Friday, 27 March 2015

Watchtower Memorial Meal: 2015

It’s known by different names in different traditions; the Lord’s Table, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Breaking of Bread, Holy Communion. Mormons call it ‘the sacrament’ which seems strange since it is a sacrament but, even in Mormonism, it isn’t the only sacrament since they also have baptism, as well as rituals of anointing. In my church we call it communion and I regard it as very precious. I was interested, then, in what the Jehovah’s Witnesses do with it, how they regard it.

To Jehovah’s Witnesses it is a ‘Memorial Meal’ and, while Christian churches celebrate this sacrament frequently, Witnesses mark it annually, on the Jewish Passover which, in 2015, will be Friday April 3rd. My wife and I went to one of these celebrations once and saw that when the elements were passed around no one partook. This is because only the 144,000 are regarded as having a heavenly hope and, therefore, only they can partake. But that is not the only thing that is puzzling about this peculiar practice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.Lords-Supper-Communion-Bread-Wine

The Lord’s Supper

The familiar verses in 1 Corinthians 11 caution us against pride in partaking of the Lord’s Supper and then Paul goes on to ‘pass on’ a very important tradition from the earliest days of the church:

‘But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 
When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 
What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 
In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." 
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.’
(1 Corinthians 11:17-26, ESV)

There are three things we learn here:

  1. This ‘meal’ was eaten ‘when you come together as a church.’ Paul writes, ‘as often as you eat…and drink..’ so this was a frequent occurrence, something that happened when the church met. It appears it was also a meal in which overeating and even drunkenness were a possibility, the reasons for Paul’s chastisement of the Corinthian believers.
  2. From earliest times it was known as ‘the Lord’s Supper’ and this will become significant for us later.
  3. It is a memorial meal to, ‘proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’

It would seem that an annual memorial is not in view here and nor is the idea that only an elite partook.

Whose Cup?

In the previous chapter Paul deals with the question of idolatry. Writing about food sacrificed to demons, he warns Christians in Corinth that they cannot participate in the body of Christ and participate in demons. He reminds us that the cup is the cup of Christ:

Communion Goblet‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’ (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, ESV)

The New World Translation has the same wording.

Further on in the chapter we read:

‘…what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.’ (vv 20-21, ESV)

The New World Translation, however, reads:

‘what the nations sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers with the demons. You cannot be drinking the cup of Jehovah and the cup of demons; you cannot be partaking of “the table of Jehovah” and the table of demons.’

The cup of the Lord has become the cup of Jehovah, the table of the Lord the table of Jehovah where, in vv 16-17, the blood in the cup was the cup of Christ, the bread on the table the body of Christ. In the Kingdom Interlinear they appear to want to have it both ways. In the Greek they correctly translate ‘cup of Lord..table of Lord’ while the text gives us ‘Jehovah.’ Of course, verse 20 clearly references God, a direct comparison is made between demons and God, and Jesus cannot be God in their thinking so ‘the Lord’ must become ‘Jehovah.’

However, when we go back to that familiar passage in 1 Corinthians 11 we read:

‘For whenever you eat this loaf and drink this cup, you keep proclaiming the death of the Lord, until he comes.Therefore, whoever eats the loaf or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty respecting the body and the blood of the Lord.’ (1 Cor.11:26-27, NWT)

It has become ‘the cup of the Lord again. It is embarrassingly obvious that the text has been tampered with in just those verses to suit Jehovah’s Witness doctrine. of course, most will not be so surprised by this but look at what they have done.

Who is the Lord whose death is proclaimed? Jesus. Whose cup is it? The Lord’s. Who is the Lord? Jesus, of course.

They have unwittingly made a case for identifying Jesus with Jehovah.They might have been better off leaving well alone.

…Until He Comes.

One final question. How long will Christians participate in this cup, eat at this table we call by different names? ‘…until he comes.’ But according to Witness teaching Christ returned invisibly in 1914. There are two questions we might ask Jehovah’s Witnesses as April 3rd approaches, and in the days following:

Whose cup is passed around Kingdom Halls around the world? The cup of Christ, or the cup of Jehovah?

Why, if Jesus returned in 1914, are you having a memorial meal at all?

*This article first appeared in the recent Reachout Newsletter. If you would like to get the newsletter (monthly) subscribe here

communion-scripture 1 Cor 11

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Mormons, Firing Squads, and Blood Atonement

Utah has become the first state in the USA to reinstate the firing squad to administer the death penalty. This is sometimes called fusillading, from the French fusil, rifle. This story has several layers, from the shortage of drugs for lethal injections, to the question of which method of killing a human being is most humane, to that of whether, as European society believes, execution is simply a barbaric throwback we don’t want in the 21st century. It is this last view in Europe that has created the shortage of drugs that European countries refuse to export to America.

Fusillading as a form of execution has usually been practiced in a war setting, guns being the most easily available weapon for the job, and being the quickest and most humane method available in the circumstances. In America, apart from the Civil War, for which figures are unavailable, it is estimated that 142 men have been executed by this method since 1608. Utah’s record is most striking.

Forty-four executions occurred in the State of Utah and Utah Territory before the national moratorium in 1967; six were by hanging and 38 were by firing squad. By that time, Utah was the only remaining state of the Union to offer inmates the choice between hanging and firing squad. The last execution before the moratorium was that of James W Rogers, whose ‘last request’ is said to have been a bullet-proof vest. The first execution by fusillading after the reinstatement of the death penalty, was that of Gary Gilmour, whose infamy was portrayed in the film, The Executioner’s Song.

The next execution by fusillading was that of John Albert Taylor in 1996, after which this method of execution was banned. It was not a retroactive ban, however, and four men on death row were still left with the choice of hanging or firing squad before the latest move to reinstate this method of execution. Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by a five-man firing squad on 18 June 2010. In February 1996, Gardner threatened to sue to force the state of Utah to execute him by firing squad, saying he preferred this method of execution because of his "Mormon heritage." Which brings us to the question of why Utah has this long and committed history of blood-letting, at one time even offering beheading (1851-1888) as a method of execution.

Blood Atonement

Part of the Noahic covenant in Genesis declares, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen.9:6) This verse demonstrates the high place of man as God’s image bearer and the focal point and representative of God’s kingdom on earth. To take the life of another is to show contempt for God.

Reflecting this same high view of man in God’s scheme, John 3:16 declares, “God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son that whosoever believes (trusts) in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  The sacrifice of Christ in behalf of believers is so thoroughgoing in its effect and so comprehensive in its scope that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Mt.12:29) Of course, to deny or blaspheme against the Spirit is to reject the very one who brings forgiveness, applies the healing balm of the blood shed on the Cross for sinners. It is effectually rejecting your own salvation. The sacrifice of Christ pays for “every sin and blasphemy” for the repentant sinner and we begin to see why Christians, especially as we lead up to Easter, call this the good news of Jesus.

Joseph Smith, on the other hand, reverted, as many false teachers do, to the earliest Old Testament law and covenant given to Noah and insisted that there are some sins that are beyond the reach of Christ’s healing blood and that “If these offences are committed, then the blood of Christ will not cleanse them from their sins even though they repent. Therefore, their only hope is to have their own blood shed and to atone, as far as possible, in their behalf.” This teaching is reported in the three volume Doctrines of Salvation by Mormon prophet Joseph Fielding Smith, who went on, “This is scriptural doctrine, and is taught in all the standard works of the church.” (Doc. of Sal. Vol,1 p.135)

And Firing Squads

The sins and offences for which, according to Mormon prophets, the blood of Christ could not sufficiently atone include murder, theft, adultery and immorality (yes, ironic isn’t it?), using the name of the Lord in vain and counterfeiting (another rich irony). Joseph Smith was in favour of beheading and Brigham Young similarly favoured slitting throats. This idea became know as the doctrine of Blood Atonement, which brings me to firing squads.

Whatever your views on capital punishment, consider for a moment that this form of it has existed and been popular into the 21st century in Utah because Joseph Smith added to the Bible and took away from it the saving blood of Jesus. When Mormons dissemble, prevaricate and deny when challenged on the issue of Blood Atonement, which they do, it seems hardly credible since the very law of Utah has reflected that teaching for generations. Now, again, the law is reinstated, ostensibly because of a shortage of appropriate lethal drugs, a search for the most humane way of killing another human being. But this blood-letting is so ingrained in Mormon history, in both precept and practice, that it is much more than a convenient solution, it is a cultural sticking point.

You can read more on the history of Capital Punishment in Utah on the Wikipedia site

Friday, 13 March 2015

Another Cross-less Easter for Mormons

Some deceptions are so obvious as to be audacious, like the Jehovah’s Witness teaching that Jesus returned invisibly in 1914 when he failed to turn up physically, as predicted. Or the Mormon claim that Jesus walked the Americas following his resurrection and spoke to a boy in a grove of trees in 1820. Others are so subtle as to pass you by if you don’t know what you are seeing, what you are hearing.

Easter this year of 2015 is the weekend of 3rd to 5th April. The March Ensign magazine of the Mormon Church, as you might expect, anticipates Easter, and the momentous events of that first Easter, as will Christian publications around the world. Well, not quite as will Christian publications.

The Christian Easter

The focus of every Christian on Good Friday is Golgotha, the place where Jesus bore the penalty for the sins of the world, suffered crucifixion, and died. The events surrounding that defining sacrifice are also in mind of course.

The Last Supper, at which the new covenant was inaugurated; the servant king washing the disciple’s feet; the high priestly prayer prior to going out into the night; the charge to the disciples to watch and pray, and their failure to watch one hour; the struggle to face the impending suffering and the heart-rending petition, ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass’; the supreme act of submission, ‘yet not my will, but yours’; the extreme anguish that produced hematidrosis, where the capillary blood vessels burst in extremis, causing him to, ‘sweat, as it were, great drops of blood’; the comforting presence of a messenger of God, an angel to strengthen him; the affectionate betrayal by Judas; the brutality of the guard; the desertion of his friends; the mocking trial; the scourging, and the cries of,‘Crucify!’

The final cry, ‘It is finished,’ tetelestai, paid in full; the taking down of his lifeless body; the petition of Joseph of Arimathea to Pilate to be allowed to bury the Lord; the hurried preparation of the corpse; the hasty burial, and the inconsolable grief of his family and followers.

Yet much of this would have been the experience of so many unfortunate men. The summary justice, the brutal treatment, the baying crowd, even sweating blood in the extremity of anguish is not an unknown phenomenon in history. What set this God/man apart was what happened on the cross of Calvary. The pivotal point of this drama is Golgotha, the crucifixion, where Jesus bore the penalty for the sins of the world. The blood of Calvary has a sacred significance for Christians.

In the Old Testament we read about animal sacrifices to God, part of the animal eaten by God’s people signifying their close fellowship with God. The drinking of blood, however, was strictly forbidden. The blood signified life. In Leviticus we read, ‘the life of the creature is in the blood.’ (Lev.17:11) The blood was not drunk but was poured on the altar to remind God’s people of the price of their fellowship with God (Lev.3&7).

When God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt the angel of death is said to have passed over the houses of the Israelites who had smeared their door posts and lintels with the blood of a lamb. That is where the festival of Passover comes from. Passover, that time when the Lamb of God sacrificed himself, shed his blood, for our sins.

Blood signifies a life sacrificed and means the same as the word death, as when we speak of ‘bloodshed.’ Whenever, in the New Testament, we read about the blood of Jesus we should always understand it to mean his death.

The New Testament tells us that, ‘in him [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood [death] of his cross.’ (Col.1:19-20, ESV) It is the blood of the cross that reconciles.

The apostle John reminds us that, ‘the blood [death] of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 Jn.1:7, ESV)

In Revelation we read about, ‘Jesus Christ…who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood [death]…’(Rev.1:5)

Peter writes, ‘you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood [death] of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot,’(1 Peter 1:18-19) The analogy of a sacrificial lamb couldn’t be clearer. We are ransomed from our sinful lives by the shed blood (death) of Christ, ‘a lamb without blemish or spot.’

‘In him we have redemption through his blood [death], the forgiveness of our trespasses,’ writes Paul in Ephesians 1:7, and again in Romans 5:9, ‘we have been justified by his blood [death]…’

I reiterate, whenever in the New Testament we read about the blood of Jesus we should always understand it to mean his death and the Scripture makes that clear.

Murillo_Bartolome_Esteban-ZZZ-CrucifixionThe Message of the Cross

is the power of God to those being saved (1 Cor.1:18)

Christians were, and still are, persecuted for the cross of Christ (Gal.6:12)

Paul boasted in nothing but the cross of Christ (Gal.6:14)

Enemies of Christ are enemies of the cross (Philip.2:18)

Our debt because of sin is cancelled by being nailed to the cross (Col.2:14)

And Jesus triumphed on the cross (Col.2:15)



The Mormon Easter

Yet there have always been, and still are, those who consider the message of the cross foolish (1 Cor.1:18) It is a stumbling block to them ((1 Cor.1:23) and of such it appears are the Mormons. In their ‘modern revelation’ they empty the cross of its power into the Garden of Gethsemane.

In one of his earliest ‘revelations’ Joseph Smith redefined the atonement of Jesus:

‘But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of the pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit.’ (Doctrine & Covenants (D&C) 19:17-18)

Mormon Church president Joseph Fielding Smith said of this passage, ‘We get into the habit of thinking, I suppose, that his great suffering was when he was nailed to the cross by his hands and his feet and was left there to suffer until he died. As excruciating as that was, that was not the greatest suffering he had to undergo…so great was his suffering before he ever went to the cross…blood oozed from the pores of his body.’ (D&C Institute Student Manual, 1981, p.38)

The problem Mormons have with this section of the D&C is its description by Joseph Fielding Smith as, ‘one of the great revelations given in this dispensation; there are few of greater importance than this.’ (ibid) It is difficult, then, for Mormons to get around Gethsemane and back to Golgotha and it has always been a controversial teaching.

Mormon apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote, “As He came out of the Garden, delivering himself voluntarily into the hands of wicked men, the victory had been won. There remained yet the shame and the pain of his arrest, his trials, and his cross. But all these were overshadowed by the agonies and sufferings in Gethsemane. It was on the cross that he ‘suffered death in the flesh’, even as many have suffered agonising deaths, but it was in Gethsemane that ‘he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come to him.'” (The Mortal Messiah, McConkie, pp 127-28)

The Mormon apostle Jeffery R Holland, speaking fro the Mount of Olives, declared, ‘It was here in the Garden of Gethsemane. on that last night of mortality, that Jesus left His Apostles and descended alone into the depth of agony that would be his atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.’ (Ensign, April 2002, p.14)

Thirteenth Mormon president, Ezra Taft Benson, in the same edition, ‘It was in Gethsemane that Jesus took on himself the sins of the world, in Gethsemane that His pain was equivalent to the cumulative burden of all men, in Gethsemane that he descended below all things so that all could repent and come to Him.’ (Ensign, 2002, p.14)

Agony in the GardenSo, again this year, the first presidency message, by Deiter F. Uchtdorf, concentrates entirely on the garden, even down to an illustration of Jesus being comforted by an angel. There is no cross in this Easter edition of theEnsign. Quoting D&C 19, he illustrates his understanding of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice with a painting by the Danish artist Frans Schwartz, The Agony of Gethsemane (right).

In the centre pages there is a pictorial retrospective of where Jesus lived and walked. The Jordan River; the temple; Temple Mount; an ancient olive tree; a possible site of the Garden Tomb, and Golgotha, but no cross.

In a later article, Russell M Nelson writes about ‘the unspeakable agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross,’ yet the text he comes back to is D&C 19.

But it is the cross not the garden – oh, yes, the cross, not the garden. If they could but grasp the significance of the cross, the total loss and abandonment he suffered, the weight he bore, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Not the comforted and strengthened Jesus of the garden (Lk.22:43) but the abandoned and desolate Saviour of the cross. Not the garden where, in exquisite anguish, he anticipated his sacrifice in intimate association with heaven, but the cross where heaven looked away for the sin he bore. As far away as a person is from the cross, so far they are from Christ (Gal.6:14)

In March of 2014 I was visiting the small Maltese island of Gozo with friends. We went into a church in the capital, Victoria, and being Roman Catholic it had statuary depicting the Easter events that were soon to be extravagantly marked. I called my friends over and we sat as I used the imagery to explain to them why I finally left Mormonism and became a disciple of Jesus Christ. I told them about the Mormon view of Gethsemane and of how the wisdom of the cross finally broke through to me, showing me that my hope was found in the God/man who suffered for my sins as he hung there and died, and in the miracle of the empty tomb.

I could never go back to the Garden.

*This article first appeared in the recent Reachout Newsletter. If you would like to get the newsletter (monthly) subscribe here

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