Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Communion: Actions Speak Louder than Words

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/09/2012

video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand

Beginning a 3 part mini-series on the communion meal, the Lord’s supper, the Eucharist, etc.

Show “whenever I say your name” presentation

There is power and mystery and depth to Communion. It is no ordinary meal. No ordinary celebration. Communion looks back to the events that led to freedom from sin and death and evil, and looks forward to a time when the dream will be fully realized. It’s a celebration that’s meant to draw all Christians together, to remind us of what we hold in common, to unite us. It’s a celebration that’s meant to not just be observed for the sake of a good time, but to say something and to impart something sustaining to its participants.

We’ll try to answer the following questions:

1. Where does this celebration come from?

2. What does it all mean? And…

3. Why does it have so many names?

We’ll also talk about some of the hard to understand verses in the Bible and what they’re saying about how Christians are to celebrate the meal Jesus gave us. We’ll discuss how Jesus is present in the celebration, and who is invited to participate. All in all, hopefully we’ll all have a deeper understanding of what’s happening when we celebrate Communion, and why it’s so important.

The communion meal is an action that is meant to speak louder than words. It is an action that is meant to say something to us. An action in which we participate, and in our participation, we say something to one another. And to God. But even more than that, the communion meal is an action, a concrete reality, that acts upon us. Something real happens in its happening. Something real happens within us, between us, among us. The words that communion communicates, we might say, are made flesh, and dwell among us.

You might ask, what in the world does that mean?


We know that actions speak louder than words. The medium always thunders over the message. [examples:…I love you (words, gestures, service)…"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you”]

Even more than that, an action can accomplish, can make real, the very thing that it’s saying. A meaningless action may accomplish nothing. A hateful action can create hate. A loving action can build love.

[St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA. 2 calls for communion. 1st for masters and their families downstairs. 2nd for slaves in segregated balcony. Sunday, April 9th, after the surrender in Appomattox Court House, former slave coming down aisle to receive communion, joined arm in arm by bearded white man…]

The action says something, powerfully, far more powerfully than words ever could. But it also does something. Something actually changes through the action. Something is mysteriously embodied, created, made real and concrete.

Communion is like that. A concrete action – a powerful celebration, really – given to us by Jesus so that he could say something to us, over and over and over again. And so that we could say something to him, over and over and over again. And so that we could say something to one another, over and over and over again. So that something would be accomplished, done among us, embodied, created, made real and concrete within us, between us, among us, over and over and over again, bit by bit by bit. Until he comes again to bring his new creation work to completion.

But actions don’t communicate very effectively if we don’t understand their meaning, do they? [examples…] So in order for communion to be the meaningful and powerful celebration Jesus intends for it to be for us, we need to begin by learning its meaning.

Let’s start by going back to the beginning, to a meal whose acquired name suggests an ending rather than a beginning, the Last Supper. Jesus and his friends have gone to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or the Passover, and gathered in a generous host’s upper room to eat together. We pick up the account in Luke’s gospel:

Read Luke 22:1-22

22 Now the Festival of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching, 2and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people. 3Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. 4And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. 5They were delighted and agreed to give him money. 6He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.

7Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”

9“Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.

10He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.”

13They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

14When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

17After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

19And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

20In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. 21But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. 22The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!”

We’re not going to spend much time focusing on the role of Judas the betrayer in this story, but it is important to recognize that the last supper, the first communion, takes place not in time of peace, security, and joy, but in the swirl of passions, intrigue, chaos, conflict. Evil is, almost literally, breathing down Jesus’ neck at this point in his life. It reminds us of the famous verse in psalm 23: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…”

It’s also helpful to understand that Jesus wasn’t doing something entirely original here; Jesus and his students are most likely celebrating the Passover Seder meal, a meal that was already full of meaning and purpose, and followed a particular pattern every time that it was celebrated. Jesus gives the Passover a dramatic twist that turns it into something different and new, and in some ways more than it was before.

Little of what Jesus was driving at will make sense unless we understand the original celebration that he fundamentally transformed…

The first Passover took place more than 1400 years prior to the one we read about in Luke’s account. Background: Passover / freedom meal…slavery in Egypt, 10th plague, death of firstborns, blood of lamb on doorposts…

Passover looked backwards to Egypt (lamb, bitter herbs, unleavened bread)… and forward to God’s full reign (he’d been faithful to his promise of rescue to Moses, therefore he’d be faithful to his promise of complete restoration)…all, even generations later, understood the exodus as happening to them personally…ate reclining at table, signifying freedom, nobility.

Their celebration bound them together and declared them to be unmistakably God’s family, those who could rely on his promise of provision and rescue and finally perfect presence (in the cloud and the pillar and the law and the tabernacle and the temple and eventually in the Messiah). All of Israel would gather in Jerusalem….

Jesus takes this Passover meal and infuses it with new meaning and power. In him the promise of the Passover is being fulfilled. Through him, humanity is being set free from the slave master of sin and death, and is being led into the land of promise, the kingdom of God.

And he took bread, gave thanks… The Passover bread Jesus passed around would have been unleavened, for two reasons. Leaven was a starter, old fermented dough as a rising agent. Leftovers, essentially. Unleavened bread symbolized God’s people having a fresh start, something completely new and uncorrupted happening. And secondly, to represent the urgency and haste with which Israel had left Egypt; there had been no time for the bread to rise, so it had been made quickly, without yeast, in order to sustain Israel on her flight from Egypt. Like an MRE, a meal ready to eat.

The disciples would have expected Jesus to present the bread to them with the words, “This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate when they came from Egypt.”

But Jesus says, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus, the bread of affliction? Israel’s sustenance on her flight from slavery? Yes. Jesus is telling his friends that the hour of freedom is coming with haste, in the middle of the night, and all they will have for nourishment on their journey into God’s free kingdom, into the promised land, is him. His friends would have remembered and begun to understand the words he spoke in Capernaum,

“I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” John 6:48-51

In the same way, after supper he took the cup… There were four times that a cup of wine would be blessed and shared at the Seder Meal. Some suggest that the third cup of wine represented the sacrificial lamb’s blood on the doorposts, the sign to God of his promise to spare Israel from the wrath of the angel of death, and that may be correct. Others disagree because of the general distaste (no pun intended) in Jewish law and custom toward the idea (even symbolic) of drinking blood of any kind. But all agree that Jesus’ statement, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you,” would have been both shocking and a radically new interpretation of the cup.

Israel had been looking for a new Moses, not a new lamb. Jesus was saying, in effect, “I am the lamb that is to be slaughtered to preserve you from the hand of death. It is my blood on your doorposts that will mark you out as holy, as members of the family of God. My blood poured out in death will not in fact be the end of the story, but the blood that secures the promise of God’s coming kingdom – the new covenant, the new agreement between God and humanity. Receive me, and you will receive life. My life, poured out in death, will become your life.”

Read Jeremiah 31:31-34

31“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,

“when I will make a new covenant

with the house of Israel

and with the house of Judah.

32It will not be like the covenant

I made with their ancestors

when I took them by the hand

to lead them out of Egypt,

because they broke my covenant,

though I was a husband to them,”

declares the Lord.

33“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel

after that time,” declares the Lord.

“I will put my law in their minds

and write it on their hearts.

I will be their God,

and they will be my people.

34No longer will they teach their neighbors,

or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’

because they will all know me,

from the least of them to the greatest,”

declares the Lord.

“For I will forgive their wickedness

and will remember their sins no more.”

Jesus doesn’t give his students a theory to help them understand what his death and resurrection were to mean to them. Our obedience to him does not take the form of discussions and intellectual exercise. As important as those things are, they are not obedience in themselves; they are meant to help us obey.

Jesus gives them an action to perform, an action that cannot be done by one’s self. He gives his students a meal to eat together. The power of his life, his death, his resurrection would come alive to them as they, in obedience to him, shared it together. Our obedience cannot happen fully by ourselves, either. We may wrestle with God alone in the night, but our choice to obey, to trust Jesus, will always lead us into relationship with one another.

We see that in the story of Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus with Jesus, shortly after his resurrection. He explained the scriptures to them, their hearts burned within them, but they did not recognize him.

Read Luke 24:30-35

30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.

32They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

33They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

He took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and they were drawn to their brothers and sisters and energized to engage in Christ’s mission.

All that came of sharing the meal together, the freedom meal.

So perhaps our hearts are burning within us—hungry for the freedom Jesus has won for us, hungry for his coming kingdom, hungry for his sustaining power, thirsty for holiness, thirsty for his Spirit alive in our lives.

Let’s share the bread and the cup, in obedience to Jesus, and be invigorated by his presence among and within us…

Practical Tips:

1. Let Jesus be your bread.

Think of all the things that you experience as your normal sustenance. Money, stuff, work, hobbies, even people. Families, friends, lovers. Come to the meal and recognize that all of the life you get from them comes only when and because Jesus is present to you in and through them. Say, out loud, even under your breath, “Jesus, you are my life” as you bring the bread to your lips.

2. Raise a glass to the promise.

You are aware of the evil, sin, and death that breathes down your neck in your life, the chaos that swirls around. The new covenant, sealed with the shedding of Jesus’ blood, is a promise that it cannot touch you with Jesus’ lifeblood upon your doorpost. So as you drink the cup, raise it and say, “Jesus, your love has secured my life.”

3. Serve Jesus’ life and promise to someone else.

Share the communion meal with a friend, a family member, the person behind you in line. Take the tray from the usher if you desire. Say, as you do, the body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Jesus shed for you. Let it remind you that every brother and sister is enlivened by Jesus, and that their lives are secured by him, and that your job as their brother and sister is to recognize and participate in his life in them, and to encourage them to have faith in that promise.

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