“Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God, broken yet not divided, ever eaten yet never consumed, but sanctifying those who partake thereof”-Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
Some say that you never know what you have until it’s gone. From my personal experience, I know what I have in terms of the liturgy because it was gone for so much of my life. I grew up in a family of two religions which were never really practiced (Protestantism and Islam), and as such I had no sense of what I should believe about God. When I met some devout Evangelical Christians, I heard the stories of Christ and salvation which brought me a sense of coherence and meaning to life on earth and into the great beyond. Nevertheless, there were many strong moments of cognitive dissonance which left me feeling incomplete. While being taught that the sacrifice of Christ was so complete that my own contribution to salvation did not exist, I began to hear that message as incomplete with regard to my own existence living out my faith, and with regard to the testimony of Scripture. By thinking about a faith that lacked liturgy, I realized the importance of why we have the liturgy even prior to celebrating it.
Being an argumentative person, after professing my faith in Christ in an Evangelical context, I set out to write an apologia pro vita sua. Defending the simplicity of faith in Christ alone, I wrote an attack on praying the Lord’s Prayer. Seeing tradition as the antithesis of sincere faith, praying anything not queued by conscience alone was considered contrived and inauthentic. The whole Catholic/Orthodox schema of uniting one’s self to something greater than one’s self through the liturgy in particular seemed inimical to the practice of doing something because it was what I wanted to do, as well as being in contrast to the finished work of Christ. The idea that sacrificing one’s self to God seemed to displace Christ from the supremacy of His own sacrifice on the Cross. As such, the start of my life of believing in God included much that was more about denying certain practices, as opposed to embracing a faith life tradition.
This tension between Evangelical Christianity and Apostolic Christianity comes to a headway when we reflect upon the prayer quoted at the start of this essay, which comes from the Divine Liturgy as the Priest divides the Eucharistic lamb into four pieces. What we see is that liturgically there is an appreciation of the paradox of Eucharistic life. God is seen as one who is broken and yet not divided, ever eaten yet never consumed. The limitlessness of the divine is juxtaposed with the limit-bound mortal reality where we need to be further sanctified is undeniable when we consider human experience. However, what is denied by Evangelical Christianity is the idea that our limitations are connected to our salvation. By exalting the salvation of our God, Evangelicalism places us in a world where we are afraid to see God as ever eaten. More strikingly, we are afraid to see ourselves as in need of being constantly sanctified by ever partaking the Body of Christ. How is this the case?
First, the notion of the “finished work of Christ” hinges upon an idea that we are not saved as a process. Salvation is a one time event of “accepting the Lord”. Returning to my initial attack upon the Lord’s Prayer, there was actually a school of thought which found that asking God to forgive us our trespasses (or debts) was not at the heart of our life in Christ. Our forgiveness was instead tied to simply saying “thank you” to God for having forgiven us. As Watchman Nee wrote in the Normal Christian Life, “The work is done. There is no need to pray but only to praise. God has put us all in Christ, so that when Christ was crucified we were crucified also…Your sins were dealt with by His Blood, and you were dealt with by His Cross. It is an accomplished fact. All that is left for you to do is to praise the Lord that when Christ died you died also; you died in Him. Praise Him for it and live in the light of it.” (1)
I tried to be faithful to the writings of Watchman Nee, as they reflected the sermons from my pastor who taught that liturgy and tradition got in the way of the Cross. I would even pray with the structure of the Lord’s Prayer by emphasizing Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication, (the ACTS mnemonic that can be seen in the Lord’s Prayer itself) and reflecting on my sins would often correct myself by saying something to the effect of, “No Lord, I don’t ask that you forgive me for this sin. Instead, I thank you that you have already forgiven me of this sin through the Cross.” Try as I may have, I saw the huge gap between the biblical reality of the Lord’s Prayer as a concept (even if I mocked using the exact words of Christ), and the words of a theology of salvation that would not even use the concepts undergirding it. My prayer life was wounded by the theology of a liturgy-less existence. I wanted to cry out, “Lord have mercy.”
Furthermore, my life of understanding salvation became challenged by my emphasis on devotion to the Holy Scriptures. There were passages such as Ephesians 2:8 that expressed that we have been saved, in a sense. The past tense of our salvation could be seen which would seem to undergird a theology where we did not ask for forgiveness or make offerings to God. And yet the words of our Lord which warned us that we would not be forgiven if we did not forgive others (Matthew 6:15) showed the truth that is expressed so clearly in the letter to the Hebrews, where it states quite clearly that we are being consecrated (Heb 2:11), and that we are his house “if only we hold fast our confidence and pride in hope” (Heb 3:6). We “have become partakers of Christ, if only we hold the beginning of the reality firm until the end.” (Heb 3:14) The fact that I continued to sin at times cried out with passages such as these, testifying to the view that salvation is a process of reaching out to God continually for His merciful hand to save me. And that is where we return to the idea of the grass being greener.
Becoming an Apostolic Christian affirmed my existential and Biblical understanding of salvation as a journey to union with Christ. Instead of holding to salvation as only in the past and not connected to crying out for mercy constantly, the life-creating acts of Christ to save His people came to the forefront of my heart. Through the liturgy, the precious gift of the Eucharist came into my view, helping me understand that in the midst of my failures, the success and love of Christ permeated my being continually. Liturgy has shown me my deep need for prayer that reflects where I am at currently, and where I hope God will take me through His grace.
1) Nee, Watchman. The Normal Christian Life http://www.ccel.org/ccel/nee/normal.txt