The God of the Sacrament
At Emmanuel Baptist Church—the first church I ever joined—they concluded the fourth Sunday worship with Communion. I didn't like those Sundays very much. Following Pastor Olsen's thirty-minute-plus sermon, deacons served us bread and juice. We didn't get out of church on those Sundays until nearly 12:30.
Every time, our pastor reminded us that it was a memorial service. He quoted Paul's words, that we were observing "the LORD'S death till he come."
In the Communion service at another church, elders served the bread and we held it in our hand until everyone was served. The waiting caused me to get sweaty palms as I focused on my fear of dropping the bread. When the juice was served, I concentrated mainly on holding the half-ounce juice glass without tipping it over while I waited for the other three-hundred-plus members to be served. During those waiting periods, I concentrated more on sitting still and not dropping or spilling than I did on what was supposed to be going on with the bread and juice.
Although my theological training has since taught me otherwise, for a long time I saw little special about chewing a morsel of dry, tasteless bread and washing it down with a thimbleful of grape juice. I had read all the theological positions regarding the sacrament and I could explain the different views held by Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists. But, in practice, the Communion service held little real meaning for me. I considered it more of an academic or theological exercise.
It is likely I would have remained that way, except I began to read some classic writings of the past. When I encountered the small classic, The Practice of the Presence of God, I noticed that Brother Lawrence, its author, made several references to the "blessed sacrament." I read Luther and Calvin and the Puritan Reformers of England. Their writings began to influence my thinking immensely, and the importance they placed on the sacrament amazed me.
If those leading voices wrote so heatedly about it, I reasoned, I needed to reexamine what it means when we celebrate the Lord's Supper. What does God want me to grasp from this? I asked myself.
Eventually, after much study of different views, I came to believe in the spiritual presence of Jesus Christ. I don't personally think other viewpoints are wrong—those who formulated the various positions were much brighter than I am—but I opted for what has provided the most satisfaction for me intellectually and emotionally.
Now when I go forward and stand around a table to receive bread and grape juice (as we do in our particular congregation), I pause to remind myself that Jesus Christ is present with me all the time, but especially in those moments when I symbolically eat his body and drink his blood. Now when I receive the sacrament, I silently thank Jesus Christ for strengthening me and drawing me closer.
Although it took years for me to grasp, now when I hold the bread or the cup, I have an awareness that God is present in a special, unexplainable way. Emotionally, I don't always feel awe or praise; sometimes, I take it quite mechanically. And yet even then, I say to myself, "Jesus Christ, your grace is being infused into me." I like the idea of believing that when I approach Jesus Christ through the sacrament, it's one more way for me to move toward a fuller commitment to God.
At times I envision Jesus in the Upper Room with his twelve disciples. He offers them what theologians call the "elements" of bread and wine. Even though others stand on both sides of me, I like to think of his saying just to me, "Cec, this is my body—my life—that I'm laying down out of love for you." Then, "Cec, this symbol of my blood is to let you know that I chose to die for you."
That's when I catch glimpses of the meaning of the Passion story: The Innocent One dying for me, a sinner; the Holy One making the unclean one clean; the Giver of Life extending eternal life to the death-certified human.
In the quietness of the passing of the elements, I am aware of Jesus Christ being present with me. He is in front of me, beside me, behind me, around me, and for a few moments I have a profound sense of being in a holy place.
I'm reminded that I've been forgiven. Because God has wiped away all the past failures, I'm starting all over again. In those seconds of time, I often feel a sense of deep inner renewal.
As I participate in the sacrament, I'm also aware that I'm not alone. Not only are there other people in the building with me, but there are people around the world who are with me. Paul, Peter, Timothy, Lydia, and all the saints of old have shared these same moments of imparted grace.
I often think of the first time I knelt in an Episcopal church. We cupped our hands to receive the bread The rector explained that we were coming as supplicants, asking for the bread of life. An assistant handed us a wafer and then tipped the cup to our lips. "Think of yourself as dying, and I bring to you the blood of Jesus Christ as a transfusion," he said. "It saves your life and restores you to health. That is the purpose of this sacrament."
As I knelt, my hands cupped, I truly felt like a supplicant, seeking the favor of God, waiting for the wafer to be placed in my palm. As I received it and in the seconds before I ate it, I thought, Yes, God, this is a holy moment. You are here with me. You are here because you love me.
"You are my Sacrament, Lord Jesus," I prayed silently. "This is our moment of true communion."
For us, Communion can be exactly what the word implies: joint union with God. We pray to the One who reminds us of the greatest gift of all—the death of the innocent Son for us, the guilty.
Christ died for us at a time when we were helpless and sinful. No one is really willing to die for an honest person, though someone might be willing to die for a truly good person. But God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even when we were sinful. ROMANS 5:7-8, CEV
God of the Sacrament,
you offer me your loving presence.
you accept me always.
Most of all, you showed me the extent of your love
through the death of Jesus Christ.
Help me grasp the extent of that loving gift to me. Amen.
For more from Cec, please visit www.cecilmurphey.com.
Cecil Murphey has written more than one hundred books on a variety of topics with an emphasis on Spiritual Growth, Christian Living, Caregiving, and Heaven. He enjoys preaching in churches and speaking and teaching at conferences around the world. To book Cec for your next event, please contact Twila Belk at 563-332-1622.