Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Encounter with Jesus

I am taking a basic communications course this quarter in seminary. The first speech I had to deliver was one on an encounter of mine with Jesus. Here is a first manuscript of the speech. I did not deliver it exactly like this, but it was substantially the same.

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Having attended Pentecostal churches my entire life, the notion of an experience with Jesus is hardly something foreign or strange to my ears. Countless Sunday mornings, the pastor would tell the congregation before his sermon, “I know that Christ is present here; we can all feel him here with us.” At the same time I am not sure I have particularly many experiences with Jesus of the sort that might impress my Pentecostal brethren; if I have, they don’t come to mind whenever I consider the question of experiences of Jesus. On the other hand, the shape that my understanding has been taking over the last year or two has begun to open me up to a different sort of experience with Jesus.

My time here at Fuller has been fascinating. I find my theological understanding to be developing and growing in ways that I might never have predicted before I began. Certainly a few years ago, while I was studying philosophy at Arizona State University, I would not have recognized myself as I am now, at least not in some important respects. One element of my understanding of God, Christ, and the church which has changed in recent times and which has become particularly important for me now concerns the nature of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper.

At my Pentecostal church, and throughout my youth, I had heard and believed that what we do on the first Sunday of every month when we take participate in the Lord’s Supper is that we are reminding ourselves of his death for us. It’s a memorial. He is not present in any way in the elements set out before us; the bread stays bread, and the wine—or rather, the grape juice—stays as it is. All the magic is happening in our minds, if it is happening at all, as we are reminded of what Christ did for us. Moreover, we do it once a month because to do it too often makes it rote and ordinary and banal; it becomes a dry and dead ritual, rather than the life-giving experience it can be.

That was my understanding for a long time, but in recent history my mind has been changed. Don’t misunderstand: I am not quite a Roman Catholic; I don’t affirm that the bread and the wine are completely transubstantiated, but I do affirm that Christ is, in some mysterious way, present in the elements of the Eucharist. Paul says in 1 Cor 11.27 that “Whoever . . . eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” And earlier he says that the cup and bread we share are fellowship in the blood and body of Christ (10.16). There is the bread and the wine, but there is also the body and blood of Christ which are given for us.

This change in my understanding has had at least the following effect on me: every Sunday becomes a real, tangible encounter with Jesus. I know that this is not the answer you were expecting me to give to the speech prompt, but it is one that fits me. Every Sunday in which we partake of the Lord’s Supper is, as I understand it, a Sunday in which Christ has presented himself to us. And this presentation is a powerful one.

In some respect, I think of this encounter with Jesus as a particularly powerful and impressive one, because it involves all the senses. When you see the bread broken at the Fraction, you are reminded that Christ’s body was broken and split open by the whips, the reed with which they him over the head, the nails that pierced his hands and legs. When you see the wine poured out, you are reminded of his blood which was shed, which left his body and found its way to the earth. When you take the bread or the wafer into your mouth and you grind it with your teeth, you are reminded of the vulnerability of Christ and the breaking of his body. And in swallowing you take it in, you internalize this.

There is something to be said for the experience of Christ’s speaking into your heart a message straight from him; I think there is something to be said for those experiences. But for me, what has become particularly important is the reminder of Christ’s grace that I get at the beginning of every week. I am reminded of the tragedy that my sin brought, that Christ the Son of God should have to die, but also of the celebration of his goodness, because he gladly gives himself for me that I may live. And he presents himself to me every week to remind me of this – this is my encounter with Jesus.