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No altar

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.  For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:11-14, NIV)

Did you know that there was once a legal dispute in our church which concerned the whole way we understand what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us?

It was 1844, and in those days our congregation met in the Round Church.  Or would have done, but part of the building was collapsing.  An undergraduate group called the Camden Society took the main share in the restoration.  They rebuilt the tower, but at the east end of the church installed a stone altar, in place of a communion table.

The vicar in those days, the Rev R.R.Faulkner, took a while to catch up with these developments, because he lived in a parish in Essex.  But when he did, he protested about the altar and sued the churchwardens.  A mighty legal battle ensued, including even a race by carriage to Ely to gain the ear of the chancellor, the senior legal officer of the diocese.  The vicar lost, but appealed to the highest ecclesiastical court, the Court of Arches.  On 31 January 1845 the Dean of Arches, Sir Herbert Jenner Fust, ruled that a stone altar was not a communion table as required in Church of England doctrine.  The vicar won; the altar was removed.  The case was a vital ruling in English church law.

Was this a storm in an ecclesiastical tea-cup?  Not at all.  The issue is the finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ, on the cross.  The verses above, from the letter to the Hebrews, compare the sacrifices of the Old Testament era with the great sacrifice he made, in his death.  The priests used to make repeated sacrifices for the people’s sins.  For this they used an altar, which is a place for the presentation of a sacrificial offering.  But the point in Hebrews is that Christ has made his once-for-all, finished sacrifice of himself.

This means that an altar is now entirely unnecessary.  No more sacrifices for sin are needed.  In fact, an altar is positively misleading, for it implies that we need to go on offering sacrifices as those Old Testament priests did.  It denigrates the achievement of the Lord Jesus and saps our assurance by implying more atonement is needed.

Instead, our church buildings have communion tables.  A table is not for a sacrifice, but for a meal.  At communion we are not repeating a sacrifice but commemorating his finished work of making a sacrifice for us.  Hear the old words of the Book of Common Prayer, and how emphatic it is that our Lord Jesus’ death was sufficient and once for all:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of his saving death until his coming again….

His finished work: what an achievement!  And what wonderful assurance for us!

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