Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Let us pray: O Holy Spirit of God, we praise you for your presence and power in the Sacraments of the Church as well as in the process of calling pastoral leadership to a congregation such as this. So may your power and presence in our lives renew and increase in us the gift of your Spirit, to the strengthening of our faith, to our growth in grace, to our patience in suffering and to the blessed hope of everlasting life. Amen
If you sensed in the prayer just prayed something of the dilemma I faced in preparing this sermon, then you sensed correctly. One the one hand, I have always been committed to preaching on the appointed lessons for the day, especially the Gospel lesson. Today we have a Gospel text which strongly suggests that we have a frank discussion about the Sacrament of Holy Communion and what we believe to be true about it since it’s something we do in worship every week.
On the other hand, we have called The Reverend Paul Aebischer to be our pastor beginning his ministry here this coming Wednesday (August 22nd). In fact, when I was asked to preach, I requested to preach the Sunday before his arrival as we welcome the one who will preach the Word, administer the Sacraments, provide pastoral care, help organize our life together and work with us in visioning our future.
Since I feel compelled to do both, I am going to do something I have never done in 51 years of ordained ministry. I am going to preach a two-part sermon. Part one will be about receiving Holy Communion. Part two will be about receiving a new pastor.
Part One: In the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus says: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”…”Very truly I tell you, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” You may or may not realize that in John’s Gospel there is no record or reference to the Last Supper, only to eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood. Only the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke record the Last Supper which for the Church initiated the Sacrament of the Altar, or the Sacrament of Holy Communion or the Eucharist.
All three accounts basically agree. While they were eating on that Thursday evening, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Then he took a cup and after giving thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
These words are, of course, reflected in our communion liturgy. When we receive the Sacrament, we hear these words: the body of Christ given for you; the blood of Christ shed for you. So to ask Luther’s classic question: What does this mean?
Different religious traditions have different theologies and different understandings about the Sacrament of Holy Communion. In the Roman Catholic tradition, for example, the belief is that when the elements of bread and wine are consecrated, the bread miraculously become the flesh of Christ and the wine actually becomes the blood of Christ. The term for this is TRANSUBSTANTIATION. At the other end of the spectrum of understanding, there are those religious traditions that believe the Sacrament is merely an act of remembrance, taking literally Jesus’ instruction to remember him.
So what do we Lutherans believe about all of this? In other words, what is our sacramental theology regarding the bread and wine of Holy Communion? Martin Luther, himself an ordained Roman Catholic priest, rejected the belief of transubstantiation. Luther maintained that in the act of consecration, the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine. He also rejected the idea that it is only a memorial meal, an act of remembering Jesus.
Luther believed that Christ is present in, with and under the bread and the wine. It is called the Doctrine of the Real Presence. I once had it explained to me this way. In that upper room, Jesus took the most common thing on the table—a loaf of bread—and said, “Take and eat, this my body.” What the Jewish mind heard Jesus saying is that THIS IS ME—this is all of me, physically, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, spiritually, experientially, THIS IS ME. This is who I am!
Then he took the second most common thing on the table, a cup of wine and he said, “This is my blood.” For the Jew, blood was the equivalent of life. The Jewish mind heard Jesus say THIS IS MY LIFE. When Jesus took the bread and the wine, he was saying—THIS IS ME AND THIS IS MY LIFE!
I have never told this story before about what happened to me during my senior year in seminary in Gettysburg, when, in addition to my academic work, I served as the parttime chaplain of the Western Maryland Chronic Disease and Chest Hospital in Hagerstown, Maryland. Two days a week I would drive 35 miles to the hospital to provide pastoral care to about 200 patients—people of all ages, all races, all religions—people with all kinds of diseases and disorders and disabilities. As you might imagine, it was an incredible learning experience for me.
After several months, the head nurse of the hospital, a Roman Catholic nurse, said that she had had a number of requests for a Service of Holy Communion. “Could I do that,’ she asked? I said, “yes,” even though I was not ordained I figured, given the circumstances, I could get special permission and that permission was indeed granted.
We held the service in the gymnasium. Imagine a congregation of about 100 patients coming from every ward. Some walked in, others came with canes, walkers, crutches, and some came suspended in Stryker Frames—a Stryker Frame is a device where a patient is suspended in a mechanism that can be rotated every few hours. As I remember, eight patients were wheeled in, hospital bed and all. Someone asked me how I was going to commune a patient in a Stryker Frame if he or she happened to be face down. “Simple,’ I said. “I will have a pocketful of straws’” (I have actually communed people through a straw.)
It was a truly moving experience for all of us. Near the end of the service, I looked around to make sure that everyone had received the Sacrament. That’s when I saw Willie standing over against the wall. Willie was a thirty something white male with the mind of a two-year old child and a grotesquely deformed face right out of a horror movie. Willie had a sweet spirit and as I approached him he held out his hand. I said, “The body of Christ given for you.” He held it in his hand and just looked at the wafer. I said, “Eat it.” He did. The same with the communion glass of wine. “The blood of Christ shed for you.” He stared at it. I said, “Drink it.” And he did. It was quite a moving Service of Holy Communion.
Two days later, when I returned to the hospital, I was told to report to the head nurse ASAP. When I entered her office, it was obvious that she was very angry; then I realized she was angry with me! Was it because I was not ordained to consecrate the elements even though I had been given special authorization? NO. She said, “You gave communion to Willie. How dare you! He has the mind of a two-year old child and cannot possibly understand the Sacrament of Holy Communion.” I said to her—with all due respect—“who of us fully or even partially understands the miracle and the mystery of Holy Communion? All Willie knew that it was from God and that it was good. That’s understanding enough. Besides the power of the Sacrament does not depend on how well we understand it.” She was not happy, but at least she did not fire me. Think about it, when we receive the bread and the wine, if we believe that Christ is present and that it’s from God and that it’s good—I think that is sufficient!
Keep in mind people of God, that in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, God transforms us from human beings on a spiritual journey to spiritual beings on a human journey. Along the way we are spiritually fed and nourished by the presence of God in, with, and under the bread and wine.
One final word. While we commonly say that “we take communion” the reality is that we never “TAKE” communion. We can only “RECEIVE communion.” The Sacrament is a gift. You cannot take a gift—you can only receive it.
Thus ends Part One. I promise Part Two will be shorter…
Undoubtedly our newly called pastor The Reverend Paul Aebischer has read the same articles in The State newspaper last weekend that many of us read about a tale of two churches, Ebenezer Lutheran Church and the relatively new Downtown Church. The headline read: AS ONE CHURCH CLINGS TO TRADITION ANOTHER SWEETENS THE DEAL WITH COOKIES. The perception and implication are that we are a dying congregation, desperately clinging on to our Lutheran tradition for dear life for fear of losing it—while, for the very non-traditional Downtown Church—“church goers indulge in the Holy Interruption—a five or ten minute break in the service for socializing, coffee drinking and cookie eating….”
I must say that I regard the headline as misleading and frankly inaccurate, to coin a phrase, “fake news!” I am a member here and I know this for a fact. While our membership has declined, which is true for many mainline denominational churches, we in no way CLING to our tradition. Rather we boldly and confidently CLAIM our tradition as having both Biblical and ecclesiastical integrity. There’s a world of difference between CLINGING to a tradition and CLAIMING a tradition. That said, we need to pay attention to what the article implies.
The article has some truth in it. The religious scene in the country and in our state and in this city is changing. Virtually every historic mainstream denomination, including our own, is in decline. The trend is away from organized religion to independent churches which in many cases are not related to anyone, not accountable to anyone and often have self-ordained spiritual leaders. Moreover, the new generation of millennials tends not to join anything and pretty much rejects any form of organized religion. They claim they are “spiritual” without being “religious”. I am not sure how to do that!
Put all of this in a wider context. Last October 31, 2017, Carolyn and I stood at the north door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther, as we say, nailed it 500 years before on October 31, 1517. We were at the door, on the day. We were there to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation which literally reshaped the world. Some church historians argue that the Church undergoes a reformation every 500 years or so which may mean that we are in the midst of a 500-year cycle of reformation right now. Time will tell. Reformation can only be seen in retrospect.
What we do know is in the midst of a changing world and a changing Church is that coming this Wednesday, as our next pastor assumes his responsibilities, we head into a new chapter of our distinguished life in the heart of this city.
I have known Paul Aebischer for many years. I was his bishop for many of those years. Paul is a solid, gifted, committed pastor, and I applaud the Call Committee for its work of discernment on behalf of all of us. Ebenezer has been here at the heart of Columbia for 180 years. We are not going anywhere. We are faithfully facing a new future with new pastoral leadership.
By the presence the promise and the power of the Holy Spirit, may we be empowered to be a congregation of a global Lutheran Church that is:
- Faithful in a world of unfaithfulness,
- Hopeful in a world of despair,
- Courageous in a world of fear,
- A healing presence in a world of pain,
- Compassionate in a world that is often callous and cruel,
- An advocate for peace in a world of war, and always,
- Ready to receive Jesus Christ in bread and wine as strength for the journey.
May God grant to us and to Pastor Aebischer the faith, the grace and the courage to enter the future with hope and commitment.
By God’s grace and Spirit, may it be so! Amen