What Does the Lord’s Supper Have to Do with Poverty Alleviation?
Adapted from Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream, by Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, pp. 223-247. Used by permission of Moody Publishers.
On Sundays, all over the world, Christians walk into church gatherings to see the elements of the Lord’s Supper prepared. The bread and the cup, in all the various forms they take in different cultures and different traditions, welcome believers into the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In addition to remembrance, in some mysterious way the elements welcome us into very real communion with Jesus.1 But what does this sacrament have to do with caring for the materially poor and helping them to overcome the causes of poverty in their lives? How does a simple worship service impact the reality that suffering people experience here and now?
Transformation Is Required
Poverty alleviation is fundamentally about transformation—transformation of whole people, body, mind, will, affections, and relationships.
This transformation starts with going home. Whether or not we realize it, each one of us is longing for Eden, longing to return to the dwelling place of God. Eden, theologians tell us, was not simply a place of perfect creation, but a “garden-temple”, a place where God Himself dwelt among and met with His people.2
This fact of God’s design for the world helps us see how worship and work, including the work of poverty alleviation are intimately connected. Our entire being longs to worship, work, eat, play, sing, dance, and rest in the comfort and security of our heavenly Father’s home. It is for this that we are created. Unfortunately, we all have been banished from our home, and our connection to God has been severed. This separation is not just an abstract concept. On the contrary, because human beings are hard-wired for a relationship with God, our banishment from God’s presence reverberates through every aspect of our being, impacting our bodies, our souls, and our relationships.
As a result, the foundation for being restored to wholeness—both for the materially poor and non-poor—is to be returned to the presence of God Almighty, for “to be human is to be in communion with God.”3 Biblically, in its fullest expression, being home is understood as unhindered communion with God, neighbor, and even with the land.4
In the new heaven and earth, the ultimate fulfillment of all human longing is that God will once again dwell among His people (Rev. 21:3). He will be with them, and they will then fully enjoy renewed harmony with one another, healing of the land, and the recovery of their true identities.
Because the foundation for wholeness is restoration to deep communion with God Almighty, such communion is necessarily at the foundation of poverty alleviation. Yes, poor people need things like malaria nets, clean water, and decent jobs to become whole, and we should work with all our might to increase the availability of such blessings. But as important as they are, none of them is as foundational to sustainable poverty alleviation, and as foundational to becoming fully whole, as being restored to the very dwelling place of God. From the communion with God in His dwelling place flows further healing, from mending torn relationships to returning to a more wholesome treatment of God’s good creation.
Brokenness Is Real
But this presents quite a challenge! How can human beings be returned to the dwelling place of God? The obstacles to such a return seem insurmountable.
Scripture says we are God’s “enemies” (Rom. 5:10), and what we need is to be reconciled to Him. Elsewhere, the Bible uses the language of our being “dead” in our sin (Eph. 2:1). Somehow, we think we can live without God and His guidance. In the end, such rebellion and deadness of heart do not leave us feeling triumphant and safe, but vulnerable and anxious. It is as if we embraced the apparent “freedom” of being “homeless” only to discover that homelessness brings not freedom, but exposure and terror.
To be sure, there are other causes of poverty than alienation from God. And it is not the case that the materially poor are necessarily less godly than the materially non-poor. But the very foundation of the human crisis is alienation from God, a God who we have rejected through our sin.
Even if we wanted to return to God, where on earth is His dwelling place anyway? Yes, there was a garden-temple in the original creation, and yes there will be a city-temple in the new creation, but neither of those seem like much use to us right now. It appears that we just can’t get home in this life.
How God Accomplishes This
Fortunately, God overcomes all these obstacles. We can’t get back to the temple—to dwelling in God’s presence—so God sends the temple to find us. One of Jesus’ names is “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Jesus Christ is Himself the temple—the place where all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form (John 1: 14; 2:18–22; Col. 2:9).
And Jesus brings us home, to Himself. He rescues us from the kingdom of darkness—from our own inner darkness and from the darkness around us—in ways that are so mind-bogglingly incredible that it will take a lifetime to understand—and then some. In John 17, Jesus prays that He will be in us and that we will be in Him, in some way that is analogous to how He and the Father are in each other. And He prays that we will be with Him where He is. This being “in” is more than merely a legal or social or devotional arrangement. The term for this relationship is “union with Christ,” and looking at it opens a rich vision of the new way of being we have in Christ. Indeed, throughout the New Testament, believers are described as being “in Christ” and Christ is described as being “in believers.”
And because Jesus Christ Himself is the temple, and because we are in Christ, we are in the temple of God! In Christ, believers are more in the temple than we could ever imagine, for we are organically connected to it—to Him! Now, imagine this: Jesus currently sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, and because we are united to Him, we are there too: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4–6).
Being in Christ allows us to participate in the very inner life and love of the Trinity. This doesn’t mean we become little “gods,” but it does mean that He moves in us to drive away all our shame, fear, and sin that make us want to run away from God. We are never more ourselves and never more at home than when we rest in the presence and love of the triune God. We can enter into God’s presence with confidence, knowing that we are always welcome there (Heb. 4:15–16). We dwell in our Father’s house as His beloved children, having the very same status that Jesus has.
Being home is transformational. As theologian Todd Billings describes so beautifully: “Since we were not created to be autonomous, self-made people but were created to be in communion with God, when the Spirit leads us back into communion with God in Christ, we do not lose our true selves. We regain them. Our new self in Christ, which comes forth from the future, is our true self.”5
Jesus is the firstfruits of the new creation (1 Cor. 15:20). And because we are in Christ, we have been spiritually resurrected with Him, making us firstfruits of the new creation as well (Rom. 8:23; James 1:18). Believers are part of the new heavens and earth—right now!
And being home is safe. Indeed, God’s house is the safest place in all the universe. Because we are in Christ, we share in all His person, life, and work. His victories are now our victories. And because He has conquered sin, death, and the devil, all the forces and threats and fears that were arrayed against us—both internal and external—no longer have real power over us. Because He has put our enemies down, they are DOWN! All the rulers and authorities of the spiritual realms are powerless against us (Col. 2:15). In other words, Christ has defeated all the causes of poverty, so in Him, we have victory over all five causes as well.
The Local Church is Really Real
Of course, dwelling in God’s house is not the same as communing with Him.6 Just as it is possible for teenagers to live at home without communicating with their parents, so too it is possible for believers to dwell in God’s presence without cultivating vibrant fellowship with Him. God desires to relate intimately with us, so He has promised to encounter us—including the materially poor members of His family—deeply and personally as we pray, read the Word, and participate in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
As the temple of God (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 2:4-5), the church is the distinctive dwelling place of God for which we all have been longing since being cast out of Eden. This temple—which will have a radical fulfillment in future glory—is the place where God dwells with His people in a special way, transported back from the future into the here and now. Our corporate existence of love, forgiveness, grace and laughter is an anticipation, a real taste of the future, breaking into the present.
Is that how you feel about going to church every week? Probably not. Many of us often feel like we get more out of reading the Bible on our own or by praying while, say, hiking through the forest. Why is it so important for us to gather as the church to do these things? Because when the church assembles under its God-ordained authority for the preaching of the Word, for prayer, and for the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God has promised to be personally present by His Spirit.7 Although these activities have no magical power in and of themselves, God has ordained these activities as “the ordinary means of grace”—the normal means that He uses to call people into saving faith and to nurture them in that faith, thereby enabling them to serve Him more faithfully throughout the week.8
We might expect from this that, since the church is our experience of the restored city-temple brought forth from the future into the present, new creatures in Christ might be restored as priest-rulers in the present as well. And this is indeed the case: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
As restored priest-rulers, believers are called and re-created to live out the reality of the new creation by extending the reign and worship of God throughout the earth, right now. And communal worship in the church, the dwelling place of God, is to prepare God’s family for this task. Sunday morning isn’t the only day in which we worship; it’s the beginning of an entire week of worship.9
All of this must inform and guide our poverty alleviation initiatives. By being united to Christ and filled with His Spirit, materially poor believers are restored priest-rulers who are re-created to engage in work that is remarkably dignifying, meaningful, and purposeful. And preparing for such work begins in communal worship in the church, the dwelling place of God. As we engage in the practices of worship, baptism, and the Lord’s supper, we mysteriously—but really—enjoy intimacy with God Almighty and are increasingly empowered to live into our new natures, to become whole.
Our worship now points to the even greater joy that awaits us when Jesus returns. For then we will experience being fully home-dwelling together with God Himself, face to face!
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place[a] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true’” (Rev. 21:3-5).
And we will be whole there, getting our job back as the priests and rulers we were created to be.
“And they sang a new song, saying,
‘Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10).
The Lord’s supper enables us to experience something of this complete restoration in the here and now, and this is good news for all of us, including the materially poor.
- For more on this, see J. Todd Billings, Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018).
- G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 34 ff.
- J. Todd Billings, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 48.
- For example, Ex. 15:13; Lev. 26:11; 2 Chron. 29:6; Ps. 27:5, 31:20, 84:1, 90:1; Ezek. 27:27; John 1:14; 1 Cor 2; Cor. 5:2; Eph. 2:22; Rev. 21:3.
- Billings, Union with Christ, 33.
- For more on this distinction between “union” and “communion,” see also Kelly M. Kapic, “Worshiping the Triune God: The Shape of John Owen’s Trinitarian Spirituality,” introductory essay in Communion with the Triune God, by John Owen, Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor eds. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 17–46, esp. 20–23.
- Different ecclesiastical traditions have slightly different items on this list. Some would not include prayer, while others, including the Wesleyans, include care for the poor.
- For classic brief statements on the “outward” (sometimes called “ordinary” or “normal”) means of grace see Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. 154f.) and Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 88f.).
- Thanks to Matthew Kaemingk for this insight in a conversation with Brian Fikkert on March 27, 2018. This theme is fleshed out much more fully in the new book by Kaemingk and Cory Willson, Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020).