Mercy Street Church of Christ
Abilene, TX
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The Great Grape Gripe

REFLECTIONS
by Al Maxey

Issue #280 ------- December 19, 2006
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His faith, perhaps, in some nice
tenets might be wrong; his life,
I'm sure, was in the right.
Abraham Cowley {1618-1667}


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The Great Grape Gripe
Cup Content Contention


Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) made the following observation with regard to the legendary Alexander Pope (1688-1744), "A thousand years may elapse before there shall appear another man with a power of versification equal to that of Pope." He just may be right! Pope penned some powerfully insightful verse. Let me share just a small passage from his noted work "An Essay on Man," which appeared just a decade prior to his death:


For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight;
His can't be wrong whose life is in the right.
In faith and hope the world will disagree,
But all mankind's concern is charity.

Would the person who has perfectly perceived every single tenet of Christian precept and practice please contact me! I would dearly love to touch the hem of his/her garment. My guess is, however, that none of you will be calling me any time soon. The reality is -- we are all less than perfect in our understanding and application of eternal Truths. Thus, each of us is "in error" on any number of matters, and most likely we don't even realize it. We strive to the best of our individual abilities to live as He would have us live, and to grasp His divine principles. In the end, though, we all fall far short of where we need to be ... and certainly of where we would like to be. Thank God for Grace.

It has always been somewhat disconcerting to me to know that there are those within Christendom who seemingly rely upon perfection of perception and practice for their justification and salvation. If we can all just "get it right" in our journey to heaven, we shall be found worthy to enter that eternal realm. Fail to "get it right," however, and the price is forfeiture of eternal life. Hell is for those who don't get the music right in the worship assembly ... hell is for those who don't use the church "treasury" correctly ... hell is for those who have Sunday schools ... hell is for those who eat in a church building ... hell is for those who ______ (well, you fill in the blank).

This whole pitiful, pathetic mindset was brought home to me rather dramatically less than two weeks ago, and it still saddens me to realize I witnessed such pathological obsession right before my astonished eyes. I'm also somewhat amazed at myself, and my reaction (I was rendered almost speechless), because I have been confronting such obstinate Pharisaism for decades. It is certainly not unknown to me. But, to be perfectly honest, I had never, in all my many years of opposing this very extreme doctrinal stance, actually witnessed in my very presence such a powerful embodiment of it. Frankly, it was a bit unnerving!

A couple of weeks ago a man who hails most recently from Arkansas (the land of my birth) arrived here in our community. I have known for almost a year that he was coming, as he had informed me of such. To say that he disapproves of my ministry is probably one of the great understatements of the year! Indeed, six months ago he mailed a massive packet of materials to each of the members of the congregation where I serve (although he did not send this packet to the elders, deacons, or ministers), informing them, and seeking to prove to them, that I was a "false teacher." I had been informed since then that he was not through with me, but would be moving here to deal with me in my own backyard! He is now here. This individual is a 1989 graduate of the infamous Memphis School of Preaching, many of the leaders of which (including the prior Director, Curtis Cates) have for years been quite vocal in their opposition to my so-called "false teaching." Curtis even devoted a portion of one of his books to me a few years back, lumping me in-between such "apostates" as Rubel Shelly and Max Lucado. Thus, I am not surprised that a graduate of this institution of indoctrination would have his sights set on me.

Nevertheless, I was determined to take the "high road." On Saturday, December 9th (the day before the very first assembly of their new congregation: about 10 people who meet in the front of a self-storage facility about three blocks from our building), I happened to see a car parked in front of their meeting place, noticed it had Arkansas tags, and decided to pull in and introduce myself. I knocked on the door, he opened it, and I told him who I was and said that I wanted to drop by and welcome him to our city. He wandered off carrying a small trash can, seemingly reluctant to acknowledge my presence. I said perhaps he and I could get together and visit sometime; get to know one another better. That's when he turned to me and demanded, "Before we do, I want you to give me book, chapter and verse where you are authorized to have watermelon juice on the Lord's Table!!" I was stunned! I have since thought of countless things I could have said, and should have said, in response, but to my chagrin I must admit I just stood there somewhat dumbfounded. The conclusion he drew, of course, and he declared such to me, was: "So, you don't believe in Bible authority!!" The assumption, I suppose, is: if one can't come up with book, chapter and verse for each and every item of faith and practice, then one apparently does not believe in "Bible authority." Well, the whole experience took less than two minutes, but I still have a bad taste in my mouth from that initial encounter.

I have thought a lot about that meeting in the days since. Was I wrong to have tried to extend a welcome to him? Was I wrong to have left without engaging in a long, drawn out debate over watermelon juice? I am convinced the answer to both is No, and yet it grieves me to see within our community (and, yes, in virtually every community) bands of disciples just blocks from one another and so at odds with one another. This is not what our Lord prayed for in John 17. I fear a good many of us will have much to answer for one day if we don't begin to break down these walls of isolation and exclusion built upon little more than personal and party preferences, practices and perceptions. Frankly, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves! What a pathetic witness to our communities!

But, what about this demand for biblical authority for the use of watermelon juice in our observance of the Lord's Supper? I'll have to admit, I'm somewhat at a loss as to the purpose of such a question directed toward me, as I have never observed the communion with watermelon juice. I have never even advocated the use of watermelon juice. Yes, it is red in color. Yes, it is a "fruit of the vine." But, so is a strawberry. So also is a tomato. I've never advocated their use either. I went back and studied again one of my early issues of Reflections titled Substitution In The Supper: May We Replace The Elements? [June 30, 2003 -- Issue #50], thinking perhaps I had written something in that article that would have confused this individual. However, my statements in that article were quite clear, I believe. Notice the following excerpts taken from that study:


We know from Jewish tradition, as it related to the Passover celebration, that the contents of the cup, the "fruit of the vine," would have been wine made from grapes. These were the emblems used by Jesus, and we know both biblically and historically that these were the emblems used by the disciples of Christ for centuries afterward. We further see, from the statements made by both Jesus and Paul, that these emblems were intended to be representative of greater spiritual realities, and that they were specifically chosen as fitting figures of these realities. The bread represented the body of our Lord Jesus. The wine represented His shed blood. The wine was often referred to by ancient Jews as the "blood of the grape." Thus, this liquid easily portrayed the blood of Jesus which was shed on our behalf.

These were emblems chosen by Jesus Himself, and ones which He undoubtedly felt aptly and accurately represented the realities He sought to convey. The early disciples apparently agreed, as there is virtually no indication in either the biblical or extra-biblical records that any other emblems were ever employed. There have been debates over the years as to various aspects of these elements (should the bread be leavened or unleavened, purchased or prepared at home, whole grain or processed; should it be already broken into small portions, or should it be a loaf that is broken by those serving; should the fruit of the vine be fermented or unfermented, should it be mixed with water or unmixed, should there be one cup or many; etc.?), but almost unanimous acceptance that the elements themselves should literally be bread and fruit of the vine.

Some wonder if it would be wrong to substitute other items for those chosen by Jesus Himself and employed almost universally by His disciples for centuries. My response would simply be: Why would they want to?! Does a potato chip somehow better represent the spiritual reality of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ? Does cornbread? Beans? How about a tossed salad or chili dog? Does Coca-cola better represent His shed blood than the element chosen by God's Son? Would buttermilk be more fitting? What about hot chocolate or Dr. Pepper? If one is looking for change simply for the sake of change, or if one is seeking to shock his/her fellow saints, then I suppose any of these substitutions would do the job. I'm left wondering about the motivation, however. Change simply for the sake of change is, in my estimation, irresponsible. When our Lord Himself chose certain objects as fitting representations of the spiritual realities He sought to convey to His disciples, then one must have an extremely good reason for seeking a substitution, especially one that is radically different.
Does the above (which came from my own pen) sound like the teaching of one who is attempting to introduce watermelon wine into the observance of the Lord's Supper?! I think not. Having said that, let's at least be honest enough students of the inspired Scriptures to acknowledge some obvious truths. For one, there is just as much "book, chapter and verse" for grape juice in the cup on the Lord's Table as there is for watermelon or strawberry or any other kind of "fruit of the vine." There is not a single passage in the NT writings that specifies the contents of the cup must come from a grape. Indeed, there is not a single passage in the OT writings that specifies the contents of the cup used in the Passover must be from a grape. Further, there is not even a single passage in the OT writings that authorizes four cups of wine to be used within the Passover meal. The reality is, even though some are reluctant to admit it: these cups of wine were the innovation of the ancient Jewish rabbis. The four cups of wine came from men, not from God [see: Reflections #14 -- The "Law of Silence" and the Four Cups of Wine]. Thus, not only is the content of the cup not specified in Scripture, neither is the cup itself specified as an "authorized" addition to the Passover.

Yes, I believe we can rightly infer that the contents of these four cups were red wine made from grapes. Extra-biblical sources make that abundantly clear. Nevertheless, although such an assumption is a fair one, we must admit that there is NO "book, chapter and verse" for grape juice/wine in the cup. We may certainly deduce this to be true (and I think rightly so), but no man can provide a passage that actually declares it. This being the case, I personally don't believe we can elevate the nature of the cup contents to the level of eternal, binding LAW. No divine law may be established solely upon the foundation of a human assumption. Also, we must always allow for the introduction of God's grace into special circumstances where a commonly accepted tradition may be beyond the ability of some to practice. For example, consider the following (which is again taken from the above referenced Issue #50):


What if a particular group of people do not have access to grape juice? Will another fruit of the vine suffice, or must the contents of the cup always and only be the "blood of the grape"? I had a missionary to a primitive island people tell me some years ago (when I was living and preaching in Hawaii) that the little village where he converted several people did not have access to grape juice. There were no grapes on that island, and they had little contact with the outside world. They did have other fruit which grew on a vine, however, whose edible portions were a dark red. These people, therefore, chose to use the juice of this particular "fruit of the vine" in the Lord's Supper. After all, it was red in color, thus a fitting representation of blood, and it was a fruit from a vine. They also did not have wheat or grains, but they made flat breads from certain roots that grew in abundance on the island. Would their flat, unleavened "bread" and their red "fruit of the vine" be acceptable? In my opinion they would. Not having the elements used by Jesus readily available, and attempting to replicate them as accurately as possible given one's circumstances, is far different than those who do have those elements available and simply decide to replace them with something of their own choosing. To sum up, my own personal conviction is that we should employ the elements used by Jesus if they are available to us. If they are not, then we should seek to replicate them as closely as possible. After all, Jesus chose bread and the fruit of the vine for a reason; He had a purpose for doing so. He regarded them as fitting figures to convey the spiritual realities He sought to convey.
Thus, I believe it is at least advisable to utilize those emblems selected by Jesus (as best we can infer their true nature) if said emblems are readily available to us. However, since nowhere is the exact nature of the contents of the cup ever specified or commanded, space is clearly left unto us for valid exceptions. Thus, we might well say that in some situations it is Grace over Grape; the fruit of the Spirit over the fruit of the vine! God judges the content of our heart, not the content of our cup! Thus, if the situation arose where I was among disciples who had no access to grapes, but did have access to watermelons, and they chose to take this alternate "fruit of the vine" to produce a red colored juice to represent the shed blood of Christ, I would not hesitate for a second to observe this memorial meal with this other "fruit of the vine." And, frankly, I don't think my Lord would be in the least offended by my action. In fact, I believe He would be offended if I refused.


As an aside, lest you think this whole debate is limited to "cup content," I would strongly urge you to take a few minutes to read Reflections #142 --- The Wheat Grain Patternists: If It Ain't Wheat, We Won't Eat. You will find this debate over the composition of the bread on the Lord's Table almost impossible to believe!! And yet it follows the same lack of logic evidenced in the cup content contention. It is truly mind-boggling what some are willing to fume and fuss about. I still remember the response I received from Bro. Karl Kallus when I was preaching for the American military congregation in Kaiserslautern, West Germany back in the early 80's. A question had arisen in one of our Bible classes as to whether the contents of the cup should be fermented or unfermented. Out of curiosity, I asked Karl, who was the minister for the German congregation there, what the practice was among the German Churches of Christ. He laughed, shook his head, and said, "We don't make an issue of it. Some use one, some use the other. Only you Americans would fight over something so stupid!"
Brethren, carefully consider this --- if more people truly comprehended the nature of the fruit of the Spirit, perhaps we would experience less conflict over the nature of the fruit of the vine!! If more people truly grasped the nature of the "Bread of Life" which has come down from Heaven [John 6], perhaps we would experience less debate over the nature of the bread upon the Lord's Table. How sad that the Lord's Supper, which, in part, was designed to celebrate our oneness in Christ, has become the occasion of a "food fight" between siblings at the Father's table! Shameful. "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread" [1 Cor. 10:16-17]. Brethren, let us reflect on these things, and then let's start behaving like that blessed One Body our Lord Jesus shed His blood to establish. We are Family; it's time we started acting like it.


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