Tuesday, December 18, 2007
We realize this when we read all of Luke's account of Jesus' birth and infancy. In the first two chapters of Luke we see the beautiful story of Jesus' birth -- Mary's song, his birth in a manger, angels singing, and shepherds praising. But then Luke tells us a story that foreshadows the pain and suffering of the cross, not to Jesus only, but also to his mother, Mary. Shortly after Jesus was born Mary and Joseph took him to the temple to "present him to the Lord," since the law stated that every first born male belonged to the Lord. There they came across an old man named Simeon who had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he saw the Lord's Messiah. When he saw Jesus Simeon took him in his arms, raised his eyes to heaven and declared, "my eyes have seen Your salvation." But when he handed Jesus back to Mary he said, "This baby is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed -- and a sword will pierce even your own soul" (2:34-35).
John Killinger, pastor and professor of preaching, tells of how those words were driven into his soul. He and his family were in Spain, in a museum, standing before one of the great Spanish crucifixion scenes. The painting, like so many Spanish works of art, was dark and brooding, unlike the sunlit plains of Spain. Christ hung on the cross. In the lower foreground a woman knelt. "Who is that?" asked their six year old. "That's Mary, Jesus' mother," we explained. He was quiet for a second or two and then he said, very solemnly, "that must have hurted her." Since then, Killinger says, "I have not been able to read Simeon's words to Mary, "a sword will pierce through your own soul also" without remembering that observation (Fundamentals of Preaching, 121).
Luke has hardly finished telling the story of Jesus' birth in a stable than he elicits the image of a cross and the pain and suffering it brought to Mary. Jesus was born to die. The cradle and the cross cannot be separated.
At the Lord's Table, as we remember how Jesus suffered on our behalf, may we also remember Mary, and many others -- even today -- who know him as friend, as teacher, and as Lord who also suffer and, in some way, enter into the pain of the cross.
Friday, December 7, 2007
On the other hand, when we come to the table it should also be a time of forgetting. We must not only remember God's saving grace in Christ, seen on the cross, but we must also forget the past mistakes and failures that keep us from accepting His grace and moving on toward the future that god has for us.
Anyone who competes in athletic games knows the importance of forgetting. I make a lot of bad shots as a golfer but I can't dwell on them -- I have to focus on the next shot. When the American gymnast, Paul Hamm, fell after vaulting he had to forget it and concentrate on the next event. Anyone who lives in the past will lose his future.
Paul was looking to the future when he wrote in Philippians 3:13-14, Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
At the Lord's Table we see with double vision. We look to the past and remember his sacrifice on our behalf, but we also look to the future and anticipate our destiny with Him. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 11, speaking of our action in the Lord's Supper, "We proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." Remembering his death and what it means for us helps to wipe out the memory of our failures. It frees us to look to the future, to "press on toward the goal" that Christ sets before us.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Most of Jesus' teaching during his ministry focused on the Kingdom of God -- its nature and purpose. His disciples were interested because they, like most Jews, longed for the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. They saw in Jesus a Messiah who could free them from Roman oppression and lead them to the glory and power of the Kingdom. Then, one day, Jesus began to tell them that he must go to Jerusalem and be killed. The Gospel writers make it clear that the twelve disciples, prior to the resurrection, never understood this. A crucified Messiah did not fit with their kingdom expectations.
These two subjects, the Kingdom and his death, came together in Jesus' table talk at the Passover meal. First, Luke tells us he spoke of the kingdom: "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God (22:15-18). For emphasis Jesus said it twice. Then he spoke of his death: "And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them saying, 'This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.' Likewise He also took the cup after supper saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you" (22:19-20).
Again, they completely missed the point. He had hardly finished speaking before a debate broke out among them. Thinking only of the coming Kingdom and their place in it they began to argue, not for the first time, about which of them was the greatest. And again, he had to remind them that "the leader is like one who serves ... and I am among you as one who serves" (vs 27).
We know that in the world of politics even the greatest leaders spend much of their time and resources on getting re-elected. Position, status, power, and authority are all that matter. But, Jesus points out, it is not that way in God's Kingdom. The only way up is down. The only way to lead is to serve. The only way to greatness is through lowly servitude.
Is Jesus speaking to us in his table talk at the Passover meal? Is he speaking to us at the communion table, wanting us to forsake our status seeking, our lordly ambitions, and like him become a servant of all? Is he asking us to make that kind of sacrifice? There was a cross in his future. Is there a cross in ours? If we take him seriously, there may be, for did he not say, "If any want to become my disciples let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Luke 8:23).
When we use the words of institution it would be well to keep in mind what else Jesus said at the table.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Cory likes to be early (his definition of "on time") and while waiting for things to get going, I decided to talk to an old woman who sat alone in the sanctuary. She greeting me warmly and I figured she might be good for a story or two to pass the time.
She's 89 years old, but details about World War II were just as clear to her as though it happened last month. It was a time of fear and hunger. Even though her father was a Christian, he had a position of authority on a collective farm. And even though Christians were supposed to keep their faith to themselves, he said one day, "Anyone who knows how to pray, you may go to the church and pray today for an end to this war." She recalled how they walked to the village, got down on their knees, and prayed with weeping. The next day, they heard no planes or bombs. The war was over.
When she was 40, she was expecting another child. The doctors told her she was too old and must have an abortion. She told them, "I have never even killed a kitten. How can I kill my own child?" Her daughter grew up to be a sweet and gentle woman who has a daughter who attends Bible college.
Her son lives in Germany. Her daughter does too. "They all do," she said. They wrote to say that life is easier there, and they wanted her to move there with them. She refused. "I have everything here I need," she said. "I have a garden and some chickens. I am very rich. I don't need anything more."
Her words challenged me more than any sermon I heard that day. Her clothes obviously came from some humanitarian aid box. On her feet, she wore dirty sandals with baggy boy's athletic socks with a red stripe and a hole in the heel. And her smell, frankly, told me she doesn't have hot water or a washing machine. Yet, Janice concluded, she says, "I have everything I need. I am very rich." (Lemke Update, 7/23/2005).
Reading this story led me to Proverbs 10:22, "The blessing of the Lord makes one rich, and He adds no sorrow with it." As we come to the Lord's Table we can be thankful for the riches we receive here. As Paul explained in 2 Corinthians 8:9, For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich."
At His table we both celebrate and receive the richness of His grace. His love, and His forgiveness. No wonder the Lord's Supper is called "eucharist" in Greek -- it is the Great Thanksgiving.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!" Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.
These words are puzzling because Judas, who was sitting right there, had already made arrangements to betray Jesus and Jesus knew it. Why didn't Jesus just name him? Instead, he made all of them wonder which one of them could do this. Matthew shows us how personally each of them took this as he says, "And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, 'surely, not I Lord'?"
Jesus knew, of course, how they would respond when the test came. Peter would deny him three times and the others would flee in fear. Jesus knew that it was not Judas only who would leave that covenant meal and go out to abandon the sacred loyalty involved in that meal. They were all capable of fracturing the sacred trust and forsaking the loyalty that they pledged in eating the bread and drinking the cup with Jesus. Jesus knew that they were all capable of this and that is why he did not simply name Judas as the culprit -- it was something all of them faced.
And so do we. We will face many tests when we leave this table and go back to life in the world.
We will be tested on how we handle this world's wealth -- will we serve God or mammon. We will be tested on our relationships. He taught us to love unconditionally -- will we allow hatred, or prejudice, or hurt feelings to crowd out that love? We will be tested on our priorities. He taught us to seek first the Kingdom of God -- will we seek first the fulfillment of our own desires?
Jesus knows the answer about us as well as he knew it about Peter and the others. He knows that we too will fail him. We can join in Paul's confession in Romans 7, "I do what I don't want to do and I don't do what I want to do."
Just as He sought Peter and the others after the resurrection and sat down to eat with them again, so he seeks us. He knows our failures but he still loves us. It is precisely because we fail that we need to meet him here again each Lord's Day and hear him say, "this my body given for you ... my blood shed for the forgiveness of sins." The Lord's Supper is our great ritual of renewal, our act of re-commitment. It is our chance, once again, to express our loyalty and receive his forgiveness and thus experience renewal. Will you express your loyalty to Him now by saying with me our confession of faith?
A communion meditation for Twin Oaks Christian Church, November 4, 2007.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
But aren't there some things we cannot earn? Don't we receive gifts that are completely free, even undeserved every day? Men, how about that time when you tracked mud over your wife's just cleaned kitchen floor, and she let you stay in the house anyway? Or what about a bird's beautiful solo in the early morning (although I could do without that raucous crow)? Or what about the other gifts of God's creation -- beautiful fall colors, brilliant rainbows, and bountiful harvests? Did we earn them? Aren't they in some way simply unearned, even undeserved gifts?
That is the meaning of "grace". The classic theological definition is "unmerited favor," receiving God's favor even though it is totally unearned and undeserved. The word translates the Greek word "charis" which means simply a "gift". At the center of our world is a God who gives gift after gift after gift. Paul understood how important grace is in our lives and said in Romans 3:23-24, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God [but we are] justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus."
Paul uses a legal term, "justified," in this text. Thomas Long, professor of preaching at Emory University commented on this when he said in a sermon that in one of his courses in seminary he was assigned to spend some time in criminal court, simply observing what was happening there. He quickly learned that criminal court is not like Judge Judy or the People's Court or Perry Mason. In a real criminal court, most of the defendants have been there a number of times and the real question for them is not will they be found guilty or innocent -- most of them are expecting to be found guilty. The question for them is, 'who's the judge in court today?' Some judges are hard and tough and some are compassionate and kind, and they're hoping for a judge with some mercy.
The apostle Paul is using the language of the court in this text and he seems to see us standing there, knowing that we are guilty and wondering, 'who's the judge today?'. And then the door to the chambers opens and the judge is none other than Jesus Christ, who died for us and loved us to the end and loves us still and is our advocate. And the verdict that day is a surprise. We know we are guilty but the verdict is, "innocent!"
So we come to the communion table, this table of grace, with thanksgiving as it reminds us of the verdict made possible through the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. At this table we understand why John Newton wrote, "amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me." We come to this table as sinners, but we leave with Paul's words in Romans 8:1 ringing in our ears: "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Our son and family attend a church in Spokane that has a unique table. It is rather long because there is indented across the entire front of the table a carving of the last supper. It is one of the longest tables I have seen.
Lee Magness points out how appropriate a long table is. He begins by describing his grandmother's Christmas dinner table. He says, "It stretched through the dining room to the living room of her old farmhouse. It was so long there was a place for all her children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It was so long that there was room for folks far from home -- Ireland, Germany, even Tennessee....That table was so long that it was never full until family members who sat there in years gone by were brought back by a fond remembrance or a hilarious memory of Christmases past. It was Christmas at grandmother's house, and it was the longest table I had ever seen." Then he adds, "But I came to know different, or better. The Communion table is the longest table in the world. And I know just how far it stretches" (Lee Magness, Christian Standard, June 10, 2007).
Yes, we know just how long this table is. It stretches from here to the poor in Calcutta's slums, to the affluent in Anglican Cathedrals, and to the weary warriors in Iraq. It has room for the peasant farmer of Brazil, the beaded Maasai woman of Kenya, the immigrant laborer from South America, and the socialite from New York. There is always room for more at this table, and all of our relations in Christ are welcome. It is the longest table in the world.
It certainly has room for us and Jesus invites us to come, to eat this broken bread, his body given for us; to drink this cup, his blood shed for us. Come to the Thanksgiving Table, the longest table in the world.
Saturday, October 6, 2007
A rabbi was scheduled to speak on forgiveness, says Rachel Remen in My Grandfather's Blessings, "but instead he walked out into the congregation, took his infant daughter from his wife, and carrying her in his arms, stepped up to the podium. The little girl was perhaps a year old and she was adorable. From her father's arms she smiled at the congregation. Every heart melted. Turning to her daddy, she patted him on the cheek with her tiny hands. He smiled fondly at her and with his customary dignity began a rather traditional Yom Kuppur sermon.
The baby girl, feeling his attention shift away from her, reached forward and grabbed his nose. Gently he freed himself and continued the sermon. After a few minutes, she took his tie and put it in her mouth. The entire congregation chuckled. The rabbi rescued his tie and smiled at his child. She put her tiny arms around his neck. Looking at us over the top of her head, he said, "Think about it. Is there anything she can do that you could not forgive her for?" Throughout the room people began to nod in recognition, thinking perhaps of their own children and grandchildren. Just then, she reached up and grabbed his eyeglasses. Everyone laughed out loud.
Retrieving his eyeglasses and settling them on his nose, the rabbi laughed as well. Still smiling, he waited for silence. When it came he asked, "And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?" (p 99).
Does God ever forget that we are his children? When does God stop forgiving? At a certain number of sins, or at a certain age? Of course not! If the Lord's Supper says anything at all it says, "come as you are, co0me with your sins and guilt, come at any age and at any time with faith and repentance, and receive this cup and hear again his words, "this is my blood ... shed for the forgiveness of sins."
Thursday, September 6, 2007
When the house church at Corinth met it was to have the Lord's Supper as part of a love-feast, something like our potluck meal. But they had a problem. At least Paul thought so. He said to them in 1 Cor. 11: "... when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you (18) ... for in your eating each one takes his own supper first ... do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing?" (21-22).
There were poor and needy, even slaves among them. Since the church met in the evening, and it was a normal working day, not everyone could get there early. Those who came early would claim the dining room while late-comers would be in the atrium. Some had plenty of food and others went hungry; some ate without waiting for others and failed to share what they had.
A few verses later Paul states the consequence of this non-caring, divisive behavior as he says, "All who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill ..." (29-30 NRSV). The were not "discerning the body". What does that mean? To "discern" is to look at something carefully with the eyes or with the mind. When I go to the pantry to find a certain product I have to look carefully and note the differences in size, color, label, etc. in order to find what I want (even then, my wife says, I have a hard time seeing what is there). Paul is saying, 'you Corinthians are not looking carefully at each other. You are letting your own selfish desires blind you to the needs and problems of others.' They were concerned about themselves but not the body as a whole.
We too can come to the Lord's Table thinking only of our own needs, not caring about others. In our individualistic culture we tend to shut out others and their needs. Steve Richardson, college professor and minister, tells of a lady in a nursing home who had a bad week. She was a loving, caring, gentle friend who had received bad news about people she cared for. In fact, several things that week had troubled her and she found herself feeling teary when she came to the communion service held at the home. As the elements were being passed the pianist played a hymn that had been the favorite hymn of her beloved grandmother. Suddenly, the emotions of the week hit her all at once and she began sobbing -- loudly -- not just a quiet flow of tears, but intense and obvious. Whereupon the woman behind her said, "Oh, shut up and drink your juice!"
We would certainly not be so crude, but when we partake do we think only of ourselves, or do we "discern the body?" Are we concerned and care about others and the problems they have, or are we, like Corinth, uncaring and divided?
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
The striking thing about the picture, says Daniel Taylor who saw it in a London show of Spencer's paintings, is that no one in the street is looking at him. "All are going about their business, including two workmen following behind Christ carrying ladders that intersect each other in a way that mirrors Christ's cross ... . Spencer depicts Christ as he does -- walking through the streets of an ordinary village with his cross, like the workmen with their ladders -- to show ... that 'sacrificial loving is daily work, and joyful work at that.' Jesus is just doing his job (or the job, as Spencer insists), the thing he came to do ...." (Daniel Taylor. In Search of Sacred Places, 51-52).
Jesus had a job to do. Even as a boy he knew this, for he told his parents when they found him in the temple, "I must be about my Father's business." Later, on three different occasions, he told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and be crucified. Then, in Luke 9:51 we are told that "He set his face (or was determined) to go to Jerusalem" -- and to the cross. Sacrificial loving was his work. He had a job to do.
And so do we. In the painting two workmen follow Jesus carrying ladders that intersect to look like a cross. Its as if they are following his admonition in Matthew 16:24, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me."
In the painting all of this takes place in the center of human activity -- on main street -- amidst the busyness of ordinary pursuits. This is where living by the cross becomes meaningful, not just in church or in a separated place, but in everyday life. On the job, in the home, on the playground -- sacrificial loving is our daily work.
We are reminded of this each Sunday at the Lord's Table when we take the stuff of everyday life, the fruit of the vine and bread and hear once more his words: "This is my body ... this is my blood ... for you."
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
That commission was uppermost in my mind last week because I attended the Week of Missions at Winema, a beach-front conference center on the central coast of Oregon. Among the missionaries were Bernie and Kelly Bledsoe from Kansas who serve with the Christian Missionary Fellowship in the Ivory Coast, West Africa. He is a Doctor and she assists in the clinic they operate. He moved us deeply with his passion for working with those infected with HIV and Aids. Mike and Lida Sweeney, with Pioneer Bible Translators in Papua New Guenea, are truly pioneers in a sometimes hostile environment. He is now the professor of missions at Emmanuel School of Religion in Tennessee. We also heard reports of work among Russians and Mongols in Irkutsk, Russia, among Chinese in Hong Kong, and new church planting in New England.
As I thought about the missionary messages at the conference it occurred to me that the Lord's Supper is missionary in nature. Not that everyone who partakes is meant to go off to Kenya or some other place. Rather, in the generic sense, as we partake we receive the benefits of God's missionary action in Sending Christ, and we are reminded once again that we are God's "sent out" people.
One of the names that came to be used for the Lord's Supper when Greek replaced Latin reflects the missionary significance of the supper. Sometime late in the second or early in the third century Latin replaced Greek as the language use in the church. Tom Wright explains, "...the end of the meal would be signaled by the person presiding saying, 'Go -- you are sent out.' This ... is a powerful part of the whole event, as those who have fed upon the death and risen life of King Jesus are equipped to serve him in the world. The Latin for this phrase is, 'ite -- missa est.' From this there developed the word 'Mass', the meal that ends with this sending-out, this commissioning" (Tom Wright, The Meal Jesus Gave Us, 36).
While we do not call this event by a Latin name, we recognize its connection to the great commission of Jesus to "go into all the world and preach the gospel." Each time we partake we are involved in and commit ourselves once more to God's mission in some way.
However, I fear that we have lost this sense of being sent out -- commissioned -- perhaps by moving the Lord's Supper away from the end of the service and highlighting the sermon. It might be well for us at times to have the Lord's Supper last and recapture the sense of mission it contains.
On this first day of the week as we meet with him at his table, may we also hear him saying to us, "Go -- you are sent out" -- to be my people in this world.
(Used at Twin Oaks Christian Church, August 12, 2007).
Monday, July 23, 2007
The cup in scripture often symbolizes judgment, wrath, and suffering. When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from me," he was visualizing the suffering and death that would come as he took upon himself the guilt and consequences of our sin. He knew Isaiah's prophecy that spoke of the suffering servant as "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Isa 53:3). For him at this moment, the cup was a cup of sorrow.
On the other hand, the cup Jesus drank from is spoken of by Paul in different terms as he wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:16, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing of the blood of Christ?" The cup of sorrow has become the cup of blessing.
Henri J. Nouwen, a Catholic Priest assigned to a community home for mentally and physically handicapped people in Canada, spoke of what he called a lively memory connected with the cup of sorrow becoming the cup of blessing. One of the handicapped members, Trevor, had to spend a few months in a mental hospital near Toronto for psychological evaluation. Nouwen decided to go see Trevor and called the chaplain to ask if he could visit his friend. The chaplain welcomed him and asked if he would mind meeting with some ministers and priests in the area and some members of the hospital staff for lunch. Nouwen agreed without thinking much about the implications of the request.
When he arrived for the luncheon a large group was waiting for him -- but no Trevor. "I came here to visit Trevor," he said. "Can you tell me where I can find him?" The chaplain explained that he could see him after lunch. Nouwen was stunned and asked, "But didn't you invite him for lunch?" "No," the chaplain explained, "staff and patients cannot have lunch together. Moreover, we have reserved the Golden Room for this occasion, and no patient has ever been allowed in that room. It is for staff only." "Well," said Nouwen, "I will only have lunch with you all when Trevor can be there too. We are very close and I came here to see him, and I am sure he would love to join us for lunch."
They found Trevor and brought him in, but the atmosphere was quite subdued and solemn. Before the meal Nouwen helped Trevor get a coke from the drinks table where others were also helping themselves. As the meal was about to begin, Trevor suddenly stood up and with a loud voice and a big smile, lifted his glass of Coke and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, a toast!" Everyone dropped their conversation and turned to Trevor with puzzled and anxious faces, wondering, 'what is this patient going to do? Better be careful.'
But Trevor knew what he was doing. He looked at everyone and said, "Lift your glasses." Everyone obeyed. And then, as if it were the most obvious thing to do, he started to sing: "When you're happy and you know it, lift your glass. When you're happy and you know it, lift your glass ... " As he sang, people's faces relaxed and started to smile. Soon a few joined Trevor in his song, and not long after everyone was standing, singing loudly under Trevor's direction.
Trevor's toast, Nouwen said, radically changed the mood in the Golden Room. He had brought these strangers together and made them feel at home. With his unique blessing, Trevor had set the tone for a joyful and fruitful meeting. The cup of sorrow had become the cup of blessing. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Can You Drink The Cup?, 63f).
The communion cup represents both the sorrow and suffering that Jesus experienced and the blessing that we experience through his sacrifice. As we take it maybe we should take a page from Trevor's example and say, "When you're blessed and you know it, lift your cup." "This cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?"
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
The phrase that puzzled me is: "the pursuit of happiness." It could easily be understood as self-centered, focused on personal pleasure, even hedonistic. Surely that isn't what Jefferson meant. I came to understand it when I learned the educational and philosophical context in which it was written.
The Declaration of Independence was written and signed by men who had been highly influenced by the Scottish enlightenment. In fact, fully 1/3 of the signers were of Scottish or Ulster Scott extraction. They were familiar with and had been influenced by the teachings of Francis Hutcheson of Glasgow who was known as the founding father of the Scottish enlightenment.
He believed that every one's ultimate goal in life is happiness, but for him this meant not the gratification of physical desires but making others happy. "That action is best," he said, "which procures the greatest happiness," and the highest form of happiness is making others happy.
A recent scientific experiment at the University of Oregon, reported in Eugene's Register Guard newspaper, supports this idea. A number of people were given money and the opportunity to give it away or to keep it. Their brains were monitored and it was discovered that voluntarily giving to help others produced a response in the part of the brain that registers pleasure.
Haven't you found it to be true that when you do something that makes someone else happy it produces happiness in you also? Like seeing your child open a gift, or seeing a young person blossom as a result of your teaching. Doesn't it make you happy to see slides by a missionary of someone being baptized in Kenya, or children singing enthusiastically in a Ukrainian church camp, knowing that your gifts help make this possible? On the other hand, the more self centered, the more we try to make ourselves happy by hoarding or spending on ourselves, the more miserable we are.
Jimmy Durante's gravelly voice in Sleepless in Seattle said it in song: "Make someone happy, make just one someone happy, and you will be happy too."
This helps us understand the puzzling statement about Jesus in Hebrews 12:2 which says, "... for the joy set before him he endured the cross ..." It seems strange to put joy and enduring the cross together in the same sentence, but its true that when Jesus went to the cross he was in "the pursuit of happiness" -- yours and mine! The happiness of forgiven sin, of cleansing and renewal. The happiness of reconciliation and hope. All of this he secured for us on the cross. Thus, it was "for the joy set before him that he endured the cross." We experience again that joy every time we join him at the communion table.
Friday, June 22, 2007
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
In a much greater way, the challenges, danger and difficulties that soldiers face in military conflicts have led them to develop a closeness they would not have known otherwise. Tomorrow we remember one of those occasions. Sixty three years ago, on June 6, 1944, a mighty armada crossed a narrow strip of sea from England to Normandy and cracked the Nazi grip on Western Europe. The men who landed at Normandy and survived developed a remarkable bond.
One of the most haunting stories to come out of the 2nd World War of how community was brought about through sacrifice was told by Ernest Gordon, a British army officer who was captured by the Japanese and assigned to building the Burma-Siam railway. He tells in his book, To End All Wars, of joining a detail of prisoners to build a track bed through low-lying swamp land. If a prisoner appeared to lag, a guard would beat him to death or decapitate him. For most of the war, the prison camp had served as a laboratory of survival of the fittest, with every man for himself. Men lived like animals, and for a long time hate was the main motivation to stay alive.
But something happened to bring about a change. A guard discovered that a shovel was missing. When no one confessed to the theft, he screamed, "All die! All die!" and raised his rifle to fire at the first man in line. At that instant an enlisted man stepped forward and said, "I did it!" Enraged, the guard raised his rifle high in the air and brought the butt down upon his head in a crushing blow, killing him.
That evening when tools were inventoried again, the work crew discovered a mistake had been made: no shovel was missing. One of the prisoners remembered the verse, "Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends." Attitudes in the camp began to shift. With no prompting, prisoners began looking out for each other rather than themselves. It was the beginning of community, a band of brothers (Philip Yancey, Christianity Today, September 2003).
"Communion" and "community" have the same root meaning. They mean fellowship, oneness and imply a group of people who work, laugh and cry together -- and sometimes, it is crying together that creates the strongest bonds. People who look out for each other, people who, as Paul says, "bear one another's burdens" become a band of brothers and sisters in Christ. Of course, it was the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf that brought our community of faith into being. Sin said, like that guard, "ALL DIE!" but Jesus said, "NO, I WILL DIE FOR ALL."
His sacrifice has brought us together, at this table, into this fellowship we call church, and we stay together as we take up our cross and follow him.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
On this memorial weekend we remember fallen heroes. The news keeps us painfully aware that war always produces fallen heroes, and we all agree that fallen heroes deserve to be remembered. If I were to ask you to name some fallen heroes you especially remember today your answers would probably range from friends or loved ones in the Second World War to the current conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Our formal remembering began when General Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the republic, officially proclaimed May 30, 1868 to be a day of Memorial for soldiers who had fallen in the Civil War. Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and confederate soldiers in Arlington Cemetery. However, the Southern States did not recognize this day and observed other days for honoring their dead until after WW I when Memorial Day became the day to honor those who died fighting in any way, not just the Civil War.
In 1915 Moina Michael, inspired by the poem, "In Flanders Fields," contributed her own short poem that led to wearing poppies in honor of those who died:
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Prior to this event Jesus had been engaged in a strenuous and demanding ministry. Also, Jesus must have known that King Herod, who had beheaded John the Baptist, was disturbed at his popularity. Kings like Herod were notoriously paranoid about large crowds following popular leaders and had ways of controlling such situations. Perhaps for a little R&R, and also to escape Herod's spies for a time, Jesus took his band of followers out of Herod's territory into Gentile country to the region of Tyre. There, Mark says, he entered a house and wanted no one to know of it, but he could not escape notice.
Soon, a woman, a Gentile of the Syrophoenecian race, came to see him and dared to tell him the truth.* Jesus focused his ministry on the House of Israel and it appeared to her that he had overlooked an important truth. First, she made her need known to his group by crying out: "Have mercy upon me, Lord, son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon possessed." Jesus refused to answer her. She continued to pester his disciples who went to Jesus and urged him to send her away. It seemed that he would do so because he commented that he had been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Just then she managed to get close to him, knelt before him, and pleaded, "Lord, help me." He replied with what was probably a well known proverb. Focusing on the Jews, he seems to reject her request by saying, "Bread is for the children, not the dogs." She didn't hesitate but came right back with a truth that his proverb overlooked; "Even the dogs under the table get some crumbs."
Martin Luther marveled at her reply and said, "He is silent as a stick. Look, this is really a hard thump. Her reply was a masterpiece." It was indeed a masterpiece. It made Jesus stop and think. When he replied it was probably after a pause and with a smile as he said, "For saying that you may go -- the demon has left your daughter."
For a truthful, penetrating response, he granted her wish and healed her daughter. This unnamed Syrophoenecian mother tells the truth and her daughter is healed. Someone has said, "when we lie we die." But when we tell the truth life has a chance.
We come to the table to tell the truth. Like this woman, we come to ask for what only Jesus can give, secure in the truth that his power is for us as well as for others. He does not put a fence around the table and say that only certain privileged people may receive his blessing. But we come also to admit that sometimes we lie, or cheat, or sin in some other way. We admit that we do what we ought not to do and that we fail to do what we ought to do. And Jesus honors our truth telling. He heals, forgives, and renews our life and our hopes. So let us come confessing our sins, but also confessing our faith in the one who loves us and gave himself for us.
*The ideal of telling the truth based on this story is from Joseph R. Jeter, Jr. Re/Membering, p 123)
Friday, April 27, 2007
You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?
They could not have been there in Jerusalem and yet he says, "Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified before your eyes." How could this be?
He uses the word, "portrayed," or in the NRSV, "exhibited," or as Barclay says, "placarded before them upon his cross." The word can be used for putting up a poster, or an announcement where all can see it.
But still we ask, how was Jesus put up like a poster, portrayed or exhibited as crucified before their eyes? Three possible ways occur to me -- all of which Paul may have in mind. First, in his preaching. He writes in 1 Corinthians 2 that his preaching centered in Christ crucified. I can imagine that Paul's description of the crucified Christ was graphic and vivid. Second, their baptism portrayed him as crucified and buried. As Paul said in Romans 6:3-6, "All of us have been baptized into his death ... our old self was crucified with him ... " Baptism is a reenactment and portrayal of his death, the gospel visible.
He could certainly have also had their weekly communion in mind. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 and again in chapter 11 he writes about the connection of this simple act with the crucifixion: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? ... "As often as you do this, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." Or, he might have said, "In this act of communion, you lift him up, crucified, for all to see with their own eyes." Here again is the gospel visible.
Each time we take the Lord's Supper we refresh our baptism into his death, and we proclaim his death. Thereby, he is once again "publicly portrayed as crucified" before the eyes of all who have eyes to see.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Henri Nouwen, Roman Catholic pastor, author, and missionary, tells of how he learned a valuable lesson about love and compassion when he was thirteen years old. It was during the last year of the Second World War and his father had given him a little goat to care for. They lived in a part of Holland that was isolated by the great rivers from the D-day armies. Provisions did not reach them and people were dying from hunger.
"I loved my little goat," he writes. "I spent hours collecting acorns for him, taking him on long walks, and playfully fighting with him, pushing him where his two horns were growing. I carried him in my arms, built a pen for him in the garage, and gave him a little wooden wagon to pull. As soon as I woke up in the morning, I fed him, and as soon as I returned from school I fed him again, cleaned his pen, and talked to him about all sorts of things. Indeed, my goat Walter and I were the best of friends.
One day, early in the morning when I entered the garage, I found the pen empty. Walter had been stolen. I don't remember ever having cried so vehemently and so long. I sobbed and screamed from grief. My father and mother hardly knew how to console me. It was the first time that I learned about love and loss.
Years later, when the war was over and we had enough food again, my father told me that our gardener had taken Walter and fed him to his family who had nothing left to eat. My father knew it was the gardener, but he never confronted him -- even though he saw my grief. I now realize that both Walter and my father taught me something about compassion" (Nouwen, Henri. Here and Now. Living in the Spirit, 48).
When people are dying it often costs a great deal to save them. In this case it meant the loss of Nouwen's pet goat. It also cost the father a great deal to see his son suffer so much. while not an exact parallel it says something to us about our heavenly Father's compassion and what it cost him. To see that cost we need only look at the cross. Here we see the love and compassion of a Father who gave his Son.
How much does it cost to be compassionate? In God's case it cost the death of his Son. Each Sunday, as we come to the Lord's Table, it should remind us of John 3:16 (as well as 1 John 3:16), "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son ..." In the cup and in the bread we see also the love and compassion of the Son who paid the ultimate price to rescue us from death.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
They returned to Boston and he boarded Flight 93 to San Francisco, early on September 11. He planned to fly back to Boston after business in SF that night, but as we know, he and all other passengers on the hijacked plane died that day. We know his last words because he made contact by telephone with an operator. He gave her a message for his wife, said the Lord's prayer, and then was heard to say to others around him, "Are you ready? Lets roll." These were the last words that we heard him speak.
On September 11, his father said, Todd died a Christian. As he put it, "Todd had it made with God as well as with man." Then his father added this puzzling sentence: "Its all about the day before." I thought, what does he mean, its all about the day before? He explained, "You see, Todd had it made with God the day before and the day before that, and the day before that ..."
Yes, its all about the day before. We cannot wait until the crisis comes to establish our relationship with God and be ready for whatever comes. Long before Todd Beamer and others like him, Jesus provided a model of readiness through a relationship with God. He too had some last words for his disciples, recorded in John 16:32-33:
The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered ... and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.
He was not alone as he went to the cross; the Father was with him. He could say, therefore, "I have conquered the world." All who face a crisis with God, as Paul said, are "more than conquerors," no matter what the outcome is. Jesus was ready when the crisis came because he was ready on the day before, and the day before that ..."
There is no better place for us to renew our relationship with God the Father and with Christ our Savior and be ready for whatever crisis may come than at the Table of the Lord. Here we renew our covenant with him, receive the forgiveness of our sins, and refresh our faith.
Thursday, April 5, 2007
We find a precedent for this in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 where Paul begins his statement on the Lord's Supper with these words: "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you..." The words "received" and "handed on" correspond to technical terms in Jewish rabbinical literature that indicate the receiving and passing on of tradition.
Its true that tradition is very important in our lives. We have all kinds of traditions -- in our nation, in our families, and certainly in our churches. One of the nice traditions that our daughter has is a family Christmas dinner with the same menu every year. I always look forward to the family sitting down together and enjoying delicious prime rib, twice-baked potatoes, and of course, the traditional chocolate Christmas log.
Sometimes, in the church, traditions become a problem. They can inhibit valuable change when people say, "we have never done it that way before." Or, traditions can become so encrusted with detail and additions, or so elaborate, that the essence of their meaning is covered up and lost.
But tradition can also play a positive and powerful role in our faith. Realizing this, Paul is saying in this text that we must not break the chain of historical tradition that links us to Jesus himself. The tradition of the Lord's Supper connects us with the original, precedent setting even that occurred at the Passover meal in Jerusalem on a Thursday night just before Jesus died.
Tradition actually does a lot for us. Besides connecting us with Jesus at the last supper it also helps to identify us. It was the hat that identified Tevye. For us it is the bread and the chalice. We are a people of the Table. Also, tradition encourages a sense of unity and solidarity with others who also are people of the Table -- with the Anglican kneeling at the altar, the Baptist in his plain and simple service -- the Maasai meeting under a thorn tree in Kenya, and all others who break the bread and drink the cup.
Following this tradition does a couple of more things for us. It is a wonderful teaching tool. As children, or new believers, or even seekers hear and see our traditional observance they hear and see the Gospel; they learn about Jesus and his gift of salvation. Also, if it doesn't become too elaborate, tradition is a model of efficiency. It helps us to summarize the most important and meaningful items of our faith in a precise way.
If we are to keep the tradition alive and powerful then we would do well to follow Paul's advice to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 1:5-6 he spoke of "the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and you mother Eunice ..." and had been handed on to Timothy. Then he adds in verse 14, "Guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you."
We are now the recipients of that treasure -- the faith so eloquently proclaimed in these symbols. We can guard it faithfully by keeping it alive in all of its meaning as we recall the words of Jesus in the last supper, when he took the bread and broke it, and said, "This is my body, given for you." And then the cup also, saying, "This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins." Let us now keep the tradition alive as we share in this communion.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Doctors, psychologists and others knowledgeable about health tell us that people with positive attitudes are generally more healthy than people with negative attitudes. There is something about an attitude of gratitude, a cheerful outlook, or an optimistic spirit that's good for us. Actually, this is ancient knowledge, as Proverbs 17:22 reminds us: "A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones."
We have also learned from surveys that church going people are generally more health than non-church-goers. Being part of a caring, thanks-filled, upward-looking, happy fellowship is good for us. Many factors contribute to a healthy fellowship but at the heart of it is The Eucharist. In my church tradition the word Eucharist, which means to give thanks, is seldom used for the communion service. Perhaps we should use it more often because it is taken directly from the Gospel accounts of the last supper where we are told that Jesus took the bread and the cup "and gave thanks." Consequently, The Eucharist has often been called "The Great Thanksgiving."
It is a very common thing, this giving thanks before a meal. A lot of us do it regularly. It has been done in families for centuries. Certainly, Jesus and his disciples were familiar with it, especially at the Passover, but Jesus took a common practice and gave it a radical new focus as he lifted the bread and the cup and said, "this is my body ... my blood ..." Now, as we focus on Jesus, we have a whole new reason to give thanks.
We bring a lot of baggage with us each Sunday, stuff that weighs us down, makes us feel bad, and even affects our health. How good it is for us to put off the old bitterness of broken relationships, the burning resentment of some injustice, our worries and fears for the future and just be thankful. Thankful for whom Jesus was -- thankful for His death on our behalf -- thankful for god's love so freely given -- and thankful for God's loving and supporting people gathered in worship. Coming to the Lord's Table each week with thanksgiving is a healthy habit.
In Colossians 3:12-15 Paul is not writing directly about the observance of The Eucharist, but his words summarize this healthy habit when he says:
Therefore, as the elect of god, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body;
and be thankful." -- Its good for you!
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
E. Stanley Jones, long time missionary to India described how in other faiths, "that" points beyond themselves to an abstract God, to some great unseen. For example, in the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism the pinnacle of "that" is reached when it describes God as "Neti, Neti," meaning, "not that, not that." God is so beyond everything and so abstract that words cannot describe or even point to It. The best thing they can say about God is "not that, not that." In contrast, Jones said, in Jesus the distant "that" becomes the nearby "this." "For Jesus is the personal approach from the Unseen in which the unfathomable "that" becomes the incarnate "this" (Christian Maturity, 121). In other words, In Jesus, the far off God comes near.
John makes this clear in 1 John. His most used word in the letter is "love," as it appears 43 times. "This" occurs 29 times. When "love" is used with "this," love is transformed from an abstract principle to a living reality. As in 4:10: "In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins."
When Jesus prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me," its as if he were saying, "Father, how can I do this?" Nancy Reagan was interviewed during former President Ronald Reagan's heartbreaking decline with Alzheimer's disease. With each passing month, she took on more of his daily care. While she felt he still responded to her, there were many times he did not appear to know her. The interviewer commented on her obvious fatigue and asked one last question: "How do you keep on doing it?" Her haunting answer was: "Sometimes, you just love." I like to imagine this was God's gentle whisper to his Son that night: "You can do it my Son. You just love." (Elysse Grinnell, Just Because He Loved. Christian Standard, Jan 7, 2007).
The Lord's Supper testifies to the reality, the specific, the historical, and personal love that god has for us. As John says in 1 John 3:176, "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us ...."
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
- To follow the example of the New Testament Church
- To honor Jesus' command: "Do this in remembrance of me," and thus keep our memory of him alive and fresh.
- To experience his presence as host
- To receive the benefit of his shed blood, the forgiveness of our sins.
Another good reason is connected to the commission Jesus gave his church in Mark 16:15 when he told his disciples to "preach the gospel to all creation." We have always understood that this commission was for all of his church, not just the twelve apostles. Which leads me to wonder -- if I went to the average member, even a very well informed and biblically literate one, and said, "OK, its your turn to preach the sermon next Sunday!" what do you think he or she might say? Or if I were to ask the congregation, "what have you done lately to fulfill our Lord's command?" it might leave them speechless. And yet, I can tell you what our congregation has done lately -- in fact, just last Sunday. Actually Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 11:26,
"For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."
Each Sunday, until he comes, we have the opportunity to proclaim the Lord's death. And what kind of sermon is it? This is no 20 minute, fast-food handout; no homily on how to be happy. This is the gospel! We "proclaim the Lord's death" on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, and thus proclaim the heart of the gospel. Every Lord's Day we lift this cup and say to the world, "this is his blood shed for the remission of sins." As long as the church is faithful week by week the gospel is proclaimed from the table, if not from the pulpit. In fact, the Lord's Supper is mission focused.
Someone has said, "the highest cannot be spoken; it can only be acted." And so it is with the gospel. Words alone cannot express its richness and depth. We have the high and holy privilege of proclaiming the Lord's death each Sunday at his table. What greater reason can there be to have the Lord's Supper every Sunday?
Monday, February 26, 2007
Micah 7:18 "Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love."
There is a danger when you put a history major in front of you to give a communion meditation, because today you get a history lesson.
Andrew Jackson was our seventh President; he served from 1829 to 1837. His nickname was "Old Hickory," because he was as tough and unbreakable as a hickory limb. He is better remembered for his exploits in the War of 1812, and in particular the Battle of New Orleans. He was a rough-hewn Tennessee farmer, and he changed, at least temporarily, the way the White House was used and viewed by the people.
In 1830, Jackson had an experience which, so far as I know, has never befallen another President. A man named George Wilson held up a coach carrying the U.S. mail, and in the process shot and killed the driver. He was tried and convicted, and sentenced to hang. For reasons we do not know, President Jackson issued a Presidential pardon for Wilson. But a strange thing happened -- Wilson refused the pardon. He was guilty, and he did not feel that he deserved a pardon.
Jackson was perplexed. He asked the Supreme Court to rule on the matter. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the Court's response: "A pardon is merely a scrap of paper unless it is accepted by the pardoned. The sentence stands."
So it is with God's pardon. It is far more enduring than a "scrap of paper," but it isn't a pardon until we accept it. We do that initially when we accept Christ as our Savior, and we accept it again each time we come to the Table, remembering the sacrifice that Jesus made for us and renewing our commitment to live as He would have us live. As with George Wilson, if we do not do so, the sentence stands. (Credit to Hugh Poland, Secret Place, October 10, 2006)
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Back in 1960 a meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, was working on the problem of weather prediction when a sequence of equations led to what became a new theory in physics called "Chaos Theory." Lorenz illustrated how complex and unpredictable weather systems are by what he called the butterfly effect. Something as small as a butterfly flapping its wings can set off a sequence of events that changes everything. He said:
The flapping of a single butterfly's wing today produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from what it would have done. So, in a months time, a tornado that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn't happen. Or maybe one that wasn't going to happen, does. (Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos, 141). He concluded that it is impossible to predict the weather accurately.
The same kind of thing happens, not only in the physical world, but also in the worlds of economics, politics, and human relationships. We experience the changes as disorder in our world and long for stability and order. Scientists are trying to find the underlying order in apparently random data by applying chaos theory to systems in the world.
But there is another answer. There is a deeper, more fundamental answer to the problem of disorder than that provided by chaos theory. We can go back to the creator. Here is how Paul puts it in Colossians 1:16-17, "All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things and in him all things hold together." Or, as Peterson puts it in The Message, "He is there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment." Or, to use the language of scientists, He is "the underlying order in apparently random data."
Paul makes it even more explicit in verse 2 when he shows what Christ did to bring about order in our broken world. Peterson puts it this way: "All the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe -- people and things, animals and atoms -- get properly fit and fixed together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross."
It takes more than a scientific theory to explain how all things hold together in peaceful harmony. At the Lord's Table we find our peace. At this table we find the Christ in whom all things hold together. At this table we find the blood of Christ that "fits and fixes everything together in vibrant harmonies." Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
I was familiar with language in the New Testament that seemed to link baptism with the blood of Christ, as in Romans 6:3, Do you not know that as many of us as were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? It sounds like he is answering our question. The blood of Christ, shed for our salvation becomes effective in our lives when, with faith, we are baptised. If it is through the blood of Christ that we are forgiven then Peter's words on Pentecost also link baptism with His death: Repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of your sins ... (Acts 2:38). He used a purpose phrase: be baptised for the purpose of receiving forgiveness of sins.
Paul also seems to link communion with the blood of Christ in 1 Corinthians 10:16 where he asks rhetorically, Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? This is where the word "communion" comes in. The Greek word, koinonia, is translated here as "sharing". It can also be translated as "participation" in the blood of Christ, or as "communion," that is, a common sharing in the blood of Christ.
Add to this what Jesus says in John 6, using strong and graphic metaphorical language: Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (6:53-54). When we read this in context it becomes clear that Jesus is not speaking literally. Instead, he is stressing what happens when we truly believe. When we have an active, dynamic faith in Him it is like ingesting him, i.e., making him a part of our lives in a real sense. Many commentators see these words in John 6 as his interpretation of what happens when we partake of the Lord's Supper with faith.
It is significant, I think, that the words of institution used by Jesus in the upper room were not, "the bread is a symbol of my body," or, "this cup is a symbol of my blood." What He said was, This is my body ... This is my blood. Sometimes I think we would feel the impact of this more if, as in some churches, we would come to an altar, kneel and receive the communion from someone who says to us, with the bread, "the body of Christ, given for you," and with the cup, "the blood of Christ, shed for you."
Why do we have the Lord's Supper every Sunday? Because baptism alone is not enough. In baptism we meet Christ in his death and receive the benefits of his death. But that doesn't end our sinning. Fortunately, the Lord has provided for our need and each Sunday we can once again, as Paul says, Share in the blood of Christ.
Dr. G. Edwin Osborn, one of my teachers at Phillips Graduate School, attended Edinburgh University. He told of attending a Church of Scotland communion service when a high school girl near him hesitantly lifted the cup to her lips and then, with tears in her eyes, put it down. The Minister leaned forward from his seat on the chancel and whispered in a hoarse, easily heard, voice, "take it lassie, it is for sinners like us." Amen.
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
First, Jesus himself ordained it when he said, "Do this ..." Or, if we use the Latin we could say he "mandated" it. The word Maundy, as in Maundy Thursday, is from the Latin "mandatum", from which we get mandate. An even better word might be "prescribed." I like the word "prescribed" because it gets at the power of the Lord's Supper. Medicine prescribed by a Doctor can have powerful effects. By this clear prescription Jesus ordained a practice that has powerful effects in our lives.
The most obvious effect that he intended was to recall him. "Do this," he said, "in remembrance of me." We need this simple ceremony weekly in order to remember him. Recently, I heard it said that we are faced every day with 'Weapons of Mass Distraction.' We are constantly bombarded by all kinds of stuff and involved in many activities. And it is so easy to forget. How many times during the week do we consciously remember to say to ourselves, "Jesus died for me?" We call this a memorial service. We do it in remembrance of Him.
But is it enough to call it a "memorial?" In the upper room at the last supper Jesus was the host. He is still the host. Another powerful effect of the Lord's Supper is to help us experience the presence of Jesus as our host.
In the Bible, memory has a very special meaning. The theologian, Alan Richardson says, "When we remember something from the past, we do not merely entertain a pale idea of it; we actually make it present again, make it once more potent in our lives ... What does it mean that we who today receive the ... bread and wine in remembrance of Christ's death and passion are made partakers of his body and blood? The biblical answer to such a question [is] that when we remember the past, we make it present" (An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, 367-8). Let me stress his words: when we remember something from the past ... we make it once more potent in our lives. In our remembering, the Lord is present again as the host.
Isn't this at least part of what Luke meant when he told the story of the men on the road to Emmaus who encountered the resurrected Christ and took him home for dinner? They did not recognize him until he, acting as the host, "took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew him." Later they found the eleven disciples and "told them about the things that had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread" (Luke 24).
As the hymn says, "Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face ... Here would I feed upon the bread of God ... Here drink with thee the royal wine of heaven." We need the weekly communion in order to remember, but more than that, we need it to experience him as host.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
It was also a movement for unity. Thomas Campbell, one of the founders, described the divisions of the church in his day as a sword in the Body of Christ, rending and mangling it into a thousand pieces. He and others believed that restoring the essential practices of the N.T. Church was the means by which unity could be achieved. We can only have unity by giving up our special traditions and going back to the original church -- the church God intended and as revealed in the New Testament. It's a little like arriving at the correct time of day. If we all have different times we could add them together and take the average, or we could arbitrarily take the time of one of us, but we wouldn't necessarily have the right time. We have to go to the authority, the standard.
This kind of thinking led the founders of the Christian Churches to embrace a slogan: In essentials, unity, in opinions liberty, and in all things love. But what is essential to being the church? This may be debated but there is widespread agreement that the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper are essential to the church. After all, they were ordained by Christ, hence the term "ordinances."
But how are they to be observed? The Roman Catholic Church has observed the Lord's Supper, the Mass, on a weekly basis for its entire history. But as the centuries passed the Mass became burdened with many traditions and concepts that took it far away from the simplicity and purity of the N.T. Church. Consequently, the Protestant Reformation tried to reform the practice of the Lord's Supper. Even though leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin and others recognized the New Testament practice of weekly communion, and openly said so, the churches that resulted from their work adopted a variety of practices. Some observed it monthly, some quarterly, and some even less often.
It was in this context that Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and others in the early 19Th Century Restoration Movement, led the Christian Churches to practice weekly communion. They believed that restoring the practice of the N.T. Church would help promote unity. As a result, we have the Lord's Supper weekly in our church. We want to be a biblical church, a N.T. Church, and follow what we believe is the Lord's will. At the heart of this, of course, is the fact that Jesus ordained it. In the upper room he took the actions and spoke the words that instituted the Lord's Supper.
Having said this I need to add one more thing. While I think what I have said is valid I also feel that the reason given above for weekly communion is inadequate. There is a deeper question that must be answered -- next time.