Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A Simple Sacrament

"Then he said to Moses, "Come up to the LORD , you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, but Moses alone is to approach the LORD ; the others must not come near... Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank. "

(Exodus 24:1,2, 9-11)

The symbols of our faith are quite plain. In comparison with the elaborate fixtures of other religions, a small piece of bread and a thimbleful of juice are lacking in aesthetic and visceral appeal. They are at first glance just everyday things...common objects...better suited perhaps for the kitchen than the sanctuary. There is no strange ritual, no secret ceremony, no special adornments. The table is bare save for a white cloth, a few silver trays and some small morsels of food. The words are plain. The liturgy brief and pointed. All in all to the casual observer, this is a rather simple sacrament.

But, we know better. Yes, it is simple, and that is good, for we are, even at our best, simple people. The elements are everyday, but that is where you and I feel most comfortable. Yet just because it is simple does not mean that it is simplistic. Just because it is simple does not mean that it is not significant. Far for it! For what to many would appear just the everyday, is to those who believe the essence of the eternal. The commonplace in reality is communion with God himself. And in the simple words, “Take and Eat,” we hear him speak to our hearts.

For just a few moments this morning, before we draw near to dine together at Christ’s table, let us look at what takes place in this simple sacrament. And let us examine just below the surface and strive to gain a deeper appreciation for what will soon take place.

First and foremost communion involves eating. We call it a supper because it is to be understood as a meal. It is meant to be eaten. Now eating is one of the most basic of human functions. We all must eat. Without the taking in of nourishment, we soon wither and die. Now whether we realize it or not eating is at its very core spiritual. By the very action of ingesting food, we are declaring our dependence upon something or someone outside of ourselves. We are not self-contained or self-sufficient. We must be sustained from without. Consider that one of God’s first acts in Eden was to provide sustenance for Adam and Eve. The fruit of the trees and the vegetables of the ground were given to them in order that they might have life to enjoy fellowship with God. We are dependent creatures. The psalmist reminds us that we exist only because of the open hand of God who gives us our meat and drink. Yet we are not merely physical beings. We are, since God breathed life into us, deity as well as dust. Our souls must be nourished as well. Lest they wither and die. And in this Supper, God gives us spiritual food that we might eat and drink to our souls content.

Communion involves eating bread. If eating is one of life’s most basic functions, then bread is one of life’s most basic foods. Indeed for the ancients, bread was literally the “staff of life.” It is a universal food. Go anywhere in this world and you will find bread in some shape or form. It is a necessity. God knows this. This is why we are encouraged to pray for our daily bread. We act out that petition as we take the bread from the Lord’s table. Yet as Scripture reminds us man doesn’t live by bread alone. Our souls must be fed a more spiritual substance. So in John’s Gospel, Jesus identifies himself as the Bread of Life. For without him, we have no inner life. He is the necessary component of our continued existence. At this table we hear again the words of Jesus: “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 give for the life of the world.”

Communion involves eating bread and drinking wine. Or its substitute juice. If bread illustrates the necessity of life, wine demonstrates the celebration of life. Wine the psalmist tells us was given for man’s enjoyment. Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes: “I know of nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil - this is a gift of God.” Sadly, so few Christians heed that admonition to celebrate. We forget that Christ initiated the sacrament of communion at the Passover meal. The greatest feast for the Israelite people. It was a time for joy, not mourning. It was a celebration of deliverance. So too the Lord’s Passover. We do not memorialize a martyr or a dead hero...we rejoice in the Resurrected One. Our own liturgy calls us to remember that when we drink of this cup it is to be a pledge and foretaste of the marriage feast to come. We drink not to a finish, but to the future.

Note that communion involves eating bread and drinking “wine” together. We cannot celebrate in isolation. Communion by its very nature is a corporate event. The bread and the cup are meant to be shared. In the Middle East the sharing of a meal is a powerful symbolic action. When you break bread with another person you are declaring your desire to live at peace with them. In our eating and drinking together, we declare to the world that the barriers....the barriers of race, gender, age, socio-economic status...have been transcended. Without each other the Supper is robbed of much of its relevance. Paul admonishes the Corinthians for their failure to discern the body of the Lord. We, you and I together, are the Body of Lord. We are interconnected one to another. Without you, I am not the Body of Christ. Without me, you are not the Body of Christ. The Church, as I have often said, is not the building, it is the people. When Christ says this is my body broken for you...he means us. We who were so different are now one. Paul asks: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”

Finally we must note that communion is eating bread and drinking wine together in the presence of God. Ahh and it is this last thing that raises the everyday to the eternal. That is what lies at the heart of our text this morning. What makes the meal shared by Moses and Aaron and the rest so special was not what was on the menu, but with who spread the table. The food was commonplace, but the company was anything but. One commentator has pointed out: “God is committed to a real presence with this people in all their journeyings, a deeply personal level of involvement.” So also this meal of which we are about to partake, tells us that God is committed to being involved in our life journeys as well. We are at the deepest level dining in the presence of God. Our faith tradition declares with bold assurance that Christ himself feeds us at his table...he is the host who welcomes us to the feast. The moment we take bread and cup in hand is a transforming moment. If we would see with spiritual eyes perhaps we too might catch a glimpse of sapphire sky beneath His feet. We too might see God.

On the surface the sacrament we are about to observe is a simple one. Yet its significance can not fully be measured. In the eating of bread and the drinking of the cup together in the presence of God - we are given that which our very souls need for survival. In that transforming moment, lifted up to heaven itself, we receive strength for the journey of life. Knowing that wherever we travel along life’s road, that God travels with us to sustain us.

One thing to note as I close. Moses, Aaron, and the seventy elders did not take it upon themselves to go up that mountain. They were invited. By God. We also must be invited to this meal given in honor of God’s Son. And the only invitation that is acceptable is one engraved with Roman spikes and printed in the Savior’s blood. Do you have yours? “Then come for all things are now ready!”

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