Sunday, July 29, 2012

Gnats and Camels - The Sacrament

The Lord Jesus told the Pharisees of his day they were "blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel." (Matt. 23: 24) The name of their office or position, "Pharisee," is the root of the derivative word "pharisaical." The adjective "pharisaical" has come to describe a person, or people, who are outwardly very particular and precise about conspicuous public religious performances and conduct without regard to the spirit. They advocate strict observance of external forms, rules, and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the deeper meanings and requirements that might bring one closer to God. To be "pharisaical" is to be self-righteous, hypocritical. Our righteousness, according to the Lord, needs to exceed that of the Pharisees. If not, we "shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5: 20)

The phrase "straining at gnats," conjures up images of someone holding their throat while choking on a little bug called a gnat. (Has this ever happened to you?) “Straining at gnats” was a phrase used by the Lord to teach that we can focus, or place unrighteous emphasis or importance on the wrong things. Sometimes, we focus on certain right and good things to an excess that is wrong. Alternatively, we sometimes place emphasis and importance on certain things that just aren’t important or right. Often this “straining” is done at the expense of "weightier" principles, (camels,) that are overlooked or passed over and swallowed easily by us, as we are busy “straining at gnats.”  Though a principle or practice may appear in the law, if given too much emphasis or attention, we may "strain ourselves" on that "gnat." Some things are small things. Other things, (camels,) are “weighty” and of great import.  These should be attended to instead of spending wasted time and effort "straining at gnats."

The Pharisees had a skewed sense of what is important. They "omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith," (Matt. 23: 23) while observances and performances of minute details of the law took on a paramount but fake importance. The deeper meanings and wonderful symbolism built into the law that might have pointed them to Christ and His redeeming power if they were understood, simply did not rise to a level to be noticed by the Pharisees. Their religion, what they thought pleased God, was memorized, rote, repetition of practices set out in the law. If the prescribed performances were done with precision, especially if that precision and exactness of performance could be demonstrated in the public eye, so much the better; in this, the Pharisee's job, they thought, was complete. The observance itself and the public notice of the performance was the important thing. Jesus pointed out, "all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. (Matt. 23: 5-7)

Nothing was done by the Pharisee but to make him appear publicly as the strict observer of the law. The public perception of the Pharisee as strictly observant and religious was the objective of every performance. Jesus observed they "outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within (they) are full of hypocrisy and iniquity." (Matt. 23: 28)

Like the Pharisees, our religious observances have us regularly "straining at gnats" while huge camels are regularly swallowed whole by us in one great gulp. In many respects, the lessons of the Pharisee, and the perils of pharisaical conduct, have been missed by us. We, like them, too often believe our outward performances of a few rules and traditions will lead to celestial reward. We tend to believe our weekly attendance at church, partaking of the sacrament, the performances we do regularly, in a rote manner, are the things that will save us. Likely, our rote performances will do us no more good than the Pharisee’s did them. Unless we find the deeper meanings in the things we do, unless we are literally led to Christ by what we do, we, like the Pharisees "will in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5: 20)

Our observance of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is done with a great deal of attention paid to some details that are perhaps important. If a priest administering the sacrament stumbles on his words while blessing the bread or water, we all expect the prayer will be re-attempted until repeated correctly. I have been in attendance when the sacrament prayer needed to be repeated up to five times before it was delivered correctly. We are very sure this is done right every time. And it should be. This is a good thing. However, while straining at this "gnat," we simultaneously swallow a couple of camels that most of us never consider or think about.

Our family recently discussed and studied the ordinance of the sacrament. We discovered, or were reminded, of some "camels" that we swallow each week as we participate in that sacred ordinance. I constructed an email to my children concerning some of the things we had learned. I include the contents of the email here since I think it points out some of the "camels" we have become accustomed to "swallowing."

Here's the email:

The real question concerning the emblems of the sacrament arises when we consider the sacrament the Lord administered himself to the Nephites. We are told,

"And it came to pass that Jesus commanded his Disciples that they should bring forth some bread and wine unto him." (3Nephi 18: 1)

We have to assume there was plenty of water available; if water were the preferred emblem, the Master would have asked for that instead of wine. He specifically sent people to get wine for the purpose of administering the sacrament.

After blessing and administering bread to the people, the record shows:

8 And it came to pass that when he said these words, he commanded his Disciples that they should take of the wine of the cup and drink of it, and that they should also give unto the multitude that they might drink of it.
9 And it came to pass that they did so, and did drink of it and were filled; and they gave unto the multitude, and they did drink, and they were filled. (3Nephi 18: 8-9)

After administering the bread and wine the Lord pointed out the importance and strictness of what the people had just done. He characterized it as a "commandment." He said:

"Blessed are ye for this thing which ye have done, for this is fulfilling my commandments, and this doth witness unto the Father that ye are willing to do that which I have commanded you." (3Nephi 18: 10)

His commandment, for which they (we) are blessed, is that they (we) should partake of bread and wine as a witness and testimony to the Father. 

After teaching the multitude the importance of what they had just done in partaking of the sacrament of bread and wine, the master issued this commandment to the people and to us by way of their record:

12 And I give unto you a commandment that ye shall do these things. And if ye shall always do these things blessed are ye, for ye are built upon my rock.
13 But whoso among you shall do more or less than these are not built upon my rock, but are built upon a sandy foundation; and when the rain descends, and the floods come, and the winds blow, and beat upon them, they shall fall, and the gates of hell are ready open to receive them. (3Nephi 18: 12-13)

Sounds like pretty serious business to do "more or less" than what we were specifically taught by the Master. The same law and commandment is still effective. It never changed. Men changed it. We "swallow" it. (This is a camel of the kind the Lord was referring to.)

Joseph Smith said the same thing the Lord said about changing ordinances and doing "more or less" than the lord gave us. Joseph said:

"Ordinances instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed. All must be saved on the same principles." (HC 5:423-424)

The church used wine for the sacrament for decades before and after Joseph Smith died. Brigham Young established vineyards and wineries in St. George that were for the specific purpose of producing wine for the sacrament for the church. The wine was produced in huge 500-gallon casks through the fermentation process, and then was divided into 40-gallon kegs that were delivered for consumption in the sacrament around the church. 

On the day Joseph and Hyrum were killed, Joseph sent Stephen Markham  to purchase wine to bring back to the jail for their use. Stephen Markham delivered the wine to the jail but was not allowed to re-enter the jail himself. This likely saved his life. On his dying day, Joseph desired to use wine. 

Section 27 of the D&C informs us:

2 mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins.
3 Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, that you shall not purchase wine neither strong drink of your enemies;

Joseph was about to purchase wine from those that were his enemies. The Lord told Joseph it would be better to use something else for this particular occasion, (orange juice, milk, water, whatever, water is not specifically mentioned as being the preferred replacement for wine) rather than buy wine from those that would like to kill him.

The Lord then instructed Joseph that they should make the wine they should use so it would be safe for them. The lord never said or commanded that wine should not be used for the sacrament. Nor did he command or suggest water should be the preferred replacement for wine. To the contrary, the Lord implied wine should be used. 

"Wherefore, you shall partake of none except it is made new among you; yea, in this my Father’s kingdom which shall be built up on the earth." (D&C 27: 4)

The Lord then suggested the day is coming when He will return and partake again of wine Himself in a sacred ordinance. (D&C 27: 5)

The "word of wisdom" implies that wine is to be used for the sacrament:

5 That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him.
6 And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make. (D&C 89: 5-6)

Both places the sacrament prayer appears in scripture, Moroni 5, and D&C 20: 79 the indicated emblem of the blood is "wine." 

Why don't we do this as instructed by the Lord? Joseph Smith was the one who received these revelations. I assume he knew what the Lord meant. He used wine for the sacrament until the day he died.

Later, after decades of keeping the commandment of the Lord in using wine for the sacrament, leaders of the church decided to change the ordinance (primarily because Heber J. Grant was a tea totaler and decided everyone else should be also.) His radical view of the "word of wisdom" resulted in him changing and altering the sacred ordinance.

Heber J. Grant was a man who by his own admission never had the heavens opened to him. According to his own words, he never saw or received an angel. According to him, he never saw or received God the Father or His Son. Yet, because he lived long enough to become the senior "apostle," and because he had a personal bent for tea totaling, he felt it was his right because of "keys" he held, to impose his view on the entire church. And despite the Lord's warning, during his (Heber J. Grant’s) watch, the church began to do "more or less" than what the Lord commanded for the sacred sacrament.

As a side note, perhaps the "word of wisdom" that was first given "not by way of commandment or constraint" (D&C 89: 2) but was subsequently declared a "commandment" by Heber J. Grant has itself become a "gnat" that we as a people "strain" at? Tremendous importance is placed on this polite suggestion the Lord first gave as a word of "wisdom." 

The "camels" we swallow as we strain at the gnats surrounding the sacrament are weighty, not to be taken lightly. We swallow at least two camels every time we partake of the sacrament.

Camel #1. "…they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men." (2Nephi 28: 14)

Camel #2. "Ordinances  instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed. All must be saved  on the same principles." (HC 5:423-424)

We partake of the sacrament as prescribed by the church. We are members of the church and we ought to abide by the rules and laws laid down by those who preside over the church. However, we ought to recognize and understand the "weightier" meanings of the sacred ordinances. It should be clear to us where we are with respect to these things, and why we are where we are. We ought to desire, and pray for righteousness wherever we recognize error.

If the only legitimate excuse for our conduct is, "because the brethren said so," and it seems to contradict the word of the Lord, then we can be sure things will be set right at some point in time. We ought to be sure in the knowledge that no man, regardless of title or position, has the right or power to ever contradict the word of the Lord. The church belongs to Him. Our faith is in Him. We follow and love Him. 

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