The Empty Table: Highland Presbyterianism, Communion, Ascetism, and Mysticism

A few years ago I was in Fort William and I had some time to kill. It was raining, so I decided to pop into a large Roman Catholic Church (RC churches are usually always open). Sure enough there were in fact open doors. Visitors were free to roam the church, light candles, pause at various stations, paintings and icons.  There was even a library of books. People could come and go – sit, pray, reflect. I reflected on the fact that most protestant churches, after a Sunday service shut their doors and padlock their gates. In comparison, the RC churches seemed more open.

But then I approached the altar and I noticed something – a guardrail surrounding the altar. The altar – the place of communion was blocked off. The message was clear –YOU CAN COME THIS FAR AND NO FURTHER!!! There is a place for you in the pew, there is a place for you in the church, you can light a candle – but you can’t approach the altar! So there is a barrier between the people and the place of communion – the altar – the place were heaven meets earth. This is what human tradition does it puts barriers between people and God The psalmist says, “He prepares a table before me in the midst of my enemies” but human tradition comes along and puts a fence around the table.

In the Reformed tradition, we may have removed the altar and the barrier – but we have just put a new railing around the communion table – a railing of human regulations. Yet, communion, by its very definition, is about the removal of barriers between people and God.

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

What separates us from God? Failure to meet the legal demands.Our barriers are: Sin, Guilt, Condemnation…Yet – the bible is clear…these barriers have been set aside, and nailed to the cross. What sin is troubling you? Know this…It has been nailed to the cross. Is guilt troubling you? Why? It has been nailed to the cross. Are you troubled by a sense of condemnation? Condemnation has been condemned – it’s been nailed to the cross.

At Colossae … there were teachings and traditions coming into the church that were false, human-centred (and therefore not Christ-centred) and demonically inspired (instead of Holy Spirit Inspired). The outcome of these teachings was that people were 1) drawn away from Christ and 2) robbed of spiritual assurance.

If you are devoid of assurance (full assurance) one of the reasons could be that you have embraced, plausible arguments, false teaching or human tradition that is in actual fact demonically inspired.

In other words, the Devil has been and is lying to you, and you have bought the lie because it sounds right, reasonable and religious.

How can we know if this is the case? Paul is helpful; he unfolds the nature of the false teaching which was affecting the believers. There were two distinct versions of false teaching.

16 Therefore let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions,[d] puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,

  1. Mysticism
  2. Acetism

Ascetism is basically a super strict form of spirituality.

It focuses on:

–        Self denial

–        Duty

–        Religious Rituals

–        Joy-less

–        Obedience of Commands

–        Obessed with Sabbath days, Holy Days, and what you are allowed to do and are not allowed to do.

–        It loves rules!

Paul shows this a few verses later…

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations21 Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

I would argue, that some sections of the Scottish Reformed tradition have been infected with ascetism – a strict religious observance that draws people away from Christ and consequently leaves them robbed of the reality of God’s love, salvation and assurance.

The second false teaching Paul deals with is Mysticism, or hyper-spirituality.

 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions,[d] puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,

As well as ascetism, there was a mysticism creeping into the church which made the hall-mark of conversion – dramatic spiritual experience.

In other words – if someone was really to be considered a Christian, or at least spiritually mature, then they would have to have encountered some sort of radical religious experience.

–        Angelic encounters

–        Visions

–        Dreams

–        Revelations

Now it’s tempting, at this point, to think, “Ah, we Presbyterians are on safe ground here” “This is obviously relevant for the Pentecostals and charismatics… but we presbies, we don’t do religious experience.”

I’m not so sure.

Since crossing over from Pentecostalism to Presbyterianism, people are often quick to point out to me that there is a long traditions of spiritual experience within the highland tradition.

–        Dr Kennedy of Dingwall “The Secret of the Lord” almost seems to endorse some-form of on-going revelation.

–        There are stories of miraculous encounters within the reformed tradition.

–        Premonitions, fore-sight, and visions.

–        Or at an individual level, some people’s conversions are marked by an intense, almost Damascus road-type experience.

Firstly, we need to remember that not everything that is spiritual is from God – the devil can counterfeit spiritual experience.

Secondly, we don’t need to deny spiritual experience – it is biblical.

However, what we mustn’t do, is make spiritual experience the benchmark of God’s approval. We should never make it the grounds of conversion. This is the second area, where I do think the devil is deceiving some people and robbing them of assurance. Many people are afraid to profess faith in Christ because they have not had some experience that they have heard others speak about. They assume their lack of experience is evidence that they are not saved. This is the trap of the enemy. If we are in this situation, the enemy has taken us captive through deception.

If assurance is not to be found in strict religious observance, or mystical experiences – where is assurance to be found?

Two key areas – the Cross of Christ and the Christ of the Cross.

And I, when I came to you, brothers,[a] did not come proclaiming to you the testimony[b] of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Cor 2: 1—2)

True Christianity causes us to look outward towards Christ and His cross.

False Christianity causes us to look inwards to self and to our religious observance or our spiritual experience.

False spirituality can only lead to two things – one is despair – we look at ourselves and see the truth 1) we are not religious enough 2) we have not experienced any flashing lights – consequently it leads to discouragement.

Or, it leads to self-righteousness and spiritual pride – we look at ourselves and we deceive ourselves into thinking we make the grade because 1) we are really religious 2) we have encountered something spiritual.

Both of these are wrong – we are called to look to Christ –

Hang, on what about self-examination? Of course, self-examination is right – but it needs to be done with the right perspective. Robert Murray McCheyne: “For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ!”Where is McCheyne’s focus? It is on Christ.

Some may still find a plausible argument to hold back from professing faith and coming to the table. “What about my sin – does that not bring judgement upon me? “What about my guilty conscience, surely that disqualifies me?”

Listen to the Word of the Lord:

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

Your sin has been nailed to the cross.

Your guilt has been nailed to the cross.

If the Word of God says you have been made alive – that is all you need – you do not need a flash of light and a legion of angels – all you need is a faith which says, “God says it that settles it and I believe it.”

Communion is the Word of God made visible – what does the bread and wine say to us? They speak to us of the body and blood of Christ. Paul speaks of our “record of debt” and God “nailing it to the cross”. How did this happen? It happened because Christ was nailed to the cross.

Hymn: Bearing shame, and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood, sealed my pardon with his blood, hallelujah, what a saviour.

Men like to construct a railing around man made altars . . . communion is the celebration that God the Son has torn away the railing. The curtain of the temple has been torn and the way to God is open.