Monday, August 18, 2014

Communion This Morning, Church Conference Tonight

(A sermon based on Romans 12:1-21 preached on Sunday, August 18, 2014)

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.”

And so I thought life was all about getting what I needed with little to no effort being expended by me. A roof was kept over my head, food appeared on my plate, and clothes were placed in my closet.

“When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

It’s not like I had much choice.

I found that if I was to keep on having a roof over my head, food on my plate, and clothes in my closet, I was going to have to do what adults do: become a grown human being who met my obligations and met my responsibilities.

And so with the blessings of family come the responsibilities of family. With the family dinners come the cooking and the cleaning. With making love comes making the bed. With the ball games and the competitions come all of the practices. With the house comes the mortgage. With the fun comes the commitment.

This morning we are celebrating the Lord’s Supper; we also refer to it as Communion. We call it Communion because (1) it symbolizes and celebrates our communion with God in Christ and God’s communion with us and (2) it demonstrates our communion with each other. We share in the Body of Christ as the Body of Christ.

In eating the bread and drinking the cup, then, we remind ourselves that we feed on Christ and we feed on each other. We gain nourishment and strength and life from Christ our Lord; Jesus said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day …” (John 6:53-54). We also gain nourishment and strength from our sisters and brothers in Christ. Romans 12 is filled with encouragement that we love one another and that we demonstrate that love by thinking more highly of others than we do of ourselves, by helping each other when we are in need, and by living peaceably with each other.

So we celebrate our fellowship with God and with each other as we take the Lord’s Supper as the Body of Christ this morning.

We will be just as much the Body of Christ and we will be just as much in fellowship with God and with each other tonight in Church Conference as we are in sharing the Lord’s Supper this morning.

It’s all the same thing, you see, because we are always the Body of Christ and we are always in communion with God and with each other. We are always feeding from Christ and we are always feeding from each other.

We always have growing to do, though, so sometimes our feeding becomes corrupted. Our feeding from Christ becomes corrupted when we do so selfishly or with a sense of entitlement or without accepting the obligations that come with being his Body. There is a well-known passage in 1 Corinthians 11; Paul is giving instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper when he says, “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (vv. 28-29a). When you look around the passage to find out what Paul is talking about, you find these words: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation” (vv. 33-34a). In other words, legitimate Communion with the Lord requires legitimate communion with each other.

Just like our feeding on Christ can get corrupted by our self-centeredness and lack of love and compassion, so can our feeding on each other as Paul put so well in Galatians 5: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (vv. 13-15).

Yes, we mess it up sometimes.

It is as Bill Moyers once said: “Small wonder Baptists have been compared to jalapeno peppers: one or two makes for a tasty dish, but a whole bunch of them together in one place brings tears to your eyes.”

But it is also as the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood once said: “Simple people can be amazingly powerful when they are members one of another. As everyone knows, it is almost impossible to create a fire with one log, even if it is a sound one, while several poor logs may make an excellent fire if they stay together as they burn.”

Let’s remember that we are the Body of Christ in both meetings. Let’s remember that we are feeding on Christ and on each other at both times—and indeed, at all times. Let’s let our feeding on Christ and on each other be motivated and exhibited in our love for each other. Let’s be more interested in giving that we are in receiving—even as we are so very grateful for what we receive.

It’s Communion this morning and Conference tonight—but all the time Christ is Lord and all the time we are the Body of Christ, growing in his love, grace, and peace …

And as we celebrate our privilege this morning, let’s meet our responsibility tonight …

Elbow Grace

(A sermon based on 1 Peter 4:7-11 preached on August 10, 2014)

Most of us are familiar with the term elbow grease; it’s used in a phrase like “That pan was hard to clean—I really had to put some elbow grease into it!” It’s a way of saying that you had to put a lot of effort into a task.

My title is a play on that term. There are two ways I’d like you to think about it. First, let the phrase “elbow grace” help you think about the effort that we need to be making as Christians; Christ deserves our all because Christ is our all. Second, let the phrase “elbow grace” help you think about the fact that grace is our “elbow grease”; it is the grace of God that fuels and drives all that we are and all that we do.

In the opening words of our passage, Peter tells his readers, “The end of all things is near” (v. 1a). Now, it is likely that Peter anticipated that Jesus would return very soon. We must remember, though, that God’s time is not our time and God’s schedule is not our schedule; Jesus might not come back for thousands of years and it would still be, according to God’s clock, “soon.” We do neither ourselves nor anyone else any good when we listen to people trying to scare us into watching their shows and buying their books and controlling our lives by telling us that the Ebola outbreak or the fighting in the Middle East or some other event signals that the end is near. God’s wrapping up (cf. The Message translation) of all things is always near, regardless of how far away it is.

The important question is not “When is Jesus coming back?”; the important question is “What are we to be doing until he does come back?”

Peter’s direction is spot on for us here today.

First, he said “Be serious and discipline yourselves” (v. 7b). We have a life to live under Christ and we need to take it seriously. That means paying attention to our thoughts, to our attitudes, and to our actions. It means growing ever closer to God, becoming ever abler to follow Jesus and becoming ever more sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. We each need to make a personal commitment to such serious discipline. It’s time for football and one of the things that will mark a successful team is the seriousness and discipline with which they have made themselves ready to play ball. Such seriousness and discipline is what will make us ready to live Christian lives.

Second, Peter said that we are to pray. Our serious dedication to our Lord enhances our praying. Why? Because our life as Christians is a life of prayer; our life is a life of continuous fellowship with God and that is what prayer is. Prayer is communion with God as well as communication with God so as we grow closer to God we can communicate better with God.

Third, Peter said that we are to love one another. It is to be a “constant” love; the word can mean “fervent” or “intent.” Such love is not just a feeling; such love is a commitment to each other that shows itself in action. It requires effort. It grows out of our disciplined following of Jesus. Such love, Peter said, “covers a multitude of sins”; that is, it leads us to do the very hard work of forgiving one another and of working and living together despite our differences. As we grow in love for one another we are less likely to sin against one another by our attitudes, our words, or our actions, but when we do, we are more likely to forgive one another and to maintain our relationship as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Fourth, Peter said that we are to “be hospitable to one another” (v. 9a). In the early years of the Church, travelling was dangerous and it was important for Christians to welcome missionaries and other believers into their homes. For poor Christians, it was an especially demanding responsibility. What does hospitality mean to us in our context? For one thing, it means that we welcome one another into each other’s lives. We are glad to share our joys and burdens with each other; we think more about someone else’s needs than we do our own. For another thing, it means that we welcome any and all comers to our church. There is no one who is beyond the reach of the grace of God and so everyone is welcome in the house of God. Notice that Peter said that we are to practice hospitality “without complaining” (v. 9b). That will take discipline, won’t it?

Fifth, Peter said that we are to “serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received” as “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (v. 10). By God’s grace we are saved and by God’s grace we have the gifts and abilities we need to serve each other. We are not to keep God’s grace and God’s gifts to ourselves; we are to pass them on to others. We are to make a conscious decision and make a disciplined effort to put God’s grace to work by helping and serving other people.

Finally, Peter makes it clear that even though we are called to use some elbow grace, to be disciplined in and committed to sharing God’s grace and love with other people by serving them, it is only possible because God is in us and with us. Everything that we are and everything that we do is because of God and so that God will be praised.

[The commentary on 1 Peter by Richard B. Vinson in the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary was particularly helpful in the preparation of this sermon.]