June 28, 2015

Celebrating a Gift

In a few minutes we are going to observe and receive the Lord’s Supper together.  By a quick show of hands, who feels like they can confidently say, “I understand what it means, why we do it at all, and why we do it the way we do it instead of the way other churches do it, well enough to explain it to someone else who doesn’t know anything about it such that they will understand those things as well as I do”?  Every Sunday (and many other days of the week too) Jesus followers from all over the world participate in what it sometimes called the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, and the Eucharist.  That happens every single Sunday wherever believers gather.  Some communities do it every time they meet.  Some do it monthly.  Some quarterly.  Some do it at a certain point in the service.  Some move it around a bit depending on what’s happening.  Some who don’t do it weekly do it on the same week every month.  Some move it around, again, depending on what’s happening.  For many of these folks who are observing the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis, particularly in this country, they’ve been in church for quite some time meaning they’ve been doing this for quite some time.  You’d think that after doing the same thing over and over again for years and years most of these folks would have a pretty good handle on why they’re doing it and what it means.  I mean, surely at least the Sunday school teachers and pastors have explained it if the parents haven’t already done so.  Most of the folks in this room were raised in the church.  Many of you have been doing church twice as long as I’ve been alive.  Based on that alone, it seems like it would be a fair expectation to think that most of us here are experts on this whole thing.  And yet given our survey results from a second ago…not so much.

The truth is that most of us here have participated in the Lord’s Supper for years and yet still don’t really understand the whys or the whats that go along with it.  Some others in our community here grew up in a different tradition and while they now identify with this tradition that very often has a great deal more to do with the kind of community we have than our particular theology or ecclesiology (that’s the study of the church and how to do it) when it comes to the Lord’s Supper.  That means on at least this issue they are just as in the dark as the rest of us.  By the way, if you fit into this particular category of people you can take some comfort in the fact that most of the people around you don’t know much more about why we do what we do than you do.  So when you have questions…you’re not alone.

This morning, I’d like to take a step with you toward fixing all of that.  This morning we are going to take a look at why we bother with the Lord’s Supper at all, I’ll try and answer some of what are perhaps your biggest questions about it, and then we are going to observe the Lord’s Supper as a group in what will, I hope, be an even more meaningful way than usual.  Sound good?  Then let’s go.

If we are going to understand properly why we bother with the Lord’s Supper at all, we need to understand where it came from.  Now, the simple answer is: it came from Mark 14 (or Matthew 26…or Luke 22…or John 13).  The fuller answer takes a bit more time to unpack.  In his opening words to the church in Colossae, the apostle Paul, borrowing from Genesis 1:1, proclaimed that “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.”  Since God created everything, He owns everything.  It…us…belongs to Him.  He can do with it what He wishes.  Well, what He wishes is for us, the uniquely designed part of creation which alone bears His image and was created for Him to share the fullness of Himself with someone else in a loving relationship, to be in such a relationship with Him.  Now, this relationship is decidedly unequal—He’s the creator and we’re merely the creatures—and yet, He took the incredible step of allowing us to freely decide whether or not to enter it.

Well, a relationship between unequal parties is not the same as a relationship of equals.  Being in a relationship with someone to whom we are not equal means that we are beholden to follow their lead, to do what they want.  Now it may be that what they want is for us to do what we want, but still, we can only do what we want when we do it the way they want us to do it…does that make sense?  Think of this kind of relationship as a great big circle.  If we want to be in the relationship, we have to enter the circle.  If we want to stay in it, we have to stay in the circle.  We can be somewhere outside the circle if we desire, but then we’re not in the circle.  And, because we freely choose whether or not to remain in the circle once we’re in it, being in the circle is not a limiting thing.  It is a freeing thing.  It is actually being outside the circle that is the limiting thing.  If we exist out there we can’t be inside the circle until we are willing to submit ourselves to the requirements for entering it.  From the inside, on the other hand, we can go wherever we choose, although choosing to leave would make us less free.  We can complain about the size or shape of the circle, but we have to remember: this is a relationship of unequals and so our vote doesn’t count.  We might as well complain about the color of the sun.

In any event, God, who is superior to us in every way, created us for a relationship with Him and then set about establishing the boundaries of the relationship.  This was, of course, His prerogative since He is the superior in the relationship.  From the whole of Scripture we understand that these boundaries are exceedingly broad.  There’s just one requirement: honor Him as God and live in light of that.  That’s it.  In the beginning, this took the form of a specific command.  Look at this with me in Genesis 2:15-17: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’”  Simple, right?  If you want to be in a relationship with Me, here’s the boundary: stay away from that one tree.  You don’t need to worry about why, you need to trust Me.  If you go to it you will be leaving the boundaries of our relationship and since all life flows from Me, you will be moving toward death.  Again, simple, right?  We should have been able to handle that.

But wouldn’t you know it, we blew it.  At the serpent’s prodding, we ate from the tree.  But, God designed us for a relationship with Him and He wasn’t about to see His plans for us ruined so quickly into their unfolding.  He couldn’t undo what had been done, but He could set the time and place for us as a species to receive the death we had embraced and also provide a clearly marked exit ramp from such a fate should we desire to take it.  And so, in His patience grace, He allowed a physical death other than ours to function in place of ours for the time being.  This physical death gave us a covering in two ways: spiritually and physically.  Flip the page and look at this in Genesis 3:21: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”  Where do you think those “garments of skins” came from?  Animals.  You think they gave their pelts up and grew another?  No, they died.  This was a sacrifice on our behalf.  This was both the patient grace and faithful provision of our God.

Eventually this became codified in a sacrificial system whereby our sins could be covered, satisfying God’s anger over our willful rejection of Him (and denial of reality), and allowing us to once again attempt to live within the spacious boundaries of a relationship with Him.  This system was messy and complicated and never intended to last.  I mean, just consider the instructions for the proper way to perform a sin offering in Leviticus 4: “If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring for his offering a goat, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has committed.  And he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and kill the sin offering in the place of burnt offering.  And the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar.  And all its fat he shall remove, as the fat is removed from the peace offerings, and the priest shall burn it on the altar for a pleasing aroma to the Lord.  And the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven.”

What a mess!  Can you imagine having to do that every time you sinned?  There’s no way that system was going to work for very long.  The likelihood that people were going to start thinking that doing the ritual right is all that mattered was way too high.  And…this is exactly what happened.  Check out Psalm 50: “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you.  I am God, your God.  Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. . .Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?  Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”  Or this in Amos 5: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

So, all the problems you might expect to ensue from a system like this happened.  And we’re not the first people to recognize this either.  Way back in the New Testament, in Hebrews, a letter whose exact audience and author we don’t know, the writer explained in some detail why Jesus was superior to the old sacrificial system.  In the course of this explanation he observed that the very repetitive nature of the sacrificial system meant that it never really did the job it was supposed to do.  You had a situation in which “every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.”  The reason lay in the inequality of the penitent and the sacrifice.  As he explained a bit earlier, “for since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.  Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?  But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year.  For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

What we needed was a greater sacrifice.  We needed a sacrifice that could be offered once and for all sins in all times.  Indeed, that’s exactly what we have.  From a bit later in the same chapter: “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.  For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

Jesus Himself made this clear to the disciples on the night before He made Himself this sacrifice.  From Mark 14:22: “And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.  And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’”

So what do we have here and what does this have to do with the Lord’s Supper?  Well, everything.  The basic problem with humanity is that we are not rightly related to God because of sin.  God gave us a covenantal system to keep the problem somewhat in check, but it was never designed to be a long term solution.  I mean, it could have worked had we fulfilled our part of the covenant, but we didn’t.  Finally, when the time was right, God executed His plans to fix the problem permanently.  Through the broken body—broken to pay for our sins—and spilled blood—spilled to ratify a new covenant—of Christ, the Son of God, God Himself come to earth in human flesh, a sacrifice was made that did what millions of dead animals never could.  Human blood was spilled for human sin and the price of our rebellion stretching all the way back to Adam and Eve’s decision to eat the only fruit in the garden God told them not to have was paid in full.

Now, was it right or fair that Jesus’ body and blood could accomplish all this?  Of course not!  But in God’s abundant grace and love for us He decreed that Jesus could indeed stand in for the rest of us and serve as a representative of all of humanity.  So then, by His death, the thing standing in the way of our relationship with God was removed…by God.  We left God’s circle for what seemed to us to look better and put a big wall up around it in the process.  Once we got out there we realized we had been duped and so tried to climb over the walls using the steps God built for us, but we kept getting about halfway up and then, looking around one last time like Lot’s wife, kept jumping down once again to run around some more outside the circle.  Finally, when the time was right, God came around and tore down the wall we built, filled in the moat we dug, and laid a strong, smooth path decorated with big signs and neon lights.  And then, Jesus came back from the dead making the whole thing permanent.

Is that not something worth celebrating and remembering?  Because of the abundant love and grace of our amazing God, we have been given a paved, lighted, and clearly marked path out of the brokenness that haunts so much of our lives.  The mechanism for this happening was Jesus’ broken body and spilled blood.  And then He rose from the dead, slathering the whole thing in cement.  In other words, we drink this cup and eat this bread, to remember we have life because Jesus didn’t stay dead.  We drink this cup and eat this bread, to remember we have life because Jesus didn’t stay dead.  It’s not simply that Jesus died for us (although that’s a big stinking deal), it’s rather that the God whose authority we rejected wholesale never gave up on us and finally paved a way for us to get back to Him; to be who He created us to be.  If that’s not worth rejoicing over to hold firmly and fondly in our memories I don’t know what is.  And so we eat the bread and drink the cup.  We drink the cup and eat the bread to remember we have life because Jesus didn’t stay dead.  We remember that His body was broken in our place.  His blood was spilled to give us life.  We drink the cup and eat the bread to remember we have life because Jesus didn’t stay dead.

That’s where the Lord’s Supper came from.  That’s what it means.  That’s why we do it.  We drink the cup and eat the bread to remember we have life because Jesus didn’t stay dead.  But, that probably doesn’t answer nearly all of the questions folks have about it and specifically folks currently in the room.  What exactly is going on when we take it?  There are two major views here with some important sub-categories.  Let’s start with us.  As Baptists, we believe that the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance.  An ordinance is something that was ordained by Jesus for His followers to do.  We believe there are two important ordinances: the Lord’s Supper and baptism.  Those two are important enough that a group of believers meeting for regular fellowship should really only be called a church if they practice them.  These two ordinances are opportunities for us to express our faith in Jesus.  Baptism publicly expresses our faith commitment to Jesus and our participation in His death and resurrection.  The Lord’s Supper publicly expresses our faith in the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrificial death and life-giving resurrection.  Baptism happens when we declare that we are committed to following Jesus.  The Lord’s Supper happens on a regular basis to remind us of the treasure we have in this new life.  We believe further that both of these things are symbols.  They are important symbols, but they aren’t more than symbols.  Baptism is a symbol of what has happened in our hearts and lives.  The Lord’s Supper is a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial death.  The bread is a symbol of His body, the juice a symbol of His blood.  When Jesus said, “This is my body,” and “this is my blood,” He was speaking metaphorically.  And by the way, the fact that we (and most Protestant churches) use juice instead of wine dates back to the Prohibition Era and the anti-alcohol crusaders of the Temperance Movement.  We just never changed things after that.

Well, what about the other guys?  Pretty much all the other orthodox understandings of the Lord’s Supper fit under a single broad category called the sacramental view.  The word “sacramental” is a transliteration of a Latin word which itself is a translation of a Greek word meaning “mystery.”  The basic idea is that there are certain practices in the Christian life (other Protestant denominations count baptism and the Lord’s Supper like we do while Catholics count seven—baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, penance, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders) which are able to communicate God’s grace to us in a special, mysterious way that goes beyond anything we can experience anywhere else.

There are three sub-categories here into which various non-baptistic Christian communities fit.  The first group is the Catholics and capital-O Orthodox Christians.  They believe that when the properly ordained priest performs the proper ritual over the bread and the wine, the elements literally become the body and blood of Jesus.  This transformation takes place as they are consumed.  How this happens is a mystery, but the belief is that when Jesus said this is my body and this is my blood, He meant it literally.  The word for this is transubstantiation.   The second group includes Lutherans and some Episcopalians.  They believe pretty much the same thing as the Catholics except they don’t believe the elements literally transform into Jesus’ body and blood, rather that His body and blood are supernaturally present all around them when they are consumed.  The word for this is consubstantiation.  The third group includes pretty much everybody else but us and the charismatics, that is, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, some more Episcopalians, the Christian Church, and so on and so forth.  These folks take what’s called the instrumental view.  Rather than the bread and juice (but sometimes wine) going through any kind of a change, it is the worshipers are spiritually transported into the presence of Christ to commune with Him.  God’s grace is communicated in this communion.

Now, these four views really are different from one another and in some pretty significant ways.  Arguing that the bread and wine literally become Christ’s body is in no ways the same as arguing they are merely, if important, symbols of what Jesus has done on our behalf.  Saying that God communicates something special to us in the act of eating and saying that we are the ones doing the expressing are not reconcilable from a theological standpoint.  If someone was really committed to one of these views over and against the others they would be wise to choose the tradition into which these convictions fit.  But there is one thing we can say; one thing that unites all believers regardless of the particular tradition we call home.  As often as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again.  His death provided the means for our forgiveness of sins and His resurrection brought the life we now enjoy.  In other words, we drink the cup and eat the bread to remember we have life because Jesus didn’t stay dead.

One more question and then we’ll get down to business.  Who should take it?  Different groups think differently on this, but with a couple of exceptions, the one consistent point is that it should not begin until a person has made a conscious profession of faith and begun a life in pursuit of the way of Jesus.  Again, this is handled differently in different traditions.  Some lead young people to it intentionally via confirmation classes at a certain age.  Others, like us, lead young people in this direction but allow it to happen on its own when the heart is ready.  There are pros and cons to both approaches.  But the point is that if a person is either not a follower of Jesus, or is a follower of Jesus but is currently and actively engaged in a lifestyle of ongoing and unrepentant sin, they shouldn’t take it.  Even in our tradition where we believe this to be a purely symbolic act, it is an important enough symbol that it needs to be taken seriously.  We should approach it differently than we do other things.  After all, if we drink the cup and eat the bread to remember we have life because Jesus didn’t stay dead and we don’t actually have that life or aren’t living that life…why bother?  As Paul himself wrote, “whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.”  How that works we don’t know, but Paul sounds pretty serious and so we should take him at his word.

This means two things.  Number one: If you are a follower of Jesus but you have some stuff going on in your life right now that shouldn’t be there; you are doing some things you shouldn’t be doing; you are living in a situation that you know isn’t right and you’re really not doing anything to fix it; then when the plates come by you need to pass them.  Now, is that potentially kind of embarrassing?  Yeah, there’s really no way to get around that.  If that’s you and you are pretty new in this community such that nobody knows for sure yet whether you are a follower of Jesus or not (and if not, you are most welcome here), everybody’s just going to assume you’re not and give you love and a warm welcome.  No big deal.  If that’s you and everybody does know who you are and how you should be living you’ve got two choices: You can lie…which would be a sin and thus you’d be celebrating the thing that bought your freedom from sin sinfully…just let that sit on you for a minute; or you can be honest, deal with the embarrassment, and get your life back on the path of Christ so you don’t have to face it next time around.  I’ll let you get with God and decide which path you need to take there.  Number two: If you are a parent with young kids, unless you are certain they have made a profession of faith (which you know has happened because they’ve told you about it and been baptized), don’t let them take it yet.  Make them wait and explain why.  Will they like that…probably not.  Lisa and I have made that decision with Noah and he’s not terribly happy with us about it.  But, when the time comes and he does get, it’s going to be a lot more special than if it’s just another one of those things you do every now and then in church.  The Lord’s Supper is not just one of those things we do every now and then in church.  If it is, you’re not doing it right.  Again, it may be a symbol for us, but it’s an important symbol and one worth protecting just a bit.  It’s the celebration of a gift so we do well to make sure we have the gift lest it just be an unsatisfying snack.  We drink this cup and eat this bread to remember we have life because Jesus didn’t stay dead.

Now that may not answer all your questions, and if you have more I’d love to talk with you about them, but it’s enough for now.  Let’s get down to the actual celebrating.  We are all going to eat and drink together this morning.  You’ll be served the bread, I’ll talk for a second, and then we’ll eat together.  Same with the juice.  If you are a follower of Jesus this morning and you don’t have anything standing between you and God, then this is for you.  There’s a chance that you might, though, so let’s take a minute together and deal with our junk.  Whether you need to bow your head or close your eyes or get on your knees or stand to your feet with your hands in the air take a minute and do that.  Forget about the people around you, get yourself before God, and get right with Him.  I’ll pray in a minute and we’ll move to the next part.

Now then, deacons, if you will come forward, while I read some more words from Paul, we’ll get down to the good stuff.  With your hearts prepared, listen to this: “For I receive form the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when 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 also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’  For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  SERVE THE BREAD THEN SAY THIS: This eating is something that has been done for 2,000 years.  Some of the earliest believers would say this before they ate: “We give you thanks, Father, for the life and the knowledge which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant.  To you be glory for ever.  As this broken bread scattered on the [fields] was gathered and became one, so too, may your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.  For glory and power are yours through Jesus Christ for ever.”  Eat this, all of you with grateful hearts and in remembrance of Him.  SERVE THE JUICE THEN SAY THIS: In the same way, believers did this centuries ago.  Some of them said this first: “We give you thanks, Father, for the holy vine of David, your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant.  To you be glory for ever.”  Drink this all of you with a grateful heart and in remembrance of Him.  DRINK THEN SAY: We drink this cup and eat this bread to remember we have life because Jesus didn’t stay dead.  Take this celebration of life with you today as you go.  Take it and remember that the life you live in Christ was costly, but it was given freely and out of love, that you might no longer be burdened by the sin that has made such a mess in your life.  Remember that life, and today, live it a little more fully than you did yesterday.  Go in peace.