I don’t understand atonement.
Yes, I probably think too hard, too seriously, some would say, about such things. But, really, shouldn’t we? These are not light matters. They warrant careful pondering–deliberate consideration. And, I suppose, it is also just my nature.
When I was young, I yearned deeply for atonement for the wrong things I had done. Some were silly; in hindsight, hardly “worth” pestering God about–pinching my sister; going out of my way to smash lightning bugs with baseball bats, hiding my green beans under the cushions of our kitchen table. My guilty conscience was intact, and I gave it plenty of material.
But, some were grievous–and I felt a heavy sense of wanting to do something to atone for them. To make them right; to gain God’s approval and forgiveness. I remember night after night, kneeling on the concrete floor of my basement bedroom, reading Bible verses and praying, adding a minute and a Bible verse each night to try to accumulate enough “points” to gain God’s forgiveness and answer to my prayers. What I wanted was atonement; what I got was sore knees and a devastated soul.
Those years morphed into subsequent years of flippant disregard for the things of God. And, not just passive disregard, but active, rebellious disregard. He couldn’t possibly be real; scripture couldn’t possibly be truth. And I was going to prove it.
By God’s mercy and grace, He did not allow me to stay in that place. 2 Corinthians 5:17 became a reality for me: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Indeed. The old is gone, the new has come.
Except, I still catch glimpses of the old. Except, I still have to fight the old. I don’t know why God doesn’t just take away all sin, all pride, all of the “old” that we as Christ-followers were, and make us into creatures that do not have to battle sin, or battle old ways of thinking. Maybe He doesn’t do that, in order that we will always be aware of our need for His forgiveness, His Mercy, His grace. Maybe it is His grace to us, to remind us that we are not god, and only He is. I don’t know.
What I do know is that I still, so often, fall into the sin of wanting to work for my atonement. To earn it. To pray enough prayer, read enough scripture, spend enough time on my knees, be forgiven enough, that I get that “medal”; that Girl Scout badge.
Today was Lord’s Supper.
I’ve not participated in Lord’s Supper for about a year now. And, this morning, in a last-minute split decision, I drank of the cup and ate of the bread.
After years of flippancy toward the things of God, I now take those same things incredibly seriously, including the Lord’s Supper. Communion is no longer just another Sunday to me, where we get a couple of swallows of grape juice and eat a stale, small Tic-tac-sized piece of bread, and where, as a child, I’d get frustrated and anxious because it meant we had to hang around the church later in order to wash all those little cups (no disposable cups back then, I can still hear them clinking around in the dishwater). Hanging around the church was not what I wanted to do.
No, communion is much, much more.
First, and foremost, it is a stone of remembrance. A marker, that points to the sacrifice of Jesus for my many sins. It points to the breaking of His body and the pouring out of His blood, for my forgiveness. For that reason, alone, it should not be “just another Sunday.”
Secondly, it is done in community. In fellowship with other believers. It is an individual act or remembering, done as a corporate act of communion. We commune with God, and with each other, when we lift that small plastic cups to our lips.
Somewhere alone the way, in life, I was taught that the Lord’s Supper should not be taken, if your soul was not in a “worthy state” (this terrified me as a kid), or if communion with fellow believers–brothers and sisters in Christ–was broken. I know this stems from the instructions from Paul in 1st Corinthians 11:27-30:
27 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.28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
…and possibly from these verses, also in Chapter 11:
But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.
I don’t know that this is where this teaching stems from or not, in regards to our relationships to other believers and partaking in communion; there is certainly much more instruction after these verses; but, regardless, the teaching does make sense. We do not sit in our living rooms by ourselves, and break bread alone for communion. We do so with others who believe. We do so as family. And, maybe, when those relationships are in disarray; when they are severed, maybe we shouldn’t partake.
This is where I have been, over the past 12 months or so, as a result of my sin, only. As a result of my stupidity solely.
And “atonement” has not come. And, forgiveness will not come, not in this situation. Friendship, love, communion–it is broken, abandoned. As, maybe it should be. As, definitely, I deserve.
I am fully aware of my unworthiness to partake in the Lord’s Supper, based on this broken fellowship/broken communion, done at my hands, alone. My sin. And, it is a terribly weighty thing. I do not take it lightly.
However, far more crushing, is the fact that I am unworthy to partake of Lord’s Supper for the many times I have broken fellowship with God, through my sins. The times I have mocked Him. The times I have been disobedient. The times I have been rebellious. The times I have been prideful.
So, what about that first marker stone of Lord’s Supper? The “Do This in Remembrance of Me” piece–the recognition of the work of the cross? Will I never be in a worthy enough state to be able to pass that silver tray, and choke back that crumb of a cracker and warm juice and utter “Thank you God?”
Our pastor shared a quote this morning, from J.C. Ryle. I know the name, I’ve seen books by him (maybe commentaries), but other than that, I know nothing of the guy. But this dead (I’m assuming he is dead. Hmm, I should probably check that) guy’s words about Lord’s Supper clicked somewhere in my brain and soul:
A sense of our own utter unworthiness is the best worthiness that we can bring to the Lord’s Table. A deep feeling of our own entire indebtedness to Christ for all we have and hope for, is the best feeling we can bring with us. The very thought that we feel literally worthy, is a symptom of secret self-righteousness, and proves us unfit for the Lord’s Table in God’s sight. Sinners we are when we first come to the throne of grace and sinners we will be till we die; converted, changed, renewed, sanctified, but sinners still (though not like before since sin is not the pattern of a believer’s new life). In short, no person is really worthy to receive the Lord’s Supper who does not deeply feel that he is a miserable sinner.
I will never be worthy of the bread and wine. Never.
But, more accurately, I will never be worthy of the sacrifice of Christ, on the cross. I will never be worthy of the debt paid on my behalf. I will never be worthy of forgiveness for my sins.
And, my utter unworthiness is all I can bring to His table.
I am, a miserable sinner. And, you are as well. We all are.
And yet we come to the table, together, corporately as fellow Christ-followers, to partake in an individual act of remembrance of what was done to purchase our souls. We come “converted, changed, renewed, sanctified..” but “sinners still.”
I wish it were not that way. I wish I could work hard enough to gain the reward of God’s atonement; of His forgiveness, so that I would somehow feel “worthy”. That is pride, yes. A thousand times, it is pride. But it is also a deep awareness that there is nothing I can do, beyond confession and repentance, gratitude and obedience. I can not erase my sin. I can not erase the ugly of who I am. If we confess…He is faithful and just to forgive (1 John 1:9)….confessing is wretchedly difficult; but trusting is even harder. He is faithful—God, help us to see that, to see that you are faithful, to forgive.
So, at the last-minute this morning, as the deacon walked by my isolated spot in the balcony, I reached out a snatched a small cup, and joined the rest of the congregation, with a bit of shakiness. And a lot of wrecked-ness.
And, a bit of relief that, according to Ryle, it is ok to bring my sense of unworthiness and indebtedness to the table, because I deeply know that I am a miserable sinner, and am only given the gift of communion through His grace and mercy of the cross.
Take eat and be comforted
Drink and remember too
That this is my body and precious blood
Shed for you, shed for you
(In Remembrance Of Me ~ Ragan Courtney)