What do you misunderstand or just plain miss with respect to the sacrament (communion/Lord’s Supper)? Are there different perspectives that would inform your understanding and enrich your experience?
A few years ago I began reflecting on the sacrament prayers and symbols. My topic today is on one of the key principles that I misunderstood.
Note: I often come to the table late, so please forgive me if my thoughts today are old news. If so: Thanks for allowing me to make this journey in my own time.
Typical discussions of the sacrament prayer often go like this:
Each week when we take the bread and water, we promise to do three things
- Remember Jesus Christ
- Keep his commandments, and
- Take upon us the name of Christ
In return, Heavenly Father promises to give us the Holy Ghost.
In some venues, this simplification may be appropriate, but if we have not moved beyond this, we are missing the point because it misrepresents several key elements of the sacramental prayer and cheapens the sacred experience. I will be addressing one of these today.
In The Details
First, I ask you to turn to Book of Mormon to Moroni 4.
Audience: “Hold on, hold on. I need to pause my video game and open my Gospel Library app.”
That’s okay, I can wait. Just nod your head when you have it open.
Covenants in ancient Israel were ratified, or sealed, with blood. Thus, the blessing on the bread, contains the covenant. The second blessing (on the wine or symbolic blood), is the ratification. The second pray is more or less a summary, so we will focus our attention on the blessing on the bread.
Let’s read it together:
O God, the Eternal Father,
we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ,
to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it;
that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and
witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father,
that they are willing
to take upon them the name of thy Son, and
always remember him, and
keep his commandments which he hath given them,
that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen
So, we are to eat in remembrance of the body of Jesus Christ and witness…
Witness of what?
(This is the key word that the simplistic discussion of the sacramental prayers often misses.)
We witness that we are WILLING.
I’m going to pause here for a minute to point out a structural element.
The Book of Mormon claims to be written and redacted by a priestly lineage with Hebrew language training. Consequently, we find Hebraisms throughout the Book of Mormon. These are structural idiosyncracies that are common to Hebrew writing. One of these pertains to lists.
If I were to tell someone the contents of my refrigerator I might say something like. I have milk, ketchup, pickles, eggs, and some fuzzy blue stuff in the back. In written form, each element is separated by a comma, and we picture this in our minds when we speak and hear. In a language without punctuation, list elements are separated with “and.”
Restating my list without commas, I might say: I have milk and pickles and eggs and some fuzzy blue stuff in the back.
Examples of this are found in many places in the Book of Mormon:
And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness. (1 Nephi 2:4)
Whether the sacramental prayers are Hebraisms is arguable, but the structure nevertheless provides some insight into the meaning.
Back On Track
Now let’s look at the prayer on the bread again.
that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son
and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father,
that they are willing to
- take upon them the name of thy Son
- and always remember him
- and keep his commandments
The use of “and” ties the terms of the prayer back to witness and willingness. (The astute reader will notice that I left out some commas contained in the current editions. The original manuscript did not have these.)
I would like to point out that we are not committing to “keep His commandments,” but instead we are witnessing to our willingness to keep His commandments.
Audience: “Isn’t that the same thing??”
No, it is not. One requires a state of perfection, the other allows for a journey, it allows for error, it allows for trying and failing, but with an eye on—or remembrance of—the salvation that Jesus provides.
In this discussion, we should not lose the perspective that the central purpose of the Lord’s Supper is to remember the sacrifice of Jesus. The other terms of the prayer are the “how” of the remembering.
And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. (Mark 14:22-24)
In Third Nephi,
… Jesus said unto them: Blessed are ye for this thing which ye have done, for this is fulfilling my commandments, and this doth witness unto the Father that ye are willing to do that which I have commanded you. (3 Nephi 18:10)
Okay, Sisters and Brothers. That is the point of my sermon today. You should be willing, not perfect. The rest you can figure out on your own, so I give you permission to go to sleep.
For the remaining few, I would like to expand this a little more.
More on Willingness
If you think that I’m off my rocker with this perspective, I recently found that I am in good company. In April 1985 General Conference, Elder Oaks said the following.
It is significant that when we partake of the sacrament we do not witness that we take upon us the name of Jesus Christ. We witness that we are willing to do so. (See D&C 20:77.) The fact that we only witness to our willingness suggests that something else must happen before we actually take that sacred name upon us in the most important sense.
In this case, Elder Oaks is addressing one of the terms of the prayer, but in doing so, he makes the same point that I have; the covenant we are making is one of willingness, not of absolute obedience.
Willingness can be channeled through several different motivators. In early stages of our faith, this may be a desire to please others. As we grow and learn, it changes to an eagerness to do what is right. With more knowledge and responsibility, we may be willing to follow Christ in order to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves, to do our duty, and to be an example to our children and others.
Many of us will experience a period of darkness that may last years. During these periods, willingness may be channeled through sheer fear of losing something, even the last thing, as we struggle to hold onto meaning, stability, and hope. Our covenant relationship with Christ may be the only thing that keeps us grounded when all else seems to be lost.
Eventually, our willingness may be converted into an inner choice, one that springs from a conscious and deliberate decision to seek something more in our journey. This is pure willingness, when we act deliberately.
And The Point
So, why am I beating on this point about willingness?
We sometimes fall into the trap that we are not doing things right, we are not doing enough, we are not doing all we can; we see our faith as a list of things we must do and if we don’t do them all, we have failed.
I am afraid that the more we concern ourselves with checklists and conformity, the less likely we are to be truly willing and able to understand the teachings of Jesus.
The foundational covenant of our faith is to be willing; to freely choose Christ. We are not committing to being perfect. In that, we would be guaranteed to fail. God is not asking us to be failures.
In other words, we do not witness that we do or will keep all of the commandments; the sacramental prayer does not commit us to a covenant that we will break. This leaves room for the process of learning to follow Christ; it leaves room for practice.
Audience: “Yeah, but isn’t ‘practice’ just another way to say sin?”
Yes, but intentional sin would be violating our witness that we remember Jesus and have committed to be willing followers. So, it doesn’t absolve us of sin, but allows for it to be part of our journey. Our willingness allows for the grace of Christ to make up for our weakness.
Room For Grace
A few years ago, Brad Wilcox spoke at a BYU devotional. His message was entitled “His Grace is Sufficient.” One of my favorite concepts in that talk is this:
Christ’s arrangement with us is similar to a mom providing music lessons for her child. Mom pays the piano teacher. Because Mom pays the debt in full, she can turn to her child and ask for something. What is it? Practice! Does the child’s practice pay the piano teacher? No. Does the child’s practice repay Mom for paying the piano teacher? No. Practicing is how the child shows appreciation for Mom’s incredible gift. It is how he takes advantage of the amazing opportunity Mom is giving him to live his life at a higher level. Mom’s joy is found not in getting repaid but in seeing her gift used—seeing her child improve. And so she continues to call for practice, practice, practice.
Wilcox goes on to say:
There should never be just two options: perfection or giving up. When learning the piano, are the only options performing at Carnegie Hall or quitting? No. Growth and development take time. Learning takes time. When we understand grace, we understand that God is long-suffering, that change is a process, and that repentance is a pattern in our lives.
Sisters and brothers, that is willingness. Our witness to God, is that we will practice even if we are not very good. That means that we need to tolerate and allow for sin, failure, and shortcomings in ourselves, even as our eyes are on Christ. Repentance then becomes part of our journey of faith, not evidence of failure.
A wise church leader once said:
We clergy have gotten ourselves into the job of “sin management” instead of sin transformation. “If you are not perfect, then you are doing something wrong,” we have taught people. We have blamed the victim, or have had little pity for victims, while daring to worship a victim image of God. Our mistakes are something to be pitied and healed much more than hated, denied or perfectly avoided. I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you. (Richard Rohr, “Falling Upward”, pg 61-62)
So each week as you sit quietly (or try to) and receive the emblems of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, guilt or shame for failures should not be our focus. Instead, you might ask yourself, “What have a I learned about myself this week? How can I do better at remembering Jesus?”
And, maybe this perspective of our covenant relationship with Christ will help us love others as we journey together. (I know that I could really use some help with this.)