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Worship and Service

Communion

In 1863, in a little town in Pennsylvania, the city fathers decided that they needed to dedicate a cemetery because of the large number of dead from a recent battle in the Civil War. Wanting to do the matter justice, they hired one of the preeminent orators of the day, a former senator named Edward Everett.

Everett asked for a couple of months to prepare such a major speech, so it was November before the dedication took place. As was the fashion of the time, Everett spoke for about two and a half hours. He began with Pericles, worked his way through Ezekiel's dry bones and eventually came to the present. The oration was a tremendous success. He sat down to a thunderous applause.

The master of ceremonies then said that the President had a few remarks to make as well. Obviously, after such a masterpiece, only a few words could be spoken. Abraham Lincoln got up, unfolded his paper, and began, "Four score and seven years ago…"

Edward Everett's oration is still in the bookcases, somewhere. Lincoln's words are engraved on the heart of America.

It seems so often in our congregation that Communion is an afterthought. Those of an older generation will remember "Communion meditations." (Your teacher thinks them so important that he once wrote a year's worth for his class.) These are no more. Indeed, if a stranger wandered in who knew nothing of Communion, he would be quite puzzled indeed why these people engaged in such strange behavior with no plausible explanation. Yet like Lincoln's little speech, it is the heart of the matter. In Communion we see, symbolically, the very basis of Christianity - the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, the atonement for our sins.

The Grand Themes

A single lesson is far too short to encompass all of Communion. We will focus solely on those themes which seem to have the most common use during the rest of the week:

Self Examination

We are taught to examine ourselves before we partake of Communion. This is entirely fitting. Our Lord taught us that we are to do this so that we will restore our fellowship. How serious is this? We are told that Richard the Lionheart refused Communion the last eight years of his life (until he was dying) for fear that in confession he would be compelled to be reconciled to his enemy, King Philip of France. He knew the power of self-examination; understood the consequences and rejected it until death was actually upon him. Take it seriously; we are to examine ourselves in Communion. If we judge ourselves, God will not be required to do it for us.

One body

By the very act of taking Communion (indeed by the very name itself) we proclaim that we belong to the Body of Christ - the church.

·         Christ himself, at the Last Supper, proclaimed that what we take (wine and bread) are in fact his blood and body. There are many ways to interpret this, but all of them agree that so taking is representative of his One Body, the church.

·         Why? Perhaps it's as simple as the old sign in my college dormitory: "You are what you eat." (This was meant as a warning against cafeteria food). What you take in physically determines what you become physically. What you take in spiritually determines what you become spiritually - and if you take in His body and blood, you become like Him.

The Hope of the Resurrection

Communion is nothing if it is not a symbolic act. One of the meanings of this symbolic act is that we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the Lord's return. You cannot take the symbols of his death without remembering his resurrection. His resurrection is "first fruits" of the resurrection to come. Indeed, we are told to do this "until he comes again." So Communion looks forward as well as backward.

Forgiveness

In John's Gospel we learn that Christ's death on the Cross showed us "the full extent of his love." If there is any lesson at all to be seen in Communion, at least there is this for the dullest of heads: we can be forgiven. Christ, by his atoning death, has put us right with God.

Proclamation

(1 Cor 11:26 NIV) For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

There are two things to be noted here:

·         You proclaim the Lord's death - interestingly, not the resurrection. Why? Because it is in his death that we have forgiveness of sins and life eternal. He is our atonement.

·         You proclaim it "until he comes." That is, you are saying that you believe the Lord will return just as he said - and that until then, you will remain faithful to him.

How, then, does all this apply to our daily walk as Christians?

Self Examination

There are, I submit, three things in self examination.

Recognition that we are all sinners

This has two primary points:

·         First, that I am a sinner. The question is not, "am I?" but "how am I?" In other words, what have I done this time? It is the function of the Spirit to point out our sins so that we may repent - and this starts with us recognizing that we are sinners.

·         Second, so is everyone else. So all forms of comparison between us are simply comparing sin lists. This alone ought to teach us not to judge.

Confession

It does us no good to realize that we are sinners. We have to do something about it. The next step is confession. We are told to confess our sins to each other. Why?

·         Well, God already knows about it. He wants you to admit it and bring it out in the open, but there is no sense trying to hide it.

·         We need to confess to others so that they may see that we really are not perfect - indeed, the concept of being "a better man than…" really doesn't apply.

·         We also need to confess so that we can have the aid of our brothers and sisters in helping us through our problems.

·         And, if necessary, public confession may be required to purge evil from the church. Sweeping dirt under the rug leaves - dirt under the rug.

We must not be like Lucy (in the comic strip Peanuts) - "I thought I made a mistake once, but I was wrong."

Repentance

Having gone this far, it is clear we must go "whole hog." We need to do something about it. We need to repent. Action is required.

And where will we get the help we need to keep that repentance in force? From the church, the body of Christ.

One Body

Confession and repentance are difficult largely because of our pride. So it is fitting we begin with humility:

Humility

At the Last Supper our Lord washed the feet of the Disciples - a menial task reserved for the lowest of servants. Is there then any task too menial for his disciples? In particular, should our pride block our repentance? Should our pride block our hearing our brother's confession?

Unity, not uniformity

It is important for us to remember that we are in unity, not uniformity. Some are called to one thing, others another. It may not be your part to be one who hears another confess regularly; but it is your part to remember that you are a member of the body, with a function. And as a member if you hear confession, think of the health of the body - and do not turn confession into gossip.

Aid to our brothers and sisters

The act of washing feet was not just symbolic - it was a practical courtesy in that time and place. We must take this as an example. We are to provide aid to our brothers and sisters - physical aid when it is necessary, spiritual aid when required.

Indeed, the taking of Communion is a taking of sides, for as Paul tells us,

(1 Cor 10:21 NIV) You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons.

By taking Communion you state loudly at whose table you will dine forever.

Hope of the Resurrection

Attitude check - death

Hope seems so impractical to some of us. It is not so. Let's take an attitude check here:

·         What's your attitude at a funeral - especially at the funeral of a Christian? A Christian funeral should be a time of joy mingled with grief. Grief for our temporary loss; joy in the resurrection to come, when we shall meet at Jesus' feet.

·         What's your attitude in the hospital corridor? When a loved one in long term pain is on the verge of dying, how do you react? Do you see it as going home to be with the Lord? What do you say to the family? (Or do you refrain from going to hospitals for just that reason?)

·         What's your attitude in facing your own mortality? When the doctor pronounces your death sentence, do you panic and go into denial - or do you turn to the Lord of Life who cannot be defeated by death?

Attitude check - salvation

What's your attitude about salvation for others?

·         Is there a sense of urgency, knowing that they might die without Jesus Christ?

·         Is there a sense of importance to it? A sense that tells you that offending them is trivial compared with allowing them to go to hell on your silence?

We've come a long way from Athanasius:

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death, they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as something dead. Before the divine advent of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior's resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing, robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, "O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?"

(Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, V-27)

If you proclaim Christ's victory over death when you take Communion, should not your attitude be like this?

Forgiveness

"Forgiveness is one person's willingness to bear the consequences of another person's sin."

Unconditional nature of forgiveness

We don't mind burying the hatchet - handle up. But consider two things about the way Christ dealt with us at the Cross:

·         He did not wait for us to become "worthy" of his forgiveness. Should we wait until the person who has offended us becomes somehow "worthy?"

·         He did not object to the shame[1] of being the one to forgive. The world says, "Forgive - but only under certain conditions. Keep your pride." Our Lord's example is otherwise.

Communion takes his unconditional forgiveness - and we should repeat it.

The Imitation of Christ

If we are to become like him - remember "you are what you eat?" - then we must forgive as he forgave.

·         Christ, being in essence God, is offended by every sin of mankind, for He is the author of righteousness. Yet he forgives.

·         Christ, being sinless, is fit to judge as we are not. Yet he forgives.

·         Christ commands his disciples, as a condition of forgiveness, that we forgive others.

·         By his words to Peter, there is no limit on either type or number of offenses to be forgiven.

Why then, do we rationalize our way out of forgiving?

Objective: Reconciliation

It is not God's intention to spread forgiveness around like so much peanut butter and jelly. He has a purpose to it: reconciliation between God and man.

·         The war is not over when your enemy is defeated - but when he becomes your friend. The battle may be one, but the war is not over. (Think about Iraq in this context). God's objective is to reconcile us into becoming his own children, not punishment for our sins.

·         We, as the disciples of Christ, are the ambassadors of that reconciliation. If we proclaim that reconciliation on Sunday, should we not work it out the rest of the week?

·         With such an example in front of us, how could we miss it?

Proclamation

We are to proclaim two things: his death - and his return

Death

So just what am I supposed to tell others about the death of Jesus?

·         First, there are the physical facts - the death, burial and resurrection.

·         Next, there is the atonement for sin. Think of it this way: if I'm broke, I need someone to help me out. That someone has to pay. So therefore, he has to be rich (and God is) - but also able to pay in my currency. But Christ is fully man as well - carrying my currency, so to speak.

·         In proclaiming the death of Christ we look backwards - to what he has accomplished.

Return

In proclaiming the return we look forward. No one knows the time, but there are some things we do know:

·         Judgment is coming - which means that justice will be done, with mercy to those who love the Lord. I can face injustice now, knowing that the day is approaching when it will be revealed and judged.

·         The New Heaven and the New Earth are coming - which means that all the things on this planet I find so miserable are going away. The curse of corruption and sin will be wiped out. My misery is temporary.

·         I know the ending - God wins. Knowing the ending, I can handle the twists and turns of the plot.

Is Communion important in daily life? Remember these five things:

·         Self examination, which leads to repentance.

·         Life in the body of Christ, the church.

·         The sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead.

·         Forgiveness

·         Proclamation of the good news of the death, burial, resurrection and return of our Lord.

If these are important, then Communion is important too. To ask the question is to see the answer.



[1] Hebrews 12:2

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