Sermons

May 28, 2017

The Meals Jesus Gave Us:

the meaning of the Lord’s Supper

Interim Pastor John D. Rempel

Lk 5:27-34, 22:14-20, 24-30; 24:13-15, 28-32

O God, beyond my words, let your Word be heard. Amen.

Long ago I made a visit to the Soviet Union. I was in Moscow on a Sunday and went to church at one of only two Baptist congregations in the city that were legally permitted to gather. The church was already packed when I arrived, with only a few seats left in the balcony. The intensity of the singing and praying moved me deeply even though it was in a language I did not understand.

It was a Communion Sunday. From the balcony I could see everything that was happening. After the communion prayer and the words of institution the black suited ministers and deacons took the bread into the rows. It was their custom for people to come to the end of the bench to receive the elements. As if against their better judgment, people arose before a server neared them, some with trembling hands. An old woman actually wedged herself between others and stuck her hand forward as far as she could reach, to be sure to get her hands on the food that was more than met the eye: bread made out of grain had become for her the bread of heaven.

I’ve never forgotten this woman and her boldness. As a Baptist, she would not have had an elaborate description of what happens in the Lord’s Supper. But her behavior makes her belief clear: in taking the bread she was receiving Christ.

By the time of the Reformation many people thought of the church’s rituals as having power in and of themselves. For example, if you touched the bones of a saint your sins would be forgiven. The Reformers wanted to make it clear that Christ is the only one who forgives; he is the behind-the-scenes actor in all the church’s rituals.

The Anabaptists were among the most radical critics of elaborate rituals, including all the ceremony attached to the two core enactments, baptism and Communion. But in simplified form they kept them because they are the most profound dramatizations we have of the Gospel. The Lord’s Supper takes the narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and enacts it in a single gesture.

These dramatizations begin with the staples of everyday life in Mediterranean societies, water in the case of baptism, and bread and wine in the case of Communion. By the time of the Last Supper Jesus’ friends and foes would have been aware of the significance Jesus attached to table fellowship. Meals had an astonishingly important, and often overlooked, role in Jesus’ ministry of making God tangible. Jesus is the face of God speaking words of welcome, the hands of God passing around a cup of welcome.

Let’s now take a look at these meals of Jesus’ ministry, his death, and his resurrection. The opening words of our passage from Luke 5 take our breath away. Jesus meets a man named Levi. He is a tax collector – a Jew who extracts payment from his fellow believers on behalf of their Roman oppressors. We can imagine that there might have been a long conversation between Jesus and Levi, or even several conversations, before we meet them here. At just the right moment Jesus blurts out, “Follow me!” and Levi does so, leaving his lucrative job behind!

In an outpouring of gratitude Levi gives a great banquet for Jesus. He invites people who are like him, who loved mammon more than God. It is in the breaking of bread, in the vulnerability of a shared meal, that Jesus gives himself to them. And the dinner guests, like Levi, are drawn to Jesus because they sense he offers them something that money can’t buy. The Pharisees, the keepers of the law, can’t imagine unholy people being welcomed to a holy meal. “Why do you do this?”, his critics demand. Jesus responds, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick”.

Encounters like this one only intensify Jesus’ passion to be the voice of God to people who can’t hear God, to be the arms of God to those who have never been embraced. But those in authority increasingly resent this other king, this usurper, who is turning the world up side down. They cannot tolerate this One who heals without price, who sets no limit but love. Ominously, the religious and political figures make common cause against him. One of Jesus’ own company is waiting to betray him.

This is the backdrop for our second passage from Luke. Knowing that his life is on the line, Jesus longs to be borne up by the ritual of God’s rescue and faithfulness to Israel across the centuries, namely, the Passover meal. This time only those who have declared their loyalty to him are invited. In the most audacious act of his ministry, Jesus takes the symbol laden loaves and cups of the Passover and makes them signs of a new rescue, a new faithfulness that God will bring about through his death. Jesus takes a loaf, according to custom, gives thanks, offers it to his friends, and then shocks them by saying, “This is my body.” And likewise, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”. Nothing bolder could be said.

Overwhelmed by his own words, Jesus takes his inner circle of companions to the Mount of Olives to pray that the cup he has just poured out for himself and his disciples might still be removed. His words are haunting: “Yet not my will but yours be done.” It is our sense of awe at Jesus’ boundless self-giving that gives the Communion service its solemnity. It is not the suffering of Jesus, as such, that saves us but the relentlessness of the love that did not shrink from suffering. In the end, it is not only his local opponents but all the powers of the world who accuse him of being a usurper of the kings of the earth, who crucify him. In bearing this onslaught of evil to the cross he breaks its power and sets the world free.

With this claim, the story of the Gospel has reached its climax but not yet its conclusion. To put it into sacramental terms, the Last Supper has not yet become the Lord’s Supper. That happens on the evening of Easter day. In the third reading Jesus joins two of his downcast followers on the road to a town called Emmaus. So sorrowful are they at the death of the one they believed would redeem Israel that they cannot recognize him. Nevertheless there is something that draws them to Jesus.

Evening falls as the travelers arrive at their destination. They invite the stranger to be their guest. He accepts. No sooner have the hosts bidden their guest to partake than there is a reversal of roles: suddenly Jesus is the host and they are the guests! He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his incredulous friends. In this signature gesture of Jesus’ ministry they recognize him. In offering them bread he offers them himself. No simpler one sentence description of the mystery of Communion can be found: in offering his disciples bread Jesus offers them himself.

Now, what do we mean when we claim this gift of Jesus’ presence? To be present to someone is to be within reach; the distance between us has dissolved. In the moment of encounter time stands still. Such intimate moments are rare even with the people we know best, who we see and touch. If that is the case, how could we possibly know we are in the presence of One who is not seen?

The signs of bread and wine are Jesus’ promise that when we break bread together he will be in our midst. The Lord’s Supper is the paradigm of God’s presence: we recognize him in other times and places by means of our Eucharistic encounter. Jesus uses shocking language to convince us of this truth. As he takes, blesses, breaks and gives the Passover loaf to his friends, he describes what he is doing with the accompanying words, “This is my body” and likewise with the wine. My understanding of these mysterious words is that “body” and “blood” mean the very person of Christ – not simply a memory, not a disembodied spirit, but the actual – if invisible – person. The evidence for his hidden nearness is shared bread and wine: when we pass the elements to one another we become the medium of Christ’s presence. The bread and wine are Jesus’ trustworthy promise that when we receive them we receive him. In a time when almost everything in our lives is uncertain, what a wonderful promise it is that we can count on meeting Christ when we gather around his Table.

Remember the woman in the church in Moscow? She wedged her way between people to taste the promise Jesus had made. In a mystery too great for words, bread made out of grain had become for her – as it can for us – the bread of life. AMEN


May 21, 2017

The Heart of the Gospel

Interim Pastor John D. Rempel

Matt 12:22-32; Rom 8:14-17

O God, beyond my words let your Word be heard.

It’s a privilege for me to be invited back to my old home to partner with you in making the transition from Sylvia’s ministry to that of the incoming pastor. The congregation where I am now a member, Grace Mennonite in St. Catharines Ontario, commissioned me for this ministry two Sundays ago. They asked me to convey their best wishes to you for this time between ministers.

During the past week I have experienced the intensity, diversity, and transience of this unique city again in its full force. My biggest test so far was cycling through the side streets of the Lower East Side and across the Manhattan Bridge. This is the creative and chaotic city in which you been called to be church, to be a community of reconciliation and justice.

The nagging question the church can’t escape as it follows its calling into the world is, “Where is God in all of this?” In Christian societies of the past, churches, schools, and culture all took the belief that God rules the world for granted. We are living in a time when the foundations of what we believe and how we live are shaking. Old certainties have become uncertain, both in church and society.

Many of the Bible’s authors ask the same question that nags us, “Where is God in all this?” The fullest answer of the NT is, “Where Jesus is, there God is”. Just saying that doesn’t end the search for God but at least it tells us where to start looking. Our texts from Matthew and Romans talk about the outer and inner encounter with God. Matthew claims that God comes to us in Jesus’ teaching and healing. Where someone loves her neighbor, there God reigns; where someone is freed from a tormenting spirit, there God reigns. Paul, in Romans, complements the outer evidence of God’s nearness with inner evidence. Paul promises that deep inside us we can hear the Spirit’s inward whispers of assurance that we have not been abandoned but that we belong to God.

I want to bring us hope and confidence from today’s texts. But I can do that with integrity only if I also take into account the many events of life that tempt us to become cynics. As we read about endless wars and millions of refugees is it harder and harder to stake our lives on the promise that there is a God who stays the hand of evil and prospers the hand of good.

Let’s take one awful example, 9/11, the dreadful morning the Twin Towers were attacked. Disbelief, confusion, and terror were everywhere. Some of you remember that awful day as vividly as I do. By evening people north of 14th St. were allowed to move freely again. I began receiving calls asking that our congregation have a prayer service that night for the devastated city. As I tried to plan one, I found that I was speechless. Finally I found words for our wordlessness in Psalm 77.

I cry aloud to God.

My soul refuses to be comforted.

Will the Lord spurn forever and never again be favorable?

Are God’s promises at an end for all time?

The suddenness and brutality of the attacks had brought us, like the psalmist, close to despair. The psalmist’s lament, “Are God promises at an end?”, kept ringing in my ears and the ears of millions around me.

This same, hard question haunts each of us at some point – when someone we love dies before her time, when we hear news reports of innocent suffering in war torn countries.

This is where the two Bible readings for today come in. Both of them dare to assert that God keeps making incursions into the world he loves. In the Matthew passage God is so overpoweringly present that the demons, the evil powers, flee. The gospel writer portrays Jesus the agent of God’s always inbreaking reign. He is the face of God to people who can’t see God, the arms of God to people who have no one to embrace them.

In the Romans passage Paul talks about the Spirit who makes God as close to us as when Christ was on earth. Just as the historical Jesus demonstrated God’s presence outwardly by healing someone who was blind and mute so Jesus’ Spirit convinces us inwardly that God has not abandoned us, that God is still at work healing the world.

Let’s look at the reading from Matthew first and then the one from Romans. In the chapters preceding our passage Matthew has described people’s starkly different responses to Jesus as a teacher and miracle worker. Some of them marvel at Jesus’ compassion and power and believe that he is the One sent from God. Others are perplexed because Jesus doesn’t fit their picture of a messiah. Still others are cynical, insisting that Jesus has power to cure not because he is one with God but because he is in league with Beelzubul, God’s enemy, and the most powerful among the demons.

Friends of a blind and mute man bring him to Jesus. Suddenly the afflicted man can see and speak again! Some bystanders are amazed and wonder, “Maybe this is really the Son of David, the anointed One.” But the cynics are still not persuaded – making a mute man speak isn’t enough evidence for them that God is at work in Jesus. They drown out the true seekers with sinister accusations against Jesus, insisting it is not God but the Evil One at work in Jesus. Jesus fires back that the cynics’ argument is self-contradictory: if evil were casting out evil it would be divided against itself! Then he cries out the boldest statement of his ministry. “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.”

Breathtaking. These are words generations of Jews who had set their hope on a messiah longed to hear: God’s reign is here! But not Jesus’ critics. They scorn not only the Son of Man but the Spirit of God in whose power he has disarmed the forces of evil. Before us unfolds the fiercest confrontation between Jesus and his opponents before they send him to the gallows. His words are shocking. “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” Jesus is astonishingly humble – he is merely the bearer of the Spirit, of the nearness of God. People will be forgiven if they can’t recognize Jesus for who he is. But if they deny the Spirit, if they join the cynics and deny God’s promise that he has bound himself to this world, they condemn themselves.

This is a harsh saying, to be sure. It’s harsh because the stakes are so high. If we believe that God keeps his promises, and that where Jesus is there God is, then we have received the Gospel. If we brush aside or become indifferent to God’s promises, then we have fled from the Gospel. Believing that Jesus is the One empowered by the Spirit to bring God near is the heart of the Gospel. X2 This is the claim the evil powers rejected. In their contempt for Jesus they nailed him to a cross. “He was wounded for our transgressions and with his stripes we are healed.” Then God the Father vindicated the Son by raising him from the dead, overcoming the forces that tried to pry God loose from his embrace of the world.

Let’s ask ourselves where we stand. Sometimes we open our minds and hearts to Jesus as the One through him God is at work in the world. Then we are like those in the crowd in Matthew 12: we rejoice that Jesus is truly the Anointed One; in him God’s rule is breaking into the world.

But then, if you are like me, you’re sometimes seduced by the arguments of the cynics. In my life life I know that I refuse to take chances on God because what if he doesn’t come through. Or I cry out for justice, when the endless wars in the Middle East make millions of people into beggars while the armament makers become rich. It’s hard not to be a cynic. But the only way to the kingdom is to cast our lot in with Jesus and believe that in every situation we consider hopeless from the outside looking in, by the Spirit of God Jesus is already there casting out demons of hatred, cruelty, and fate.

Pause

            Of ourselves we cannot believe that. It is only, as Paul writes, by the persuasive presence of the Spirit in us that we are set free to take a chance on God. How can it be that the transcendent God of the cosmos comes closer to us than we are to ourselves? It remains a mystery but we know it is true because it is a confidence that comes to us not from within ourselves but from beyond ourselves assuring us that the same healing reality with which Jesus touched a blind and mute man touches us as well. When we cry ‘Abba’, ‘Father’, or ‘Mother’, it is God’s Spirit witnessing with our spirit that we are God’s children.

So, away with cynicism! The reign of God is upon us. God is keeping his promise! Let us live as if we believe that. Amen