Scripture: Psalm 116; 1 Corinthians 11:23-34
Rev. Charles Svendsen, Apr 2, 2017
Today at Westminster Presbyterian Church we are celebrating, as we do on the first Sunday of each month, Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper.
We again have two Scripture lessons before us this morning. The first is a psalm of thanksgiving: Psalm 116, and then from Apostle Paul's instructions to the church concerning communion itself. Psalm 116 is a song of thanksgiving offered by one who has been delivered by God from some distress, probably physical illness. Psalm 116 may be summarized in this vow: "In response to your saving love in my life, O Lord, I confess that I will never be the same person as I was before."
So the first part of the psalm offers this celebration: "I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my supplications," and then the second half at verse 12, "what shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation," (for us today Holy Communion), "I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people." (We worship here at WPC with our Presbytery, with our denomination, with all God's people across the country, and in Tanzania, and around the world with the "cloud of witnesses" who have gone before us in faith.)
So communion, prayer, worship, and the psalmist concludes with tender, "precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones," which is often read at memorial Services of Witness to the Resurrection. That is Psalm 116, a prayer of gratitude for deliverance from danger, illness, and distress.
And we have all offered that prayer in times of trouble and we have all felt God's had of rescue.
Let's turn our thoughts now to this Lord's Supper, a lifting up the cup of salvation for believers. This table is a great and uniting sacrament!
Certainly in history and in the modern church, the Sacrament of Holy Communion had endured varying divergent viewpoints. But this morning, I wish to speak of the commonality of communion. That is what about this supper, called the Lord's Supper, what is commonly agreed upon, what is shared by all who are believers and followers of Jesus Christ.
As we move through today's second lesson in 1 Corinthians 11, you may wish to remember a significant communion supper in your life.
It may have been a high, liturgical, cathedral-like setting on a Christmas morning, or it may have been a simple breaking of bread and sharing the cup with a few faithful, maybe outdoors, maybe in someone's home. Picture that scene, if you will. We'll take a moment so we can gather our thoughts.
From the earliest days and weeks of the church, Holy Communion has been celebrated by followers of Jesus, Christians, Christ's ones. Jesus himself instituted the Lord's Supper with his disciples in the Upper Room on the night of his betrayal. Our Lord had gathered his disciples for the annual Passover meal, commemorating the night that the Angel of Death had "passed over" faithful and obedient Hebrew households in enslaving Egypt, which finally broke the will of the Pharaoh to let the new nation go across the Red Sea and onto freedom.
For some thirteen centuries, Hebrew fathers and mothers with their families had remembered the Exodus of Israel through the memorial Passover supper. So Jesus takes that historic meal and surprisingly and stunningly says that the bread that their forbears ate in haste was now his body broken for them. And the bitter cup drunk by the ancient Hebrews as a reminder of slavery's sorrow and sadness was now to be a reminder of his blood shed for all. Jesus takes a prescribed Jewish feast that he and the disciples had learned from their parents (so rote, so familiar, so predictable), and explodes that time-honored feast into new meanings. He, the Messiah, the Christ, and his sacrifice of body and blood, that is now for the new community of faith, Holy Communion.
The disciples must have been astonished! So much so that, after Pentecost, when the Spirit of God blew across the infant community in Jerusalem, the opening verses of the Book of Acts tells us that the disciples of the now risen Jesus "devoted themselves to Apostles' teachings and to the fellowship and to the 'breaking of bread' (the communion supper) and the prayers." At first this supper may have been just that -- a full supper. Later in the Greek churches, like Corinth, this Agape Feast (or "love feast") began with the bread followed by a meal, to which all the church community was invited and the evening concluded with the cup of the Christ's blessing. This practice of a "love feast" continued for some twenty years after the death of Jesus.
In time, however, abuses crept in. Corinth was a seaport community on the Greek peninsula and it was notorious for its difficulties. Divisions arose in the church, mostly over personalities. "I'm a follower of brother Peter." "I'm a devotee of Paul," or Crispis, or ever, piously, "I'm a lover only of Christ." Moreover, these divisions carried into the "love feasts" themselves. And what was supposed to be a gathering of unity was turning out to be a meal of division.
No sharing of food with other parties, people eating without waiting for latecomers (by the way, I read this week that these "latecomers" were probably slaves, they had to work, that's why they were late.) So there was social and economical and maybe domestic (slave and free) prejudice at work. And the real desecration of the supper, many drank too much wine and were intoxicated. Bad stuff. Paul minced no words, in the paragraph just before today's reading.
But what followed Paul's rebuke of the Corinthian people is instruction of what Holy Communion really is. I think if we get ahold of these, we will have that heart of the supper. They can be found simply in four words. The first word is remembrance. Paul takes the Christian community back, recalling that Thursday evening, the night in the Jerusalem upper room, when Jesus had gathered for the last time with his beloved followers.
The Apostle's only trigger phrase which brought that evening scene back to the early Christian memory was "The Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed." Oh, yes, "the betrayal" and the recollections flow.
On that night Jesus took common bread, broke it, and said, "this is my body which is for you." On that night, Jesus took common table wine, distributed it, and said, "This is my blood." And with these words, and by this act, the Corinthian church remembered. And so do we. We remember Jesus this morning in this supper. His life, his example, his teaching and preaching, his death and resurrection, but more that historical recollection, Paul writes, "we remember Christ's body and blood for us." We remember that the life and death of Jesus brings restoration and renewal to you and me! We are sinners who, week by week, come to Jesus. Holy Communion, therefore, its bread and wine is a remembrance, a remembrance not only of an historical incident (the Upper Room) but it's a recalling that the gospel is for you and me. That Jesus knew your name at the cross. Think of that! That Christ is your personal atonement and this faith community's restoration. That in our repentance and faith, our Savior has reached down into your heart and has purchased and bought and paid for and rooted out and healed the sins you won't admit to your children, your spouse, yourself. Broken and shed for you and me. Remembrance.
The Apostle Paul's second word is examination; as we remember Jesus we examine ourselves. Paul writes, "let a person examine him or her self, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup." Eat and drink in discernment. We come with the understanding that this supper brings Christ into our memory. We come in wonder, that this feast unites us with all God's people in every place and every time. We come realizing our inadequacies, our shortcomings, our failures, and we come laying hold of the grace of the gospel. Good News that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God. Examination, reflection, though to our souls, repentance of sins, confidence in the Savior. Will we examine ourselves today? Examination, self-examination means different things to different people. We need to think about our lives in a health-way, don't we? We don't dwell on our failures incessantly that would make the work of Christ for naught.
In the Highlands when Communion is celebrated the the Free Church of Scotland only once a year, that is the lowest attending Sunday in the year. Inordinate guilt! That is not a healthy or, much less, Biblical examination. But neither is presumption. We don't just waltz into this supper. We think and reflect and then come in joy and hope. Examination.
The third word in proclamation. The Apostle Paul tell us that as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, "we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." And that's who we are today, we're all preachers. We are all preaching Christ's death and resurrection, and life, which means our death to this world and our resurrection and life with Christ. Most ministers toss and turn on Saturday nights. Sunday nights we sleep like logs. But on Communion Sunday, you see, there no one preacher today. (I slept well last night.)
We all share on Communion Day in the proclamation of the Good News. "Chris had died and Christ has risen, indeed!" So, if someone asks you who preached today at Westminster Presbyterian Church, you can say "we all did."
Remembrance, Examination, Proclamation an Anticipation. We do this supper, writes Paul, "until Christ comes." Theologians call this the eschatological sense of the feast. We in the pew and pulpit understand that this feast is an anticipation that God will someday conclude human history and redeem creation. That Christ's realm will come. That Jesus will sit down with us at the marriage supper of the lamb. We anticipate justice to roll down someday and that the knowledge of the Lord will blanket the world as the seas cover the earth.
Our Lord Jesus himself said to his disciples that he would not drink of the fruit of the vine until we drink with him anew in the Father's kingdom. That means that we commune today only in part with Christ and one another. Someday we will share with Christ and all God's people in fullness, anticipating the final feasting with our Savior. This is a sacrament, a sacred act. We touch it, we hold it, and we partake together. It means more than bread and wine to us.
This watch was given to my dad by his father when he graduated from college in 1943. This watch chain was given to him by my grandfather when he graduated from seminary in 1946. When I graduated from that same college near Chicago in 1973, 30 years later, my dad gave me this watch. And when I graduated from that same seminary in Philadelphia, 30 years later, in 1976, I received this chain. This is more than a watch and chain to me. It represents my parent's love and sacrifice for my education. It is a sacrament.
So likewise this bread and wine display God's love and sacrifice for us in Jesus Christ. This table of grace is a sacrament. So may this solemn celebration be for us a reminder, and examination, a proclamation and an anticipation of Christ's life, death, resurrection and love for you and me.
The psalmist cries out, "What shall I return to the Lord for all God's bounty to me?" Today we answer, "I will lift up the cup of salvation."
Let us pray.
Almighty and gracious God, we come today with hearts of renewal, with minds of resolve and with souls of restoration. We bring to the solemn celebration our worst failures and our best efforts. Help us cling this day firmly to our Savior and Sovereign Christ Jesus who invited us with tenderness and grace to God.
May we confirm that great love divine which demands our souls, our life, our all.
Westminster Presbyterian Church