Sermon for 03-28-10: “Putting the Method in Methodist, Part 4: The Lord’s Supper”

March 30, 2010

Sermon Text: Luke 22:14-23

The sitcom How I Met Your Mother is a pretty funny show for grown-ups on CBS about five very close friends—Lily, Marshall, Ted, Barney, and Robin—who live and work in New York. In last week’s episode, Lily is looking forward to celebrating her birthday with her husband Marshall and the other three. She becomes very angry, however, when Ted shows up to the party with a date, whom none of the other four have met.

What bothers Lily about it is that for years Ted always shows up at these intimate and important life celebrations with these very temporary, short-term girlfriends—who are a part of Ted’s life one moment and gone the next. It doesn’t feel right—it doesn’t seem appropriate. Lily gets out her photo album and flips through its pages: year after year, Lily shows pictures of the five friends posing alongside one of Ted’s girlfriends whose names he couldn’t even remember. These women didn’t belong; they didn’t fit in.

Lily didn’t want to be mean about it, but the truth was, these meals and celebrations were only for people who are close, who are “in the family”—even though the “family” was a group of close friends. We can sympathize with Lily, right? We know the importance of family meals. When you’re dating someone, after all, you have to date someone for a while before you’re ready to invite them to meet the family, right? It’s not something you do on the second date.

Last week, we had confirmations and baptisms and that was in part a way of officially welcoming some of our young people into God’s family—the family of which we’ve been made part through faith in the saving work of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. If you’ve professed faith and been baptized, you, too, are part of this family. Turn and look at the person sitting on your left. Now look at the person sitting on your right. However else you may be related to them, you are also a brother and a sister in Christ. It’s a weird looking family, I know… But we are a family, and like any family, what do we do? We share meals together.

Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, signifies, among many other things, that we are a family sharing a meal. It’s obviously not really a meal—this little bit of bread and a little bit of wine. It used to be a full-blown meal in the early days of the church, but that became expensive every week—and people had to worry about who’s going to pay for what. So early on the church abbreviated it to its bare essence, the two most important staples. It’s a meal that reminds us of Jesus in many ways. After all, sharing meals with really strange-looking family members was among the most controversial things that Jesus did during his earthly ministry. Think of Levi the tax collector and his friends, or Zacchaeus the wee little man. Think of Jesus allowing known prostitutes or other disreputable women to interrupt his meals with important people in order to wash his feet. By doing these things, he was telling the world that these sinners who have repented and placed their faith in him are now a part of God’s family. Jesus told important and powerful religious leaders of his day, “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you because they believed and repented and you didn’t.”

The Church grew rapidly under the threat of persecution from Rome in part because this gospel appealed to society’s outcasts and outsiders, women, slaves, people of low social rank. Christians who were slaves shared this same meal with women who shared this same meal with wealthy men who shared this same meal with the poor, all of whom called one another brother and sister and were equal in the sight of God.

What does it mean to be part of this family? The answer to that question has something to do with Jesus’ words in today’s scripture. This is Luke’s version of the Last Supper. It takes place in the context of a Passover meal, with all of the symbolism attached to it. First, the Passover meal was a family meal—you didn’t go to the synagogue or to the Temple to celebrate it; you celebrated it in your home, with family. Passover celebrated God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt—but much more than that.

Between Egyptian slavery and Jesus’ day, Jews knew that they still needed to be set free. Not from Egyptian slavery, but later from the the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and now the Romans and their Caesar, who demanded an idolatrous kind of loyalty and obedience. The survival of Israel was threatened again and again. This meal reminded them that God had set them free in the past; that God loved them; that God was still with them in the present, in the midst of their trials; and that at some point in the future, God was going to interrupt history and judge evil, once and for all, and put an end to suffering and death once. This would happen when God established a real kingdom of love, justice, and peace, and set aside the world’s kingdoms. The prophets of the Old Testament symbolized this future in God’s kingdom as a meal—a heavenly banquet. And it’s this meal that we anticipate in our Communion liturgy when we pray that the Spirit would make us one “until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.”

You know what it’s like? It’s like in Numbers 13, when the people of Israel are very close the Promised Land. Moses sends a group of Israelite spies to scout out the land and the people living there. Not only that, he asks them to bring back some of the produce of the land—so they can get an idea of what it’s like. The spies brought back a giant cluster of grapes growing beside a stream, as well as figs and pomegranates, and they said, “It’s a land flowing with milk and honey.” Unfortunately, most of the spies are afraid of the land’s inhabitants, saying that they’re like giants who made the Israelites seem like grasshoppers. Most of the people refuse to enter the land. So God sends the people wandering by a more roundabout route—and as we know, they wander for 40 more years.

But during that time the story was told of these grapes, and these pomegranates, and these figs, and this land flowing with milk and honey. This fruit symbolized Israel’s future in the same way that our Communion meal symbolizes our future in God’s kingdom—a future that doesn’t depend on what politicians do; it doesn’t depend on political parties; it doesn’t depend on the United States government; it doesn’t depend on the economy, the GDP, or the Dow Jones Industrial Average; it doesn’t depend on our military success; it doesn’t depend on what other countries do; it doesn’t depend on what happens in the Middle East; it doesn’t depend on China or Israel; it doesn’t even depend on the success or failure of the Church. It depends squarely on God—and we can entrust our future to God because in the resurrection he has shown us our future, and it is good. When we share this meal, it’s like we are experiencing a little bit of this future in the here and now.

The Lord’s Supper contains some powerful symbols. But it’s more than that. We believe that Jesus Christ himself is present through this meal in a special and unique way. Churches have argued for hundreds of years over how Christ is present. We Methodists affirm two important things: first, the bread and the wine do not undergo any change in order to become the body and blood of Christ—it’s still just bread and wine; at the same time, when we partake of this meal, the Holy Spirit enables us to feed on the Bread of Life, who is Christ, our true sustenance. There’s a lot of mystery there. It’s no wonder that the word sacrament comes from a Latin translation of the Greek word for mystery.

John Wesley said it was our duty as Christians, not to mention Methodist Christians, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as often as possible—at least weekly. We got away from that over time, but I think Wesley was onto something. One fear, even in Wesley’s day, is that if you have it every week it would stop being “special.” I say, “Whether or not it’s ‘special’—whether or not we feel anything—depends on a whole host of things. Getting young kids ready for church in the morning and out the door can put us in a bad mood and prevent us from feeling anything. But Jesus doesn’t need us to feel a certain way in order to bless us through this meal. And oftentimes, as your texts indicate, we do feel something, and we do sense that we grow closer to Jesus.

We’ve reached the end of our sermon series on the means of grace. What we’ve been talking about these past four weeks is nothing less than God coming to meet us where we are, right here, through very humble things. Through these means, something amazing is happening: we’re sort of getting to know our Creator, the God who made us! That’s what we were made for, but sin had a way of getting in the way of this relationship, preventing us from experiencing true life, true living, in God. As we as a church look to the cross this week, we know that God has dealt with our sins: when we repent and confess, we know that we can be forgiven.

Jesus said to the religious leaders and authorities of his day that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering God’s kingdom ahead of them—because they believed and repented. If you believe and repent this morning, I invite you on Jesus’ behalf to share this meal with him.

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