Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace - Communion (1 Corinthians 11:23-34)

23 I received a tradition from the Lord, which I also handed on to you: on the night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. 24 After giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.” 25 He did the same thing with the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” 26 Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes.  27 This is why those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord inappropriately will be guilty of the Lord’s body and blood. 28 Each individual should test himself or herself, and eat from the bread and drink from the cup in that way. 29 Those who eat and drink without correctly understanding the body are eating and drinking their own judgment. 30 Because of this, many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few have died. 31 But if we had judged ourselves, we wouldn’t be judged. 32 However, we are disciplined by the Lord when we are judged so that we won’t be judged and condemned along with the whole world. 33 For these reasons, my brothers and sisters, when you get together to eat, wait for each other. 34 If some of you are hungry, they should eat at home so that getting together doesn’t lead to judgment. I will give directions about the other things when I come.
Today we are beginning a new six-week series of messages I have entitled “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.”  What I want each of us to consider throughout this series is this: we are all hitchhikers.  Every one of us - the person on your left and the person on your right, and most importantly the person between them - we are all hitchhikers.  Now, what do I mean by that?

Think about what a hitchhiker is.  A hitchhiker is a person making a journey, trying to get somewhere, who can’t do it on their own, who is dependent on the generosity and goodness of others in order to make their journey.  Someone is going to have to give the hitchhiker something - a ride - with the full knowledge that the hitchhiker doesn’t deserve the ride, hasn’t earned the ride, and likely can’t pay for the ride.  Likewise, we are all on a journey, as well.  We are on a spiritual journey, whether you are  Christian and have been your whole life, or are here in church today for the first time in years or perhaps ever, we are all on a journey.  We all may be at different points along our journey, but that’s okay - we’re all still a work in progress.  We are neither in the exact same place we started, nor are we finished and arrived at our final destination.  We are all on a journey, and wherever you are on that journey today, I am just so glad that you’re here today.

To make that journey, we are all dependent on the goodness of God.  We are spiritual hitchhikers!  Do we deserve God’s goodness?  Have we done anything to earn God’s goodness?  Can we somehow pay for it?  So God’s goodness is a free, undeserved, unmerited, gift - I wish there were some word that could describe such a thing - a free, undeserved, unmerited, gift from God - if only there were such a word!  Can anyone here think of such a word?

Of course we’re talking about grace.  We are dependent on God’s grace to make our spiritual journey, but how do we get grace?  Over the next several weeks, we’ll find out.  May we pray.

I have another image I need you to keep in your mind both today and throughout this series.  That image is of God driving a great big bus full of grace, making stops along the way so people can hop on board the grace bus for the ride of their lives.  There are two things that are required for the passengers to get on board the grace bus.  First, you’ve got to show up.  Second, you’ve got to have an open and willing heart.  It sounds basic, but you’d be amazed how many people either don’t show up the places where God has promised to give us access to grace, or they do, but their hearts are closed off and their minds already made up, and they miss the opportunity to have an encounter with God’s healing and transforming grace.  So, two things we need to do to receive grace: show up, and keep our hearts open and willing to what God will do within us.

Each week, we’re going to make a different stop along the route of the grace bus, and you’ll have a real, practical, hands-on opportunity to not only hear about God’s grace, but participate at each stop so you can experience God’s grace.  Today’s first stop: the family table.

Growing up, my grandparents lived in DC and we lived in New York, so we didn’t get to see them all the time.  On top of that, my dad is an only child, so we were the only grandchildren they had, so you had better believe that we got spoiled rotten - filthy, stinkin’ rotten at Grandma’s house.  Grandma Thomas showed you she loved you by feeding you.  It was not uncommon to have a big breakfast at 8, homemade cookies at 10, lunch at noon, homemade fudge at 3, dinner at 6, and ice cream sundaes before bed.  It sounded like she was saying “Come and get it,” but she was actually saying, “I love you.”

I realize my family is not alone in this.  Sharing food is a culturally universal way of expressing love.  The family table is a place where relationships are strengthened as bodies are fed.  It’s a place where love is as real as the food on the table.

If you can understand that, then you can understand the significance of what happens in Holy Communion - where God’s love is as real as the food on the table.

The best cultural associations we make with family meals - caring and sharing, nurture and support, building relationships and showing love - all of that happens at God’s family table when God’s family gathers together for a meal.  God’s love and grace are served in heaping helpings at this table spread with bread and wine, which is one of the reasons I always tear off great big honkin’ chunks of bread when I serve you, because I want you to have a real, significant reminder of the abundance of God’s grace, even if you have to chew on it for more than one bite, I want you to take that time chewing to think about just how good and generous God is, and knowing that in the economy of God’s kingdom, there is always plenty to go around.  It may sound like we’re saying, “Come and get it,” but we’re actually saying “God loves you.”

The table may be set with bread and wine, but what’s actually being served is love and grace.  All this is God’s free gift to us and to the world through us, but in order to receive the benefit of that gift we have to show up, and our hearts have to be open.  When we celebrate Communion with hearts that are open to what God will do within us, we receive grace, and loving relationships with one another are built, and we are strengthened for grace-filled ministry in the world.

The family table is a place of belonging.  I don’t know how it worked in your family, but in ours, there was always room at the table for someone else.  Even when times were hard, even when it seemed there might not be enough to go around, there was always the gracious invitation for others to join us at the table.  Somehow, there was always more than enough to go around, and everyone left the table satisfied, closer to each other, and graciously received by the host.

The same is true at God’s family table.  It is a place where you belong.  There is always room at the table for you.  We don’t fence off the Lord’s table or deny people access to it.  You don’t have to earn a spot at God’s table, you don’t have to prove that you belong there, we’re not going to check your credentials or give you a test to gain entrance to the table.  In the United Methodist tradition, we celebrate an open table, meaning that all who respond to the grace-filled invitation of Christ are welcome at this table.  Those who are spiritually mature, those who are spiritual infants just starting out - all are welcome.

Think of it this way.  In your family, do you feed the children or do you just let them starve?  My hope is that you feed them.  Now, do children have to earn a spot at the table?  Maybe to move up from the kids’ table to the adults’ table they do, but again, I would hope that they get fed one way or the other.  Why do we feed our children when they haven’t worked for their food, earned their food, paid for the food, contributed anything toward growing or purchasing or preparing their food - why on earth do we keep on feeding them?

Because we love them.  It’s the same reason we will feed anyone the bread and wine at Communion - because we love them.  More importantly, God loves them, and the table belongs not to us, but to Christ, the gracious host.  We are stewards of the mystery, entrusted to care for the meal and the people as Christ would.  The gracious invitation to come to the table and partake of the mysteries of God may be the very thing that stirs up faith in the human heart.

John Wesley went as far as to call communion a “converting ordinance.”  By this he meant that some might, in the very partaking of the sacrament, come to full knowledge and experience of the saving grace of God, and the graceful invitation to the table may be the very first time someone realizes God’s love for them, God’s care for them, and the possibility that God may even have a place in his family for them.

I also hear the concerns of Christians who are worried either about “unworthy” people being at the Lord’s table, or people receiving in an “unworthy manner.”  First, let me say there’s been a lot of really bad teaching on this particular topic that has intruded guilt into Communion where grace was intended.  In the scripture passage we read a few moments ago, the Corinthians are warned against receiving Communion in an inappropriate or unworthy way.  If you simply read the context of the verses around it, it’s pretty clear what’s being talked about there.

We have to understand that in that time, Communion was part of a joyful, community meal.  And yet, instead of a potluck where everybody shared equally in the bounty together, it had devolved into more of a brown-bag meal where everyone brought their own supper.  Those who were rich brought a great feast for themselves, and those who were poor had a meager meal or even nothing at all.  The crux of the matter was that certain members of the body were not showing love toward other members of the body - in this case, those who had plenty of food selfishly pigging out in front of those who had none.  They were looking after themselves, but literally allowing other members of the family, weaker members of the family, to starve - both physically and spiritually.

When Paul refers to receiving Communion in an unworthy manner, he is specifically referring to those in verse 29 who “eat and drink without correctly understanding the body.”  In other words, coming to Communion requires that we realize our connection to each other as members of Christ’s body, and with the intention that we love the other members of the body. How could they possibly be showing love toward each other if they are starving each other?  The application for us is this: if we come to the table of the Lord with no intention of loving others, of sacrificing for them, of giving ourselves up for them, then we receive in an unworthy manner.

One last thing about this “unworthy” business.  I told you, there’s been a lot of bad teaching on this topic that has led people to experience guilt rather than grace at the Lord’s table.  I sometimes hear from people who don’t want to receive Communion because they feel unworthy.  Hear this: Two thousand years ago Jesus ate with sinners and those whom others scorned. He still does. If you’re a sinner, then this meal is especially for you!  None of us is worthy, except by God’s grace. Thank God we don’t have to earn worth in God’s eyes by our goodness or our faith. Your sacred worth, and ours, is God’s free gift. No matter what you have done or what your present condition, if you want Christ in your life you are welcome at his table.

Jesus is used to eating with sinners.  It’s what he did his whole life and ministry.  It’s what he continues to do today.

Everyone is welcome at the table.  We are all at different points on the journey, some of just starting out, some of us have been traveling for awhile, some of us aren’t even sure we want to make the journey. And that’s fine.  No matter where you are, you still need food for the journey, and that’s what we’re serving up at this table today.

It may look like bread and wine, but the main course is love and grace.  Come and get it.

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