The Sacrament: Gathered on Our Knees
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 2, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15 He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. 21 But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. 22 For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” 23 Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.
So now on the first Sunday of November, we continue with our look at the Order of Worship, and it just so happens that today with the Sacrament, it corresponds with when we celebrate Communion. It's almost like I planned it that way or something. When I was growing up the parts of the service were divided into the Preparation for the Word, the Word, Responding to the Word, and last, the sending, and so today and the next two weeks were all part of this Responding idea: Communion, Offertory, and Prayers of the People. So I was thinking this week, about how might we respond to what we talked about last week, over the next three weeks, since the first three weeks of this series took a look at forces swirling around us as a church in this world--our battles with the outside world we can't control, the Amazing one holy, creator, redeemer, sustainer God who we serve, and who gives us strength, possibilities, as well as purpose, and then faced our weaknesses, our faults, our sin-- only to look last week at the challenges we face as a church, trying to come full circle, honest about where we are, where we are going, what exactly we are up against, and what exactly is the source of our hope, only God. I also last week talked about some of the pitfalls we could run into as we move forward in hope: 1 was the fact that I as a leader could get caught up in promising it will all work out, saying things like all you need to do is listen to what I say, do this, that, and the other, and we will be in good shape, when I can and should only speak what I am called to say, not what is the most expedient. . . and then the other issue could be that we would get so caught up in forging ahead that we lose eachother, that we lose the love that holds us together, like the church at Ephesus in Revelation, they do so much to combat the evil that surrounds them and remaining firm, but they lose touch with eachother, they lose love. . . and there are so many places in the Bible that we see love being so central to who we are and what we do.
So yeah, how do we respond to that. . .how great is it that our response starts at the table. We come together on our knees, joining arm and arm at the table, invited by Christ, to Commune with Christ. Our initial response is an humble act of love and togetherness. . . And so if we were concerned with me leading without following God, or that we should allow divisions to drive us apart, how appropriate it is to come together at the table. . . sharing a meal, and not just any meal, but a meal that has so much important religious and symbolic significance. As Presbyterians part of our Reformed tradition is that we are distrustful of empty ritual, anything not found to be Biblical, and any that is connected to some kind of superstitious, luck type of thing. Calvin was very critical of the Medieval Catholic church, and they even went so far as to distrust church music and other "Church Traditions" where there didn't seem to be a commissioning for from Christ himself, but Baptism and Communion are different and unique, for they come directly from Christ himself, with words describing a perpetual observance.
Communion, or the Last Supper is connected by the original historical event to Passover, which is a traditional Jewish observance, which had its beginning in the Old Testament reading read for us this morning, and from that reading we remember that it is also for Remembrance, this time to remember the night that the Angel of Death passed over the houses of the Israelites, the 10th plague, the one that was the last straw for Pharaoh and finally set them free. Could you imagine sharing the meal of that original feast. . . the trust of God that you would have to have. . . there are so many levels to it. Here you are a slave, and you have been for some time, but now you have this deliverer, this Moses character, and he grew up with the Egyptians, but then disappeared, but then returned, across the desert, and he says that he is a messenger of the God of our ancestors, the God who we tell the old stories about, but haven't known much of personally because we live in a world where we are lost in a sea of pain and hard work, and suffering, and the people in charge, they seem to have a much different view of the world, they seem to have a much more decadent and powerful view of the world, and those days of Abraham and Jacob and Joseph, well they might have been great, but they landed us here, so how great could they have been, but we've seen things that Moses has done. . . could there be more to it, could our time be now, could that God be real. . . is what he says right, how will we know. The Angel of Death that sounds pretty serious, but Moses says if we sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on our doorposts we will be okay, alright I'll submit, we'll see. . . I always think of the Ten Commandments movie with Charlton Heston when I think of Passover. . .and in that movie they could hear, safe inside their bloodstained house, the cries of fear, death, and loss of the Egyptians all around them. Could you just imagine. . . the faith there. It was so important for the descendants to imagine and remember that the Feast of Passover became something that was to be done in perpetuity, every year. . . to remember.
Even up until Jesus' own time, and for that holy Passover, many had flocked to Jerusalem, as was a tradition for many Jews at that time to make a pilgrimage at some point in their lives . . . and so Jesus comes, with his disciples, and they break bread, and remember, back to that first Passover, but Jesus breaks a new bread, makes a new covenant with his disciples, and makes a new memory, a new thing to remember. . . remembrance of me. . . of Christ. . . lest we could forget, as if right? But maybe we could, maybe not in name, or in picture, but we might lose the memory of what Jesus really is, or really was. . . and so wrapped up in the Last Supper, this new passover, is a remembrance of Jesus as servant, humble enough to wash the feet of the disciples. . . humble enough to serve each of them. . . and humble enough not just to serve them food, but food representing himself, giving of sacrifice, again of a lamb, but for a new purpose. . . .but certainly symbolically connected to the first. Take some time to ponder that connection. . . it is impressive and impactful to do so.
It's funny, I get a movie picture every time I think about communion, too, and for me it is Passion of the Christ. It's one of those images that once it is in your head it is hard to get out, kinda like an open casket. . . no matter how you want to try to picture something else, some other version in your head, it always creeps in there with it. And so with communion there is that picture of the crucifixion, it's there. . . always, the extremes of human barbarity and cruelty. . . .but as I was studying, thinking, and living this week, a different idea crept into my head, and it was in many ways connected to last week, and also in some ways connected to the Israelites on Passover, trying to think about what it would have been like for them. . . I was drawn to thinking what it would have been like to be a disciple at the Last Supper. . . imagine. . . here you've been following this guy, and he has done wonders, but now you've come to Jerusalem and it seems like there is a culmination coming soon, like all of everything you've done up to this point following this guy is all leading to this. . . and then Jesus starts talking about new covenants, forgiveness, broken bodies and blood poured out. . . and remembering. . . remembering, but not just God working all those years ago with their ancestors, but God working very much now, and in our midst, it is all made new and it is all made personal. . . and I think that is what it would have been like for most of the disciples. . . awe, wonder, intrigue, curiosity for the future, all mixed with apprehension and fear.
But then the story takes a very different turn for two of the disciples because Jesus calls two of them out. The betrayer and the denier. . . Judas and Peter, and the more I thought about it this week, those two disciples with their stories are very similar to our concerns from last week. Think about Judas. . . in most accounts of him, he is a disciple who wants more out of Jesus, he wants Jesus to be much more radical. He wants Jesus to overthrow the Romans. He wants a traditional and military Messiah, and he has trouble waiting, he would rather take things into his own hands. .. very much like the over promising pastor. . . there is a sense that waiting is not part of the game, but rather doing, going beyond your call, your mandate, your command, because things just aren't going right. . . like saying, come on Jesus, now, act, do something, we need you, we serve you, now, do it, or I'll just do it myself. I'll take that shortcut road, I'll do the more practical thing. . . here in the real world you fight the Romans with swords, knives, and money. . . that is what we need, not prayers, and sacrifice. . . that might work in some kinda perfect world, but here on Earth its real deeds that matter. . . action. . . definitive. . . action.
And Peter then is the other. . . lost the love. . . when the chips were down, when the pressure was on he denies. . . denies relationship. . . denies the friendship. . . denies even knowing Jesus. It can happen. . . Jesus knows it, even to Peter it can happen, the first to recognize Jesus, the Rock on which the church is to be built, falters in the faith when it really matters, leaving Jesus to be very much alone to face the cross by himself.
So instead, Christ invites us to the table and we come. We come to wait, we come to share in the food, we come to discern, we come to be in awe again, we bring all of our fears and doubts, and we partake of the living sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We remember, not just in our minds, but with our bodies, with our senses. . . we remember who it is we serve. . . we remember that he served us. . . that he loved us enough, through anything, through the worst painful barbaric punishment that human beings can deliver, the most cruel, long death, pain, thirst. . . all of that, we remember it, and our problems do not seem quite as bad. . . our crisis not as dire. . . and our divisions and misunderstandings not as deep. . . and we join arm in arm, and we wait for the Lord, we wait for Christ to serve us, to show us the way, to tell us what is next. . . and we as disciples of Christ, seek not to betray, taking it all upon ourselves, our own way, nor to deny, placing those limitations on love. . . letting our love and our faith wither and die. . . no as disciples of Christ we seek not to lead, but to follow, so that call can be fulfilled, and our will can be made to be Christ's. . . that it will be done.
It is with this waiting and kneeling and arm in arm love that I wrote the poem I sang earlier, I'd like to close with it spoken. . . so as to remember. . .
Waiting, O God, are thy faithful people
Silent and still, their hearts unfurled
For brothers and sisters, our actions full and feeble,
Take on ourselves the weight of the world
But they with doubt and sin, infecting
Spreading corruption, pain, and greed
When will faith its armor protecting
Give to mankind the strength it needs?
So from our knees, to the Lord Almighty,
Praise be thy name, thy will be done.
Help us to bend and to love, always rightly
As we are led to follow thy Son.
‘nd when temptation, doubt, and fear o'ertake us
When we cannot endure the pain
Please then O God, do not e'er forsake us,
Drive us humbly to our knees again.
Now on our knees we come humbly to thy table
Arm in arm, our love made clear
We come not because we are worthy or are able
But save that Jesus Christ invites us here
He gives us his body and blood he's shedding
Forgiving our sins, all washed away
To himself our souls embedding
That we would not ever go astray