June 20, 2011

The Eucharist

Some emotions...some thoughts...can only be expressed in action; not words. In fact, words would only make a mess of things or be insufficient for the moment.

An elderly couple, having spent their entire life loving and serving each others, grasps each other’s hand as one passes into eternity.

A parent attempting to use the words “I love you” to express everything in their heart toward their child.

The newlyweds who’s passionate desire and love for one another would be ruined if someone spoke...share a passionate embrace and kiss.

The grieving son who finds true comfort in the tear-stained embrace of his friend rather than trite and meaningless words.

There are times when emotions should not be spoken, they should be acted.

We live in a culture soaked in words and noise; a world uncomfortable with silence. We are under a constant barrage of noise with no margins in our lives. Email notifications, text message beeps, cell phones ringing and ipod earbuds in our ears...we fill our lives with noise...with words. So when silence comes...we feel we need to say something, and yet those words often get in the way.

For Christians, communion is one of those times where words are insufficient. We will attempt to talk about it this morning, but it is a thought, a theologically significant action that is deeper than the words we choose to speak. For centuries theologians, scholars, and pastors have called it a Mystery. They have some thoughts about it, but know there is something much deeper going on than could ever be explained.

Communion is poetry enacted. It is an action that moves beyond the words we speak to the reality of God’s grace-giving presence in our lives.

Communion is called a sacrament. A sacrament is defined as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It is an action given by Christ that has meaning and depth beyond what is said and done because God is imparting grace through the action. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches name seven sacraments. While Anglicans and other protestants emphasize only two: Baptism and Communion.

Jesus gave communion to the church during what is known as the Last Supper. Jesus, knowing the Crucifixion is near, gathers His disciples for their last meal together. During the meal He blesses and passes around the bread and wine instituting what has become a very holy moment for Christians for centuries now.

Luke 22:14-20 says,
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

Communion is Living in Christ’s Strength

Luke starts this section out with the phrase, “When the hour came...” There is great significance in time. We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and various special moments in our lives. Jesus knows that His death is only hours away, and wants to leave His disciples something that will sustain them in the fear-filled days ahead.

In just a few hours this small band of followers will be scattered throughout Israel, running for their lives, and hiding from the authorities. Men who just moments earlier defiantly stated they would follow Jesus even if it meant their own death will soon melt into cowardice at seeing the death of their leader. Everything they hoped in will be gone, and they will be left wondering about their own fate.

This act at the last supper becomes an opportunity for them to understand they are not living in their own strength.

When tempted to turn stones into bread, Jesus answered Satan with, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He was quoting a section of Deuteronomy 8:3 which says, “[God] humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

The disciples were humbled so God could feed them with the body and blood of Jesus Christ...Man does not live on bread alone, but on the Word that comes from the Lord! And the disciples were given this spiritual reality through the very common means of bread and wine.

We, too, must be humbled. We often believe we can handle things on our own. We try and try to hold up under the pressures of life and the busyness of our schedule. We have fears, sins, struggles, anger, and bitterness...we know they are going to destroy us, but we fail to get rid of them because we are always trying to rid ourselves of them with our own strength.

We need to be humbled so we can gain strength from the True Manna of Heaven.

John Wesley, in The Duty of Constant Communion, says,
“As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and the blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.”

If that last word “perfection” gives you some trouble...you can replace it with the word “maturity” because that is what he meant...leads us on to being Mature in our faith.

Too many of us wear out in our spiritual journey because we do not seek the strength of God in communion. The protestant church, in reaction to what seemed like dead traditionalism, has minimized the place of communion in many of its churches...to its own detriment I believe. The reaction to dead traditionalism is not to give up on the actions which Christ gave to strengthen us...the proper reaction is to gain a right understanding of the action...to practice it properly.

It is our place...our duty...to remind ourselves that this is more than just bread and juice and to keep it from becoming just another ritual...it is a spiritual food that feeds our souls and strengthens us to do what God has called us to do. Sacraments prepare us, as the Church, for our work in this world.

Another quote from John Wesley,
“...[God] has given us certain means of obtaining his help. One of these is the Lord’s Supper, which, of his infinite mercy, he hath given for this very end; that through this means we may be assisted to attain those blessings which he hath prepared for us; that we may obtain holiness on earth, and everlasting glory in heaven.” (The Duty of Constant Communion).

This sacrament energizes us to live as Christ desires us to live and for our work in the world because our work is more than pragmatic...it is about more than just what works in this world...our work is a spiritual reality requiring God’s guidance and strength to overcome the powers of this world.

Communion is living in Christ’s strength. Next...

Communion is Remembering Christ’s Sacrifice

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the heart of this enacted poetry. The crucifixion and resurrection are the central actions that fill communion with meaning. Without His sacrificial death, this bread and juice is nothing more than bread and juice. Without His resurrection, this bread and juice offers us no more power than the few calories they possess.

One of the turning points for me in understanding communion revolves around the phrase, “do this in remembrance of me.” I had always seen it on the communion tables in the churches I attended, but never explored its meaning. One of my professors was teaching on this section of the verse and pointed out the insufficiency of the word “remembrance” for the what this passage means. The Greek word used here is anamnesis, and while the best word we have to translate it is “remember,” it is also insufficient in portraying what the original word intends.

Often when we think of the word remember we mean simply bringing something to mind. I remembered this or that...means we brought it to mind and thought about it. It is all cognitive and in our head. But anamnesis means we bring a past event to reality again. We relive it. It means when we take communion Christ is as present with us through the Holy Spirit as He was when He handed the bread and wine to His disciples.

This one change to my definition of the word remember completely changed my understanding of communion. I no longer just thought about Jesus and what He did...I now understood that He was present with me offering me the grace and strength made available through His death and resurrection. That is a powerful thought if we let it sink in.

When we take communion we are reliving the sorrows and joys the strength and grace provided to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. This isn’t just some nice action that we attach to the end of each service...this is not some dead ritual we practice once a quarter...this is our opportunity to relive and gain strength and grace from all that Christ accomplished for us. This is what Christ himself gave to us.

I have come to believe that we will not be changed by listening to more sermons, reading our Bible more, praying hours on end, serving the poor and broken, and living morally upright lives...unless we also spend time in Communion. There is something mysterious and undefinable about it...yet God has chosen to work through it to our benefit.

It is here that we must combine this point with our next point

Communion is Celebrating Christ’s Victory

Communion is a looking back at what Christ did...a reliving of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but it is also looking forward to His ultimate victory over sin and death. It is looking forward to the time when He will restore our world to the way He intended it to be. Communion is our way of reminding the powers that rule this world of their defeat in Christ on the cross.

One of the words commonly used for Communion is “Eucharist.” It is usually used by our brothers and sisters in more liturgical churches. It comes from a word meaning “Thanksgiving,” and it reminds us that Communion...the Eucharist...is not just a solemn and gravely enacted ritual...It is to be filled with joy because we know we are saved...we know that one day sin and pain and evil will be judged and destroyed...we know God will be victorious. That is a cause for joy and celebration. God has not yet finalized everything...but He will, and that is a cause for celebration and joy.

As a child, communion scared me to death. Our pastor would give a reminder from

1 Corinthians 11:27-28, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.”

And I was scared to death that I was going to take eat and drink in an unworthy manner! We will talk about this passage in just a minute...but there was no joy. I was scared. Yes, we need to examine ourselves before Communion, repent for sins and seek forgiveness...but we do this with joy because we are not being scolded...we are coming before a Father who loves us and offers us forgiveness and gives us grace to overcome our temptations.

So in communion we gain strength to accomplish all that God calls us to...we remember His death and resurrection...we look forward in joy to His ultimate victory...next
Communion is Joining in Community

That passage I spoke about just a minute ago from 1 Corinthians 11 is part of a letter the Apostle Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. They have an abundance of spiritual gifts. They have all of the offices of leadership. They serve the poor and the broken. But they argue over who is better based on the Apostle or teacher they follow. “You listen to Apollos...But I listen to Paul!” “Oh yeah! Well I listen to Jesus!”

Then there is this passage.

1 Corinthians 11:17-29

“In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.

Communion was often part of a larger meal in the early church. But when it came time for communion some brought entire meals and ate them without inviting their fellow Christians to enjoy it with them. So they ate and drank and were merry while their brothers and sisters in Christ were sitting there with nothing to eat. It was no different from the world around them where the poor were left out and social cliques excluded others.

Paul’s indictment against the Corinthian Church is that they look no different from the world around them, and their Lord’s Supper is really no Lord’s Supper at all because they are doing it without “discerning the body of Christ.” They are not understanding what it means to be part of the body of Christ. They do not understand that everyone is equal when standing at the foot of the cross and standing together as the Church before God.

We, as the church, are called to be part of something new...a redemptive community of people who are witnesses of a new way of doing life together in community. We are to show the reality of the salvation, forgiveness, and grace that God has brought about through Jesus’ death and resurrection in how we act together. We are to be an example of this God life in front of the world around us...and we destroy that witness when we act no different from the world around us.

And when we do these things...we are not really celebrating communion we are acting just like the world around us, and, in the words of St. Paul, we are eating and drinking unworthily. Which is why we must examine ourselves to make sure we really want what God wants.

This morning we are going to take Communion together as a community. You don’t have to take it if you don’t want to do so. I don’t want you to feel pressure just because everyone else is doing it. We practice what is called Open Communion. We invite any baptized believer to join with us this morning in celebrating Communion.

There is a prayer that is part of the Book of Common Prayer that I have always found to be a great invitation to taking communion. Let’s pray this together...then I will read a few things...and then we will take communion together.

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify you holy Name; through Christ our Lord, Amen.

On the night Jesus was betrayed, he called his disciples together, and taking the bread he gave thanks for it, and broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, “Take and eat this is my body: do this in remembrance of me.” After that he took the cup, and giving thanks for it, he passed it to his disciples saying, “Drink all this, for this is My blood which is shed for the remission of sins; do this in the remembrance of me.”

Father, we celebrate of our salvation in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We recall Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension, as we offer you these gifts.

Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in Him. Sanctify us so we may faithfully receive this sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into your eternal kingdom.

All this we ask through your Son Jesus Christ. Amen

And now as our Savior has taught us to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed by Your Name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For Yours is the Kingdom, and the power,
and the glory, forever. Amen.

These are the gifts of God for the People of God.

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