Eucharist

Come And See: The Eucharist Beyond Pre-packaging

Every now and then, I am blessed with an opportunity to assist my priest and ordained chanter with the Eucharist.  To critics of traditional forms of Christianity, especially those who decry against ritualism, I would only wish you could be in my shoes and experienced it for yourself.  Words can do no real justice to this the most important sacrament of Orthodox worship.

In the chalice was the bread, the body of Christ, floating in the wine, His blood.  A member of our congregation took the time to bake the loaf.  Before Matins (aka Orthros, the Morning Prayers), Fr. James carefully offered the chants and prayers that were handed down through the church for nearly 2,000 years as he cut and broke pieces of the loaf.  After adding the bread to the cup of wine, the Eucharist was blessed with the aroma and smoke of incense symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Preparing the Holy Gifts

At the high point of the Divine Liturgy, Fr. James comes though the royal doors with the chalice.  One of the sub-deacons and I hold the cloth under it as one by one, the saints come forward to partake of the body and blood of our Lord.  “Thy servant (thy hand maiden) comes to recieve thy precious body and blood” Fr. repeats for each member as we hold the cloth under their chins.  Some are elderly, others mere babes who had just been baptized.  All of us who are able had fasted through the morning that this meal was the first thing we tasted all day.  We all taste from the same cup knowing that we were one with our Lord and each other.  One by one, we all come to partake.

There are some things that one cannot get from the modern manifestation of a pre-packaged communion.  “Ain’t you afraid of getting someone else’s germs?”  I am more fearful of not taking in the life giving flesh and blood that Jesus offers to us.  Without it, we have no life.  Indeed, if we do believe this to be His body and blood, why should we fear “catching something” from someone else?  The same cup brings people together with one another and with the continued history of the church.  Germs and viruses only separate.  Members who know they are sick are wise enough not to partake.  Besides, the wine has alcohol in it, alcohol kills germs.

Does grape juice naturally have a one year shelf life?

There is no resurrection in a piece of unleavened bread.  Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover on the day before the great Jewish feast.  Thus, they would have used leavened bread as the unleavened variety would not have been available.  Leavened bread has risen as Christ Himself would and did rise from the grave.  There is no need to eat the lifeless leaven of the Pharisees and Herod.  Our Lord has conquered death by his death.

Nor is their any life in sealed grape juice.  Our Lord’s first miracle recorded by John was changing water into wine.  Does the use of the non-alcoholic make one better than those who use the substance recorded in the scriptures?  If so, are we better than the best winemaker recorded in the Gospels?  Is the minuscule amount of wine turn a person into a substance abuser?  The amount of the Eucharist given to a toddler is no more, and probably less, dangerous than the medications prescribed by physicians.

A baptized infant receiving the precious body and blood of our Lord

When done in sincerity, any form of Communion, Eucharist, of the Lord’s Supper, can be a truly reverent experience.  But there are things that cannot be contained in aluminium foil and cellophane.  Resurrection, life and unity with one another are what we offer from the sacred cup in an Orthodox Eucharist.  When taken in a sincere and repentant manner, we conclude worship with the fullness of the Holy Spirit.  Although only the Orthodox may partake of the body and blood, we do share the remaining holy bread after the service.  Come and see for yourself.

Advertisements

Transition: A New Metropolitan, Building, and Six Months In Orthodoxy

Not only have I made a major change from being Baptist to Orthodox.  Other major changes are under way now.  The change that affects all of us Antiochians is that of our new Metropolitan Joseph.  Metropolitan Philip (Memory Eternal) has left a tremendous legacy of church unification and expansion.  It is my prayer, and that of others, that our new Sayedna will let God lead him and use the gifts he has been granted with to lead our diocese for years to come.

His Eminence the Most Reverend Metropolitan Joseph

In speaking of transitions, St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church  is now located at 1520 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA 23666.  The building was a child care center located beside a Mormon Church and across the street from a United Methodist Church.  While I did get used to going to church in Poquoson, I think our new location will be better for evangelism and outreach as we are not far from the Mercury Blvd corridor.  Not to mention that I have two gift cards from Bass Pro Shops and there is a store less than 2 miles away!

The new building at 1520 Todds Lane

The new building at 1520 Todds Lane

Gutting and renovations will take time

Gutting and renovations will take time

We have a lot of work to do

We have a lot of work to do

Last Sunday, we held Divine Liturgy and a building sanctification in rather close quarters.  Over the coming days, weeks, and months; we will be taking out walls and putting in new ones.  A lot of mess will have to be gathered up and thrown away.  We are not hiring contractors (we don’t have that kind of money).  But, we are blessed to have people who are willing to work and have some brothers who actually know what they are doing.  As long as no one tries to put a paint brush in my hands, we will have a fine house of worship.  Compared to the churches around us, we will not look much like a religious building.  Perhaps we can put up one of those Russian style onion domes on top or something.

Fr. James with the holy water

Fr. James with the holy water

Our first Divine Liturgy in our Hampton home

Our first Divine Liturgy in our Hampton home

Six months into Orthodoxy, I feel at home here.  On the surface, it would seem strange that a black ex-Baptist country preacher would feel welcomed in a white church.  But, as I explained in previous articles, the Orthodox Church is a white church that is not.  It is rooted in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.  The worship is the same as it was in the 4th century and traces its teachings back to the Apostles.  At Antioch, two African church leaders were among those who ordained Paul to spread the Gospel to the Greeks and Romans.  I am a part of the Church that was for all people from the very beginning.  While racism is still a reality in America, it is time for us to end 11 o’clock Sunday morning as our most segregated hour.   Orthodoxy has its issues with ethnocentrism.  But, it is still the church where saints of all races and all times are embraced and welcomed.

Choir and chanters

Choir and chanters

Taking the Eucharist

Taking the Eucharist

The most unifying thing about us and makes us all a part of each other is the Eucharist.  We don’t have Communion one Sunday a month with individual cups filled with some liquid that is supposed to be grape juice sealed with some sort of wafer.  Communion is not an afterthought taken lightly at the end of a service.  We believe as Jesus, the apostles, and the scriptures taught that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ and that we eat of his flesh and drink of his blood each Lord’s Day.  We believe that the Eucharist must be taken to give life to our souls and that it is the high point of our worship.  We are to be one with Christ and one with each other.  Thus, we use one cup as we have one Savior.

Weekly Reflection: My New Home

And so it begins.  At 8:45 AM, I received Chrismation beside my sponsor, Seraphim Hamilton, by my priest, Fr. James Purdie.  Fr. James joked with my wife saying that she had better take her photos quickly as the ceremony is over in the blink of an eye.  And as it was.  I was sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit by being anointed with Chrism (a specially scented oil used for the newly baptized and converts).  Being anointed and reading the Nicene Creed, I was welcomed into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

It wasn’t a very emotional experience for me.  I was already on the path to conversion and pretty much considered myself a closet Orthodox Christian in the first place.  This pretty much confirmed what had already happened to me.  If anything, I was more joyful that my wife who rarely attended services at Trinity Baptist Church in my 17 years as pastor was at my side.  She may have been unsuccessful at taking photos with her camera.  But, she had the strength to be with me on this part of my spiritual journey.  That is what really made me happy.

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

During Matins, some of the other worshipers came in and whispered words of congratulations.  St. Basil was packed today and there was a guest deacon from St. Paul’s in Emmaus, PA where Fr. Andrew Damick is the pastor.  My wife, who is not really interested in converting any time soon, followed the Divine Liturgy better than I did when I first visited the church.  Taking the Holy Eucharist was moving to me as I took the bread and wine from the same cup as all of my fellow believers.  This was a common-union in act as well as word.  Immediately after receiving the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, I could not wait to give a piece of the blessed bread to the woman who has put up with the best and worst (and I gave her plenty of worst) of me.

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Then came the Theophany service and the blessing of the Holy Water.  This was a first for me.  The service was not as long as Pascha (Orthodox Easter … Pascha is Greek for Passover).  But, you could tell the little children were more than a bit restless.  There were a few snacks prepared for Coffee Hour (in some traditions, this is the “Agape Meal”).  But the best part of the repast was the conversation with Seraphim and Jeff Edens as we shared how we came to Orthodoxy.  We have Ethiopians, Russians, and a couple of other immigrants and first and second generation (“cradles”) at St. Basil.  But,  most of us are converts from either Catholicism or some form of Protestantism.  Me being the first African-American convert in the church means that I have an interesting story of how I came to the faith.  But, in the end, I think we all came to the Orthodox Church for the same reason.  We all wanted to experience the presence of God the same way the early Christians did.  Of all the denominations, we found this church to be the oldest and most authentic form of worship with a deep well spring of history,  spirituality, and wisdom.  We don’t hate our former denominations in any way, shape, or form.  In the end, God and God alone determines who enters His kingdom.  We believe Othodoxy offers a more complete and holistic path of self denial, carrying our crosses, and following Jesus Christ.  Nearly 2,000 years of the same doctrine seems a good path to follow.

I thank God for my wife and my new church home (in a most unlikely place).  St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church,  1022 Poquoson Avenue, Poquoson, Virginia  23662.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Eleven): Confession and Concerns

Okay, let me first begin with my confession.  With the knowledge of my spiritual father, I did break the fast to celebrate Easter with my family.  Since I am still a Baptist among a deeply Baptist family (my ancestors helped establish churches in King William and Mathews Counties), Father James didn’t have a problem with it as long as I didn’t overindulge.  I did okay for the main meal.  But, cheesecake is a downfall for me.  I hope next year the Gregorian and Julian calendars will be in sync for Easter/Pascha.  Even still, I have no excuse for eating desert with no discipline.  Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.

I am greatly concerned for Louisville player Kevin Ware.  I was watching the first half of the game with my Duke HATING relatives (I am the only Duke fan on either side of my family) and saw when his leg collapsed underneath of him as he was coming down from trying to block a shot.  Looking at the score, one would not know that the Cardinals was without a key player.  Congratulations to them on a very prideful win and may Mr. Ware make a full and swift recovery.

My greater concern is for the sake of a lost sense of spiritual devotion in the Baptist Church.  I remember when Deacon Joseph D. Gresham used to wake up early every first Sunday of the month and cut slices of white bread into little squares for communion.  He also had this bottle with a little bubble pump contraption that used to put the right amount of grape juice into the cups.  I didn’t know Deaconess Mariah Berkley.  But, I understand she used to make the communion wine (yes, it was real) for St. John’s Baptist.  Members could taste it when she used too much or too little sugar.  Years ago, the deacons and deconesses put care, detail, and love into preparing the Lord’s Supper.

While I can understand that with large congregations, the quest for convenience may be a necessity.  But, I can’t help but to wonder about those pre-filled and foil sealed communion cups with the plastic wrapped wafers on top.  What was once a task of loving responsibility has turned into a convenience industry.  What if our faith were to turn into such a communion?  Shall the cups of our faith be filled by cold machines, or by loving saints who are able to guide us along the way as we journey together in the Lord?  Can the bread of life be a tasteless and useless disc, or shall it be the full leavened bread that allows us to grow in His grace?  And if the care, detail, and love from the old days of preparing the Lord’s Supper are gone, how much more is the devotion of those who partake of and serve it?  “Oh John, you are just mad because Duke got their hind parts whipped and you are taking your frustrations out on the church that you are still a part of!  Get over it!”  Perhaps a plausible argument.  But, if given a choice between your mother’s made from scratch home cooked meals, or frozen dinners from the grocery store, which would you choose?  If given the choice of walking with the Lord with fellow devout seekers and a cloud of witnesses, or with the modern pre-fabrications that seek to make a profit, which would you choose?  If pre-packaged food is inferior to food cooked in love, how much more dangerous is pre-packaged faith?

St. Mary of Egypt taking her last Holy Communion

In whatever form of communion that is served in your church, please keep remembering the faith of the saints that have gone on before you who prepared, served, took the Lord’s Supper in reverence and love.   Elements may be pre-packaged from cold machinery.  But, true faith can never become plastic and foil.  Do not take these things in as pasteurized and preserved grape juice and a flavorless disc.  Do take in the bread from heaven and the wine that gives life to mankind. 

‘Take, eat, this is My body. …   This is My blood …’   (Mark 14:22, 24)

Today’s Sermon: Consuming Christ

“This is the bread which came down from heaven-not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead.  He who eats this bread will live forever.”

John 6:58

Let us be in prayer for all who live in the path of Hurricane Sandy.  Thanking God that the Tsunami didn’t greatly affect Alaska and Hawaii.  I wish I had spent a little more time (and money, if I had it) at the Newport News Greek Festival yesterday.  Spinakopida is sooooooo good!

Sts. Constantine * Hellen Greek Orthodox Church (© John Gresham)

CONSUMING CHRIST

John 6:53-58

(introduction)  Holy Communion is a practice that all Christians participate in.

(antithesis)  Oddly enough, there are different doctrines about this, even within our own Baptist denomination

(propositional statement) No matter our doctrine, Jesus calls all of us to consume him

(relevant question) Why is consuming Christ important to our faith?

(points [ v. 58])

  • consuming the things of this world cannot save our souls
  • consuming Christ allows us to abide in him and he in us
  • consuming Christ allows us to experience the fullness of salvation

(conclusion) We need no other sign of the divinity of Jesus except that he was, is, and is to come

Communion Confusion

“My Priest” has assigned me to read On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius and Of Water and Spirit by Fr. Alexander Schmemman.  I have also decided to revisit Baptist doctrine in light of Orthodoxy.  Sooner or later, I may reach the tipping point where I either remain where I am or convert.  As of right now, I am remaining a Baptist pastor (I am still a novice in studying Orthodoxy and I have an ill wife to provide for.  Thus, I will not make any hasty decisions about something as important as this).

My First Orthodox Cross (© John Gresham)

There are times when we Baptist are clear as mud.  Take for example, communion.  I have found three opposing doctrines about how we are to approach this ordinance (sacrament).  In the Philadelphia Baptist Confession of Faith of 1707 (Revival Literature 2007), I found these words:

Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly, by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, by spiritually receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of His death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, by spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, ans the elements themselves are to their outward senses.  (Of the Lord’s Supper, pg. 68)

Strangely enough, the well-regarded A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice (American Baptist Churches, Judson Press 1991) throws the 1701 confession out of the window:

It is not a sacred mystery in which some divine power is imparted by the very eating and drinking.  No attempt should be made to create an atmosphere of deep solemnity, which would invest this occasion with som dignity different from that of other worship services.  There should be quiet reverence in any meeting where a congregation gathers to worship the Lord, but no extra solemnity should characterize the Lord’s Supper.  (pg. 167)

Can the spiritual receiving of and feeding of Christ not be a sacred mystery?  And how is it that this day of worship not to be taken differently than other days as we only observe Communion Sunday once a month (or less)?  The National Baptist (in which I am a member of) used to include the Articles of Faith in our New National Baptist Hymnal where we find these words:

And to the Lord’s Supper, in which the members of the church, by the sacred use of bread and wine, are to commemorate together the dying love of Christ; preceded always by solemn self-examination. (article 14)

In other words; yes, it is a solemn event for us.  But, we still aren’t taking in anything special as it is just a commemoration.  We are somewhere between the manual and the 1707 confession.  With other Baptist bodies with their own doctrines and (thanks congregational rule combined with to “Soul Liberty” and Sola Scriptura) independent churches with the Baptist label, I am sure that my feeble review just scratches the surface of how many different explanations we have about Communion and how it should be practiced.

Maybe I am wrong.  But, I really don’t see the benefit of our denomination having a wide variety of interpretations of this significant practice of the Christian faith.  We frown up when our seminary trained pastors leave the Baptist Church and form their own independent ministries.  Yet, it was our Lord and Savior who told his opponents that a house divided against its self cannot stand.  It is my prayer that, at least, officials of the major Baptist conventions will get together and hammer out a more universal doctrine on Communion that we can set as the standard.  But, I fear that herding cats in a thunderstorm may be an easier and more likely task.