Liturgical Sacrifice as a Way of Life

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, this church opens wide her doors and offers welcome to all who are spiritually weak and seek rest; to all who mourn and long for comfort; to all who struggle and desire victory; to all who sin and need the Savior; to all who are strangers and want fellowship; to all who hunger and thirst after righteousness; to all who are poor in spirit and desire the riches of the gospel; and to whomsoever will come to Jesus Christ in living faith and repentance, looking to him as Lord and Liberator.

What is the purpose of gathering together on the first day of each week for worship? If worship gathers up the gifts of the past week and gives thanks for them, if worship lays a foundation of grace for the week to come, what does that mean? How does it work? What are we supposed to be doing when we gather? More importantly, what is God doing when we gather?

 [In 2007, I wrote this essay for a compilation of articles on Reformational liturgy. The project was going to be edited by the late Gregg Strawbridge. Gregg had already edited books of essays on baptism and paedocommunion, so the book on liturgy would complete the trilogy. Alas, too many other contributors got sidetracked and the project never fully materialized. I was pleased with my essay and would be glad for it to get a wider reading. My aim was to survey the background to Reformed worship to demonstrate the surprising richness of our tradition and look ahead to how biblical theology could further improve and sharpen our worship practices going forward. The essay has been available on our website for along time, but I figure I'd put it on the blog as well.]

 

Around 2009, Trinity Presbyterian Church moved into a new worship facility in Cahaba Heights. We renovated the building, especially the worship space, and that included getting new liturgical furnishings. The blog post below is an email I sent out to the congregation on September 13, 2009 to introduce the congregation to our new communion table. We have since moved to a new building in Hoover but because we still use the same communion table, I thought some background information on it might be interesting for folks who have joined our church since its introduction.
 
I wanted to say a word or two about the new communion table/lectern we're using in the sanctuary. The table has been provided by the Weizenecker family and is the craftsmanship of Seth Weizenecker. It is a beautiful and well-built piece of furniture that should serve us well for years to come.
 
With the new building, we wanted a communion table that "fit" our space and our "arts and crafts" architectural style well. When I was on John's fifth grade class trip to Washington, DC last February, we toured the National Cathedral and I saw a trestle table in one of the chapels that I thought would work well for our new building. I passed on a picture and the basic concept to Seth and he went from there, vastly improving upon my initial suggestion. The result is what you see front and center on Sunday mornings.
 
Why a trestle table? Trestle tables started to be used for the Lord's Supper at the time of the Reformation. The early Protestants dismantled (and often destroyed) the large, ornate altar tables that had been in use in the medieval period as a way of marking their rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation and other aspects of medieval theology. Trestle tables were easy to assemble and disassemble, and in many instances several tables were set up after the sermon and before the the communion meal began so that everyone could eat the Lord's Supper sitting at a table.
 
At the time of the Reformation, trestle tables were common in ordinary households so they were readily available for church usage. (Incidentally, my family's kitchen table at home is a trestle table!) By bringing ordinary "family tables" into the liturgy, another Reformed doctrine was showcased, namely, the sanctity of ordinary life. Many medieval Christians had a dualistic theology: if you were really spiritual, you would leave family and work life behind, and enter a monastary. Family life was for "second class" Christians.
 
The Reformers became convinced that the active life of marriage, raising children, and working a regular job pleased God just as much as the contemplative life of the monastery. Martin Luther went so far as to suggest that monastic life could be turned into a self-serving quest for salvation, rather than living a life of sacrificial, self-giving service to family and neighbor in the community. The Reformers argued that we do not need to abandon or escape our earthly stations in order to serve God; rather, we serve God and neighbor by carrying out these ordinary vocations with excellence. (Incidentally, while still reserving a place for monastic life and orders, the Roman Catholic Church has come to embrace the original Protestant doctrine of vocation in the main. See Lee Hardy's fine work, The Fabric of This World for details on this wonderful ecumenical convergence.)
 
The Reformers began using household bread, household wine, and household tables in church in order to symbolize the truth that one does not need to leave the world in order enter the kingdom; rather, God's kingdom comes into the world to bring about its comprehensive renewal and transformation. Whereas the medievals used "special" bread and "special" tables in church, the Reformers used "common" bread and "common" tables, pointing out that Jesus and the Spirit make what is common holy and pleasing to God (1 Tim. 4:1-5). The kingdom of God is not a realm separate from this world, but precisely this world restored, transfigured, and glorified.
 
Why does the pastor now conduct the entire service (including the sermon) from the table? We believe that the Lord's Supper is the climax of the Lord's Service each Sunday. This is not because the sacrament is more important than the word; if anything, they are equally important and one cannot properly function without the other in the liturgy. Rather, the Supper is the climax because it is the supreme act of covenant renewal. In communion, we receive Christ and experience fellowship with him and with one another in an utterly unique way. In Acts 20, we find that when Christians gathered on the first day of week, they came together for the express purpose of breaking bread together (Acts 20:7). Sure, they heard a sermon too (and a very long one at that!) -- but the breaking of the bread was the culmination of the gathering. Luke's record is clear about the rationale for Sunday meetings: "Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread..."
 
Since we come together to break bread, it is fitting for the entire service to take place at the table. We are a family; families gather at tables. The whole service is leading up to what we do at the table. Even the Scripture readings and sermon are "table talk," to use Martin Luther's term. Luther viewed the pastor as a father figure, speaking to children gathered around the family table. I do not think that metaphor exhausts everything preaching is supposed to be, but it's a helpful angle on what's happening in the sermon and suggests that preaching from the table is perfectly appropriate. The bottom line is that by conducting worship from the table, we are better able to integrate the service (no movement from pulpit from table) and call attention to the familial aspect of the liturgical gathering. 
 
-------------------------
 
Here are snippets from a few church historians on the usage of trestle tables at the time of the Reformation:
During this period in English Church history stone altars were dismantled and removed from English churches and replaced with "honest boards" supported on trestles or "frames," or legs. The use of the term "altar" with its sacrificial associations was dropped and replaced by terms like "the Lord's table" or "the holy table." The table was placed in the knave of the church or at the steps of the chancel where the congregation could hear and see everything. The table was placed lengthwise and the minister stood at the north side or north end of the table. Standing in front of the table, facing the east, was too strongly associated with the doctrine of the sacrifice of the mass rejected by the English Reformers with the doctrine of transubstantiation.
---
The liturgical altar of the Roman mass gave way to the long communion tables of the Reformed rite flanked by benches upon which the communicants sat. At first, such tables were temporary structures, consisting of boards and trestles which were erected for the adminstration of the sacrament and were thereafter dismantled...(from Scottish Post-Reformation Church Furniture by George Hay)
---
The "communion table" is a table for the Lord's Supper, introduced by the Protestant Reformation as a substitute for an altar, and to mark their protest against the doctrine of transubstantiation inculcated in the Sacrifice of the Mass. At first, it was nothing more than a board set on trestles, and this was often taken apart and placed on one side when not in use; later it took the form of a domestic table.... (from A Dictionary of Architecture and Building by Russell Sturgis)