Afriend once waxed poetic about the peace he experienced when receiving the communion wafer in the Catholic mass. Since I had been reared on a diet of just-a-symbol cracker breads and grape juice cuplets, I didn’t get it.
“What do you mean?” I asked incredulously. “It doesn’t do anything.”
I’ve come a long way in deepening my appreciation for the power of the Lord’s Supper, but I probably wouldn’t have been alone in my doubts.
For the most part, our evangelical and Anabaptist movement long ago lost sight of the notion that communion — and worship generally — effects anything greater than whatever uplift or experience or learning we might take away from it. In the Reformers’ historic angst over the sacrificial language of the Roman Church, worship became — subtly and shiftily — all about us. It doesn’t do anything.
Yet, for the writer of Hebrews, worship most surely does something: not least guiding human beings in an approach to God. Hebrews 12 is about approaching God: in history, in the Scriptures, but also in worship. It’s likely that the flow of the chapter mirrors the believer’s approach to the Lord’s table. This approach is depicted as scaling Mount Zion to meet Jesus, the “mediator of a new covenant” and is contrasted with the Israelites’ fearful approach to God on Mount Sinai.
When God gave the covenant on Sinai through Moses, there was fear and trembling, the terrible voice of God and darkness and gloom and storm. In Christian worship, we approach God as ancient Israel did, but for us it’s a journey to a second mountain: joyful Zion, thick with festal angels, the dwelling place of the living God (Heb. 12:22; on angels present in worship, see 1 Cor. 11:10 and Revelation 1 and 2).
In the Old Testament, Zion is a mountain but also the holy city of God. It’s Jerusalem — yet more than Jerusalem — a vision of God present among God’s people (Psalm 128:5; Zech. 8:3).
In Hebrews 12, Zion symbolically represents God’s people gathered into one by God’s Holy Spirit (see also Rev. 14:1-5). On Zion, the voice of God assembles his people. On Zion, the blood of Jesus mediates a new covenant. On Zion, grace subsumes fear as Jesus’ blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24). We come to God in worship and give him thanks, offering up our praise in “reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28).
Nowhere is our thanksgiving reverence and awe more vital than at the Lord’s table. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we celebrate and enter into what Jesus named “the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). The bread and cup re-present God’s covenant with us, a covenant forged in Jesus’ sacrificial self-offering on the cross.
Just as God offers himself for us, so too we make an offering of ourselves to God. This offering is grounded in worship — especially the Lord’s table. It’s in worship that we bring a “sacrifice of praise,” which in turn becomes our “living sacrifice” — a life of gratitude, love and service patterned on Jesus’ life (Heb. 13:15-16; Rom. 12:1; Phil. 2:17). This is our “acceptable worship” (Heb. 12:28).
A friend tells the story of how, in her younger years, she woke up one morning in a cold sweat and with a puzzling desire to change her life. Among other things, she found herself drawn to attend church. She describes her surprise at the cumulative effect of regularly receiving communion. “This is healing me!” she realized. “It’s healing me from the inside out!”
Not long afterward, she married her boyfriend, whom she was living with. Her life was transformed to become something of an offering to God, not least by her launching a career in social work.
Maybe this is the most important thing worship does, the cosmic change worship catalyzes: Worship transforms our lives into an offering, effusive with Jesus’ presence and laden with his love. Our lives, which at times seem scaldingly mundane, become the stuff of sacrifice.
Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan. He blogs at doxologyproject.com. His book, God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church, was recently released by Herald Press.