Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | October 4, 2020
Who are we and what are we doing here this morning as we come to the Table? Preachers are called to preach and teach about the sacraments. For Presbyterians, that’s Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It always strikes me as ironic, when I begin down the path of this assignment: to talk about the sacraments…when the sacraments were given precisely because words weren’t enough to embody God’s grace. Our participating in Communion today is so much more important than whatever I might say about it now. The sacraments are a mystery.
Yet, let me provide you with some brief think-withs.
First, we have several names for Communion. I would normally ask you to shout them out, but no shouting these days. “Communion,” “Last Supper,” “Lord’s Supper,” for Roman Catholics “the Mass,” and for the Lutherans “Eucharist.” Eucharist is a Greek word meaning “Thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving for Jesus.
What is at the heart of our Thanksgiving celebrations each November? No, not football. The meal; my favorite meal of the year. A gratitude meal.
Three times a month, Jermaine Washington and Michelle Stevens get together for what they call a “gratitude lunch.” They are not related, they are “just friends.” They met at work where they used to have lunch together. One day Michelle wept as she spoke about waiting on a kidney donor list for 11 months. She was being sustained by kidney dialysis, but suffered chronic fatigue and blackouts and was plagued by joint pain. Because Washington couldn’t stand the thought of watching his friend die, he gave her one of his kidneys. When you’ve got something great to be thankful for, having a “gratitude lunch” is a great way to celebrate. (Today in the Word, November 14, 1993.)
So, in celebrating communion we are celebrating a meal of gratitude.
2. It is a time to celebrate reconciliation. Many of us, when we were young and in confirmation class, received instruction about communion. I am sure that some of you were warned to really pay attention. You must understand what you are doing when you take communion, or, as we read from the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 11:29: …those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.
Many of us were taught that, were taught that the phrase “discern the Body of Christ” was referring to the act of eating the bread. You’ve got to know what you are doing and what it means.
But that’s a fundamental misreading of Paul’s exhortation.
“So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 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. 22 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 is he saying? When the early church was gathering for the meal the bread and wine were part of a larger potluck supper. In those early gatherings would be people from all different stations in life—a few well off people, and a lot of working class folks and even slaves. What was evidently happening is that the folks who didn’t have to work late got there at 5 PM and started in to eat, without waiting for the lower-class folks who were still at work. The “body of Christ” we are to discern is not the bread, it’s our fellow church members. Paul is saying, “Be on good terms with your neighbors and treat each other well” or you will be eating and drinking judgment on yourselves. As Jesus said, “If you come to worship and suddenly remember you have something against your sister or brother, leave your gift there on the altar, go and be reconciled and then offer your gift.”
Some of you may remember the story I told you of my friend Mary. We were at Holden Village at the same time. Holden is a wonderful Lutheran Retreat Center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. At Holden Village in the wintertime there are only about 60-80 people there. Worship is held Sunday afternoon at 2:30 and the Eucharist is served each week. After the Confession of Sin and before partaking of the Lord’s Supper we passed the peace. And at Holden, this isn’t a quick nod or handshake, it’s a hug. For every single person. Passing the Peace takes 20 or 30 minutes and it’s wonderful.
One Sunday shortly after noon there was a knock at the door of my room and it was my friend Mary. She said she needed to talk with me. She was angry with me and she said she couldn’t come to Communion without making it right. A few days earlier I had made a joke at Mary’s expense. It was hurtful. She had every right to be mad. I thanked her for bringing this to my attention and I apologized sincerely and profusely. She forgave me. We hugged and she left. Later that afternoon and each Sunday afternoon we were able to worship together, forgiven and reconciled.
That summer Mary was killed in a car accident. I’m so glad she did not die holding something against me in her heart.
I told this story in a previous congregation and a central member of the church confronted me after worship. “Well, I couldn’t take communion today…because of you.” I didn’t say anything. She continued, “I’ve got something against someone in this congregation.”
“Maybe you’d better take care of that so you can take communion next month.”
Third. We talk of communion as strengthening us for our lives of discipleship. For a while when I was chaplain I worshipped in a congregation where I wasn’t the pastor. I loved the people, the music, the pastors. But there was a part of the service that often set my teeth on edge. I would get frustrated and tense. But in that congregation they celebrated the Eucharist each week, at the end of the service. And often the act of receiving communion “saved” the service for me. It calmed me and set me on the right path again. I was so grateful. Bread for the Journey.
Fourth. Coming to the Table is a celebration of the Body of Christ, in all its wonder and diversity.
The gifted author Kathleen Norris in the wonderful book Amazing Grace writes:
“From the outside, church congregations can look like remarkably contentious places, full of hypocrites who talk about love while fighting each other tooth and nail. This is the reason many people give for avoiding them. On the inside, however, it is a different matter, a matter of struggling to maintain unity as the body of Christ given the fact that we have precious little uniformity. I have only to look at the congregation I know best, the one I belong to. We are not individuals who have come together because we are like-minded. That is not a church but a political party. We are like most healthy churches, I think, in that we can do pretty well when it comes to loving and serving God, each other, and the world: but God help us if we have to agree about things. I could test our uniformity by suggesting a major remodeling of the sanctuary, or worse, the Holy of holies–the church kitchen. But I value my life too much.”
And then she digs in a little:
The church is like the incarnation itself, a shaky proposition.
It is a human institution, full of ordinary people, sinners like me, who do and say cruel things. But it is also a divinely inspired institution, full of good purpose, which partakes of a unity far greater than the sum of its parts. That is why it is called the Body of Christ.” (pp. 272-3).
John Buchanan (from a sermon at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago) comments on this:
One time, Jesus told a wonderful story to illustrate. A man gave a dinner party and sent out invitations, which were accepted all around. But when the time for the dinner arrives, the guests started to drop out, offering a variety of good and not-so-good excuses.
The host is offended. His response is to get more guests. Not the kind he normally invites to dinner. Not the kind who were at that moment sitting at a table, enjoying the hospitality of a well-to-do and proper man about town. Go out on the highway and invite to dinner specifically those who never get invited, specifically those who are excluded by popular custom and religion.
This is a very different picture of what God’s kingdom looks like, and it is a radically different notion of how God’s people are related. Strangers become guests; outsiders become insiders; all are welcome because, in Jesus Christ, in God’s heart, in God’s imagination, all are one; all in their magnificent diversity are one.
In a world organized on the basis of boundaries and barriers, there are none here. There are no barriers here. There are no barriers of genetics, gender, race, physical incapacity; no barriers of religion or theology or ideology; no barriers of morality; no barriers of sexual orientation. All are welcome and the host will not be satisfied until all are present and every seat is filled.
It is a gorgeous picture of God’s kingdom and the essential unity of the human family.
Affirmation of Faith (adapted from the Belhar Confession, which came out of the South African Church’s response to apartheid, and was adopted by the Presbyterian Church USA as one of our official creeds a few years ago)
We believe in one holy, universal Christian church,
the unity of the communion of saints of the entire human family. And we believe that that this unity of the people of God
must be manifest and active,
in that we love one another;
that we give ourselves willingly and joyfully to one another,
that we are share one baptism together,
that we eat of one bread and drink of one cup together,
that we confess one name, one Lord, for one cause, with one hope, which is the height and the breadth and the depth
and the love of Christ, forever and ever. Amen.