Yesterday’s heresy often becomes today’s orthodoxy.
Isaac Watts, “Father of English Hymnody”
The introduction of hymns by Isaac Watts into worship was once thought scandalous. Today many would consider their neglect to be equally impious.
Culture, habit, and tradition color our understanding of religion more than we realize. We talk about “electing” elders, portray Daniel and his three friends as “teenagers,” and re-gender the Spirit into a unisex “it,” all in response to culture.
A similar thing is happening to the Lord’s Supper. Communal awareness is receding in preference for a time of inward reflection. Why?
On the secular side, psychology promotes introspection as a tool for “self-perfection.” On the religious side, mysticism encourages the individual search for “the God within.” Add to these influences the alienation of legalism and the loneliness of individualism and the stage is set for misguided, unhealthy self-absorption.
The transformation of the Lord’s Supper into a time of personal, rather than corporate consciousness is problematic in at least two ways: First, there’s the problem of practicing the wrong kind of introspection, centered on self, focused on guilt, perfected by technique.
Second, there’s the problem of being out of place. Self-examination to expose unacknowledged sin in the secret corners of life certainly has a place in the thoughts of Christians. But the Lord’s Supper is not the place. The kind of examination needed therein is not inward, but outward. The results are not private, but public and open for all to see– does the worshipper behave rightly or wrongly toward his or her fellow believers?
One of the great mysteries of scripture is why John omits the institution of the Lord’s Supper from his Gospel. Even more interesting is the event that takes its place in John 13:1-17– foot washing. Instead of breaking the bread and passing the cup, Jesus lays aside his outer garments, takes up a towel, and washes His disciples’ feet.
Foot washing has always been controversial. Should it be an act of worship alongside the Lord’s Supper as the Gospel of John seems to suggest? Jesus explains His intent so plainly and so directly, it’s hard to say “no.”
So maybe there’s a place for washing feet even in the life of churches that don’t usually practice it. When the Lord’s Supper is reinterpreted away from communal event into private devotions, its focus is misdirected– misdirected away from the gathered body of Christ and toward the individual self. When that happened in Corinth, Paul responded with instruction to steer the Corinthians back on track. The Gospel of John takes a different tact– a compelling example– an example that can’t be corrupted into a private thing– for people cannot easily ignore their brothers and sisters– cannot easily shut them out in favor of self absorption– while washing their fellow believers’ feet.
So when Christians lose sight of the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper, maybe it’s time to put away the communion plates and trays and get out the buckets and towels. If the intentional “ignoring” of fellow members in preference for preoccupation with self becomes a mark of proper piety, then maybe it’s time to dispense with bread and wine and bring out the soap and water.
Although we do not wash feet as an act of worship, we should not forget that water and towel are scriptural signs of community alongside the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine. As we participate in the Lord’s Supper, let’s recognize that Paul’s technique for “discerning the body” was to look outwardly on the gathered community and behave considerately toward it, not to look inwardly on the self and become preoccupied with its concerns.