One of the things that the Reformers wrestled back from the Catholic Church was how to do church! From complexity to simplicity, from pomposity to humility, from monotone to multi-coloured, from virtual blindness and deafness to 3D vision with surround sound. The Sacraments took centre stage in the raging debates of the 16th century from Martin Luther onwards! While the Reformation rightly challenged, and in a sense judged, the imagination-free zone of the entrenched Catholic cultures of Europe, the Bible was reigniting a God-imaged imagination that had, by-and-large been lost to the masses, kept and guarded (and forgotten) by pope and priest.
But the Reformation was no pre-planned mission in the minds of a few biblical literates! It was a chaotic outpouring of spiritual energy, and this chaos inevitably led to much theological wrangling, disputes, violence and the like. None more so than over communion, or the eucharist (to use the Anglicised Greek word). What does happen at communion? Was Catholic doctrine right? What was the relationship between bread and priest, priest and people, people and bread? How did it relate to their genuine spiritual vitality? Was this really the body and blood of Jesus? After all, it was Jesus himself that declared, “This is my body….” This enigmatic, sombre and profoundly spiritual act had been monopolised by the Catholic Church for centuries. Magic was added to mystery, and soon the magic was all that could be seen. The spectacle super-ceded the spiritual. The magic replaced the mystery in the meal. It was a right old pickle. A pickle of biblical proportions.
One thing(!) the Reformation did was to force people to think. To actually work hard at what and why they did and said the things they did. This is most profoundly seen in the Reformation insistence that individuals interpret the Bible for themselves, within the community of believers, but they interpret God’s Word as they in turn discover that God’s Word interprets them. The priesthood of all believers, that great Baptist and Anabaptist ideal, had finally resurfaced after a thousand years in chains.
Swiss Anabaptist leader, Balthasar Hubmaier was at the forefront of setting free God’s Word from the tyranny of centralised control and unbiblical doctrinal assertions that shored up the power base of the ruling elite, an elite who were meant to be following Jesus, the Suffering Servant. It is no accident that at the inauguration of the most historically controversial doctrine (communion), Jesus is not only at a meal with his pals, but washes their feet. By the 16th century, the mass of Catholic Europe were living hand to mouth and dressed in dirty rags with no one to wash them, whilst the priests and popes lived in palaces, served by slaves. It was surely a comedic farce worthy of Monty Python.
From the start, Anabaptist worship was informal and spontaneous, and yet, just before he was executed, Hubmaier wrote ‘A Form for the Supper of Christ’. This was an appeal to the gathered Anabaptist church to pause and consider very carefully what they were doing when they broke bread and drank wine. The congregation were encouraged to stand together and commit themselves once again, afresh, to God and each other. It is a thoughtful reminder of the commandment to love God and love neighbour. It is Christ centred, which inevitably means it involves the whole of ones life; it is discipleship.
Below is what the early discipling Anabaptist community were saying before God and each other:
“Brothers and sisters, if you will love God before, in, and above all things, in the power of his holy and living Word, serve him alone, honour and adore him and henceforth sanctify his name, subject your carnal and sinful will to his divine will which he has worked in you by his living Word, in life and death, then let each say individually: ‘I will’.
If you will love your neighbour and serve him with deeds of brotherly love, lay down and shed for him your blood, be obedient to father, mother and all authorities according to the will of God, and this in the power of the Lord Jesus Christ, who laid down his flesh and blood for us, then let each say individually: ‘I will’.
If you will practise fraternal admonition toward your brothers and sisters, make peace and unity among them, and reconcile yourselves with all those whom you have offended, abandon all envy, hate, and evil will toward everyone, willingly cease all action and behaviour which causes harm, disadvantage or offence to your neighbour; if you will also love your enemies and do good to them, and exclude according to the Rule of Christ all those who refuse to do so, then let each say individually: ‘I will’.
If you desire publicly to confirm before the church this pledge of love which you have now made, through the Lord’s Supper of Christ, by eating bread and drinking wine, and to testify to it in the power of the living memorial of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ our Lord, then let each say individually: ‘I desire it in the power of God’.
So eat and drink with one another in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. May God himself accord to all of us the power and the strength that we may worthily carry it out and bring it to its saving conclusion according to his divine will. May the Lord impart his grace. Amen.”
If you lead God’s people in any capacity, use this covenant, this pledge, this reminder! Remember from whence it came. Remind your sheep that we do not take these holy things of God lightly. We take them with utmost sobriety, and it is because we deal with these most holy things, we can laugh; laugh from the depths of your soul, a laughter that shakes hell and wakes the dead; a holy laughter, because these things are so serious that our laughter is acceptance of the almighty gift of love and grace that God has bestowed upon us, undeserving as we are; and it is precisely because of this, that our laughter is a form of prayer and praise in the sheer beauty of God’s provision in simple things like bread and wine, for simple people like you and me. Laughter befits all tables of feasting, and the communion table should be pre-eminent among them!