My Dear Brother:
In my last letter we were speaking of the gathering as such, and necessarily somewhat of communion, as what is involved, or implied, in gathering. I want now to say a few words as to how far this is implied in it, and as to its true nature. Our fellowship is first of all "with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ," and thus only, and in the measure this is attained, "with one another." We are united together by the Centre, as the spokes of a wheel are with the nave. We are gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus, and find our place at His table as having individually heard Him say, "This do in remembrance of Me." This alone puts fellowship with one another in the right place, and, while it tests, maintains it. It makes my presence at the Lord's table a matter of loving obedience to Him whose voice alone I am to listen to, and not first of all a pledge of fellowship with all who may be there.
It is very needful to maintain this, as a point of duty to the Lord Himself; for, clearly, I must not make my remembrance of the Lord depend upon the right condition of those with whom I sit down at His table. I must be in my place with Him, whatever may be the state of others, so long as I can recognize that the place where I am is according to truth and righteousness. I can neither ensure nor assume a right state in all. I must be right myself, of course. "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat."
And at this point let me diverge a little (if it be that) to say that the less we assume as to anything where we are concerned the better. It is a day in which universal failure is the most patent of all things; and the more we are with God, the more we shall realize it. God has not failed - will never; we can answer for Him, and for no one else; for ourselves, certainly, least of all. Confession, not assumption, as with Daniel in his day, alone suits the real character of remnant times.
Suppose you put (as some incline to do) into the gracious promise in Matthew 18, "Where two or three are gathered together to My Name," the words "by the Holy Ghost" - could we always assure ourselves that without doubt our gathering was that, as to all in it? And if not, how far could we claim the promise, "there am I in the midst of them"? These words, "by the Holy Ghost," are not there, as, if they were essential, they certainly would be; nor does the word "gathered" necessarily imply them. All sorts of assemblages - of the multitudes, of the Pharisees, for example - are described in the same language precisely; and it is a great blessing to us that it is so, for only thus can we, without assumption or pretension of any kind, grasp in faith the promise upon which so much depends. We can be honest and real, lowly and self-suspecting and yet draw near in confidence to Him who vouchsafes His presence in the midst.
Ought it, then, to be "by the Holy Ghost" that we are gathered? Surely; and let us test and see how far it is so. Just as with communion, ought we not to be, each one of us and all together, in the enjoyment of this among ourselves? Yes, undoubtedly; but let us test ourselves as to this, and seek earnestly after it, and not assume it. We may be happy with each other in a very different way, and yet mistake it for that which alone can please God; and thus we may force Him even to come in, and break up what we deemed so happy, because we are assuming the sham to be the true, and because He would give us the truth and not the sham. But there is a danger with us, if "communion" takes the form of what is manward rather than what is Godward, that the first unhappiness between us and our brethren - the first suspicion, or perception, of what is wrong in them - should make us act as if it were the Lord we had fallen out with, by withdrawing from that which is the remembrance of Him, and the expression (in the first place) of fellowship with Him. There is the more danger because that which brought Christians constantly together in the first fresh days of Christianity has ceased to be with most what it was of old. The coming together ''to break bread" has been largely displaced by meetings for prayer and preaching, apart from this; and the value of the Lord's Supper is the less realized often even by those who do come together for it. The great meeting of the Church in which we recognize what the Lord is to us all, and what we are to one another, and in which He Himself has the central place, has given way to meetings over which preside officially-appointed teachers, and in which Church and world alike have place. The Lord's Supper would, they think, lose its solemnity by frequent repetition; whereas, in fact, it is thus it makes its mark upon us, bringing us back week by week face to face with those wondrous relationships which are established upon so dear a foundation as "the Lord's death," and to be realized in their fulness at that unknown but ever-looked-for time - His coming again.
To be with Him where He has especially promised His presence, looking back together to His death and forward to His coming - this is what pre-eminently characterizes the sweet and solemn meeting "to break bread"; in which surely He Himself has the central place, and fellowship with Him is the one great essential, which, if it be maintained, brings us into fellowship with all His people who arc capable of, and enjoying, fellowship with Him. This, of course, does not in the least set aside the obligation to promote the latter in every possible way; and it would be an immense thing if we realized each breach of fellowship, where such there is, as a breach with Him. How it would free us from the petty, personal feeling which so besets us, if we understood (as I have before said) our connection with one another to be by the Centre, and only so! With what a different spirit we should take up anything of this kind, when we looked at it as somewhat between the Lord and one of His own, and only thus affecting us at all! Are we not apt to take such up in the very reverse way, and feel that which touches us, first and weightiest? It is for this very reason that it is so safe to refuse ever to pursue what may be deemed our quarrel, and to leave it (if the first steps to "gain one's brother" are not effectual) in the hands of those who can give more dispassionate judgment than we may be capable of.
If we realized this connection by the Centre, would not the bonds that bind us together bind us each more closely to the Lord, and the least relaxation of them be felt as introducing and implying less practical nearness? And would not He be the One we turned to instinctively to settle things and get them right, instead of, first of all, the assembly? Would not He be thus between us and our brethren, instead of (as it so easily may be) our brethren between us and Christ?
You will understand that I am not making light of the necessity for holiness, or of Scriptural discipline to maintain this. Here we cannot act singly: all must act together. To separate ourselves from the Lord's table, is to put ourselves where discipline is no longer practical, and to leave the evil (if such there be) behind us at the table and to defile our brethren. Moreover, how large a class of things there is in which the assembly should never be called in at all! How many personal matters in which the apostle's question becomes pertinent, "Why do ye not rather take wrong?" Above all, how needful to remember that grace is that which gives dominion over sin; as law, on the other hand, is its strength. We must not ever deem it as allowing unholiness, to show grace; or imagine for a moment that there is no way of putting sin away except by judgment.
I feel I have spoken somewhat vaguely in all this; yet after all Scripture gives mainly principles, leaving us to apply them to each case according to what the case is. Simplicity and dependence upon God alone can guide us aright.
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