Present and Absent Both

This Supper of the Lord is not limited in its signification to just one or two things. It is richly laden with meaning on multiple levels. But two of them might appear to be in tension.

The Lord’s Supper is a memorial of what Christ has done for us, and the Lord’s Supper is a communion in what Christ has done for us. This Supper is a memorial of the Lord and it is communion with the Lord. In the former sense, it would appear to assume the Lord’s absence, and in the latter sense it would appear to assume the Lord’s presence. Both are true, but in different senses.

Confession and Construction

When Nehemiah heard about the desolate state of the ruined city of Jerusalem, he was greatly humbled, and he cried out to the Lord in true confession of sin. “We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.” (Neh. 1:7). This was the man who was to rebuild that city, and so he began by clearing the spiritual ground—he began with confession of sin.

Marjorie Becker, R.I.P.

The hymn O Worship the King uses a striking phrase to describe the condition of man in this fallen world of ours. It describes us as “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.” That line contains two elements of biblical truth that I want to emphasize here today. The first is that we are indeed frail children of dust. But the second element is also important, and that is the element of glory. When it says that we are as feeble as frail, the import of that phrase might be lost if you didn’t know that frail described a kind of delicate china. This includes the element of glory, but transient, passing glory. Frail things are obviously frail, but frail things can be exquisitely beautiful and glorious. Beautiful things are not required to be sturdy.

The Bible certainly describes our condition in this world as fragile. We are dust, the Psalmist says. God is considerate of our frame; He knows that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). To counter our boasting and pride, the apostle James says that our lives here are a mist (Jas. 4:14). And the Psalmist emphasizes the point yet again when he says this: “Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; And mine age is as nothing before thee: Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity” (Ps. 39:5) “When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity, Thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth: Surely every man is vanity” (Ps. 39:11). “Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: To be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity” (Ps. 62:9).

For some these might be assumed to be melancholy thoughts, and they would rather not think of them. But this is a funeral, this is a memorial service after all, and should we not take a moment like this to reflect on our own mortality? Well, certainly we should, but we have to take the biblical teaching in the full biblical context.

Earlier I mentioned the element of glory. First, as Christians we know that the Scriptures promise us a sure and certain hope of the resurrection. There is glory coming, and the Bible tells us this wonderfully and explicitly. “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). There is a glory coming, and all the sufferings we have ever gone through, raked together in a heap, would not even move the balances if any of this glory were on the other side. We long for that glory, and we look forward to that resurrection.

Toward that end, God has given us intimations of glory. We see brief, passing, evanescent displays of it . . . and then it is gone. In this world, glory is glory, but it is frail—it goes. There is glory coming, certainly, but God has given us trace elements of that glory in our lives here and now.

Last night many of us were privileged to see a gorgeous and overdone sunset. It was the most lurid orange you could possibly imagine, with a rainbow issuing challenges on the other side of the sky, as though they were vying with each other. In this case, the sunset won. Now this display lasted just a few minutes, and then it was gone. Completely done. Vanished. It was as gone as glorious sunsets of a century ago. The only thing it left behind was the sure and certain knowledge that somewhere it must be like that all the time.

We see them, but not really. If a sunset like that happened every century or so, and it happened on a schedule, when the time rolled around, there would be hundreds of thousands of people gathered to see it. Symphonies would be written about it. Poems would be composed. If it happened every century, we might really see it. But whether we see it or not, something is still there to be seen.

Man is such glory. He is the image and glory of God. Nevertheless his day of departure arrives—all flesh is grass, and the grass withers and the flower fades. But while it is here, what do we have? We have the image and glory of God, fading like the best sunset you ever saw.

This sanctuary is filled with people whose lives will set. This world is filled with them also; we have billions of them. We just walk by them, not really noticing what is occurring. What is occurring is a promise. The fading glory, followed by a black night, is a promise of a coming glory, followed by a glorious day. Moments of glory before the sky turns black are a brief and momentary statement of what the dawn of the everlasting day will be like.

So what we are told by every sunset is that Christ is the ultimate sunrise, and that He will rise over creation, just as He rose from the dead, and He will shine on every man. “Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Eph. 5:14).

Marjorie Becker was a Christian women, who trusted in Jesus for her salvation. Her sun has now set, but her Dawn and ours is steadily approaching. The everlasting Dawn is another day closer than it was. It will happen. How many millions of times has God promised it? Every night we lie down to sleep, to practice our dying, and every morning, we clamber out of bed, haltingly practicing our resurrection skills.

Marjorie has gone before us, and just as will happen with us, she had all of her frailties swallowed up by life. Whenever someone who believes in Jesus approaches death, this particular smudge of cloud, or that one, just adds to the wonder. It is true frailty; the sun is setting. It is true glory, and nothing can be said that counters the promise of the Dawn. This is true for all of us.

We have been told many times—this glory will not last. And this glory will not last because in and through its passing, the good Lord is promising us a glory that cannot fade. We are Christians, and so we believe in the resurrection of the dead. We believe that orange fades to black, and that black turns to gray, and that gray bursts into an everlasting azure day.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.

Wine in a Cup, and Blood Spilled

There is a striking similarity between the bread we see here and the body of Jesus Christ. There is also a striking similarity between the wine in the cup and the blood of Jesus. If there were no similarity it could not work as a sacrament—it could not even work as a metaphor.

But there are dissimilarities as well, and we do well to keep them in mind. The bread we break here is bread on a table, on a tray, with a white cloth beneath. The body that was broken was laid out on a cross and nailed there. The wine we drink is wine in a cup. The blood that was shed was blood that was spilled.

The sacramental meal we observe is a ritual, a religious ceremony. It is obviously civilized. It is contained, bounded, focused. The reality that it represents was brutal, and despite the efforts of the Sanhedrin to keep their minutes in order, lawless.

Generosity Grows

James tells us that if we sin at just one point of the law, we are guilty of offending against all of it. This is because the law is simply a description of what the triune personal God is like, and so an offense against Him at this point or at that point is still, at the end of the day, an offense against Him. If a man were to strike another man, whether the blow falls on his right cheek or his left, the blow has still fallen on the man.

Now the point of our sanctification is to become like God. That is where we are going. If we forget this, as professing Christians, what happens is that we find ourselves keeping a bunch of detached rules, and forgetting what the person behind all the rules is actually like. What He is like is love, kindness, overflow, and everlasting generosity. The detached rules may be fine in themselves, but when we do this they are radically out of context. By keeping just some of the rules we got from God, we do it in such a way as to sin against God.

When we seek to accumulate enough money to build the sanctuary we are pursuing, we need to accumulate it through generosity, not through hoarding. A church is a conduit for ministry, and it is—in line with the character of God—a replicating ministry. This means that we must be constantly putting seed in the ground. “Now he that ministereth seed to the sower both minister bread for your food, and multiply your seed sown, and increase the fruits of your righteousness;) Being enriched in every thing to all bountifulness, which causeth through us thanksgiving to God” (2 Cor. 9:10–11). That is what we are after.

The Household of Faith, Hope, and Love

One of the ways we diminish our understanding of the Lord’s Supper is through saying that it is just a metaphor. In the first place, the world is more mysterious than that and there is no such thing as “just” a metaphor. God created the cosmos by speaking, and words are not impotent little labels. But even using the common language of metaphor, the Lord’s Supper would be a complex metaphor, not a simple one. There are many things going on here—thanksgiving, proclamation, longing for the day of redemption, and more.

One of those elements is underscored by our practice of celebrating this Supper weekly. What this accomplishes—among other things—is the creation of a household. Households eat together. Companions are those who share bread together—the word panis, bread, helps to form the word companion.

The Soul of the Building

Scripture tells us to strengthen the things that remain—strengthen the things that appear to have some lingering stability. Shore up the permanent things.

But because of our penchant for idolatry, we sometimes make a grave mistake when it comes to this. We see churches and cathedrals built centuries ago, and we think that the stone and brick are what remain because they are still here. But those who built these structures from a vibrant and true faith are now with God, and they will live forever. They remain, while the world and everything in it do not. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord is forever.

The faith of the people is the soul of the building. The building itself, without living, evangelical faith—without songs pouring out of forgiven hearts, without a proclamation of truth that is piping hot, without prayers of honest and sincere contrition—becomes a mausoleum. When the people are alive, the sanctuary is animated and alive.

Nothing true will ever die. No sincere sacrifice to God has ever gone extinct. We strengthen the things that remain so that they will continue to remain, and this is all by the grace of the God who has said that whatever work He begins, He will complete.

The Holy Spirit does not build the kingdom in fits and starts. His work is purposive, all of it. Everything has a function. He does what He does in accordance with the counsel of His will. Some tools are used up in the course of His work—like a building—while other things grow increasingly useful—like you.

We are not the scaffolding for the building; the building is the scaffolding for the true church, the church that will stand forever. To the extent that the dead stones are a help to the living stones, we rejoice in their use. If they get in the way, it would be better to meet in places like this until the Lord comes. So let the stones cry out.

Where the Transformation Occurs

As you know, you are worshiping God in a Protestant church. This means, of course, that we do deny certain things, and this lines up with the common modern understanding of the word. The word Protestant is thought of as a variant of protestor. But in the Reformation the term was originally more of an affirmation than a denial – think of a word like pro-testimony.

Now of course when you affirm one thing you must of necessity deny its opposite. If you face the east, your back is to the west. If you affirm that two and two make four, you deny that it is three.

So in this sense, we do deny the doctrine of transubstantiation. We deny that this bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of the Lord. We do deny that that happens. But it would be a mistake to think that this denial does not have a corresponding affirmation. We do believe in transubstantiation, just not transubstantiation of the bread and wine.