What’s So Special About Grace?

(a sermon for March 19, 2023, the 4th Sunday in Lent; fourth in a series, based on  Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 1:14, 16-18)

Once, years ago at the very first church that I ever served as a young greenhorn student pastor, it was decided that we were going to give out “cross and crown pins” to the children in our little Sunday School. Now, this is something you don’t hear much about anymore, but church folk “of a certain age” will know what I’m talking about; basically, cross and crown pins served as perfect attendance awards for Sunday School, and with each successive year that the children were part of the program, the more pins they received.

So it seemed like a good idea, as we were trying to maintain some consistency in the size of our classes from week to week, along with seeking to encourage some sense of faith commitment amongst the kids themselves; and by and large, it worked.  Most of the children embraced the whole idea with great enthusiasm, and worked hard at it.  The only problem was that come the end of the Sunday School year, we came to the rather sobering conclusion that out of about twenty children, only a couple of them were actually going to qualify for a pin!  So here we were with a little egg on our faces, having laid out this program and making such a big deal all year about earning these pins, and realizing now that we were going to have to deal with a whole bunch of really disappointed kids!

But then we started looking at the records of the kids who’d almost made the cut.  One little girl had been in the hospital with pneumonia one Sunday; well, we really couldn’t hold that against her, could we?  Then there were the three children whose mother and father were going through a rather messy divorce that winter; we certainly didn’t want to add to the trauma of that!  And what about those Sunday mornings in January when the weather was bad and roads were icy; nobody should be expected to drive to church in a snowstorm!  And then, because this was Aroostook County, Maine, there was potato harvest to consider… and honestly, in those days everything stopped during “potato pickin’!”

Well, you guessed it; using Jesus’ parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard” as our biblical model (you know, the one where the vineyard owner pays those who only worked in the vineyard one hour the same amount (!) as those who’d worked the full day?), we finally decided that we would give each one of the kids a cross and crown pin, regardless of their actual attendance.  As you can imagine, a lot of the children were very happy about this turn of events; but what I’ll always remember is just how many of them weren’t!  In fact, some of those kids were quite put out with us adults that we’d changed the rules; and this is to say nothing of a couple of parents who, only half-jokingly, informed me after church that if they’d known that this was how it was all going to play out, they’d have rolled over and gone back to sleep rather than to drive to church on those snowy Sunday mornings! The pièce de resistance, however, was one sweet and angelic little girl, who up until that time had never, ever missed a chance to give me a great big hug, but instead greeted me that morning with an icy stare; informing me before stomping off that this wasn’t fair (!) because Joey Johnson got a pin and hardly ever came to Sunday School!”

Well, suffice to say that not only did I learn something there about the nature of good intentions, I think it was at that very moment that I, as a young pastor and budding theologian, began to grasp the radical nature of grace.

Grace is actually one of those words that we in the church tend to use frequently to the point of being rather casual about it.  We speak regularly of how all that we are, all that we have, all that we can ever hope to be is “by the grace of God.”  And truly, it is all by grace: the gift all creation, the land, sea and sky and all that dwells within them is by grace; the fact we live and breathe and grow is by grace; forgiveness, redemption, salvation, even that Spirit that stirs us to reach out and capture that which God offers us; that comes to each one of us by grace!  Moreover, grace is a word that we use apart from any kind of biblical or religious context: outside of these church doors, for instance, grace becomes a way of describing the dancer’s leap or the poet’s word; it’s that intangible something that just seems to fill a particular moment, whatever it is, with goodness and perfection.  And when, for whatever reason, we recognize that it’s not there for someone else, so often our response is to say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

So grace, by its simplest definition, seems to describe the blessings of what we’ve received; but ultimately, you see, that only tells half the story!  When we as people of faith talk about something being “by the grace of God,” we’re referring to that “incalculable calculation” by which God knows what we need and gives it to us even though we have done nothing to achieve or earn it. In fact, two words in ancient Hebrew that can be roughly translated as “grace” are, first, hen, which describes the compassionate response of a superior to an inferior, especially when that kindness is undeserved; and second, hesed, which, by the way, is the word in scripture used to describe God’s loving-kindness and loyalty toward Israel, even when Israel regularly turned away from God!  So then, “by the grace of God” ends up meaning that whatever it happens to be – from being granted cross and crown pins to, well, the myriad blessings of life itself (!) – the fact is, you may well not deserve it and probably don’t! Nonetheless, the divine and almighty God – Creator of heaven and earth – this God loves you, and so here it is.  It’s all yours, by GRACE.

Our text for this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, a portion of the second chapter that culminates in one of the great confessions of the epistles:  that we have been made “alive together with Christ,” and that through him, God has saved us “and [has] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”  Friends, these verses are like great and triumphant music, bringing forth an affirmation that is beyond powerful; these are words that immediately offer up a fitting benediction to everything that we know to be true about our Christian faith. I mean, once Paul offers up that promise of “the immeasurable riches of his grace,” (there’s that word again!), what is there left to say?

But did you happen to notice how this second chapter begins; what Paul says to these Christians at Ephesus before proclaiming the awesome wonder of God’s love in Jesus?

You were dead!  That’s right… I said it:  You. Were. Dead.  Dead, dead, dead.

The Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes, recently retired president of Princeton Seminary, writes that this passage of Paul’s epistle serves as a “testimony to the church,” that is, regarding the Body of Christ in Ephesus and yes, by extension the Body of Christ in this time and place. However, Barnes says that Paul is “not [being] very tender with us.” There are no kind and gentle remarks here; it’s “You were dead.”  “Not you were lost,” Barnes says, “[not that] you were unfulfilled, or even you were victimized.  You were dead through your sins and trespasses.”  And if that weren’t enough, Barnes goes on to say that “he doesn’t just kill us, though, he digs the grave as well,” talking all about how we were “following… the spirit that is now work among those who are disobedient… [living] in the passions of our flesh… by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”  Or, if you’d like to hear the Message translation here, “You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience.”   What we’re hearing here from Paul is judgment, pure and simple; walking through life with no hope of redemption or salvation at all!  All you were, says Paul, all you could ever hope to be, ever, was… dead! 

So the question becomes, how do we go from being “children of wrath,” to being “made alive together with Christ,” seated “in the heavenly places?”  Well, the answer is… grace.  And what is so very special about grace comes in the very next thing that Paul says, after leveling all this judgment at us: “But God…”  as in, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses.”  As in, if I can quote Craig Barnes again, “you were dead, but God… you kept trying to wander back into the tomb, but God… you were killing yourself trying to save yourself, but God… you had been beaten up and left to walk around wounded, but God… but God would not let you stay dead… but God who is rich in mercy and out of great love,” made you alive in Christ!

That’s what’s so special about grace!  Because at the end of the day there’s nothing we can do to resolve all of the “trespasses and sins” in which we have walked in this life: we can’t change what’s already been done in our lives; we can’t fix what is broken between yourself and God; we can’t raise the dead (!)… but God can.  By grace, God does do that, and by grace he does do this for you and me by the redeeming power at work in Jesus Christ. 

The story goes that during a conference on comparative religion some years ago, the renowned theologian and author C.S. Lewis was asked in the midst of a very intense discussion what he considered to be Christianity’s unique contribution among the world’s religions.  Lewis quickly responded, “Oh, that’s easy… it’s grace.”  And despite the brevity and simplicity of his answer, not to mention all the other sharp divisions that people of differing faiths often espouse, on that one point, at least, everyone had to agree.  I love what Philip Yancey says about this; he writes, “The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity.  The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law – each offers a way to earn approval.  Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.” 

Turns out that glory of our Christian faith is ultimately not to be found in what we do, but in what we receive; and in that regard, I suppose that it’s not wholly unconditional, for it does require each of us to take hold of what we’ve been given.  But when we do take hold of what we’re given by God, we become the recipients of “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”  We are made part of what Paul refers to earlier in Ephesians as God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (1:9) We are given life heretofore unimagined; life full and abundant and life eternal; and it comes to us all because of this incredible, radical, unmerited amazing grace that’s borne of divine love.

In the end, you see, grace is all about love.  As the late Frederick Buechner said so beautifully, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. [But] don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

Dear friends, the good news of this and every day is that we are loved beyond measure and by grace we are saved; and in a sacrificial act that will change the world forever, God’s own son will show us yet again just how true of a thing that is.  So let us watch and wait, even unto the cross, for this gift of grace to unfold our own hearts; so that we might embrace it as our very own.  So that there, by the grace of God, will go you and I.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2023  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.


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What’s So Special About Repentance?

(a sermon for March 12, 2023, the 3rd Sunday in Lent; third in a series, based on 1 John 1:5-2:2 and Luke 13:1-9)

It actually all feels a bit foreboding, doesn’t it?

Apparently, they’d come to Jesus that day to get his thoughts regarding a recent tragedy involving some “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” which, though we’re not sure of the exact circumstances, appears to refer to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem at the hand of the Roman Governor.  Now, truthfully, we don’t know what kind of questions they were asking Jesus about this event, nor do we have any real sense of what they were expecting Jesus to say about it; but I think we can safely assume that they weren’t at all prepared for Jesus’ response, which was blunt to the point of sounding rather callous: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” No…. “but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”

And then, as if that weren’t bad enough, around that same time there had also been a structural collapse within or nearby the city of Jerusalem – without warning and wholly accidental, apparently – and this so-called “tower of Siloam” crashed to the ground and killed eighteen people in the process.  And to this, Jesus says much the same thing: “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the other people living in Jerusalem?”  No, of course not… but “unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.”

It’s an interesting response, to say the least!  I mean, on the one hand, here’s Jesus thoroughly debunking this ancient way of thinking – very much part of the Jewish theology and tradition of the time – that if something bad happens to you, whatever it happens to be, it surely has to do with the sin you’ve committed.  Jesus is very clear here that these kinds of tragedies can never be thought of as a reflection of one’s sin; but then to hear him flip that around and suggest that unless you repent of your sin you’ll be just as dead as they were, well… that’s just unsettling, and like I said before, more than a little forboding!  I mean, where’s the comfort in these words, Jesus?  I can’t help but think to myself that if it had been today, the tragedies in question might have different – a brutal murder or a mass shooting, or for that matter, a fatal car accident or some kind of disease – but Jesus’ response would have been the same: “Unless you repent, you too will perish.”  Repent or perish?  Where’s the good news in that?  I don’t know about you, but Jesus’ words sound to me more like a threat than a promise, a statement so un-nice he says it twice!

Now, to be fair, what Jesus seems to be getting at in this text is that just as we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that tragedy is a reflection of our sin, likewise we shouldn’t assume that the absence of tragedy in our lives reflects our great piety or worse, any kind of self-righteousness.  In other words, it rains on the just and the unjust, bad things do happen to good people and sometimes in life tragedy does befall us, no matter who we are or what we do. Sometimes, sadly, things just happen; but that, says Jesus, makes it all the more imperative that you understand what I say to you:  Unless you repent, you will perish.

Of course, this is not the only time in the gospels Jesus speaks about repentance: we’re told that from the very beginnings of his public ministry Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”  (Matt. 4:17) And his swift retort to the fault-finding scribes and Pharisees was that he had not come to “call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) So clearly, this call to repentance was central to Jesus’ message, and if we are to be his disciples, it applies as much to you and me today as it did to those in Jesus’ lifetime.  And I dare say it’s something that runs in and through a whole lot of what we do in the church, from our prayers of confession before partaking in the Sacrament of Communion to receiving ashes on our foreheads as a symbol of humility and penitence before God.  Repentance, you see, is meant to be part of our very DNA as Christians… but the question is, “Why… why is it so essential?  Why does Jesus place so much weight on this singular act?  What’s so special about repentance?”

Perhaps our answer lies in the meaning of the word itself.  Now, ordinarily when we hear this word repent, I’m guessing that our thoughts immediately go to, well, being sorry… really, really sorry for what you’ve done, to the point that you promise you’ll never, ever do it again! Generally speaking, repentance evokes for us the idea of regret and contrition of the heart; but in fact, it’s actually much, much more that that!  In the original Greek of the gospels, the word that is used for “repent” or “repentance” is metanoia.  Actually, it’s a combination of two words:  meta, which suggests change, or movement; and noeo, which refers to the dispositions of the mind and the heart.  So metanoia, then, is all about the changing of one’s mind and heart; that is, a complete change of one’s mind and heart: to literally and purposely move 180 degrees away from the direction you were headed before.  In other words, you can be sorry all the day long for your sinful behavior – you can be the sorriest person who ever walked the face of the earth (!) – and maybe you really are; but that’s not metanoia.  Metanoia means that unless you are willing to turn away completely from that sin, you have not truly repented.

In the biblical sense, you see, metanoia, that is, repentance, is really about the complete transformation of who we are into the image of who God is, what the 19th century archbishop and poet Richard Trench defined as “a mighty change of mind, heart, and life that can only be brought about by the Spirit of God.”  It is no coincidence that that word metanoia is actually pretty close in form to our word metamorphosis; because what we’re talking about here is divinely inspired change for the better; and that is a very important distinction that we need to understand.  In the words of Gaby Viesca of Portland Seminary, “the word ‘repentance’ forces you to look back and beat yourself up for what you’ve done, but metanoia invites you to look at the future and the promises God has for you.  [And] when we understand that,” Viesca goes on to say, then “we realize that Jesus’ words [about repentance] are not words of condemnation” nor are they meant as a threat.  They are intended as “words of invitation into a new life,” a means of transformation that changes not only the way we live our lives, not only our world-view, but also life as we know it now and eternally. Repentance, then, as it is properly understood, ends up as “our doorway to the gospel,” and that makes it not only “special,” but truly good news indeed.

You may have recognized some of the verses of our other text for this morning – from the 1st Letter of John – as words I use in our time of confession on Communion Sundays: “If we say we  have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  [But] if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  I love that verse, and in fact, I believe this to be one of the greatest promises you and I can claim as we enter into the act of confession in our prayer and worship.  But what it also reminds us is that to truly confess our sin requires not only humility on our parts, but also a fair amount of self-awareness. Some years ago in a prior parish, I received in the mail a letter of apology from a member of the church regarding a transgression in which he was involved and that had taken place at a church event a few days before.  Actually, I should say that ostensibly it was a letter of apology, because truthfully, the longer the letter became – and folks, it was a long letter! – the less apologetic the letter writer seemed to be!  Rather, it became a long list of denials, rationalizations, justifications, a bit of psycho-babble and a few thinly veiled accusations; basically, the gist of it all was, “Sorry, not sorry,” closing, of course with the words, “Yours in Christian love!”

You see, that’s the other thing about repentance: it’s an opportunity that’s all too often missed as we stubbornly cling on to old ways and wrong directions.  It’s difficult, if not downright impossible, for us to repent of our sins and truly know the transformation of mind, heart and soul if we are unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge that sin; and if that’s the case for any of us, what a shame it is.  Because, to quote Gaby Viesca once again, “as Christians, we should always be aware that when it comes to our faith, our primary concern is not being right or wrong: it’s knowing that we are loved by God, and if we miss this part, we miss the whole point of the gospel… in the face of our own mistakes and failures, Jesus is the one who show up to tell you, ‘Whatever’s happened to you or whatever you’ve done, I’m still committed to you.  I’m still committed to work with you.  I’m still committed to save you.  And you know why that is?  Because I love you.”

That’s what so special about repentance… ultimately, it’s about claiming LOVE; God’s forgiving love in Jesus Christ.

Of course, you and I being the fallible humans that we are, this is a lesson we end up having to learn again and again.  Truth be told, as much as we’d like to think of repentance as a one-time only spiritual act, most if not all of us have to engage in metanoia time and time again in the course of our lives and living. In another prior parish in which I served, the pastors in town were all invited from time to time to come lead prayer at the Maine State Capitol for a session of the State Legislature, which was always an interesting and enlightening experience.  One of my colleagues and friends in those days was a man by the name of the Rev. James O’Brien, and he told the story of how once he’d gone to the Capitol to say a prayer, but for some strange reason, in introducing him, the Speaker of the House could not get his name right for love or money: “Please stand,” the Speaker said, “for the prayer of invocation, which will be led by the Rev. John Brain!”  And Jim, who was not reticent to correct such an error, leaned over and whispered, “Uh… it’s James O’Brian.”  And the Speaker, without missing a beat, said, “I apologize, the prayer will be led by James O’Brain!”  Once again, Jim corrected him, and once again the speaker stood up to announce, “I’m sorry, everyone, but it’s the Rev. Jim 0’Brain.”  Well, finally, eventually, Jim actually made it up to the podium to speak, and immediately he took the paper on which he’d very carefully written the prayer that was going to offer that day, folded it up and put it in his suitcoat pocket; choosing instead to offer up the following prayer: “Dear Lord,” he prayed, “we all make mistakes… help us not to make any more today.  Amen.”

It’s true, beloved.  We all make mistakes, and we make them again and again; in fact, what’s true for most of us is that as soon as we figure out one mistake we almost immediately make another.  We have all sinned and we all fall short of the glory of God.  But in true repentance, we receive the forgiving grace of God who through the blood of Jesus his Son and our Savior, we are cleansed from all our sin.  And the good news for you and for me and for us all is that Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins,” setting and resetting each of us in a whole new direction for the way ahead, both now and eternally.  You and I, here and now, have the amazing opportunity to literally and spiritually turn our lives around… but it can only happen if we’ll open ourselves to what what’s being offered, if only we’ll accept what’s being given freely and with divine love.

So let us repent, friends… let us repent and live.

And may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2023 Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

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Posted by on March 12, 2023 in Epistles, Jesus, Lent, Life, Sermon, Sermon Series


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What’s So Special About Communion?

(a sermon for March 5, 2023, the 2nd Sunday in Lent; second in a series, based on 1 Corinthians 11:17-32)

The story is told of an old man, a devout Christian, who each and every morning spent time in prayer and meditation in his bedroom; a spiritual discipline that over time had become an essential part of the man’s life.

The only difficulty was that this man also owned a cat; and as cats are wont to do, each morning as the man was praying, this cat would inevitably cozy up to him, rub its furry body all over and purr so loud as to be very distracting!  Now, if you’re a “cat person,” you know that you can’t simply set a cat of to one side and expect it to take the hint; and this particular cat was particularly determined and really disrupting the man’s prayer time!  So he came up with an interesting solution: he actually put a collar around the cat’s neck, and each morning when it came time for prayer, he’d tie the cat to the bedpost!  The cat didn’t seem to mind it, and it meant that the man could pray uninterrupted, so it worked very well for him for many years.

Well, the story goes that the man’s daughter had observed all this, and seeing just how much this spiritual discipline had meant to her father she decided that she would do just as he had done. And so every morning, very dutifully, she tied her cat to the bedpost and proceeded with her prayer time; although, it should be noted, given that the pace of her life was considerably faster than that of her father’s, she really couldn’t give as much time to this discipline of prayer as did he.  But the tradition carried on:  years passed and eventually the daughter had a son of her own, and as that son grew to adulthood, he was also determined to preserve the spiritual practice of his mother and grandfather.  However, his life had become so hectic that somewhere along the line he found he really didn’t have enough time to for a daily period of devotion – but… in order to carry on that hallowed family tradition, he still got up each and every morning, and while he was getting dressed and ready for work… he would dutifully tie his cat to the bedpost!

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Macchia, in his book Becoming a Healthy Church writes that ultimately this time we spend together each week is all about “God exalting worship,” the time in which “the body of Christ [gathers] to worship God in ways that engage the heart, mind, soul and strength of the people.”  What should happen here, writes Macchia, is for our lives and our faith to intersect amidst the songs, the prayers and the liturgy, in ways that cannot help but affect everything else! 

That said, however, it’s also true that ritual has a way of replacing the reality that it was meant to convey. The act of worship, unless we’re very careful, can easily become something that is done pretty much “by the numbers;” that is, going through the regular motions of prayer and song and liturgy without it having any real meaning at all. To put a finer point on it, for a lot of people the habit of coming to worship has long since taken precedence over the actual experience of worship.  In other words, it becomes all about the routine!   Do not misunderstand me here: I do not wish to cast aspersions here, and I know it isn’t true for everyone… but sometimes, where “the act and attitude of worship” is concerned – sometimes, mind you (!) –  we have the tendency to merely tie our cats to the bedpost just like we’ve always done… and sadly – sometimes (!) – that’s  particularly true when it comes to communion.

Communion: or, I should say, the Sacrament of Holy Communion; or the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, “the joyful feast of the people of God.” Whatever the nomenclature, it’s a Christian tradition that dates back to the earliest days of the church; from the very beginning, a way of remembering – re-enacting, really – Jesus’ last supper with his disciples on the night before he was crucified.  This is understood this to be a true act of our Christian worship, and whether it happens at every service in which we gather (as happens in some traditions), at certain times throughout the church year, or on the first Sunday of every month (as we observe it here!), we believe that we come to this table at Christ’s invitation and in Christ’s presence as we share the broken bread and the cup of blessing.

It should also be said here that over the centuries and throughout the life of the church, communion has been “done” in a wide variety of ways.  I remember back in seminary reading that there are some 50 “official” and proper ways of administering the sacrament of holy communion. Now I don’t know who decided these things, I’m sure that by the time I retire, I will not have done all 50 (!); but I can tell you that how communion is celebrated varies from church to church and tradition to tradition, in styles very formal and “high church” to something as informal as a dinner roll and juice being passed from person to person around a campfire! But however it’s celebrated we believe that there is something uniquely special about this sacrament, this holy “feast” of communion.

But that said, the question becomes, if there are, in fact, 50 good and proper ways of doing communion, who knows how many wrong ways there are of doing it?  It’s a good question, because we wouldn’t want to inadvertently dishonor our host, who in this case, is the Lord himself!

Well, our text for this morning addresses this very question, as the Apostle Paul speaks to the church in Corinth specifically about the Lord’s Supper, and it is not, to say the very least, an encouraging word.  In fact, this is one of very few passages in scripture that actually discourages believers from coming to worship; at least if you’re not going to do it right!  Apparently, for the Corinthians the Lord’s Supper had become little more than an opportunity for a huge meal and a big party; in this case, a party that was filled with factious, bickering guests, all of which was reflected in how the Lord’s Supper itself was being celebrated.  Basically, for a whole lot of them, communion had become little more than an opportunity for eating to excess and getting drunk; even worse, says Paul, for some to come so early to “the supper” and eating so much that others were left without anything at all!  The bottom line is that in Corinth, for all their talk of faith and worship, there was little consideration for the meaning of the sacrament, and even less acknowledgement of the Lord’s presence.

 It was as far from a sacred celebration as it gets, and Paul let them know this in no uncertain terms. “What?” he says. “Do you not have households to eat and drink in?  Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”  I absolutely love how Eugene Peterson translates this in The Message: “I can’t believe it!” Paul says here. “Why would you stoop to desecrating God’s church?  Why would you shame God’s poor?  I never would have believed you would stoop to this.  And I’m not going to stand by and say nothing.” 

Now, clearly, Paul’s rebuke in this text amounts to more than merely letting an act of worship become some rote exercise; and yet Paul does make the point of suggesting that when it comes to communion, there is a danger of letting familiarity breed contempt. Do not forget, he says, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Be careful: don’t let your feasting at the table become so familiar, so routine, so much like every other meal that what makes it special and sacred becomes diminished in the process; because “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”

So it was for the Corinthians… and so it is for you and me today, friends.

You see, at the end of the day, what’s so special about communion is so much more than mere continuation of an ancient Christian tradition. When we gather for the Lord’s Supper, we’re here for no less of a purpose than to actively interact with God; to stand in awe before God’s presence, to experience what theologians refer to as the mysterium tremendum, that is, the tremendous mystery of the divine; we are here, ultimately, to open ourselves to God’s will and purpose for our lives. 

Paul says it: if you’re going to come to the table and partake of the bread and the cup, understand first that what happens here is not all about you or me; but rather  about what God has done and what God continues to do for us in Christ and through his Holy Spirit.  So, “examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe,” because what we get here is nothing less than “a spiritual meal – a love feast.”   And when we approach this sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with that understanding… incredible things can happen.

Some years ago now, Lisa and I got to attend a week-long national pastor’s conference in San Diego, together with 700 other clergy and clergy spouses from all over the country.  That in and of itself was a bit of a culture shock for this New England pastor – I literally had a California surfer-slash-youth pastor address me as “Duuude” – but  looking back, it was maybe the most diverse group of Christians with whom I’ve ever been gathered and it was an… amazing experience. 

It all came home to me at the closing service of worship, which was capped by the sharing of communion.  Now, for the most part, this was a service not too far removed from what we would do here: there was broken bread and a shared cup, prayers and the traditional words of institution, and lots of singing. But then we were asked to break up into groups of ten or twelve to have communion with each other; which, was itself very meaningful. 

At some point during this experience I looked up to see what was happening around me in this huge convention hall that had become a sanctuary filled with 700 Christians, all worshipping together in one place, each one “doing” communion pretty much their own way: some keeping to a traditional form of worship, others pretty “freestyle” about it all.  There were those who held hands with one another as they prepared to receive the sacrament; others quietly singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving; and as I looked around, I saw lots of hugging, and heard laughter and the sound of tears being shed.  And a few wandered off by themselves, not because they were anti-social but rather because at that moment, they needed to be alone to pray. 

Some were reserved about expressing their love of God, others were incredibly demonstrative and verbal about it (they don’t call them “holy rollers” for nothing!), suffice to say this was different than any communion service I’d ever been a part of;  but that’s when it hit me.  Here were all these people, from staid parish priests to evangelical surfer dudes, each and all worshipping in a myriad of ways, and yet, at the heart of it, we were all the same.  You see, underlying all the varied traditions and worship styles, we were all of us worshipping the very same God, each one of us followers of Jesus Christ, each one of us sharing new life in Christ’s name, each one of us seeking out his divine presence in a little piece of bread and a sip of unfermented wine.  In fact, at the time I remember thinking that in this one fleeting moment I was witness to a modest yet powerful manifestation of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples on the night of betrayal an desertion: “That they may all be one.” (John 17:21)

And the thing is, what I experienced that day, that meal I shared amongst that huge gathering of believers, is the exact same meal that you and I will be sharing here, together this place.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s 700 or 7 at the table; it doesn’t matter how, when, where and how often we do it… ultimately, what’s special about communion is remembering and waiting.   Each time you and I gather around this table to share in the bread and the cup we are remembering our Lord Jesus, and we’re proclaiming to ourselves, each other and the world that we are waiting for our Lord’s return (remember what we say–that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again?”).  And while we wait, in amazing grace, we discover that in the bread and the cup that in fact Christ is with us until that time comes, and we remember who we are: God’s own children, the recipients of salvation and renewal at the hands of a crucified and risen Lord and the people of a sure and certain promise of a kingdom anchored in eternity.

Let’s remember today, friends!  Let’s make this more than just another time of communion!  Let’s remember Christ who has died for us and who gives us life!  Let’s remember the new life that is ours as his disciples!  Let us remember and, in his love and mercy, break bread, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Thanks be to God!


© 2023  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.


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