April 15, 2012

Sermon for First Sunday after Easter

How Communion Makes Us Holy
Psalm 66, 1 John 5:4-12, John 20:19-23
First Sunday after Easter
April 15, 2012
"Grant, O Lord, that by thy holy Word read and preached in this place, and by thy Holy Spirit grafting it inwardly in the heart, the hearers thereof may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and may have power and strength to fulfill the same." In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Faithfulness is the subject of the prayers and Scripture readings for today. The Collect first declares that Christ died and rose again to make us acceptable to God, which it calls, "justification." It then beseeches God to enable us to put away unGodliness and serve Him in purity of life and truth. 1 John 5 reminds us that we are not to be worldly but are to overcome the world by faith, and John's Gospel, chapter 20 records the appearance of the Risen Christ to His disciples, who are now becoming Apostles commissioned to found the Church.

Purity of life, let's call it, "holiness," should be one of the results of receiving the Lord's Supper. We profess that the Lord's Supper is a means of grace, and therefore, duly and rightly receiving it makes us holy. Yet I wonder how many understand how the Lord's Supper, or, as we like to call it, the Holy Communion makes us holy. We can easily understand how a serious and continuing study of the Bible makes us holy. We know that reading it puts God's thoughts and values into us, and His thoughts and values change us by shaping our thoughts and values. We can easily understand how prayer makes us holy. I am not talking about simply asking God to give us things; I am talking about prayer as we find it in the Book of Common Prayer, and in Scripture, where it means, "worship." We can easily see that the services of Morning and Evening Prayer faithfully lead us into Biblical worship, and, as they are faithful expressions of Biblical truth, they cause us to ponder Godly things. Thus, they change us in our hearts and beings. They make us holy. We can easily see how the fellowship of a Biblical Church can make us holy. In its worship we hear the Bible read and proclaimed, in its prayers we are taken to the throne of grace, and in the fellowship of our family in Christ we find acceptance, encouragement, and love. But there is a great element of mystery surrounding the Holy Communion. We even call the bread and the cup, "holy mysteries" in the prayer after the Communion. So again, we ask, how does receiving Holy Communion make us holy?

It makes us holy by causing us to remember Christ's sacrificial death. In fact, remembering Christ's death is primary in Holy Communion. The bread of the Lord's Table is a symbol of the Lord's body, and by breaking and eating it we are reminded of the crown of thorns, the scourge, the nails, and the spear, and we remember that His body was broken for us. The wine we drink is the symbol of His blood that ran from His wounds and was poured out for us. I stress the word "symbol" here because the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ. They never become His literal body or blood. So when the Lord Himself, still in His physical body before the crucifixion, said, "This is my body," and "This is my blood, He clearly meant this bread represents and symbolises His body, and this wine represents and symbolises His blood. Remembering His death causes us to think on holy things, which, when accompanied by Biblical faith, helps us develop holiness of life.

The Lord's Supper makes us holy by causing us to remember that Christ's death purchased our eternal life. The Bible speaks of two states or conditions of the souls of people in eternity. One is called eternal death and it signifies being cut off from the presence and joy of God forever. As the Epistle for this morning states it; "he that hath not the son hath not life." This does not mean the soul goes into non-existence. It means the soul goes into a state that is so terrible and frightful that it can best be described as a living death. We can understand this easily because we have heard of people going through experiences in life which were so horrible they called their existence a 'living death." This, magnified beyond our ability to understand, is the condition of those who are forever cast out of the presence of God.

The other condition of the soul in eternity is called everlasting life, or, eternal life. Again, this refers to the quality, rather than the quantity, of existence, and it means to dwell forever in the immeasurable love and happiness of God. This condition of eternal life was purchased for us by Christ. Referring again to the Epistle of 1 John we read, "this is the record, that God hath given us eternal life, and this life is in His son." The breaking of His body and the pouring out of His blood was part of the way He paid the price of our sins, and purchased eternal life for us. When we eat the bread and drink the wine of Communion, we remember these things, and we are moved to greater faith and faithfulness. We are made holy. This is the second major point of this sermon; receiving Holy Communion moves us to greater faith and faithfulness.

We are accustomed to thinking about the word, "faith" in two ways. First we think of the act of trusting in Christ's sacrificial death to make you right with God. The best way I can think of to express this is to say that if anyone asks you why you think you are going to Heaven, your answer would be, "Because Christ took my sins on Himself and paid their penalty by dying for me on the cross, and that is why God will let me into Heaven" Second, we think of The Faith, which means the doctrinal content of Christianity. The right receiving of Holy Communion increases our faith in both of these meanings. It increases our faith in Christ as our Saviour, by helping us trust Him more. It increases our belief that Christ died for my sins, therefore God is going to accept me into Heaven. It also increases our understanding of The Faith. The more we ponder the sacrifice of Christ, the more we grow in our understanding of the whole of the Christian Faith. We grow in our understanding of the seriousness of sin, the need for grace and justification, the meaning and need of holy living, and the Church, and so many other important things. We grow in faith as we receive Communion.

Yet there is a third meaning of the word, "faith" as it is used in the Bible, and that meaning is, "faithfulness." We could also call this, "purity of life," or, "holiness," or "Godliness," or any number of other things, but they all refer to living lives that are more fully surrendered to the will of God and less occupied with the things of sin and self. I think no one will disagree when I say that the more we realise the wickedness of our sin, the horrors of hell, and the greatness of the sacrifice of Christ, the more we ought to be moved to lives of holiness and purity. The more we ought to be moved to love Christ, and devote ourselves to Him in all things. The Lord's Supper gives us the opportunity to think on these things, to grow in our understanding of them. And, if we truly understand these things, and if we truly see them through the eyes of faith as we come to the Table of the Lord, we will naturally find ourselves moved to holiness.

I need to say one more, very important thing. You have noticed that I keep saying things like, the Bible changes us, prayer changes us, and Communion changes us. This is very important because we do not change ourselves by doing these things; God changes us, and He uses these things to do it. That's why they are known as the means, or channels, of grace. Grace, of course means God's attitude of mercy toward us, but it also refers to God's activity toward us as He changes and remakes us, and causes us to walk in His ways and find our joy in Him. So, when we worship, God works in us to heal our souls and strengthen our faith. When we read the Bible God changes our thoughts and gives us His values. And when we come to the Holy Table of Communion, God Himself enables us to come in faith, and grow in faith as we remember our Saviour's loving sacrifice. So, in the end, it is not we who make ourselves holy by coming to this Table or doing good things. It is God who makes us holy by the means of grace. We could say, God uses these things to draw us into Himself. That is the real way Communion makes us holy.

"Almighty Father, who hast given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification; Grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."