Good morning, children. Thank you for helping lead the congregation in worship this morning, first by leading our praise song: Hallelu, Praise Ye the Lord, and then by bringing water to the Baptismal Font during our song of invitation. When we practiced that part on Monday I said, “This feels like a wedding.” It was like the part where the flower girls and ring bearers come in.
Have you been to a wedding before? In many weddings the groom waits up here at the front of the church as the Bride walks down the aisle toward him. At one wedding I went to the groom played the trumpet calling his bride to join him in married life together. It was very romantic.
Joining the church through baptism, confirmation or reaffirmation of faith is like a wedding. The Bible talks about Jesus as the bridegroom and the church like the bride. Christ stands before us declaring his love for us. At his call we move closer and closer to him. We saying I love you, I want to live my life with you – we praise him. Joining the church is also like a wedding because our families become bigger. The bride and groom get a new set of in-laws as family. In the church we get new brothers and sisters in Christ and we promise to share life and love with one another. The final way that joining the church is like a wedding is that we celebrate at the end by eating. In a wedding we have a big wedding banquet. Today we will celebrate with Holy Communion and the feasting will continue in fellowship hall after worship.
From the very beginning of the church, people gathered on Sunday – the first Day of the Week, the day of resurrection to worship God through word and sacrament. Every week they heard the word of God preached, and shared Holy Communion. These were two equal and central parts of every worship service. And by this baptized Christians were fed. As time passed, Christians in Western Europe found themselves worshiping in a language they did not understand. As a result the Word part of worship decreased, while the emphasis on the Sacrament of Holy Communion increased. Early Protestants worked to restore the importance of the Word to Christian worship by demanding that worship be translated into whatever language the people understood. Many Protestant leaders hoped to restore Word and Sacrament as two equal and central parts of Sunday morning worship.
When John Wesley took steps to form the Methodist Episcopal Church it was because there was a shortage of ordained clergy after the Revolution. He worried about the people on these shores who were not able to be baptized, share communion, be married or given a proper funeral here in North America. Along with appointing Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury to the work of bishops in ordaining clergy, Wesley sent along a book of worship which made it clear he expected the ordained Methodist clergy to celebrate weekly communion. But there weren’t enough ordained clergy to go around. South Walpole, like all Methodist congregations, was part of a circuit, the preachers moved around the circuit every two weeks, stopping at a new community each day. So most congregations had to make due with a morning prayer service on Sundays because there was no one to preside over the sacrament. This is how Methodists fell into a pattern of infrequent communion, a pattern that didn’t change even when ordained clergy were stationed at nearly every congregation.
In 2004 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church agreed to move toward weekly communion. And so our congregation is at the end of a five week experiment. We have been taking a close look at chapter 6 of the Gospel of John to help us reflect on the meaning of this holy meal; this “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
We started by reflecting on Jesus feeding the multitude and that he invited all. The invitation to communion starts by saying, “Christ invites all to his table.” It is the Lord’s Supper – and he invites all to come and be fed.
The next I explained that Communion is not magic, there is no hocus pocus in it. But it is very powerful when we do it rightly. Lord’s Supper is a way to help us remember the grace of God which comes to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we the gathered community remembers rightly, when we all participate fully, consciously and actively in the celebration then we will experience the risen Christ who is truly present in our midst.
The third week we started chewing on Jesus’ teaching that he is the Bread of Heaven that gives life to the world. We noticed that the Old Testament frequently talks about eating God’s word – and describes it as delicious – sweeter than honey. Are were invited to develop the habit of reading the Bible every day – letting it nourish our faith.
Last week we continued to chew on the idea that Jesus is the Bread of Life – but this time we thought about the promise in scripture that when a congregation gathers around the table to take Christ into ourselves we become one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world. Our communion prayer asks God, “that we may become the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” If you missed a Sunday you can find all of these sermons on our church website.
Today we come to the portion of John 6 which repeats the good news that those who eat and drink Jesus abide in him, and he abides in us. When we fully partake of this holy mystery, when we come with hands open to receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, we will be united to Christ just even more than we are united with whatever we ate or drank for supper last night. And Jesus teaches that whoever eats this bread will live forever.
In the next verses we hear that many of Jesus’ disciples found this teaching very tough to swallow. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they complained. As the worship committee begins our work of gathering feedback from this congregation about our experiment with weekly communion, I expect that some, if not many, have found it tough to swallow. Even I am unsure about what changes our congregation might make on a more permanent basis. So it’s comforting to read from St. John that I’m not alone – that even the first disciples found Jesus’ teachings about communion hard to swallow.
I find Eugene Peterson’s translation helps me to understand better.
" Jesus sensed that his disciples were having a hard time with this and said, “Does this throw you completely? …The Spirit can make life. Sheer muscle and willpower don’t make anything happen. Every word I’ve spoken to you is a Spirit-word, and so it is life-making. But some of you are resisting, refusing to have any part in this.” Then he repeated “no one is capable of coming to me on his own.”
Sheer muscle and willpower – it makes me think of Jesus friend Martha – she welcomed Jesus into her house, but then politely excused herself from his presence and went bustling about in the kitchen trying to whip up a meal that would be good enough to honor Jesus. She was trying to love Jesus through her service without first being filled with God’s love. So she was not feeling the love. The love language she needed was quality time. But she kept working harder and grumbling to herself and then finally looked out at Jesus and the others with steam coming out of her ears and noticed that her sister Mary was just sitting there. She blurted out “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
When we are trying to live our faith by sheer muscle and willpower we won’t feel the love of Jesus. The only sacrifice Christ is asking of us when we come to him is a sacrifice of praise. Christ wants us to sing hallelu from the bottom of our hearts with a smile on our faces. But even our praise is not something that we can muster with our own willpower. It needs to spring up from the source, which is the deep, deep love of Jesus which the Holy Spirit pours out upon us. The only way we can praise God, the only way we can truly love God is if first we receive his gift of love for us.
We highlight this truth every time we baptize a baby. That baby can’t proclaim her love for God. She can’t do anything to serve God. Yet she is made a member of the family of God as her parents, and the congregation promise to surround her with a community of love and forgiveness so that she may grow in her trust of God’s love and grace.
“No one is capable of coming to me on his own” Jesus says. We are drawn like iron filings by a magnet, like a lover is drawn to the beloved. We don’t need to do anything but open ourselves, turn toward Christ our hearts lifted up to the Lord. Come to the waters, flowing, clear, fount where new life abounds. Come to the table, the heavenly wedding banqueting table where Christ is the host and all who love him are welcome – you don’t have to do anything but open your hands and receive the manna from heaven. Jesus says to us, “the one who brings a hearty appetite to this eating and drinking has eternal life and will be fit and ready for the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Today we celebrate that God has been calling Anne and Shannon that they have heard the call and have come, with their children Cadence and Paul, to reaffirm their baptisms and confirmations, to renew the bond of love for Jesus Christ, for his church universal and to become members of this congregation of the United Methodist church in South Walpole. They come bringing a testamony to God’s great love. Feel the love, and then respond by loving God back with your praise.