October 7th, 2012 “The Sacraments” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Sermon Series: The Theology of Worship
(Based on A More Profound Alleluia ed. Van Dyk)
Isaiah 2:2-4 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
This morning we are continuing in our sermon series about why we worship the way that we do. It seems fitting that on World Communion Sunday we should have a discussion about the sacraments. Today we are talking about communion and baptism the two sacraments in the Presbyterian Church. We as a church recognize communion and baptism as sacraments because those are the two sacraments that Jesus participated in during his life. Our Directory for Worship defines the sacraments as “signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action. Through the Sacraments, God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service.” (W – 1.3033)
We will begin our discussion with communion. Theology Professor Martha Moore – Keish points out that “Many different terms are used for this Christian meal: Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Eucharist, and Mass. Each term has a particular history and emphasizes a particular dimension of the meal. Lord’s Supper, for instance, recalls the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. This term tends to be used in traditions that focus on that meal as precedent for what Christians do when they come to the table today. Eucharist comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving, and so the use of this term tends to emphasize the meal as an occasion for giving thanks to God for the gifts given in the Sacrament. The word Communion focuses attention on the gathered community sharing the meal. And the term Mass comes from the Latin phrase that dismissed the people at the conclusion of the service and in the Catholic tradition came to refer to the service in its entirety.”
In our tradition we believe that communion is a threefold event. In celebrating communion we remember what happened in the past in the work of Jesus Christ, we praise what is happening right now in our community as we gather around the table, and we look forward to what God promises to work among us in the future. Communion is about looking back, looking around, and looking forward.
Part of our communion celebration is the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. You might be wondering why we always have such a long prayer before we have communion. This is because we as a church want to name and remember the things that God has done for us in the past as well as God’s promises for us in the future.
First we talk about lifting our hearts up to the Lord. “This reminds us that God does not come down to transform the elements but lifts us up to transform us into the body of Christ.” (Moore – Keish) In the prayer we thank God for creation and God’s covenant history with Israel and with us. We remember God’s act of salvation in Jesus Christ as well as the actions of Christ during his lifetime. We also look to the day of Christ’s return. Then we call upon the Holy Spirit to make the meal as well as us as a community into the body of Christ. Then we finish with the Lord’s Prayer. The words that are said over the bread and cup are from the Scriptures and serve to remind us that Christ, as the head of the church, is the one who first instituted this celebration.
There is meaning even in the way that we partake of communion. When we pass the bread and juice down the rows we are reminded of the Reformed belief of the priesthood of all believers. In our tradition, even though the Pastor is the one who presides over the table, all of us are able to serve the elements to each other rather than only the priest or pastor serving the elements. Sometimes that method of taking communion by rows fosters too much individual piety as we each sit and quietly ponder the elements by ourselves. That is one of the reasons we like to mix it up a bit and take communion by intinction every other month. When we come forward to partake of the elements, we lose some of that personal focus and focus more on each other as a community, the body of Christ. Walking up front we look at each other, we smile, we share in the moment together. It is like a grand procession of the saints coming in thanksgiving before the Lord.
Communion is something that is about our bodies and our souls. When we gather around the table we are doing something that enacts our faith rather than just thinking about our faith. Celebrating communion is a bodily experience and it serves to remind us that Christ too lived within a fleshly body. Celebrating communion reminds us that God values and provides for our embodied selves rather than just the spiritual parts of us.
The other sacrament we celebrate in worship is baptism. Like communion baptism is a threefold event; it is about looking back, looking around, and looking forward. In baptism, the believer looks back over their lives and declares that they have sinned and want to come before God to ask for forgiveness. The believer looks around at the community of faith and declares that they want to make a commitment to join the body of Christ. The believer also looks ahead, declaring that they want the spirit of Christ to come into their life.
In the Presbyterian Church baptism is a symbol of dying to an old way of life and rising to a new one. As a believer makes a confession of faith, they are washed clean in the waters of baptism and begin a new life in Christ. In the Presbyterian tradition we practice believer’s baptism, or the baptism of adults as well as infant baptism. In infant baptism we celebrate and honor our belief that God is able to reach out to us before we are able to respond to God. God reaches out to the baptized baby in love before that child is ever able to make their own response to God.
Just as we welcome all believers in Christ to the communion table, in the Presbyterian Church we welcome and recognize all baptisms. We do not re-baptize people in our tradition for we believe that baptism is an act of God and not of people. Therefore when and wherever you were baptized is a once and final act of God. Joining the body of Christ is a onetime event and though we may continue to sin, one only need to be washed of sins once in their life.
It is fitting on a Peacemaking Sunday to discuss the sacraments for these are the acts that unite us with other believers in the Christian tradition. Today’s reading from Isaiah is my favorite scripture when it comes to peace. In this section from Isaiah we hear of God’s vision for peace among humanity. This image of us turning our weapons of war into the tools of agriculture is one of the most powerful visions of God’s hope for us. The tools of agriculture can be used not only to sustain ourselves, but to sustain those around us that are in need. This is a true vision of us loving our neighbors as ourselves.
On World Communion Sunday we are reminded that we share the Christian sacraments with all of our brothers and sisters. When we are baptized, we are joined not simply into one church, but into the greater family of faith. Similarly, when we come to the table to celebrate communion, we never come alone. Instead we gather here with Christians from all over the world. This is a fitting time to collect an offering for the work of Peacemaking in our community and in our world. When we gather at the table and proclaim “the death of the Lord until he comes again” we look forward to that day when we shall learn war no more.
We frequently pair our Communion celebration with singing a hymn and “Let us Break Bread Together” is a favorite communion hymn for good reason. We begin saying ““let us break bread together” – this is a reference to the breaking of bread here and now, and it is a yearning for the time when we will all break bread together with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at God’s great banquet table. The phrase “when I fall on my knees” – is present and future tense. Each of us individually and all of us together join to affirm that here and now and in the time to come we will fall on our knees before the glory of God. On paper, “with my face to the rising sun” is clearly a reference to the natural wonder of the sunrise, but when sung, it also celebrates the resurrection of the risen Son of God. “O Lord, have mercy on me,” we conclude, offering a prayer in the face of the coming judgment as well as a recognition of the redeeming love of God.” (Moore – Keish)
Whenever we gather to break bread as a community, together we do symbolically fall on our knees, and we do turn our faces to the rising Son (s-o-n). In this moment we recognize that together as a church and with Christians the world over we are baptized believers, the body of Christ. In celebrating the sacraments as a community we are confident that God is present here in our midst. Thanks be to God for the wonderful gifts that are the sacraments of baptism and communion. Amen.