“Hold on, you drink the communion wine?”“Yes. It’s the blood of Christ.” “But it’s wine.” “I believe it’s the blood of Christ.” “But it’s wine. You can’t drink wine.” “But it’s the blood of Christ.” “But it’s wine. You can’t drink wine.” “But I believe it’s the blood of Christ under the wine, like the Bible and Luther teach.” “It’s just wine, and I can’t be your sponsor if you’re going to drink it.”
We sat there at a Barnes & Noble like that. I remember it that way, anyway. Sudden. Brief. Like two boxers swinging hay-makers at each other. Then the bell rings. We go back to our corners. I don’t remember much else about our conversation. But I remember that that’s how it ended. Words. Wine. Blood. A sudden halt to the conversation. Then I got up from the table and walked away as my now former sponsor sat there, drinking his tea.
I was new to Alcoholics Anonymous. I was new to seminary too. Newly-wedded. I was drunk on words, and ideas, and people, and experiences that excited me. Sitting in a church basement at an A.A. meeting. Attending seminary. Waking up next to the same woman every morning. It was a heady time. It was a time when the force of arrogance began to pull me down into myself too.
I was an alcoholic, a seminarian, a convert, a theologian of the cross. I had clarity. I was somebody who had a lot to teach people about the way things really were. A truth-teller. The smartest guy in the room. Give me a couple minutes, I’ll prove it. I’ll get under your skin. Your need for me can’t be replaced. In the language of recovery, I was a “dry drunk.” In the language of the church, I was a “theologian of glory.”
That’s why I sat there in the car, in a Barnes & Noble parking lot, and wrestled with the confession I’d just made. I’d drunk the wine at communion the previous Sunday. I hadn’t had the urge to run out and get drunk. But still. Was Joe right? Had I fallen off the wagon? Was I lying to myself? No. Wait. It's the blood of Christ. I believe that. And he’s a Methodist after all. What did I expect him to say? But, still, he’s right. It’s wine too. The blood of Christ under the wine, but it’s still wine. I’d been tripped up. The supposed power of my convictions had been overpowered by a few words. One little “but” caused me to stumble, doubt, lose hope.
“But it’s just wine,” he said.
It was years before I could drink the wine at communion without a twinge of guilt. What my former sponsor had said stuck. "But it’s just wine." Can I really be sober and drink the communion wine? Is my sobriety so tied to my believing that one will inevitably force me to abandon the other? Can the words have that much power? “This is my body given into death for your sin. This is my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Is the blood of Christ strong enough to keep me sober?
Not unless it's the true blood of Christ under the wine. Only if the words are true. “This is my blood.” Is means is, or the Bible is a lie. God's a liar. I’m a liar. Then I'm lying to myself, lying to the other drunks in my congregation, about the words on the page. I'm lying about the clarity, about the “is.” I'm lying about God’s words, lying about God. I lie because I'm god. The god of my creation. The god who justifies my drinking. The one who says to himself, “Don’t worry, it’s not just wine, it’s blood! You can drink it. It’s okay. This is different. Special. You're special. You can handle it. You’ve got it under control. Be at peace. I absolve me.”
It's true. I’m a liar. I’m always lying. I even lie to myself about why I lie. But the words of Christ are true. Is means is. As St. Paul wrote:
I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new testament in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:23-27 - NKJV)
In the Church, whether a drunk or sober, our conscience is clear because God's Word is clear. His Word has power to do what He says. That's also why, by the grace of God, I'm sober. Words. Wine. Blood. Yes, I drink the communion wine. It is the blood of Christ. So help me God, it's His blood.