Here is Drew’s sermon for the Sunday of April 19th, 2015. The text for this week was Romans 12:1-8.
A Living Sacrament
There were a lot of special people in the church where I grew up. There was/were:
Bill Garner*, who kept a roll’s worth of quarters in his pockets and would give 50 cents to anyone who wanted to buy a coke from the coke machine. I learned from him to always have something to give, even if it isn’t a lot.
Freya Allen, who spearheaded our church’s involvement in one of Memphis’s homeless ministries. I learned from her how to be fired up about mission, and people who were down on their luck weren’t really any different from me.
Henri Barden – Henri and his wife Susanna raised a generation of youth in my church, but I was too young to have them. But I remember at a church party watching him listen and learn from someone about how our tax structure affects the poor, and I learned too things: you never stop learning or trying to be better, and being a Christian involves thinking about how the system affects the weak and vulnerable, and fighting to change it when necessary.
And George and Milla Evans: When my grandparents couldn’t come to school with me on grandparents day because they lived far away, George and Milla would come to school and be my grandparents. They taught me that love went beyond family, and that adding more people into your family didn’t mean there was any less love.
These weren’t the only special people in my congregation, and probably if you ask me a week from now I would share with you a whole new batch of people. It just so happens that I was thinking about these people this week because I got into a conversation about communion.
I went out for beer with some friends the other day, and somehow we got to talking about Communion and transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is the Catholic understanding of communion, that sometime during the Eucharistic prayer, the bread and wine turn into the actual physical body and blood of Jesus.
And my friend, he’s a good old boy, Presbyterian, explains that Presbyterians don’t believe in transubstantiation. He said, “We believe that communion is a symbol of Jesus body and blood, but not the real thing.” Now that’s not the kind of thing you say around a Presbyterian minister, because Presbyterian ministers can be kind of particular about that kind of thing. We’re particular about that kind of thing because ordination exams are particular about that kind of thing, which is largely because many of the denominational divides turn on little points of dogma like this one. I could the words coming, a long speech about the technical differences between the different denominations and their various understandings of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. I had to take a big swallow of beer to keep that down. And it didn’t work. A few minutes later, I did clarify just a minor distinction.
Presbyterians do not believe that the bread and wine are just symbols. We don’t believe that when Jesus said “This is my body” he meant “This represents my body.” We do believe that Jesus is actual factual present in the bread, we simply believe that it is a metaphysical reality rather than a physical reality. Jesus’ body and blood are spiritually present in the bread and the wine. Think of what happened in our Gospel story, for example. The doors to the Upper Room were locked, and Jesus came into the room. As Jesus passed through the doors, in some sense he was present in the door. But the door didn’t suddenly acquire the physical properties of Jesus.
Presbyterians believe that the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Communion are signs. And that’s the biblical meaning of sign. As in, “The Lord himself with give you a sign. Look the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). As in, “And this shall be a sign for you, you shall find the child wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger.” A sign is evidence that what you hear is true.
The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament. And a sacrament is a sign of an alternate reality, the reality of Christ’s love for us, the reality of Christ’s death on the cross. In the way that a seal on an old letter would tell you who it was from, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a seal on the promises of forgiveness and resurrection, so that we know who they came from. If we trust in Him, then we can trust in them.
The point of Baptism and Communion is that they point to a deeper reality, they are physical tangible means of experiencing the realities behind them. Jesus gave these signs to his disciples so that they would trust in his promises. They were passed down to us so that we would know these promises. And we pass them down to our children so that they will know his promises too.
Which brings me back to those special people at Balmoral Presbyterian Church. I know the promises of God because of those special people. They passed them on to me. And here’s the thing. Those people weren’t symbols of the love of God. They were signs. If George and Milla Evans could love me like their child even though I wasn’t, then God could love me like God’s child too. If Bill Garner could be generous with everyone that he meets, then maybe I could too. If Freya Allen could change people’s lives just by putting up some beds for them in the Sunday School rooms, then I could change the world too.
The people that I grew up with were living sacraments. They were living, breathing signs that God’s promise is real. I suspect that any one of us who really thinks about it could find a few living sacraments in their own lives, people whose lives were signs and seals of God’s promises to us.
This is, of course, who we are called to be. We are called to use our lives to point at another reality, the reality of Christ’s love for us all. And we do it in the simplest ways possible. We watch out for someone’s kids. Offer a helping hand to someone in need. Invite strangers into our homes and our lives and our church.
It is as easy ordinary as bread and juice. But for all those who come after us, it will be a sign of the infinite love and redeeming grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. However we want to articulate or explain it, you can be sure that Jesus himself will be present in it.
*I changed names, because I’d hate for someone to be embarrassed or upset by what I said about them.
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