This post is based on a communion guide for lay leaders that I wrote in 2015.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. -Acts 2:42
I grew up in Baptist churches, so the Lord’s Supper was something we did every now and then. The idea was that by celebrating communion infrequently we made the act more special. Maybe it worked that way for some folks, but for me, it made the Supper an awkward intrusion into our normal worship. But hey, Jesus said we have to do it.
It was only when I went to seminary that I began to learn there was more to communion than what I had seen. I began learning about the early church as well as reading patristic theologians and I was stunned how much time they devoted to talking about communion. Then I learned that the Lord’s Supper was not something the early church did only a few times a year, but in nearly every service! It was a cornerstone of their worship. Their experience of worship was so vastly different from my own.
The Symbol of the Gospel
Precious gems are cut to have many facets. Each facet sparkles and shines but it does not contain the whole beauty of the stone. Rather, the stone’s true beauty is revealed as we examine each facet and how the light plays between them. The same is true of the Lord’s Supper. The many themes contained in the act of communion come together to reveal the greatness of the gospel – as a symbol of Christ’s death, we are essentially talking about the gospel when we talk about communion. The whole of what Christ has done for us can be seen in this one act. There are at least six theological themes that are bound up in the symbolism of the Supper: the memorial, thanksgiving, covenant, community, mission, and eschatology.
This is the old Baptist standard. It is also the most apparent on the face of things. We remember that Christ died for our sins. The bread is his body, broken for us. The cup represents his blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins. The death and resurrection of Jesus are the foundation of the Christian faith. In the same manner, the remembrance of the price that was paid for our redemption forms the basis for all of the other aspects of communion. Matt 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:13-20, and 1 Cor 11:23-26.
From the Greek term eucharistia (from whence the term eucharist is derived). We remember that we have been set free because of Christ’s death and resurrection. This theme is an immediate response to the revelation of Jesus’ sacrifice. We are thankful for the price that was paid. We rejoice in our restored relationship with the Father, through the Son. Where the memorial is reflective and sorrowful, thanksgiving is joyous and celebratory – we are redeemed! 1 Cor 5:7-8, 1 Cor 10:16-17, Col 3:15.
Christ has created for us a new covenant, a new relationship with God. We remember to whom we belong. Jesus tells us that the cup is “the cup of the new covenant.” The Law and its purpose are fulfilled in Christ. We no longer need the sacrificial system and its accouterments because Jesus has made the perfect sacrifice once and for all. In him we are restored to relationship with the Father. We are also clothed by the Spirit in the righteousness of Christ. We are new creations, co-heirs with Jesus and children of the Most High. As we come to the table we have the opportunity to commune with God in a tangible and intimate way. Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25.
Christ has made us members of his body. We remember who we are. The Didache, an early Christian text from around AD 100, states in an example communion prayer, “Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom.” While not Scripture, it is illustrative of the truth of Scripture and its expression in the symbols of the Supper. Bread isn’t made from a single grain of wheat but from many grains, made into flour and combined with leaven and water. The same is true of us. God has taken disparate people from every tribe and tongue and given us the Spirit to make us into one body, the Church. None of us are saved alone, but together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Acts 2:42, 1 Cor 10:16-17, 1 Cor 12:27, Eph 3:6.
We are the hands and feet of Christ. We remember that he had given us a job to do. Augustine of Hippo spoke to new believers about the Supper saying, “Be what you see, receive what you are.” He was talking about how the body of Christ is made up of individuals, but his words point to an additional reality. Christ sacrificed his body and blood that mankind might be saved. As members of his body, we also have a role to play – giving our lives as holy sacrifices. We are to be broken and poured out for a lost and dying world, just as Jesus was. Rom 12:1-8.
We celebrate his death until he comes again. We remember that he will return. The Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the wedding supper of the Lamb. One day, we will feast with Jesus in a new heaven and earth, but until that time he has given us permission to come to his table and dine with him. Just because he is unseen, his presence is no less real for it is he who presides over the celebration. But one day we will see him face to face! Matt 26:29, Luke 22:16, 1 Cor 11:26.
As a closing thought, the word remember is closely tied to the Supper. Jesus commands that we “do this in remembrance of me.” In contemporary culture, remember often carries the meaning of something we don’t forget. I would suggest, however, that the remembrance we are called to do is not a passive thing. Rather, we are to actively enter into the work of Christ as we recall his passion.
So, why did the early church celebrate communion so often? I think it was because the Supper functions as a recapitulation of everything that God has done for us in Christ. In this one act we can experience, in symbolic form, the fullness of the Gospel, from the Old Testament precursors to the eschatological realization of the promises of Jesus. But these things are not necessarily readily apparent. They must be highlighted and explained as we gather around the table. When we look at the Lord’s Supper in this light, it is by more frequent celebration that the act’s deeper significance is brought out and communion is made more special. The power of the Lord’s Supper does not come from the symbols of bread and wine but from the presence of Christ made manifest by the Holy Spirit. As we come to his table, he meets us there to nourish our souls as we feed on the truth of the Gospel.
 The Didache, Chapter 9, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0714.htm.
 Augustine, On the Nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, sermon 272, http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/augustine_sermon_272_eucharist.htm.
Christian music has its beginnings in the music of Israel, most especially the psalms. From the early church through the Reformation, the psalter formed the cornerstone of musical worship. Sure there were other kinds of musical texts sung as well, but the psalms were ever present. All of the reformers sought to bring the psalms back to the people and they looked for ways to involve the congregation in singing. The psalter has a big part of the soundtrack of historical Christianity.
Beginning in the 1700’s, the psalter began to give way to the hymnal, as writers like Isaac Watts began to compose psalm paraphrases and hymns that were not based on the psalms. Today, most evangelical churches do not use the psalms as part of their worship. Instead, the psalms are seen as a resource for contemporary songwriters to use in the creation of new songs. Only a handful groups, mainly Reformed churches and those with denominationally established liturgies, continue to use the psalms as part of their regular worship.
In May of 2016, my church began a sermon series on the book of Psalms. Our sermon series tend to be long, multi-year events so I knew going into it that with a 150 chapter book, we were essentially climbing Everest. After the first week, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were missing out. It was nice to be examining the psalms in a closer way, but it felt strange to be studying what are in effect song lyrics without listening to the music. So I began looking for ways to promote corporate psalm singing.
Did someone just say, "Wait, why would you do sing the psalms as a congregation?" I'm glad you asked. Aside from the fact that we are exhorted to sing the psalms (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16), the psalms have several benefits. First, they are Scripture, and are useful for teaching and whole host of other stuff. Singing a text is one way to help remember it. Moreover, the psalms present, in abridged form, the whole Old Testament story - that's why the Gideons include it with their little pocket New Testaments. But that's not all! A number of the psalms are messianic and point to first and even second coming of Christ. But my favorite reason to sing the psalms, by far, is that the psalms say things that we feel as human beings but would be hesitant to express in prayer, let alone in song. God gave us the book of Psalms with all of its varied expressions to be used (sung), not simply cherished.
There are a ridiculous number of ways to sing the psalms, but the three biggest ways are plainsong, Anglican chant, and metrical psalms (Russ Stutler has a great article outlining these three and many more). Of the three, the one I enjoy the most is plainsong. The melodies are beautifully haunting and rich with historical connections. Plus, any version of the psalms can be used. If you like the majesty of the KJV, no problem. The literal approach of the NASB, it works. The gritty imagery of the Message, not an issue. There was just one problem. I lead a contemporary service at a Baptist church. Breaking out the “monk songs” is a non-starter. Likewise with Anglican chant. The one avenue that offered possibilities was metrical psalms.
Metrical psalms are translations of the psalms set to poetic meter. These were huge during the Reformation and were the preferred method of singing the psalms for most Protestants. Here’s how it works. By counting the number of syllables in a line of the text, we can match it to a tune that has the same number of notes in a line, i.e. has the same meter. If you look in hymnal, you’ll find somewhere on the page a string of numbers or letters that signify the meter of the tune/text. They look like 18.104.22.168 or CM (Common Meter – 22.214.171.124). So, for example, “Amazing Grace” is in Common Meter (126.96.36.199). Since the theme from the TV show Gilligan’s Island has the same meter we can sing the words of “Amazing Grace” to it. If you’ve never done it before, you should try. I’ll wait.
Because of their stricter adherence to poetic rules, hymns are great candidates for this kind of musical mixing and matching and a number of old hymn tunes actually began as psalm tunes. But as a contemporary service, we don’t do a great number of hymns. We do have a dozen or so that we sing – though in a modernized form. Songs like Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” and Hillsong’s “Cornerstone” fit into this category, but they are a minority in our musical vocabulary. What most of the people in my congregation know are the songs that come on the Christian radio station. For the idea to work, I had to do some counting. I started with just a handful of songs and began working out the meter for the verses, choruses, and bridges.
Metrical psalms pose an additional problem beyond their association with tradition hymns. Most of them are well over a hundred years old and are filled with antiquated language. Not all of them, but most. Thanks to an internet search, I was able to find the Seedbed Psalter, a good modern language version of metrical psalms, as well as online versions of some other modern versions and the older texts.
Thus armed, I started a trial period, crafting one congregational psalm a week for five weeks. I made sure to pick tunes that the congregation would easily recognize. The psalms we sang were the same as the sermon text for the day. After the five week period we took a break for several weeks and asked the people to give feedback on what they thought of singing the psalms. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We have been singing the psalms for about ten months now. I’m still amazed to watch people singing a psalm that they’ve never sung before as if it was a song they’ve known for years.
In recent years, more and more resources have become available to help churches sing the psalms. Some, like the Seedbed website, seek to use traditional hymnody as an avenue to encourage the practice. Others have written completely new songs to match the sacred texts (Shane and Shane are a good example). For my congregation, neither one of these avenues works as a viable worship practice, but by taking the best of both approaches, we have found a solution that works.
In the weeks and months ahead, I will be posting the metrical index of contemporary worship songs and recordings of some of the psalms we have sung in our service.
This is the third in a series of articles that looks at the impact the Trinity has on Christian worship. The material has been adapted from my doctoral thesis.
In the previous article of this series, we examined how the church brings glory to God simply by its existence, aka the church as worship. Turning from the church as worship to the church at worship, we must keep in mind that in both respects, worship is participation in the divine life of the Trinity. The former is concerned with temporal relationships taken up and renewed by the triune God, while the latter is concerned in particular with the divine/human relationship. Among Evangelicals, there exists a tendency to view the divine/human relationship in a direct way. Because the veil has been torn, we often think that humanity can simply come before God as his children. This statement is partly true, but it leaves out a crucial detail: there is only one true Child of God. Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, is the only human being who has a perfect relationship with the Father, and it is in and through Christ that the rest of humanity are accounted children of God. Moreover, all human experiences of God, with the exception of Jesus’ own experiences, are mediated, and the mediator is Christ.
Regarding the liturgical action of worship, the mediation of Christ rests at the heart of what we do. The Son is in a state of continual worship of the Father and as we enter into worship, the Son’s worship becomes our own, and our worship becomes his as he clothes us in his righteousness and presents us to the Father. Our own works of worship are not worthy of God, but, by the Spirit, our offerings are made acceptable through Christ in the sight of the Father. This pattern is a reversal of the normal action of the economic Trinity. Instead, we are drawn up by the Spirit through the Son into relationship with the Father.
The paradigm of mediated experience necessarily affects the manner in which the worship service should be understood and enacted. For one, worship is an interactive encounter with the God who is three in one. The idea that worship is what we do for God is false. Worship is what we do together with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we seek to bring glory to God. So, how should we approach worship if it is not wholly our own act? The answer is found in the reality of the triune God.
God is not a static monad, but a Trinity – a community of three persons each relating to the others in unique ways. As mentioned above, the pattern of worship within the Godhead found in Scripture is that of the Spirit glorifying the Son, the Son glorifying the Father, and the Father sharing his glory with the Son and the Spirit. Likewise in us, the Spirit calls us to worship and leads us to worship the Son. The Son, as High Priest, in turn, brings us before the Father that he might receive the ultimate glory. While revelation from God represents a downward movement from the Father through the Son in the Spirit, our response is an upward movement in the Spirit through the Son toward the Father. God calls us to himself, and we answer his call, yet both movements take place with the individual actions of the divine Persons.
This trinitarian understanding of revelation and response forms the basis for all that occurs in a worship service. Everything that happens in a service falls into one of these two categories. The call to worship, the reading of scripture, the preaching of the word, the retelling of the story at communion, and even the benediction are all types of revelation. They are intended to be words from God to his people. On the other hand, our prayers, the passing of the peace (aka the welcome, for us less liturgical types), the collection of the offering, coming to the table, and most of our songs are examples of response.
Let’s look at some specific instances. When we consider the reading of Scripture, here as in other divine actions, we see that the Father speaks through the Son in the power of the Spirit. In the reading of the Scriptures it is not the voice of the reader that is heard, but the voice of Christ. The words of Scripture are not merely of human composition but are the very words of God and when we read them aloud it is Christ who speaks through us. Likewise, in preaching the preacher is meant to be a conduit through which Christ might speak in the power of the Spirit. If we accept that the sermon is a joke and three points of application then we have missed the bigger picture. The most relevant preaching is that which sets our attention on the triune God in whose image and for whose pleasure we were created. Bookstores are stuffed with self-help books. What we need in the sermon is to hear the voice of Christ.
When it comes to our response to God’s self-unveiling prayer is the ultimate paradigm. Prayer at its most simple is communication with God. As such, prayer defines all of our actions in worship. But prayer is not simply something we can do on our own. The access available in prayer is the gift of God. In prayer we engage directly with the whole Trinity. We pray to the Father in Jesus’ name but that prayer is offered up in the power of the Spirit. Praying in Jesus’ name means that our access to the Father in prayer is mediated by Christ. But prayer is also offered in the Spirit, who leads us to Christ. Too often prayer in the Spirit is associated with glossolalia and intense emotional experiences, but the truth is that all prayer is offered in the Spirit, even the most humble mealtime blessing. It is the Spirit who empowers our prayer to God and directs us to Christ the Son. It is Christ the High Priest who brings our prayers before the Father as his own. This same pattern is at the heart of all of our Godward actions in worship.
The question will undoubtedly be asked as to the rightness of praying to Jesus or the Spirit. Though the question attempts to take seriously the norms of the economic Trinity it does seem to miss the wider point. The Son and the Spirit are not lesser beings than the Father. Each of them is in fact fully God and worthy of receiving worship, including prayer. The problem is not worshiping or praying to the Son or Spirit, but instead when we fixate on one Person to the detriment of the other two. The whole doctrine of the Trinity matters, not simply the economic Trinity.
The beating heart of worship is not music. Or preaching. Or even Jesus. No, the heart of worship is the one God who exists eternally as three Persons bound together in a relationship defined by perfect love. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we have a place in that divine relationship. We experience it as we are conformed by the Spirit to the likeness of Christ and the image of God is restored in us. We also experience it as we enter, in Christ by the power of the Spirit, into the ongoing worship within the Godhead. In these things we bring glory to God, and that is what worship is all about.
Cocksworth, Christopher. Holy, Holy, Holy: Worshiping the Triune God (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd Ltd, 1997).
Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004).
Parry, Robin A. Worshiping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012).
Thompson, John. Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Torrance, James B. Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996).
Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).
Ware, Bruce A. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005).
This is the second in a series of articles that looks at the impact the Trinity has on Christian worship. The material has been adapted from my doctoral thesis.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated that he dreamed that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color or their skin but by the content of their character.” Character is an interesting thing. One has it before any action is taken, but another cannot see it until it is displayed by action. Character is something intrinsic to the person. An individual’s character defines him. He is his character. It is the same with worship. It is easy to think of worship as something the church does; after all, worship is a verb. But there is another sense in which the church brings glory to God by its existence. The church is worship.
How can this be? Simply put, it is why humanity was created. Genesis 1:27 states that “God created man in his own image. . . male and female he created them.” God did not create an individual but a pair, a community of people. Even in the following chapter in Genesis where Adam is created first, the story highlights the fact that the individual was meant to live in community with his own kind (Gen 2:18). While creation in the image of God does confer all individuals with worth and natural rights, the image of God applies equally to the creation of the community and its most basic unit, the family. From the beginning, this original community included God, but the presence of sin has broken this fellowship. It is only through the work of Christ that true community, a community that embodies the image of God in relationship with God, can be reestablished. This restored community is the church.
The hallmark of the Christian community should be the same as that of the Divine community: love. God has many attributes, but love is only one that applies to God in himself. All of the other qualities we think of – goodness, holiness, mercy, etc. – are in relation to created beings but love his how the persons of the Trinity relate to each other. Likewise, love is meant to saturate the church. At the first, this love relationship is expressed between the church and the triune God because, as the adoptive children of God, Christians share in Christ’s filial relationship with the Father thus participating in the life of the Trinity. The reality of the life of the Trinity as the model for the Christian life means that the relationships expressed within the Trinity are as important as God’s character and his commands. We are to love others – both inside and outside the church. The trinitarian relationships of the church can be expressed in the same language as the relationships with the Godhead. Inside the church, we find three primary categories: unity and diversity, authority and submission, and mutual indwelling. Relationships outside the church can be expressed in terms of mission.
Unity and Diversity
Within the Trinity, there exists a unity of being/essence and a diversity of persons, as well as a unity of purpose within the whole and a diversity of action in the particular. In the same way, the church is one body made up of many local assemblies, or on the smaller scale, it is a local gathering comprised of many individuals and ministries. Christians do not share a single essence as the Trinity does, but rather a kinship, all being made sons of God and coheirs with Christ. All of the redeemed, being clothed in Christ, stand equal before God (Gal 3:28). Even so all Christians are not the same and reflect a wonderful diversity. As with the Trinity, so with humanity, there exists no conflict between the equality of all and diversity.
The key here is diversity as opposed to division. In the Spirit, believers are united in Christ but there exists a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, purposes, and gifts (1Cor 12:12-14). We are to honor and respect the differences among believers so long as those aspects are not contrary to God’s character or law. As sinful creatures, it is easy to distort the variety that God has ordained for good. On one hand, there is a tendency toward uniformity, which by necessity erases all distinctions, and on the other, is the desire to turn distinctions between individuals and groups into barriers of fellowship. The Apostle Paul addressed this very issue in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31 which leads directly into the famous love passage. The point is that the diversity of the body of Christ is a good thing when expressed in love, for it is love that leads to unity and from unity love leads to expressions of diversity. With the Trinity, contemplating the three leads back to the one which in turn leads back to the three – and so with the unity and diversity of the church.
Authority and Submission
Just as the unity and diversity of the triune God is a model for humanity, the same is true regarding issues of authority and submission. Within the Trinity, the Father is the source of authority. It is he who sends the Son and the Spirit. For some people, relating to God as Father is difficult because of their experiences with their own fathers. Unfortunately, this is the wrong way to look at the situation. The Father is the source of all fatherhood. In the same way that the image of God was scarred by sin, all human experiences of fatherhood have been likewise damaged. We must see beyond human experience to glimpse at the truth. The Father is the perfect father, and the Son is the perfect son. Their relationship is the paradigm for all relationships where authority and submission come into play.
The Father sends the Son, and the Son readily obeys. The Son also asks things of the Father, which the Father does, but it should be noted that the things the Son asks for are in concert with the Father’s will in sending the Son. The unseen animus here is love. It is out of love for the Son and a desire to glorify him that the Father sends the Son who obeys out of love for and a desire to glorify the Father because love exercises rightful authority and love also submits to rightful authority. Because these types of relationships exist within the Godhead, they also exist among his creatures. When we live in harmony with each other in rightly ordered relationships we brings glory to God.
At first glance, the idea of perichoresis among human beings seems absurd. The closest thing to it I can imagine is dissociative identity disorder in which a person exhibits multiple personalities. Without question, this is not what God intended for humanity and cannot be an expression of the image of God. The issue changes, in my opinion, as we reflect on the Divine image among groups, specifically the family and the church. Within these groups it is not uncommon for one person to act on behalf of the whole, bearing the consent and goodwill of the larger body, and using resources gathered by the community. In such cases, the actions of the one are recognized as actions of the whole. As Christians, we experience unity in Christ through the work of the Spirit who dwells within each believer. So it is not that we indwell each other, but the Spirit who abides in all believers who makes us into the image of God.
This union in Christ by the indwelling of the Spirit creates a new community where we are connected and dependent on each other to supply our needs. This interconnection and interdependence allows for the many to participate in the actions of one, or to put it another way, for the one to act in place of the many and the many to act for the one. Where one weeps, all weep. Where one rejoices, all rejoice together. This indwelling happens in various ways: through prayer, giving, and service. True, the type of indwelling that exists with the Father, Son, and Spirit does not exist within the created order, but what does exist within the church is a reflection of that perichoretic relationship.
Lastly, we see the church as worship by virtue of its efforts to fulfill its mission. Participating in the mission of the Trinity is not a mere imitation of the trinitarian paradigm – it is a participation in the life of the Godhead itself. At no point is the mission simply that of the believer. Rather the believer, through union with the Son by the Spirit, participates in the Son’s mission from the Father. There is a tendency, to think of the mission of the church as simply the evangelization of the nations. Though evangelism is certainly a part of the church’s mission, the reality is much broader. We are meant to be an eschatological community that provides a foretaste of the full restoration of creation and images the triune God to the wider world.
In its unity and diversity, authority and submission, mutual indwelling, and mission the church enters into the life of the Trinity. Furthermore, the church brings glory to God by reflecting the image of the Trinity in the community we were created to be. This worship is done primarily through relationships within the community of believers in Christ with the empowerment of the Spirit. It has nothing to do songs or sermons, buildings or budgets. It has everything to do with how we live our lives in communion with the triune God and with each other. These are the worshipers the Father seeks.
Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).
Ware, Bruce A. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005).
 This statement and some of what follows can equally be applied to the individual believer. I have refrained from making the case for the individual in the interest of keeping things simple and highlighting how the community of believers follows the pattern of the Trinity.
 It is not my intent to make light of anyone’s painful experiences, but we all must attempt to understand God as he has revealed himself, and not lean too heavily on our prior experience or preconceived notions.