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Sacramented Words

Preaching and the Lord's Supper

If you are a preacher in a typical Reformed congregation, you know that on most Sundays the congregation expects the table to be bare even as they expect the pulpit to be filled. Many people who wouldn’t bat an eye at a service without either of the sacraments would find a service without a sermon vaguely scandalous.

One week, in place of the usual evening service, the church I served decided to hold a “fellowship potluck” that included a postprandial time of worship filled with Scripture readings, prayers, and a lot of hearty singing by the gathered throng (which ended up being three times the size of a typical evening crowd at that time). The elders had decided ahead of time that the Scripture readings, prayers, and songs would more than adequately create a fine worship experience and so no sermon would be preached.

Before the evening was finished, I was assailed by a couple who bitterly lamented the lack of a sermon. As one of them said to me, “We pay you well enough here! You can certainly take the time to write a sermon!” (I refrained from pointing out that to date, I had already written and delivered sixty-some sermons that year alone.)

In my denomination, we ordain people as “ministers of the Word and sacraments”—but there’s little doubt which of the two is more prominent. Preaching takes place every week (in many places, twice every Sunday), even as the sacraments crop up far less frequently. Baptisms are administered on an “as-needed” basis, but in many Reformed congregations the celebration of the holy Supper is also relatively infrequent (as seldom as once per quarter, once upon a time).

In the last congregation I served, even though we increased our celebration of the sacrament to once per month, the annual ratio of sermons to celebrations of the Lord’s Supper was roughly 27:3, or nine times as many sermons as trips to the table.

On the weeks when we did celebrate the feast, I knew I’d have to shorten the sermon. If on a typical week I preached for 25-28 minutes, then on the weeks when we were slated to celebrate communion the sermon would need to be about 15-18 minutes lest the service go “too long.” So when the sacraments increased, the Word decreased.

The yawning gap that has opened between preaching and the Lord’s Supper makes it difficult for many of us to see natural connections between the sermon and the table. We have grown so accustomed to the idea that preaching requires no connection to the sacraments that we conclude that although the two can coexist in the same service, they most certainly do not need to coexist.

My colleague, Jack Roeda, once told me that when he became the pastor of a congregation with a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, he fretted powerfully over the need to somehow make every single sermon become a lead-in to the sacrament. He was sure it would take great effort. To his surprise, he discovered that every sermon he wrote led naturally and beautifully to the table. Indeed, most of the time the connections did not even need to be spelled out: they were on fine display for all with eyes to see.

We should find that merely logical. After all, despite the prominence we give the sermon, we have insisted all along that Word and sacrament go together; that the sacrament cannot be celebrated in isolation from the Word (and presumably that the Word without the sacrament is likewise incomplete). The mutually reinforcing relationship between Word and sacrament is a Reformed hallmark (to the extent that John Calvin made both the pure preaching of the Word and the faithful celebration of the sacraments his two main marks of a true church).

For the foreseeable future, however, most of us preachers will continue to deliver our sermons in services that are devoid of the Lord’s Supper. So what’s a preacher to do? Let me suggest a few ideas for how to nourish a living connection between Word and sacrament in almost any congregation, irrespective of how often it celebrates communion.

  • First, and most obviously, we should not wait for the Sundays when the table is set to make overt references to it. A hefty percentage of biblical texts lend themselves very naturally to references to communion. Whole swaths of Christian metaphors and images remind us of the sacrifice of Christ that we encounter in communion: the Lamb of God, the bread of life, manna in the wilderness, Christ as the true vine, Passover, wedding feasts, the fatted calf, yeast in the dough, overflowing cups. It’s remarkably easy to find connections between Word and sacrament on those weeks when we celebrate the sacrament. But in truth those connections are there every week, if only we make the effort to look for them. (And if it should be that over time our repeated references to communion cause people to wonder why we don’t celebrate it more often in the first place . . . so much the better!)
  • Second, regular reference to the holy table keeps preaching humble. Exactly what takes place at the table is something of a mystery. We can argue endlessly about what does or does not “happen” in the sacrament, but whether you think it is just a memorial event meant to remind us of spiritual truths or a mystical event in which the bread and wine elevate us into Christ’s real presence, all true believers would argue for the utter necessity of ingesting these physical elements on a regular basis.

I’ve often thought that if an anthropologist from Mars were to peer into a sanctuary some Sunday morning to see four hundred people simultaneously popping a cube of bread into their mouths, this creature would be powerfully confused by the ritual. I’ve also long thought that if this extraterrestrial were to corner the average churchgoer after the service and query precisely why this rite had to be done now and again, the answers would likely be just east of satisfactory. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of theological opinions as to what happens through the bread and the wine, no devout Christian would regard it as optional.

The sacrament is necessary but is also a mystery. It defies tidy rhetorical attempts to explain it. What we preachers need to bear in mind every time we deliver a sermon is that our words, no matter how eloquent or finely crafted, can never fully capture what Paul again and again called “the mystery of Christ.” Regular references in our sermons to the sacred table may keep us properly humble and remind us that there is always more to faith than we can square away in even the best sermon. Sometimes we all need to fall silent and just eat some bread. And many times the power of that act surpasses anything the preacher could say!

  • Third, in traditional church design, the pulpit is flanked by font and table. Both the baptismal font and the communion table are stellar reminders of gospel grace. Clueless infants who get water dribbled on their heads and repeat-offender sinners (that’s all of us) who keep getting nourished with our Lord’s body and blood are clear vignettes of a grace that, were it up to us to earn, we’d never receive. Never. We don’t wait to see if a baby is worthy of baptism. And despite our clarion warning that impenitent sinners ought not take communion, we surely do not claim that a given person must be peerlessly virtuous in his or her own right in order to take communion. We know it’s all about grace. That’s why ignorant children and sorrowful sinners are welcome at font and table.

Yet preaching too often veers in the direction of moralism, of “do-it-yourself” salvation, of how it’s all up to us to be and to remain “good” people. But sermons that are preached with a keen awareness of what the Lord’s Supper is all about will try to proclaim grace just as clearly as does the bread and wine of the sacrament itself. Even on those weeks when there is no literal bread or wine on the table, the very presence of the table remind us that sermons that end up being long “to do” lists perform a kind of theological end-run on grace—the very grace that streams from the sacrifice of God’s Son displayed at the holy supper.

In most Reformed circles, we have grown accustomed to worship services with a sermon but no sacrament. But thoughtful preachers can keep the Lord’s Supper in mind in every sermon they write. After all, everything we could possibly say is premised on the death and resurrection of God’s Son. Every sermon proclaims the divine mystery that is salvation by grace. Therefore, every sermon must be a clear proclamation of the grace that washes afresh over every one of us each time the pastor breaks bread and spills wine. When the grace of the Lord’s Supper infuses the sermon, then pulpit and table together proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.