From its very beginning in the early seventies, Church of the Servant has celebrated the Lord's Supper every Sunday. When I came to the church in 1983,1 did not immediately take to the weekly practice. It was not in my past, and I feared familiarity and a wearisome repetitiveness. Over time, however, the practice has become immensely satisfying and an essential part of Sunday worship. It is a focus that I deeply appreciate as a pastor.
For one thing, celebrating the Lord's Supper safeguards the heart of the gospel. If I preach a text that is mostly about conduct, located on the periphery of the Christian faith, the communion liturgy brings us back to the center.
Moreover, celebrating the meal weekly reminds us that the Christian life is not only an intellectual exercise, but also an exercise in community. There is a table, Christ is the host, and we, his brothers and sisters, gather at his invitation. We may disagree strongly on this or that interpretation of Scripture, but we all come with empty hands and open mouths to receive from the storehouse of God's goodness.
Besides, the weekly communion tells us that worship is participatory. I must come forward, receive the bread and wine, and, as practiced among us, look my neighbor in the eyes and say,
"The body of Christ for you, the blood of Christ shed for you." It is hard to imagine saying anything more meaningful than "The body of Christ for you" to your spouse or child or to another parishioner.
Again the communion liturgy nearly always picks up some word or theme from the sermon, and though we have read the words many times before, we hear them as though for the first time. And always, whatever the sermon, the gospel is enacted and made visible in the communion celebration. The sacrament demonstrates the word preached and anticipates our feasting on the great Day.
In an "As We See It" column in Perspective magazine Kevin Corcoran wrote about the meaning of the sacrament for him during a difficult week after the death of his mother-in-law:
One can tell a story using words or one can tell a story using none. At church we do both. Sometimes, and I wish it were much more frequently a story is told with the stuff of the earth—bread and wine. It was the great sacrament so often neglected by Reformed Christians that I longed for most during that week with my father-in-law. Why? I think because it engages me not just cerebrally but bodily: I taste, touch, see, and smell God's goodness. What I longed for that week was to be reminded of God's own participation in our broken-ness. I wanted to be reminded starkly and concretely that God was with us and that God's promises are true. I wanted also to anticipate the consummation of God's kingdom ofshalom. This happens at the table. I wanted to hear the words, "The body of Christ, broken for you," "The blood of Christ, poured out for you." I wanted to hear others tell me the story—or better, I wanted to see others show me the story. I wanted to taste it and to touch it, to smell it and to see it. And yes, also to hear it.
Until I joined Church of the Servant, my focus on the Lord's Supper was on our penitence and Christ's forgiveness. The meal was celebrated in hushed tones, either with absolute silence—even as children we knew that this was a time for silence—or with a silence interrupted only by the pastor reading an appropriate Scripture passage or the organist playing a reflective hymn. In any case, each person sat quietly, alone before a holy God, participating in communion.
These celebrations were often significant times; the silence, the solemnity, the gravity of participation in the communion service were all wonderful. But like any good meal, the Lord's Supper has many flavors, depending on the serving. In fact the seasons of the church calendar will nearly always highlight certain flavors. To explore this variety in the communion service, the following service plans take next year's lectionary readings for the first Sunday of each of the seasons and suggest how the sermon might season the celebration. Also included is the Response part of the service for each week—the bridge in the liturgy between the sermon and the celebration of the supper. In sidebars you will find Carol Petter's suggestions for several hymns to be sung each week during the supper.
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
The astronomer says our end will come either by ice—some cataclysmic climate change due, perhaps, to a deadly collision with an asteroid or a comet—or by fire—the ballooning of the sun till it ignites into a giant helium flash consuming planet Earth in one fiery blast (Newsweek, Nov. 23, 1992). If the astronomer is right, and his vision of the end is the last word, then there is ultimately no point to all our living. We are all passengers on a Titanic without lifeboats.
The prophet Isaiah has also seen the end; he claims it's full of promise, the culmination of God's desire to establish shalom. He speaks of the end of the world not as a time of disaster but as the time when the earth's goal has been reached. In the end there will be great rejoicing, and all nations will participate.
Each of us must decide which vision of the end is true. Advent urges us to stand behind the prophet—not because the prophet knows the flight patterns of comets and galaxies but because the prophet has read the heart of God. The community of faith says that Bethlehem, the upper room, Calvary, and an empty grave give us our best reading of our final destination.
Since no one knows the day of that great consummation, Jesus warns against indifference, moral recklessness, and absorption in the routines of ordinary life. He would have us live each day in such a way that the end will not be an unwelcome intrusion. We're to conduct ourselves like the student whose study habits keep her ready for any surprise quiz. Moreover, the apostle Paul tells us that if we are to live with the end in mind, we must put aside the deeds of darkness and clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ today.
In receiving the bread and wine, we publicly declare on which side of the two competing visions of the end we stand, with which end in mind we will live. Because of Jesus Christ, we anticipate an end that is not a bang and then total darkness, but rather communion, feasting, and great praise.
"Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord."
Song or prayer of application
Leader: Let us together profess our faith.
All: I know that my Redeemer lives,
Intercessory prayer (led by a member of the congregation)
Jeremiah 31:7-14; John 1:10-18
During Advent we sing:
The song resonates deep within us. Like the people to whom Jeremiah writes, we know of the exile; there are seasons when we feel we live in exile still. Like the people to whom John the apostle writes, we know of the darkness; there are times still when that darkness threatens to invade our souls.
The dictionary defines living in exile as a prolonged, mostly involuntary separation from one's country or home. That exile can be physical, psychological, or spiritual. We were exiled from the garden. The psychiatrist Paul Tournier explores this terrain in his book A Place for You. Today we are told that people much abused as young children suffer from Attachment Disorder. They find it impossible to connect, to feel at home anywhere. In her novel Larry's Party, Carol Shields tells us that when Larry celebrates his fortieth birthday, a seam of panic opens up inside of him. He feels disconnected, in a maze with no exits, living on the verge of nothing at all.
Our world experiences such a profound sense of exile that talk of a homecoming sounds naive, quaint maybe, altogether out of touch. Yet both the prophet Jeremiah and the apostle John invite us to come home:
They shall come and sing aloud on the height ofZion,
Here is a place to come home to that flourishes with abundance, that rings with song.
The possibility of such a homecoming has its basis in God's action, not in any New Year's resolutions or government programs. In Jeremiah, God is the primary actor, and in John's gospel our homecoming is grounded in the fact that the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (v. 14).
Our task is to accept the invitation to come home. We are to go to Bethlehem, where God was homeless and all of us can find a home. The gospel tells us that many did not believe, but that for those who believed, it made all the difference. They were given the right to become children of God and to be home at last.
Yet, because we sin and suffer the ravages of sin, we all suffer from Attachment Disorder. We find it difficult to trust the promises of the gospel. We keep turning away. A teenage boy, after much abuse as a child, was adopted at the age of seven. His Attachment Disorder was so severe that he found it difficult to look his parents in the eyes when they spoke with him. Sometimes, with great tenderness, the father or the mother would take the boy's face in their hands, look him in the eyes, and say, "Listen, son, we're on your side; please, we're on your side."
At Christmas God takes humanity's face in his hands, turns it towards him and says, "I'm on your side." At every communion service God takes our faces in his hands again, turns us towards him, and tells us, "I'm on your side! You are no longer in exile but adopted and at home with God."
Prayer for blessing upon the Word
Leader: Let us join with Mary and with all the saints in our profession of faith and praise:
All sing: The Magnificat (the Song of Mary)
Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Paul is writing a letter to a church that can only be described as dysfunctional. Yet he addresses her as the church of God in Corinth, as those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy. Some suggest that perhaps Paul is being facetious, or that he's exercising a false optimism that runs on the assumption that emphasizing the positive is good psychology.
As a matter of fact, Paul is stating rock-bottom facts. It's not that he is blind to the church's problems; it's just that he sees deeper and further than most of us.
We are defined by our position in Christ; it's what some call a positional sanc-tification. Our identity is not determined primarily by our good or bad behavior but by our relation to God through Christ. In theology we find the doctrine of tran-substantiation. According to this doctrine, during the celebration of holy communion, when the priest prays the prayer of consecration, the essence of the bread is transformed into the body of Christ, even while the bread's accidental characteristics remain the same. It is not what most Protestants believe. Yet might not that doctrine be applied to the church? She still looks and feels and sounds like a body of ordinary sinners but, as a matter of fact, at the core she has changed radically. If we could see deeply enough into her, we would see not sinners but Jesus Christ. It is a matter of faith seeing deeper.
More, it is a matter of seeing further. We need a faith that sees the church as she will be in the end. In verses 8-9, Paul voices great expectations. Traditionally we've distinguished between the visible and the invisible church. We realize that the community of believers includes many who are not real believers but at best Christians only in name and at worst hypocrites. The real church, then, are those within the visible church who are united by a true faith. But such thinking seems to assume that there are two churches, rather than one church that is groaning "inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom. 8:23, NRSV). As Richard John Neuhaus argues, it is better to view the church in terms of possibility and promise. This is not to depart from reality but to encompass the greater reality. It is not simply a projection of a wish or of a worthy dream, but it is a possibility derived from the promise of God himself. Faith sees and loves the church as she will be because God is faithful.
To love this church means we do all we can to help her become what she is in Jesus Christ. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed that whom you would change you must first love. A superior stance, a sneering attitude, a condescending look sabotages any and all efforts.
To sustain our love for the church we must see her at the table with Christ as the host. Here, in communion, you see what seems like nonsense to unbelievers—brothers and sisters of the Lord, a glorious bride.
In this holy communion, faith sees deeper and further; it sees the church of God in Corinth or in Chicago, ordinary men and women sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy.
Song or Prayer of Application
Leader: Let us together confess the faith of the church at all times and in all places.
All: The Nicene Creed
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Some time ago the magazine GQ did a survey of fifteen hundred men, eighteen years and older. In the survey the men were asked to pick ten adjectives out of a total of forty-six that best described them. The words the men used to describe themselves were honest, kind, polite, intelligent, competent, loyal, independent, practical, fan-loving, and happy. Then they chose ten adjectives that best described how they would like to be seen: high-earning, patient, attractive to women, sexy, athletic, good-looking, social, decisive, assertive, well-educated. Plainly these men see themselves as basically good; the only thing they would like just a little more of is clout, especially in the eyes of women. I did not see the original list; perhaps it included adjectives like sinister, self-seiving, holy... Still, it makes you wonder. If this survey reflects the way people see themselves, how do they explain that this is such a sad and dangerous world?
And how do they make sense of a church that raises such a fuss over the need for redemption? Who needs Lent? Is it all for the other person? Of course, there are other, more reliable readings of the human heart, readings more in line with the Bible. For example, in one of his recent collections of short stories, the novelist John Updike writes:
You land, it seemed to him, on the shore of your own being in total innocence, like an explorer who was looking for something else, and it takes decades to penetrate inland and map the mountain passes and to trace the rivers to their sources. Even then, there are large blanks, where monsters roam.
—The Afterlife, p. 243
The self is a continent where monsters roam, and it was sin that opened the door to the monsters. "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned" (Rom. 5:12, NRSV). Sin had its debut in the beginning, in the garden, and death came hard on its heels. As the Bible reads us, we are the walking dead; even the ground is cursed because of sin.
But, says Paul, where Adam failed, Christ succeeded. Jesus Christ is the one who begins a new humanity. He is not to be compared with anyone out of the salvation history of Israel. He is no Abraham or Moses or Elijah. He can only be compared to the one who began humanity, Adam.
In Adam and in Christ we have two fountain-heads, two rivers, two powers, two kingdoms. In the one we find the power of sin, a rebellion against God that brings death, and in the other we find grace, a reliable access to God that brings life. We ourselves could not round up the evil that has been set loose on our earth and restore the garden, nor tease the evil out of our own hearts to make ourselves pure. Our only hope is to accept Christ's relocation program. To be saved means to be rescued "from the dominion of darkness and brought... into the kingdom of the Son he loves in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col. 1:13-14).
Lent calls us not only to an honest appraisal of who in the world we are, acknowledging the monsters that roam there, but also, and especially, to entrust ourselves to the One who is our Redeemer. In him, as citizens in his kingdom, we are safe; sin, death, and the devil have no power or authority over us anymore.
A liturgy for Lent includes the following exchange:
Minister: He is the bread of life, who came down from heaven to give life to the world. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.
People: Lord, give us always this bread of life.
Monster: Lamb of God, who took upon himself the sins of the world; whoever accepts this sacrifice is forgiven before God.
People: Lord, move us always to receive this gift.
Ministei': He is the servant of the Most High, who remained obedient even to death by execution; whoever serves him is liberated for life.
People: Lord, grant us always true obedience.
Martin Luther had it right:
Did we in our own strength confide,
Hymn: "Breathe on Me, Breath of God" PsH 420, PH 316, TH 334, TWC 295
Leader: Let us express our unity with the church of all ages by professing our faith in the words of the Apostles' Creed:
All: The Apostles' Creed