It is an image etched into my mind. The preacher finishes preaching. He calls the song leaders to the front of the church and we all stand up. He invites… he beckons with his hands… and ultimately he pleads us to come. Where? To slip out of our seat and down to an altar in front of the congregation. It was actually two kneeling bench’s on both sides of the altar itself.
Here we could kneel down for prayer and be surrounded by others who would pray with us.
But we didn’t come. At least… at first we didn’t come. Because going to the altar to pray was an individual choice, not a predicated congregational movement. Beyond that, it was the working of God in your heart. You would know to go to the altar when you couldn’t remain in your seat any longer. Usually this corresponded to a seemingly endless supply of stanzas… to the preacher’s pleading… and whether or not someone already broke the ice and went first.
We were teenagers. We were nearly always under conviction for something.
The preacher was often patient… because he probably liked to fish. And people who fish know what it is to bait… and to wait. Inevitably, in many Sunday night services, in many camp services… we would crack, one by one. And like a logjam being dislodged, we would flow to the altar in tears and emotions we could not control.
That image, dozens of people young and old, on their knees, in open prayer, aloud and real… that is an image dear to my soul. It is joined today with another image of people slipping out to the altar today.
At our altar today, we invite people to come and take part in the sacrament of communion. What we affectionately call the Lord’s Table. We remember the night before Jesus’ death, when he said to his disciples, “This bread is my body; this wine is the blood of a new covenant with you.” And we join with a global and historic church who has done this since shortly after the resurrection.
We call it a sacrament (an outward act with inner spiritual reality) because we believe it is a time filled not only with us, but also with God’s presence. It includes silent confession and reflection, but essentially God is coming to us as well as us going to him.
At this altar we are reminded of, and we are participating in, his ongoing covenant with us.
As a pastor, it is still a precious site to see people slipping out of their seat and coming to the altar, but in a different way.
The two altar experiences are dear to me. One is predicated on individual reflection and surrender to God’s moving. And, alignment to God’s covenant relationship is an outcome. The other altar experience is predicated by alignment to God’s covenant in communion and leads us to individual reflection and surrender to God’s will as an outcome. It is a precious sight, people slipping out of their seats, leaving themselves behind, and approaching God for his grace and presence.