Tripping over the Adverbs: A Eucharistic Meditation

About a year and a half ago, as part
of a significant shift in our mission
and forms of worship, my church
began to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on
a weekly basis–quite a change from the
long-standing practice of partaking
about eight times per year. Unsurprisingly,
this change produced no small
amount of discussion, excitement, and
angst within the congregation. While
the majority appears to have appreciated
this shift, or at least learned to
tolerate it, there remains a significant
minority who feel that such frequent
celebration of the Supper detracts from
its sacredness, making it less of a special
and meaningful practice.

My own experience couldn’t be more
different. By partaking of the bread and
wine on a weekly basis, I have found
myself experiencing in a more tangible
way the presence of Christ in community
with my sisters and brothers in faith. I
have found that the powerful rhythm of
the Eucharist is burrowing its way into
the cadences of my life. In short, through
frequent and regular sharing of the Supper,
I have more profoundly sensed Christ
in our congregation’s midst, and my own
faith has been strengthened. All the
while, however, I have also become more
acutely aware of a disturbing aspect of
the Lord’s Supper liturgy–namely, the
fearsome nature of the adverbs typically
used in the Eucharistic invitation.

In the Christian Reformed congregation
that I now attend, the form of the service
of the Lord’s Supper that we typically
use includes the following invitation:
“Congregation in the Lord Jesus Christ,
the Lord has prepared his table for all
who love him and trust in him alone for
their salvation. All who are truly sorry
for their sins, who sincerely believe in
the Lord Jesus as their Savior, and who
desire to live in obedience to him, are invited
to come with gladness to the table
of the Lord” (CRC Psalter Hymnal, 975).
Hearing this invitation week in and week
out, I have been struck by the weight of
its qualifiers: “truly sorry,” “sincerely believe,”
“trust in him alone” (yes, an adjective,
but a significant qualifier nonetheless).
Other forms of the liturgy in the
CRC even add an “earnestly” to the line
about desiring to live an obedient life,
and stringently warn the less-than-earnest
to “keep themselves from the holy
sacrament” (Psalter, 978).

True sorrow, sincere belief, earnest
desire for godliness. These are rather
daunting conditions of invitation–and
hefty assertions for the would-be participant
to make. Can I really claim to
be truly, genuinely, wholeheartedly sorry
for my sins, in such a way that my repentance
really means putting on a “new
mind” (metanoia)? Is my faith, my reliance on the triune God, really sincere,
such that I can honestly claim that I
trust in Jesus alone, rather than myself
or any other resources in this world, for
my salvation and well-being? Do I really
demonstrate an earnest and all-encompassing
desire to live righteously? Can I
in good conscience really answer these
questions affirmatively? I have increasingly
come to conclude that I cannot–not
if I am being honest about the fragility of
my faith and the persistence of my sinful
inclinations.

This Eucharistic experience is emblematic
of some of the most basic tensions
in the life of discipleship. To one
degree or another, there is usually a context
of doubt surrounding the convictions
of faith.
 
Our frightful double-mindedness, our
intrinsic hypocrisy, is the thorn of sin
in the flesh of Christian faith. And this
sin remains present, perhaps most
insidiously so, when we confess it.
 

Whether through contemplation
of the ongoing suffering of creation, especially
in its weakest and most vulnerable
members, or in reflection upon the long
tarrying of the Lord in the fulfillment
of the covenantal promises, or through
traumatic experiences of loss, or through
more-than-occasional experiences of
spiritual dryness, faith–my faith, at
least–remains shaded by doubt, circled
by incredulity, even stabbed by faithlessness.
There is faith, indeed, undergirded
by the energies of the Spirit, but
it often seems circumscribed by unbelief.
Like the father of the tormented child, we
cry: “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark
9:24).

Of course, this doubtful context of
our belief appears rather easily justified.
It can quite understandably be associated
with the conditions of our finitude or regarded
as merely an aspect of our human
weakness, thereby reducing any culpable
failure on our part. Such rationalizations,
however, are harder to come by when considering
the sin-riddled context of confession
and repentance. Honesty about our
confession and repentance requires us to
recognize that, some of the time at least,
there is a kind of sinful reserve held back
in our acknowledgment of our pride,
greed, sloth, lust, and the like. This may
be even more so with sins of omission,
which are easier for us to pass over in
silence. Thus, even when in the Eucharistic
event I confess sorrow over my selfish
attention to myself to the detriment
of others–my family, my neighbors, my
students, and not least of all, God–there
is undoubtedly some part of me that harbors
excuses for my behavior and even
anticipates my next commission of those
sins. Some part of my inner spiritual
psyche even craves and condones those
sins, while another part of me
genuinely expresses sorrow in
recognition of how my sinful
life alienates me from God, my
neighbors, and even my own
humanity. When we confess to
be “truly sorry” for our sinfully
complacent lack of attention to
the plight of the poor, there is
undoubtedly some part of us
that remains coldly unwilling
to compromise the pleasures of wealth
that prevent us from genuinely serving
the “least of these.”

What we are presented with here is
the frightful double-mindedness that afflicts
the Christian life. This is the intrinsic
hypocrisy of Christian faith wherein
we take detours onto our own paths while
professing (and even really striving) to
follow the way of Jesus. This is the thorn
of sin in the flesh of Christian faith. And
this sin remains present, perhaps most
insidiously so, when we confess it. It remains
present even in the Supper of the
Lord, when in the most intimate and
grace-laden presence of Christ and in solidarity
with our co-sojourners we confess
to be “truly sorry” and to “sincerely believe,”
while deep down recognizing that
we really do not. The Christian life, given
the paradox of sin and grace, resists the
simplicity of utter confidence and unconditional
penitence.

So what should be done about this
situation of spiritual dissonance? When
in my self-reflection during each week’s celebration of the Supper I begin to trip
over the adverbs of the invitation, should
I abstain from participation, knowing
that in good conscience I cannot fully affirm
the genuineness of my sorrow and
the whole-heartedness of my conviction?
Should I lobby for the revision of the Eucharistic
liturgy so that it better accommodates
the human situation of corruption
that infiltrates even this joyous event
of thanksgiving and communion with the
triune God?

While both of these options would undoubtedly
ease the tension of the Supper,
and the first of them may be occasionally
appropriate, both are too simplistic. Easing
the liturgical tension of the Supper
would come at the expense
of fidelity to the tension of
the gospel and of honesty
to the tension of the Christian
life. Rather than moderating
the expectations
of the invitation, or waiting
until we can confess
our sin so fully that we
can conscientiously judge
ourselves to have left it
fully behind, perhaps it
would be better to envision ourselves
as bringing our sin into the grace of the
Eucharist.

In the Lord’s Supper the church enjoys
the redemptive and consoling presence of
its Lord, and we do so always as sinners
in renewed need of forgiveness. The Eucharist
represents Christ’s acceptance of
us as we are–sinners whose faith often
wanes and whose repentance is so often
tinged by Augustine’s “but not yet.”
 
Rather than moderating the expectations
of the invitation, or waiting until we can
confess our sin so perfectly as to have
left it fully behind, perhaps it would be
better to envision ourselves as bringing
our sin into the grace of the Eucharist.
 

Since we are invited to the table as we
are, another note needs to be sounded
alongside the stringent adverbs in the
sacrament’s invitation. A Lord’s Supper
liturgy that I remember from my youth
in a different denomination aptly puts
it this way: “Come to this sacred table,
not because you must, but because you
may; come to testify not that you are
righteous, but that you sincerely [note
the daunting adverb] love our Lord Jesus
Christ, and desire to be his true
disciples; come not because you are
strong, but because you are weak; not
because you have any claim on the grace
of God, but because in your frailty and
sin you stand in constant need of his
mercy and help.”1

These lines suggest that the Eucharist
isn’t a gift merely for those whose
authentic confession momentarily places
them beyond sin, long enough that they
can participate in the Supper with a
wholly clean heart, but that this gracious
gift is for us as we really are, sinners
ever needful of grace. We can then
come to the table professing sincere belief
and true sorrow while still honestly
admitting the cracks in our sincerity
and the lingering falsehood of our sorrow.
We can come to the table rightly
troubled by our hypocrisy but not undone
by it, for we recognize that our
double-mindedness cannot be denied
but must be brought into the presence
of Christ–the only place where it can
be healed. It is there, beyond self-righteous
certitudes, in our ambivalence, in
the mess of our sin but borne up by an
even more powerful grace, that the Supper
nourishes us in faith and righteousness.
The adverbs, then, while they rightly
disturb us by forcing an acknowledgment
of the truth about ourselves, ultimately
represent not the place that we can attain
now, even in solemn confession, but rather
the place toward which the Spirit is bearing
us through Christ’s grace–the grace
that is extended to us most poignantly
and truly through that Supper where our
illusions about ourselves are shattered by
the Truth.

ENDNOTE

1 Evangelical Covenant Church, The Covenant
Book of Worship
(Covenant Press, 1981), 112. A
similar version of the invitation can be found
in The Worship Sourcebook (Faith Alive, 2004),
8.4.1.4.



Matthew Lundberg is assistant
professor in the Religion department
at Calvin College, Grand
Rapids, Michigan.