Sermon August 9: Outward, Visible Sign of an Inward, Spiritual Grace

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Faith United Methodist Church

August 9, 2015

11th Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Kristabeth E. Atwood

Scripture: John 6: 35, 41-51

Prayer of Illumination:

Beyond the manna in the wilderness

you feed us, Lord, on constancy

and presence, all engaging us

and filling us with joy.

In life we find you here, our Lord.

As life, we yearn to find our fill in you.

Become for us this hour, our Lord,

the life that fills us in all joy.

~ Rev. William Flewelling

Sermon:              Outward, Visible Sign of an Inward, Spiritual Grace

The length of the sermon today is up to you! You see, I’m going to be asking you to share with me in giving the message. What we are talking about today is Communion as a Sacrament. In the United Methodist Church we have two Sacraments ~ Holy Communion and Baptism. The dictionary definition of Sacrament is, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, especially one of the solemn Christian rites considered to have been instituted by Jesus Christ to symbolize or confer grace.” This is the definition we teach our Confirmation youth each year.

We understand baptism is a Sacrament because Jesus, himself, submitted to baptism by John. Then, as he was getting ready to ascend into heaven Jesus told the disciples, “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” The ritual of Holy Communion originates in Jesus sharing the Passover meal with his disciples at the Last Supper and comes to us with similar directives. As the Gospel of Luke describes it, Jesus, “… took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’” In both cases we are given instructions to follow: go and baptize, do this in remembrance of me.

The word solemn is included in the definition of Sacrament, “…one of the solemn Christian rites.” Now solemn does have to mean somber, right? Yet sometimes we Christians get that mixed up. My first memory of Communion was at my childhood church. Back then (in the olden days) we only had Communion quarterly ~ four times a year. My mom was assisting with the service in some way so we were there early, as things were getting set up. Someone accidently bumped the Communion Table (it wasn’t built in like ours) and the chalice fell, spilling grape juice all over the floor. While it was simply a mishap, and no real harm was done (they didn’t have brand new carpet), everyone reacted as if it were the worst thing in the world, at least in my six-year-old perception. For quite a while after that I was scared of Communion. I was afraid of doing it wrong, of spilling my juice, of making God mad at me. It took me a while to experience the joy of sharing Holy Communion. The definition I like best for the word ‘solemn’ is, “characterized with deep sincerity.” One can be deeply sincere with joy and gratitude. Solemn doesn’t have to mean dour or stern.

The more difficult thing to understand in the definition of Sacrament is how it can be an ‘outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’ Okay, we get the visible part, right? We have the bread. We have the wine ~ or grape juice in our tradition. But what is the inward and spiritual grace it conveys? This is where you come in! Have you ever had an experience during Holy Communion where you felt God’s grace touch you in a special way? Was there a particular service of Holy Communion during which you felt close to God? While you think on that I am going to tell as story that somewhat counters my earlier story.

When I was growing up we shared our quarterly Communion in a rather traditional way. Always inside. Always with a certain solemnity, approaching somberness. No one ever looked particularly happy to be sharing in the Sacrament. So who would have know that some 25 years later I would be serving Communion to 40 teenagers on Confirmation Retreat in an outdoor chapel on March when it was 30 degrees and the ground was covered in ice. It sounds like a disastrous scenario, but it was an incredibly beautiful experience of Holy Communion. I presided over the table wearing mittens, hat, scarf.   The teenagers passed the bread and the juice to each other, laughing and slipping on the ice. Strangers at the beginning of the weekend, they had become friends. I thought this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Remember me.”   Indeed, I knew that Jesus was with us.

So now it is your turn. What experience of Holy Communion has touched you? Is there a brief reflection you would like to share?

Unlike when I was a child, today we share in Holy Communion at least once a month and sometimes more. Some United Methodist Churches have weekly communion. The founder of our Methodist Movement, John Wesley, encouraged his followers to ‘Constant Communion’ ~ daily Communion in fact. He, and his brother Charles, received Communion four to five times a week. They truly believed and taught that you can’t get too much of a good thing! John Wesley is known to have described the Lord’s Supper as “the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God.” He understood Holy Communion as a powerful means through which divine grace is given to God’s people.   The outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

We will receive Communion in just a few minutes. Today we will be receiving at the rail. As you are given the bread and the cup, think not only of what they are, but also of what they mean. Grace. Sacrifice. Forgiveness. Mystery. Healing. Nourishment. Holiness.