Pastoral Series

Worship Matters: Since 1869

   What’s on the table when we have Communion? Bread, the basic worldwide staple of life, not caviar or ostrich or a Waldorf salad. And wine – although we Methodists are the oddballs because where Jesus spoke of wine, we find grape juice. Pick up a Welch’s grape juice bottle: the label says “since 1869,” the date Thomas Welch, a dentist (and Methodist communion steward), due to his scruples about wine, concocted “unfermented sacramental wine” for his church. Frederick Buechner wryly claimed that grape juice is “bland, a ghastly symbol of the blood of Jesus Christ. Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one.”

We remember: some drink too much, or for vexing reasons; some simply cannot drink at all. How did this play out in Jesus’ day and the early Church? Biblical people drank wine; it was the norm of table fare. Vineyards and the production of wine were featured in some of Jesus’ best stories, and by the prophets describing our life with God (Luke 5:37, Matthew 20, Isaiah 5, John 2). Paul recommended wine for its medicinal value (1 Timothy 5:23).

And yet the Bible, pressing not for abstention but for moderation, warns of the perils of alcohol. “Wine is a mocker; strong drink is a brawler” (Proverbs 20:1). And how observant is Proverbs 23:31: “You who drink will be like one who lies down in the sea; you will see strange things, and utter perverse things.” Alcohol seems to be this lovely gift, yet one replete with peril. Can we, as part of our full-bodied worship in life, consecrate all our drinking, or our lack of drinking, to God in some meaningful way? Am I willing to engage in some probing diagnosis of why I buy, drink, or serve what I do? Is some regular practice of fasting from alcohol, just to prove I am not dependent, in order? Isn’t it a lovely irony that Jesus told us to drink wine – but then Alcoholics Anonymous, a non-church organization that meets in many churches and does church better than most churches, helps its members not to drink? God must chuckle over this.

Fasting, fully understood, teaches us what we need to know about the Lord’s Supper, and all our eating. Given the wonder of eating and its inherent goodness, the fast sharpens our appetite and appreciation for the gifts we might otherwise take for granted. Nothing is more alien to our culture than fasting, since we are addicted to the satisfaction of desire. When we feed every whim, and never let ourselves struggle with hunger for food or other things, then our deeper desire for God comes to be masked over, desensitized. I need to fast to remind myself that my deep quest is not for mere food or items in the mall. I blunt those desires to whet my appetite for God. When hunger gnaws, I discover how hollow I am inside, how superficial I can be. And of course, we learn a solidarity with the needy, who by no choice of their own are denied simple pleasures and satisfactions. Am I anxious because I am missing lunch, or chocolate? What about those who won’t have lunch or dinner today, or tomorrow?

Worship matters… and we’ll have one more installment on the Lord’s Supper on Thursday.

See All Pastoral Series