A special message for all those who “showed up” for the sacrament of Holy Communion today, September 10, 2017, Francis Asbury United Methodist Church
Baton Rouge, LA
Reverend David R. Melville
There are a lot of sayings which suggest that we are responsible for outcomes. We shouldn’t be surprised by the consequences of our part in the equation. For every action, there is a reaction.
Sayings that come to mind include “We reap what we sow;” “We are what we eat;” “Lie with dogs, and you will get fleas;” “Garbage in, garbage, out;” “Practice makes perfect;” “No pain, no gain;” “Nothing ventured, nothing gained;” “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree;” “You get what you pay for;” “What goes around comes around.”
Maybe Matthew 18:18 includes this sentiment: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
And finally, one of my favorites, by Homer Simpson’s daughter, Lisa: “Poor Dad. He is always so unlucky when he’s drunk.”
This morning, Holy Communion Sunday, I offer another saying: “When we are at one with Christ, Christ is at one with us.” The whole purpose of the sacrament of Holy Communion is to meet the risen Christ at the Table. I humbly suggest that we see Jesus if Jesus sees us first. Christ becomes real to us if we become real to Christ.
There are no guarantees at communion. The risen Lord doesn’t show up just because the pastor or priest says so. The risen Lord does not appear by us waving a magic wand or by saying mumbo jumbo. No, Christ does his part when we do our part. Christ shows up when we show up. Show up for Communion this morning!
How many times have you left the Table empty, disappointed, unchanged? We are supposed to feel, and even look different when we leave the Table. Why? Because we have met Christ at the Table, just as the scared disciples met Christ in the Upper Room shortly after the crucifixion.
Be honest … when was the last time you felt Jesus’ presence at the Communion Table? When was the last time you felt Jesus’ presence at the dinner table? We’re supposed the feel his presence every time two or three come together in His name [Matthew 18:20] And we do say His name at the dinner table, right? The sacrament of Holy Communion shows us how and gives us yet another opportunity to meet Christ. But we must set the Table properly first.
Sometimes we blame the surroundings for Christ not showing up, don’t we? It’s not our fault; it’s others’ fault. We act as if Jesus is only going to be present if the altar table is beautiful … with the right colors and elements and candles and paraments. God forbid if I had forgotten and left the white paraments at home this morning, and we had to use the green we are still using in the church season of the year called “Ordinary Time.”
God forbid if I serve communion in a Superman costume, as I did in one church to wake communicants up (and also to tie in with my message that morning about comic book superheroes and Jesus); God forbid if I permit a beautiful Irish Setter named Ginger to join the rest of us at Sunrise Assisted Living Center for a communion service I offer each Sunday following lunch there. Ginger is one of the staff pets at Sunrise, and she — like a few of you have told me – just loves the Hawaiian bread I serve. The residents adore Ginger, so I allow her to come to the table after we have completed the sacrament. Is that wrong? Is that blasphemous? Does that demean or distract from our meeting Christ? I believe there are other distractions at play than just Ginger.
Of course, the communion service at Sunrise may not be legal because we use all forms of altar tables: sometimes a folding card table, sometimes a piano bench; I’ve even used a wheel chair. But regardless of the type table, I can always tell when one of these 80 – plus – year – olds … sometimes feeling poorly, sometimes lonely … sometimes homesick … sometimes having a hard time adjusting … I can tell when one or more of them have shown up for communion. They’re more at peace, they walk or roll with more purpose, and I swear, they are going to have a better week getting along with their fellow residents. It’s not easy living in a group home, in a dormitory, or perhaps even in your household of two or more. We know how hard it’s going to be for months to come for thousands to live together in cramped or unfamiliar spaces because of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Do the elements matter? When Methodists changed from wine to Methodist member Charles Welch’s grape juice out of respect for alcoholics, I’m afraid the door was cracked for other beverages to barge into the party. Speaking of … is it possible to have a meaningful communion service on a party barge? Yes!
Some of the most meaningful experiences of Holy Communion since the Last Supper have occurred on a battlefield, and at a hospital bed, and at a mental health facility, where the communion must always be served with plastic rather than glass, and where the Bibles must be soft, rather than hardbound. I suggest the services can be most meaningful on the battlefield, at the hospital bed, or at the mental health facility not just because they fit nicely into Jesus’ schedule that particular day, but because probably that’s where Jesus is most likely to be needed. And perhaps because in each of those scenarios … the battlefield, hospital and rehab center, the persons receiving communion are hungry and thirsty for it, prepared for it, expecting it, and changed by it. Christ is more likely to show up because the communicants are more likely to show up.
Of course, the reality is, all of the problems and challenges and fears faced by soldiers in war, by the sick and dying in a hospital, and by those facing mental or medication demons, may be facing us in the church pews on any given Sunday morning. A church can be a battlefield; a church can be a sick bay. So we, too, should be hungry, thirsty, prepared, expectant and changed by the sacrament. Sometimes all of the elements are in place … all of the elements except for us. We fail to show up. We miss the meal; we miss the party.
In the ritual I will guide us through in a few moments, I will issue two invitations: Fist, I will invite each of you to the Table. I will also invite the presence of the Holy Spirit. It takes both parties R.S.V.P.’ing. The Holy Spirit must show up, and we must show up.
Who will show up at the Francis Asbury communion table today – which, by the way, looks and feels a lot different than the Francis Asbury communion table of old? We are invited to the Table if certain conditions are met: First if we love God and seek to love God more. Do you love God? Our spouse, our children, and God are not impressed when we simply we say we love them; we have to show it.
Also invited to the Table are all those who “earnestly repent of their sin.” Can we name a sin we have committed since our last communion? Can we name it, admit and acknowledge it, own it, and then ask forgiveness for it? I believe that is one area that sincere Roman Catholics who go to Confession do better than we Methodists. I’m not proposing that you necessarily say the words to me, but this week, have you – between yourself and God — identified, articulated, or verbalized a single sin to God? Aliens from another planet looking in on and listening to Methodists might get the impression that we are sinless. Methodists are increasingly having a hard time defining sin, admitting sin, and most importantly, repenting of our sin. Repentance means not just accepting sin as a part of who I am, and being truly sorry and ashamed of it. We’re sorry, we’re apologetic. But we keep on doing the deed. Repentance means turning around, turning away from our sin and going in a totally new direction. Find a new sin!
The Good News of communion is that we are forgiven of our sins and shortcomings, but we will not be forgiven if we do not see Christ at the Table and ask Him to forgive us.
Another part of meeting Christ at the Communion table is loving our neighbors and hearing the cry of the needy. We mumble those words – they are right there on page 12 of the United Methodist Hymnal section on communion– but do we demonstrate it?
Demonstrating love for our neighbor and for the needy this week may mean purchasing materials for two flood buckets instead of one, even though a full flood bucket is not cheap. Unfortunately, we just endured two catastrophic storms, not just one.
Proving our love to the needy this week may be getting down and dirty in politics—writing your Representative – attending a meeting — and supporting those measures which simply ensure others have what you have – nothing more – nothing less. If we are blessed, why wouldn’t we as Christians want others to enjoy those blessings? The last time I asked that question in a church I got a little blow-back. We may disagree with the details – and I know the Devil is in the details – but as Christians let us at least start with the same premises of justice, equality, and human decency, and let us include Jesus Christ in the details … the same Jesus Christ waiting for us at this Table.
It seems to me that the sacrament of Holy Communion is just as much about others as it is about God and me. Indeed, communion connotes receiving the elements together, in community … not at home alone. We are invited to the Table, and will see Jesus at the Table only if we see others, and seek to live in peace with one another. We can’t see others if we’re thinking only about ourselves and our own welfare … if we focus only on feeding ourselves.
Do you remember in scripture where St. Paul criticizes the church members in Corinth for abusing the sacrament of Holy Communion? [I Corinthians 11:20-21] Many were getting drunk and eating so greedily that the food ran out before everyone could participate. This was when Holy Communion was a large, sumptuous meal, as was the Passover observance. Because Christ’s followers were not behaving like Christ at the Table, the sacrament became the more stripped down version that we have today. Less room for error and excess.
We can’t see others if we’re judgmental. Jesus asked, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” [Matthew 7:4] Jesus also asked us to forgive others if we want to be forgiven. [Matthew 6:14-15] Is there anyone in your life you need to forgive this morning? Until you do, you won’t see The Savior at the communion table, because the person you’re holding hostage, the pain and hurt you’re holding hostage – and which is holding you hostage — is standing in the way. It is blocking the view of Jesus.
Finally, I believe that in order for us to see and sense the risen Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we must approach the table with gratitude and thanksgiving. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. But we should not limit our thanksgiving to material things, or freedom, or a strong nation, or even good health. How does that make those without material possessions, those living under a repressive, paranoid government, and those with deteriorating health feel? Should they feel God is not present? No! God in Christ is alive and well at the communion altar, communion table, communion rail or communion piano bench if we come to the altar, table, rail or bench giving thanks and praise for God’s suffering, death, and resurrection, praise for God’s giving us the church, praise for delivering us from slavery to sin and death, and praise for leaving us a new mysterious advocate and ally … the Holy Spirit. Let us be thankful for those blessings rather than material and physical blessings, which many do not have, and which we ourselves can lose in the blink of an eye.
If you take that spirit of thanksgiving with you, blessings in the eyes of the world will just be a bonus … frosting on the cake. But we don’t have to have them as long as we have met and introduced ourselves to Jesus Christ, and have thanked Him for all He has been doing, is doing, and will be doing for us. We don’t say “thank you” enough anymore. Saying “thank you” to God or to someone – in whatever form we do it … card, text, words, prayer – brings us closer to God and to that someone. We can’t help but see and feel closer to someone we are appreciating and thanking.
Find out where Jesus is, and show up! One place He definitely can be found is the communion table; show up! But you can’t find Him if you keep yourself at a distance from the table, and you are not as likely to find Him if you show up only every once-in-a-while. Show up often, regularly, and show up practicing some of the hardest acts known to humans: humbleness, penitence, servanthood and gratitude and love.
I’ve given us a lot to chew on at the communion table this morning. I’ve probably given you more “conditions” for Holy Communion than you’ve been given in a long time … perhaps ever. If you’re like me, sometimes it’s hard to walk and chew gum at the same time, let alone doing anything more complicated. Therefore, I’m going to give you the opportunity before approaching the Table to prayerfully reflect on what increases your odds of meeting Christ in this place this morning. If you answer the following questions truthfully, you will show up at the sacrament:
Will you please bow your heads and prayerfully respond:
Name one particular sin in your lie, and ask forgiveness for it.
Will you sacrifice for someone in need this week?
Please fill in this blank: “I forgive ______________________.”
Is there anything about God that you are taking for granted, and for which you have not said: “Thank you, God”?
THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY COMMUNION