformed have been trying to figure out whether they follow Calvin or Zwingli on the Lord's Supper ever since. (Can you guess which I follow on this doctrine?)

But what do we make of the essential biblical distinction between Spirit and flesh? Paul, for example, uses the dichotomy between Spirit and flesh repeatedly in his letters to mark a sharp distinction between the life of regenerate and unregenerate humanity. Those of the Spirit are rescued from sin and death, given everlasting life, and set on a trajectory toward glory, but those of the flesh are altogether ruined, wrecked, and doomed.

The Gnostics read their anti-materialist prejudices onto Paul's letters, inferring that spirit is inherently good and that matter is inherently evil. I do not mean to question Paul or the Holy Spirit for their mutual decision to use these terms, but it seems as if the distinction inherently smacks of Gnosticism or some species of Platonism.

Well, I think we can defend Paul's and also John's use of this dichotomy while affirming that there is nothing intrinsic to mere spirit or to mere flesh that makes one superior to the other. I want to note a couple of things.

  1. "Spirit" in the Pauline Epistles and in John 6:63 is, of course, the Holy Spirit.
  2. "Flesh," as used in the New Testament, often means sinful human nature. That is what is in play in most Pauline usage of the word. Neither does it refer exclusively to our bodies and their sinful nature but it includes our sinful minds, sinful hearts, and sinful spirits as well. This is all "flesh" for Paul.
  3. "Flesh" in John 6:63 is not synonymous with "sinful human nature" or bare materiality but with pure natural reason. The flesh here that is of no help is that of the human mind unenlightened by faith, not the flesh and blood that Christ bids us to eat and drink as our regular "spiritual" food earlier in the chapter. Christ's literal flesh and blood offered up for us at Calvary, and consequently signified for and delivered tangibly to us in the Eucharist (not by transformation but by the presence of the Holy Spirit in and with the bread and wine, according to my Reformed perspective), is everything in John 6. The flesh and blood Christ offered up for us at Calvary is the root of our Life as regenerated persons.

    (The best Protestant commentary I could find on John 6:63 is solid but contains a heresy. The Geneva Study Bible notes of this verse: "The flesh of Christ therefore quickens us, because he that is man is God: and this mystery is only comprehended by faith, which is the gift of God, found only in the elect."

    Good so far and still good on its lexical note on Spirit, except for the heresy it contains: "Spirit, that is, that power which flows from the Godhead causes the flesh of Christ (which is otherwise nothing but flesh) both to live in itself and to give life to us."

    That which is in parentheses is technically heretical because there is no humanity of Christ without the divine nature joined to it in hypostatic union. The ancient ecumenical Council of Chalcedon describes Christ as being "in two natures, inconfusedly,unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.")

    I digress; the point is that Christ's discourse on his flesh and blood in John 6 must be apprehended by faith, not according to human reason. Human reason finds it preposterous that Jesus can be both fully God and fully human and consequently a human sacrifice for us, but faith recognizes that these are the central realities of the Christian faith.
  4. The Spirit is eternal, but the flesh is temporary. This doesn't necessarily imply hierarchy of mere spirit over mere matter. The Spirit/flesh dichotomy is most appropriate for its inference about duration and influence. Flesh (matter) as we currently know it is perishable. Sinful flesh in particular is dying a slow death in the Church and in the individual Christian, but it will inevitably and completely die, though bare matter will not disappear because we will have perfect and incorruptible physical bodies in the Kingdom.

    The Spirit, on the other hand, which is God's agent (not to mention very God of very God) of cosmic and individual regeneration, is already powerful in the Church, the world, and in individual believers. The Spirit's influence is eternal and is only getting stronger in the Church, the world, and in individual believers. It will triumph over all when the Kingdom arrives in all its fullness.

Okay, here's how I'm going to bring this sprawling train wreck to an end. We fast during Lent, not because matter is bad, but because matter is good, inasmuch as it is a means of communion with God. We fast so we can bring our bodies and souls into subjection to the will of God and thus offer our whole selves as sacrifices to the one who sacrificed his whole self for us.

When we feast as the Church on the Lord's Supper, we are anticipating that time when matter is returned to the purpose for which it was created—to be a means of union between God and his creatures. The purpose of the Eucharist is thus, according to my friend Dustin Lyon, "the fundamental proclamation of the gospel where all creation is redeemed and the world becomes what it was meant to be: a means of communion with God and transparent to Him." That's why the Word of God, as embodied in Jesus himself, Scripture, and Sacrament, are central to Christian worship. Let us not feast on words alone but on the Word, flesh and Spirit, in all of his fullness.

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