“Holy Communion” was a sermon preached by Pastor Pam Schaefer Dawson in conjunction with our sermon series on ‘The Means of Grace’. It was offered in the context of our worship service on August 15, 2021 — the 12th Sunday after Pentecost — and was ground in the words of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. To access a copy of the worship bulletin, click here: Worship Order.20210815.print
1 Corinthians 11: 17-34
If you remember your First Communion, raise your hand. (I realize that we may have some present who have not yet had their First Communion.) Look around; notice how many folks remember that day. Okay – you can put your hands down. When I was 10, I took a First Communion class – taught by my father, the pastor. When the class was done, my classmates and I took communion (together with our families) as part of the first table of communion on a Sunday morning.
In the intervening years, I have forgotten much of what was taught in that class. But one thing has stuck with me. My father said that the altar rail was a half circle because the other half was in heaven, and when we come to the table we are joining with all of those who have died and who are feasting in heaven with God.
This may be a bit difficult to visualize here at Holy Shepherd, since our rail is not in a semicircle ending at the back wall, but I think we can still imagine it.
This image has always stayed with me: so much so that nearly every time I come to the Lord’s Table, I feel the presence of those departed saints, communing with me.
If you feel so inclined, try out that image the next time you come to the Table – perhaps today after worship as we gather for our COVID-style Communion.
Martin Luther writes about Holy Communion (The Sacrament of the Altar) in his Small Catechism. In answer to the question, “What is the Sacrament of the Altar?” Luther writes:
It is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and drink.
He follows this with what we now call the Words of Institution, the words that St. Paul quotes in the middle section of our lesson today.
Luther then poses the question, “What is the benefit of such eating and drinking?” He then writes:
The words “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin” show us that forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation are given to us in the sacrament through these words, because where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
Notice that Luther says these gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation are given us in the sacrament through these words, specifically the words given and shed for you.
The bread and cup are given for you. For you…
…who yelled at your kids this morning
…who lied to a friend
…who engaged in gossip
…who feels unworthy
The gifts of bread and wine are for you. This meal is “come as you are.” This meal is for you, in all of your brokenness. It is for me in all of my brokenness. We don’t need to try to clean ourselves up for Jesus. That usually just ends up being about us denying our sins. Jesus loves us, right now, just as we are. And in this meal, he offers himself – his very body and blood – for you. For me. For us. He offers us forgiveness, knowing full well that we will indeed sin again.
Have you ever thought about how Holy Communion puts into one meal the entire three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter? The triduum, as it is called, are among the holiest days in our Christian liturgical year. And Holy Communion tells their whole story: Maundy Thursday with our Lord’s command to love one another and his giving us this Sacrament; Good Friday, when his body was broken and his blood was shed; and Easter, when he rose and conquered death, once for all, offering us forgiveness, life, and salvation. Such amazing grace!
In our lesson today, St. Paul is not happy with the Corinthians. He uses the strong language: “What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter, I do not commend you!” He wants them to know that he believes what they are doing is wrong. He believes it is not in the spirit of the supper that Jesus instituted.
What has been happening is that those who have means and are able to gather somewhat earlier than others are feasting (and in some cases becoming drunk). Meanwhile, those who are poor and who have had to work late into the day, these folks arrive and find that there is no food left. St. Paul says that there are divisions among them. Well, there may be other divisions, but this one is huge: some folks gorging themselves and leaving nothing for the others who come later. St. Paul says that what they are doing is not really the Lord’s Supper. And he chastises them: Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?
This is strong language. And we are apt to think of it as something that applied only to the Corinthians. Surely, we observe the supper rightly. Surely, we are to be commended. Pastor John and I, as called and ordained ministers, strive to administer the sacrament in a way that is in keeping with our Lord’s command. And we, as people eating and drinking at the table – well, we come to the meal with open, willing, and contrite hearts. And we, as a congregation – as well as individuals – we seek to share God’s love in Christ through this meal with everyone. Everyone? Is everyone truly welcome as they are at this table of unity?
Well… Remember PJ’s word from last week’s sermon? Disrupt. Here we go…
Here at Holy Shepherd, and also at most Lutheran churches (even most Christian churches of all denominations), we are a group of people who are very much alike in very many ways. Try this on:
…looks like me
…thinks like me
…acts like me
…validates my beliefs, thoughts, and actions
My church doesn’t…
…cause me to feel uncomfortable
Look around. With very few exceptions, we are very much alike.
Yet, God’s world is incredibly diverse.
We come to the Lord’s Supper, a meal of unity and love, of oneness, and we eat and drink our fill. But have we invited, have we truly welcomed, those of God’s children who are not like us? Is everyone truly welcome, just as they are, at the Lord’s Table here at Holy Shepherd? Truly?
Friends, I believe the answer is no. I believe there is work to be done here. I also believe that we have a heart for Jesus here at Holy Shepherd, and we want to grow to be more and more like him.
This side of paradise, on this part of the altar rail, we will not attain perfect unity or perfect welcome. The oneness we feel in the Supper is a foretaste of the feast to come. It is an in-breaking of the joys of heaven into our weary, sinful world. Our oneness is imperfect; yet we continue to strive for oneness. I am reminded of a quote from the Talmud:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
Over the past six months, I have been providing pastoral care to a woman who had been a member of my first call congregation, but who had ceased being a member long before I got there. Still, while I was pastor there, I saw her frequently in worship with her mother who was still a member. This woman (the daughter) – let’s call her Mary – contacted me to ask for pastoral care upon receiving a cancer diagnosis. We have been connecting over Zoom to talk, read scripture, and pray. Recently, we met in her backyard and began to plan her memorial service. We also shared communion. The beauty of her faith and her trust in Jesus to lead her through the last weeks and months of her earthly life astounded me. And as we ate and drank our Holy Meal, I couldn’t help but think that soon she will be one of those on the other side of the altar rail.
As Mary and I talked about her service, and as we shared the Lord’s Supper, a hymn came to my mind, and it has been with me ever since. The chorus says “Give me Jesus, give me Jesus. You may have all the rest, give me Jesus.” There are five verses, each ending with the line, Give me Jesus.
- In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus
- Dark midnight was my cry, give me Jesus
- Just about the break of day, give me Jesus
- Oh, when I come to die, give me Jesus
- And when I want to sing, give me Jesus
May our eating of the bread and drinking of the cup become in us a wellspring of joy, of hope, of love, and of welcome, to the end that all might hear our Lord’s loving call and find a place of welcome within our church walls and within our hearts.