January 3, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
HOW TO SEE THE FUTURE
What happens when we share in communion? I have some thoughts. I don’t have many answers. Communion is one part of our worship service that remains something of a mystery. If we understood it completely, it would lose its power. Communion is not something we do. It’s something God does. But what does God do when we share in communion?
In the Middle Ages it was generally believed that communion was some kind of a magic trick. The priest was like a magician. He would officiate over communion with his back to the worshipers. He would be mumbling something in Latin. No one knew Latin so no one knew what he was mumbling. But as he lifted the bread, the Latin words they heard were, “Hoc est corpus meum.” Our many Latin students here today know that means, “This is my body.” I say those same words in English when I lift up the bread. But back in the Middle Ages, as the priest was mumbling, “Host est corpus meum”, it sure sounded like “hocus pocus”. That’s where “hocus pocus” comes from. It goes back to when they thought the priest used those words in church to do a magic trick.
Protestants can mumble, too. There was a church service in which the bread and the juice were to be brought up to the table during the middle hymn. The pastor announced the hymn and added that the ushers would now bring the elements forward. He kind of mumbled the word “elements”. Because as soon as he said it, a little boy in the back got all excited. He was just sure the pastor had said “elephants”, not “elements”. He thought the circus was coming to church! They do use a live camel down at First Naz, which I guess is almost as good.
A little girl was ready for her first communion. In this church the trays were passed and people would take a little square of bread and then a little cup of juice. Her dad held the tray for her to take her cup of juice. Then he took his. It was her first time, so she wasn’t quite sure what to do next. She remembered another adult ritual she had witnessed that involved little glasses filled with beverage, so she touched her father’s communion glass with hers and said, “Cheers!”
What happens when we share in communion? We can say what doesn’t happen. Not magic. Not elephants marching down the aisle. Not a cocktail party. But for what does happen, let’s take a look at the scripture we read this morning from Matthew.
Jesus is with his twelve disciples, sitting around a table. They are sharing a meal together. It’s a Passover meal. Not a full meal. It’s a symbolic meal. Jews to this day celebrate Passover with a similar meal. They call it the Seder. It’s a celebration of God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. But Jesus took this same meal and gave it a new meaning. A lamb was killed at the first Passover in Egypt. Jesus was telling his disciples that on this Passover, he would be the lamb to be killed.
He took the bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it to his disciples. He said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup filled with wine. He gave thanks and gave it to them as he said, “Drink of it, all of you: for this is my blood.” He was telling them in this symbolic way that his body was about to be broken and his blood was about to be spilled. He was about to die. The Passover lamb died that the Jews might be saved. The lamb of God, Jesus, would die that we all might be saved.
Then he said one more thing. “I tell you I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” This sentence is often forgotten. We remember the bread and the cup. We remember that we are to “do this in remembrance” of him. We forget that we are to do more than remember. We are also to look forward to a future communion meal shared with Jesus himself. “I tell you I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.”
So what happens when we share in communion? What does God do? Two things. (1) God helps us remember what Jesus has done for us on the cross. And (2) God helps us look forward with hope to the future Kingdom of God. In other words, God helps us to see the future.
Most of us were raised with an understanding of communion that was almost all looking back and almost no looking forward. I realize you aren’t all as old as me, but some of you will remember the words of the old ritual we used. It referred to communion as a “memorial of his precious death.” We would confess “our manifold sins and wickedness.” We would confess that “we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” We would sing, “O lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” After all that, none of us felt very much like taking that little cup of grape juice and saying, “Cheers!” It was a very somber mood.
Back then we only had communion four times a year. That was too often for some. They would stay away on communion Sundays. They would stay away because they said they didn’t understand it. But I don’t think that was the real reason. I think they stayed away because they understood it too well. Communion was a memorial service for somebody who died and it’s our fault that he died. That’s pretty much all that many of us knew about communion.
On this first Sunday of a brand new year it’s a perfect time for us to receive communion. It’s a way to get this year off to a good start. It’s also a perfect time for us to remember both of the meanings of communion. It’s looking back. It’s also looking forward.
Whenever we start a new year, we naturally are inclined to look in both directions. Back to the past and forward to the future. 2015 is now over. For better or worse. For some of you it was a wonderful year. For some of you it was a terrible year. For most of us, it was a little of both. When we look back on the year that has ended, we don’t want to get stuck in the past. That’s easy to do. The Bible tells us to forget what lies behind and to press on to what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13-14). Some people spend their lives living in the past, constantly replaying old tapes, whether they are happy ones or sad ones. We don’t want to do that.
But the past does have value. For one thing, we can learn from it. Life is a school and the learning never ends for those who are willing to learn. I’m guessing you learned some valuable lessons this past year simply by living your life. But those lessons won’t stick, you’ll just keep making the same mistakes again and again, unless you pause and take time to do an intentional review. The start of a new year is an excellent time to do that.
Another value in taking time to look back is that we can see what God has been up to in our lives. Often we miss what God is doing at the time God is doing it. We have a tendency to be dense. But looking back we can see what we couldn’t see at the time. When we were really struggling but we got through it, that was God. Or when we did something that was way more or way better than should have been possible, that was God. Or when we just missed disaster and we thought at the time in was luck, it wasn’t luck. It was God.
When we look back, we become aware of our blessings, our reasons to be grateful. I am aware that at least two of you are now keeping a gratitude journal. You write down what you are grateful for each night before you go to bed. It’s a wonderful way to see what God has been up to rather than just taking life for granted. It also has been proven to help in getting a good night’s sleep.
The looking back part of communion is important. We can get carried away with it. We can get overly morbid. We can make it all about us and our sins and our shortcomings. But Jesus told us to “do this in remembrance” for a reason. It is good to remember. Remember the cross. Remember God’s love which is way more than any of us could possibly deserve. Remember how blessed we are.
And the looking ahead part is important, too. This is a good time of the year for that. Having looked back and learned from the past, we are in a better position to put those learnings to good use in the new year. Whether or not our resolutions stick and last past the middle of January, we should do a better job of living in 2016 than we did in 2015. We should be getting better at life, not getting worse. Especially since we believe that life is not something we’re figuring out as we go. We have some help. We have God. God has given us a roadmap for life called the Bible. And God also is at work in our lives. And God “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that is at work in us” (Ephesians 3:20).
Communion reminds us that an important part of looking ahead into this new year is not just self-improvement. It is hope. Because communion helps us see the future. “I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Until that day. Communion is about seeing that day. Believing in that day. Living in anticipation that one day all that’s wrong with this world will be made right. God will prevail. And we will sit down, all of us together, at a great Kingdom meal with our Lord.
There’s a movie that illustrates this beautifully. The problem is it’s so old that even if you saw it when it first came out, you’ve probably forgotten it by now. And some of you weren’t even born when it first came out. “Places in the Heart” was released in 1984. It starred Sally Field. She played the role of Edna Spaulding, a young wife and mother in a farm family. The film was set in 1935. It’s a tough time to be a farmer, as the Great Depression is stubbornly hanging on. The Spaulding family is barely surviving. Royce Spalding, in addition to being a farmer, has a second job as the county sheriff to help make ends meet.
The opening of the movie was shocking and heartbreaking. The Spaulding family is enjoying a meal together when there’s a knock on the door. There is a disturbance at the rail yards. A black youth named Wylie has had too much to drink and is firing a pistol randomly into the air. When Sheriff Spaulding shows up to investigate, one of the shots accidentally hits him and kills him. Vigilante justice is administered immediately, Ku Klux Klan style. Wylie is tied to the back of a pick-up and dragged through town. He’s already dead when they hang him. But their revenge doesn’t bring Royce Spaulding back, and his widow Edna is now alone with no way to support herself or her two small children.
She makes it. There are lots of twists and turns I don’t need to get into. She is the hero of the movie. You wonder where she gets all that courage and grit. You wonder where she gets all that faith, hope, and love. The movie actually makes it very clear where she gets all this. It really couldn’t have been any clearer. And the funny thing was the critics missed it entirely.
Edna Spaulding is a Christian. She is a woman of deep faith. Her faith makes it possible for her, even in the toughest of tough times, to see the future and to trust that with God’s help she and her children will get to live in future. So she doesn’t give up. It’s her faith that gets her through.
This is made clear throughout the movie, but especially in the way it ends. It ends with a worship service. It was a communion Sunday. The pastor is reading from I Corinthians 13. It’s the passage about faith, hope, and love abiding. He ends with the words, “Love never ends.”
Then the ushers pass the communion trays. Each person takes a piece of bread and passes the tray to the next person. Then each person takes a cup and passes the tray to the next person. The camera focuses on their faces, at most two of them at a time.
There is the couple in the front whose marriage is in trouble. They are now holding hands. There is the black man who helped the widow make the farm a success. There is the blind man who helps by renting a room in her farm house. There is the banker, the one with the smooth manners but the cold heart. There is the Ku Klux Klan wizard. They are all there. They are all sharing in communion.
Finally, we get to Edna Spaulding. Her two children are served first, then she is served, and then she passes the tray to her husband. Yes, the husband who was shot dead in the first scene of the film. And then he passes the tray to Wylie, the black youth who shot him and who was then killed in revenge. The last words of the movie are his. He turns to Sheriff Spaulding and says, “Peace of God.”
You have to see the full movie to get the full impact. But since we don’t have time to see the whole movie, here is the way it ends.
The critics didn’t like the ending. The reason they didn’t like it was they didn’t get it. They didn’t understand it. But we understand it. We understand what happens when we share in communion. We look back but we also look forward to that day when life will finally be the way God wants it to be.
So we understand how Edna Spaulding was able to do what she did. She did what she had to do to survive and in the process she took in a blind man, she cared for the homeless, she refused to give in to racism, she held her ground, she lived her convictions. Because she had her eye on the future, not on the past; on what was coming, not on what had already been.
What happens when we share in communion? What does God do? God helps us remember, and see the future, and live better in the present because we know how it’s all going to end.
We look forward now, dear God, to a ritual that is so much more than a ritual. It’s a blessing far greater than we yet know. As we share in this meal, we will do so with thanks for the past, with hope for the future, with trust that you will be with us in the new year as you have been with us in years past, and with courage to make 2016 a year lived fully and faithfully and all to your glory. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.