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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"Remembrance, Communion, and Hope" by J. Todd Billings. A Review

Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord's TableRemembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord's Table by J. Todd Billings
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s only so much you can say about J. Todd Billings, Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, and accomplished author. You either like him, or you like him. It’s just that plain and simple. And recently Billings gave us one more reason to like him with his newest 237 page softback, “Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord's Table”. This fine treatise on the Lord’s Supper is written to attract the attention and affections of professors, pastors and parishioners. And it is composed to present readers and leaders with a wager: “that a renewed theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper can be an instrument for congregations to develop a deeper, more multifaceted sense of the gospel itself…the Supper is God’s own instrument for conforming believers to the image of Christ” (1). Though it is a learned composition, it is not a parched pedagogy.

Very much like strolling along a garden path surrounded by subtle scents, shades, hues, textures and designs, Billings guides us down a well-marked lane and encourages us to stop and take in the assorted aromas and auras of Holy Communion. He unashamedly does so from a Reformed and Calvinistic perspective, while giving deference to other traditions. The book is divided into three plots. The first, very much in the vein of James K.A. Smith, brings us to examine our functional theologies that have been shaped by our cultural liturgies. Billings then shows how in the Lord’s Supper Christians are offered a tangible, touchable and tastable counter-formation, where believers “enact their role in the Trinitarian drama of the gospel, as ones who are nourished by Christ through the power of the Spirit as adopted children of the Father” (45).

In the second plot of “Remembrance, Communion, and Hope” the author cultivates what is the Reformed thinking on the Sacraments, and how it can enhance (without co-opting) the sacramental perceptions of other Protestant and independent traditions. Here Billings maps out a nine point sketch of the Lord’s Supper that is shepherded by a breadth of Reformed Confessions. He also critiques Radical Orthodoxy’s and Hans Boersma’s flattened readings of the Reformation and narrow explanations of why the Eucharist has become de-sacralized among Protestants; and then offers a happier alternative.

Finally, “Remembrance, Communion, and Hope” leads us to the third plot exploding with a brilliant array of colors and fragrances. Here, Billings graciously unpacks Zwinglianism, and favorably describes John Williamson Nevin’s defense of Calvin’s position. He further discusses open communion, closed communion, and a middle way of “fencing the table”. Yet, most of the pages in these final three chapters swell with striking portrayals and presentations of what God is doing in the Holy Supper. It is a pageant of the Gospel; savory and salacious through and through; running from the here-and-now longingly into the there-and-then! As I finished the last chapter my heart was singing with joy, raising the anthem, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Out of the many aspects I appreciated in the book, that which most charmed me is how Billings clearly brings out the Gospel enfleshed in Communion. And because of this, the Lord’s Supper offers what our fractured and frayed world is in desperate need of. How Christ, freely offered to us in the Gospel, and by means of the Sacrament, challenges our ethnic snobbery and lust for comfortable homogeneity. For example, Billings notes that, "many of us desire a church that matches our “tribe” of political leanings, cultural background, life stage, etc. But the Host (Christ) for the feast of love does not just invite hipsters or squares, conservatives or liberals, whites or blacks; the Host invites people we would rather not see there. For we are not masters or owners of this table; it is “the Lord’s table” (1 Cor.10:21)…It would be tempting to "feed upon Christ" but to spurn the actual flesh and blood of Christians who surround us. But the Host invites not only us into God's household fellowship, but also others in our congregations, in our denominations, and in the worldwide body of Christ...[the church] enters into the messy and open-ended task of loving those she did not choose as adopted brothers and sisters in the Lord...To be in communion with the beautiful, alluring Christ is impossible without communion with his broken and sinful – yet cleansed and redeemed – bride, the church. In the words of Calvin, 'We cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren.'" (139-40). That preaches, and it preaches right!

“Remembrance, Communion, and Hope” will help to hone and develop a greater appreciation and enjoyment of the Lord’s Supper for most any reader. Church members will gain a richer understanding of the Lord’s Supper as they pour over this volume. And if you’re a minister, it will give you a better sense of why the Sacrament is important, and how to present it to your congregation. I have already been recommending it to my fellow pastors, and I happily commend it to you!

My plentiful thanks to Wm. B. Eerdmans, and J. Todd Billings, for sending at my request the copy of the book used for this review. The assessments herein are mine; I have freely given them with no coaxing or coercion from author or publisher.

You can obtain a copy of the book here: "Remembrance, Communion, and Hope"

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