Sunday, November 1, 2015

Grace at the Table

It was the summer of 1980.  I had just completed my first year of university and for the summer I volunteered with an organization called the Shantymen Christian Association, now referred to simply as SCA.  In an article written for the Toronto Star in the 1970s the author wrote:  “If you have the zeal of a Billy Graham, the toughness of a Green Beret, the desire to lead an outdoor life in some of the most rugged terrain in Canada and, in the time of inflation, can live on about $35. a week and expenses, then consider joining the Shantymen.”
Across Canada these men ministered in lumber camps, mines and on wharves.  But in the summer time in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia the Shantymen ministered on fairgrounds. And that was what I spent my summer doing.  We had a mobile chapel in each province and would travel with the Bill Lynch show and the like, set up on the fairgrounds and show gospel films and hand out gospel literature to strangers, the second part was way outside of my comfort zone.   And we spent most of our off hours with the carnies.  You know the folks you warn your kids about when the carnivals and fairs come to town.  And under the gruff exterior most of them were really nice people.
And I spent most of that summer wearing blue jeans, a US a;rmy jacket and a cowboy hat.  Life was good.  Our crew was made up of me, Joe Hooper who was another student and the Shantyman in charge.  There were three of them who rotated in and out but mostly it was Bruce Lumsten who was a Baptist minister. 
On many weekends Bruce would find a local Christian campground where they were having meetings and that’s where we’d go to church. 
And so one weekend we showed up at a particular camp, and to be truthful I was looking a little worse for wear, my hair was long and shaggy, but I had my best jeans and cowboy hat on for Sunday.  
Part of the service was to be communion, and I was looking forward to receiving communion that day.
Well, when they got to the three of us they stepped out around us, served people on either side of us and didn’t even slow down for us.  I was a little offended.  Actually a lot offended.  Bruce explained later that that particular denomination practices “closed communion” it was only for members of their church and that I shouldn’t take my exclusion personally, but I did.
On a side note, the bright shining point of that summer was the week we spent in Musquodoboit Harbour and Joe and I went to Hillside Wesleyan Church on Sunday and that’s where I met Angela for the first time.
The next year one of my classes was called Pastoral Ministries and we were taught the practical stuff of ministry, as one of my peers later called it, hatching, matching and dispatching.  How to do everything from baby dedications to weddings to funerals.  And in the class on communion my Professor, Bill Burbury told about an experience he had when he was a young pastor. 
He was serving at a small rural church on that day as he served communion there was a stranger in their midst.  This was back in the day when our denomination was much more conservative in an era that was much more conservative. 
And Bill said that this lady was wearing more makeup and jewellery than was fashionable in the church at that time, and so when he got to her he opted not to serve her, saving her from being put in an awkward position of not taking communion. 
But as he stepped around her she tugged on his jacket looking to be served.  Dr. Burbury said that from that point on he never made the assumption about who should or shouldn’t receive communion.
At Cornerstone we are much more open to who can receive communion than some churches.  Through the years I’ve been asked questions, have received nasty letters and have had people tell me they can’t or won’t attend our church because of how I approach communion.  Because I don’t tell people they can’t receive communion, either because they have not yet stepped over the line of faith or they aren’t where they should be in their spiritual walk. 
And maybe you are in that group, or maybe you never really thought of it.
And the reason that some folks feel that way is in how they read 1 Corinthians 11:27-29  So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup.  For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself.  Which is the scripture that we read here at Cornerstone almost every time we celebrate communion.    
And it’s all tied up in how you view the phrases 1 Corinthians 11:27  So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  What does Paul mean or imply when he speaks about eat and drinking in an unworthy manner?  Perhaps the answer lies in 1 Corinthians 11:29  For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honouring the body of Christ . . . You eat or drink in an unworthy manner when you don’t honour the body of Christ.  But what does that mean? 
Well, it goes back to my favourite answer.  That depends.  If you were Catholic, then the teaching of the church is called Transubstantiation, which is the belief that when the believer receives the bread it turns into the literal body of Christ, and when they drink the wine it turns into the blood of Christ.  So within their tradition if you don’t believe that, then you aren’t honouring the bread and cup and you are taking it in an unworthy manner. 
Now that’s not be confused with Consubstantiation.  But you knew that, Consubstantiation is the belief that was taught by Martin Luther when he left the Catholic church.  His belief was that the bread and juice didn’t actually change into the body and blood but co-existed with it.  He explained it this way.  “It is like an iron put into the fire whereby both fire and iron are united in the red-hot iron and yet each continues unchanged” And so if you were Lutheran and believed in Transubstantiation instead of Consubstantiation you wouldn’t be honouring the bread or the cup. 
Now in our tradition as in most protestant churches we view the elements as purely symbolic and so there would be some who would say that if you subscribed to either the Catholic or Lutheran view then. . .  well you get the picture.
Now if that isn’t confusing enough, I read one commentator who focused on 1 Corinthians 11:29  For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honouring the body of Christ . . . And he went back to how often the church is referred to as the body of Christ so their view was that when someone wasn’t honouring the body of Christ it was that they weren’t honouring the church, perhaps by promoting division in the church.
Now there are those who feel that this simply narrows down who should and shouldn’t take communion.  In their minds it means that those who have never accepted Christ as Saviour haven’t been invited to the table, and that those who are not where they ought to be spiritually shouldn’t partake. 
And they may not know exactly who should be allowed to receive communion, but they definitely know who shouldn’t.  But think about it, if you come to a communion service at Cornerstone and because of who I include or don’t exclude you become judgmental about me and have harsh thoughts wouldn’t that exclude you?
And perhaps you might wonder how can people take part in a service of remembrance when they weren’t directly impacted by it?  Next week is the Sunday before November 11th and traditionally that is when churches across Canada will stop and remember the sacrifices made by members of our Armed Forces for our freedom. 
Truthfully very few people here served during WW1 and WW2, Angela’s mom did and she might be the only one.  Angela’s father served in a combat role during the war and I would suspect that there are other’s here as well whose parents may have served.  My Grandfather was too old and my father was too young. 
Others here presently serve in the military or are retired having served in both peacekeeping and combat roles. 
And some have children serving in the military and some of those are serving in places like Ukraine.  But the vast majority of us pause to remember simply because we reap the benefit of those sacrifices.  And next week, if you a member of the forces we’d love for you to wear your uniform for the service.
In a few minutes we will pause to remember what Christ did for us.  Nobody who was alive when Christ said “Whenever you do this, remember me” is with us today
But there are those here who have accepted the grace and forgiveness of Christ and whose lives have been changed. They have chosen to follow Christ and it has affected their lives now and their eternities later.  But they aren’t the only ones here today who have benefited from the sacrifice that Christ made. 
I’ve preached this over and over again, the much of the good in the world today was shaped by Christianity, the way we treat the sick and the poor and the way we view education.  The abolition of slavery in the Western world was spearheaded by the church as were children’s rights and women’s rights.   And for some, even though they have never accepted the gift of grace that Christ offers, they understand that there is much they need to be thankful for.
That was a very long introduction.  This is week four of our series Moments of Grace”.  In week one we looked at how Paul’s theology of Grace had been formed by his knowledge of examples of God’s grace in the Old Testament and the Gospel story as well as his own experience of grace.
In week two we saw God’s grace extended to a prostitute by the name of Rahab which basically lifted her from a life in a brothel to a part of Jesus family tree. 
And last week we looked at how Elijah experienced the grace of God when he found himself in the very depths of despair and depression.  And so we started with Grace shown to an unlikely person, Grace displayed in an unlikely place and Grace discovered at an unlikely time. 
So let’s go back to the original story that was read for us, the story of the Last Supper.  The account that was read to us was from Mark’s account and as I’ve mentioned before many scholars feel like Mark was acting as a scribe for Simon Peter, so this is an eye witness account of what happened the night Jesus was betrayed.
And I think that in order for us to understand who should be included at the table we need to see who was included when Jesus brought the 12 together that night to celebrated the Passover.
One Who Would Betray  If we were to go back to the section in Mark’s Gospel that precedes the Last Supper the heading in my bible says “Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus.”  And we read in Mark 14:10-11 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples, went to the leading priests to arrange to betray Jesus to them.  They were delighted when they heard why he had come, and they promised to give him money. So he began looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus.
Do you see the significance of the narrative here?  Judas went to the leading priests, they didn’t recruit him, he went and offered his services.  And Jesus knew it, in Mark 14:18  As they were at the table eating, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, one of you eating with me here will betray me.”   And then he invited Judas to participate in the meal.  Personally, even I would think that if a person should have been excluded at that point it should have been Judas.  But Jesus extends his grace to one who had already decided in his mind to betray him. 
Judas had already put the plan into motion.  And there are all kinds of theories as to why Judas betrayed Christ, some make him out to be a villain and others simply make him out to have simply made a tragic miscalculation that resulted in the death of his friend.  But it doesn’t matter. 
The one who rejected the Lordship of Christ in his life, who basically said “after weighing the pros and cons I’d rather align myself with Caesar than Jesus” He was still invited to the table. 
I have had people betray me, not sure if I had of known in advance if I would have been all that enthused about inviting them to dinner.  And yet that is what Jesus did.

And then there was One Who Would Deny  And if it had of ended with Judas and his betrayal than perhaps we would say “That’s the exception that proves the rule.”  Which is the dumbest thing I’ve every heard.  Exceptions just prove that a rule can be broken.
Regardless, Judas wasn’t an isolated case that night.  The section before the Last Supper in my bible is entitled “Judas agrees to betray Jesus.” The section following the Last Supper in my bible is entitled, “Jesus predicts Peter’s Denial”.
If you don’t know the story it goes something like this, in Mark 14:27  On the way, Jesus told them, “All of you will desert me. For the Scriptures say, ‘God will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’
And Peter says “No way, maybe the rest of them but I’d rather die than deny you.” Or words to those effect. And yet within 12 hours Peter had denied that he knew Christ, not once, not twice but three times. 
And Peter wasn’t alone, the others scattered, perhaps not denying Christ with their words, but certainly denying him with their behaviour.  They turned their backs on Jesus when Jesus needed them the most.
And when Jesus invited them to join him at the table that day he already knew that when it came time to choose to do what was easy or what was right they would choose what was easy. 
And we like to think that we always choose to do the right thing, and maybe you do, but there have been too many times in my life I have chosen to keep my mouth shout and go along in order to get along, instead of speaking up. 
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, “Sometimes silence in golden, and sometimes it’s just plain yellow.”  And yet in spite of that, the invitation to come to the table still stands. 
And along with the one who betray him and the one who would deny him, there was also the One Who Would Doubt  We know him as Doubting Thomas, but to his friends he was just Thomas. 
He had been there from the very beginning, he had watched as Jesus fed thousands of people with a few buns and a couple of small fish.  He had seen Jesus walk on the water and heal the lepers.  He had watched as the blind saw, the deaf heard and the lame walked.   
He knew what Jesus could do, because he had seen what Jesus did do.  But After the crucifixion he was so caught up in despair that he couldn’t believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. 
John 20:24-25  One of the disciples, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), was not with the others when Jesus came.  They told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he replied, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.”

And it’s easy to call him doubting Thomas, but who of us have been without doubts?
When we get involved in a relationship that we know we shouldn’t be involved in, we do it because we doubt that God has something better for us.  When we don’t give, it’s because we doubt God can be trusted to provide for us.
When we don’t tell others about Jesus, it’s because we doubt that they would be interested, or that it would change their lives.  When we aren’t obedient to God, it’s because we doubt that he wants the very best in our lives.
And yet 2000 years ago the doubter was invited to eat and drink.
You see the reality is that on that night when the 13 came together to celebrate the Passover there was only One Who Was Perfect and that was Jesus.  He knew that it wouldn’t be long before he would be betrayed, denied and doubted.  And yet he invited them to the table.
And today, he still invites us to the table, in spite of our failings and our faults. 
As we come to the table, it would be wise to remember Paul’s words from  Ephesians 2:8  God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.
As Wesleyans we believe that Communion is a sacrament and a means of Grace.  First we view it as a sacrament, one of only two, the other one being baptism.  And a sacrament is a divinely appointed meeting place where we can experience God’s gracious presence and power in our lives. 
Today he invites us to join him at the table. And I think it is important that we remember what Paul wrote in  1 Corinthians 11:28  That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup.  Did you catch who you are supposed to examine?  Not the person in the row in front of you, not the preacher, not your spouse or the stranger in the back, but you are to examine yourself.
But we don’t just view it as a sacrament but we also view it as a means of grace.  And you might be wondering what we mean by a means of grace.  Wesleyan theologian Ken Schenck writes “To say that communion is a means of grace means that there is something mysterious going on here, that in some strange way we cannot explain, people meet God when they take communion.  We mean to say that a person seeking God is more likely to find Him if they take communion.”
So who was Paul talking about when he warned them about taking communion in an unworthy manner?  Well that depends, because as HC Wilson often says “Where you stand is determined by where you sit.” 
But I kind of think that it goes back to the people Paul was addressing in 1 Corinthians 11:20  When you meet together, you are not really interested in the Lord’s Supper.  And so this morning if you aren’t really interested in the Lord’s supper than you probably shouldn’t take part, but for the rest of you I trust that you will experience His grace this morning as you join us at the table. 
And now May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

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