Heaven on Earth: Service of the Sacrament
Fifth sermon in a series of six
Revelation 7:9-17 // 1 John 3:1-3
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. You’ll notice that I’m not in the pulpit today, and that’s because today we meditate on the Service of the Sacrament, the second high point in the Divine Service. Our sermon pursues the first two texts read, especially these words from 1 John 3, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
Dear friends in Christ,
We are five sermons into a series on the liturgy, asking why we do what we do, what it means to worship the way that we do, how the liturgy is supposed to form not just this hour but every hour, every day, every year of our lives. And to that end, we study the Service of the Sacrament. I would invite you to turn your eyes to the screen.
Two questions that we would ask of our texts today: First, how does the Sacrament form us? Second, how are we formed by the way our congregation does this Sacrament?
Our first question is “How does the Sacrament form us?” and the answer is that it forms us by drawing us into the great tapestry of the biblical narrative.
Let me explain. About two years ago, there was a woman Bridget McCarthy, who knocked on the door of my office, way down the hall. The reason she knocked on my door was that Pastor Griffin was out that day. She went to the multipurpose office and no one was there either. And so, she made it all the way down to me in my little cave of solitude down here, and she stood darkening the doorframe of my office to say, “Are you a pastor?” “Yes” “I’ve got one thing to say to you.” “What’s that?” “Thank you. Your church didn’t know it, but you helped me when I needed it.”
You see, ten years before that, while I was either finishing up high school or starting college, Bridget’s life was falling apart. She had become addicted to meth and was keeping her life together until the lies, the chemicals all got to be too much for her family and her life.
Her life blew apart. Her secret got uncovered; her kids were taken away. And that’s when our story came together with hers. She would come to the Foodshelf. We would help her with utilities, all helping her to limp along until it got to be too much for her; she moved away; we lost track of her.
And for ten years, that’s all we know. And for most of our stories, that’s all we’ll ever know. It can feel like the time we spent was wasted, like the money we gave just went down the rabbit hole.
Except that this time, we know the end of the story. This time, we can see the threads of the biblical narrative coming together in her life. I got to hear about how our efforts had been compounded by so much more, how the God who had helped her through our hands had been following her around with goodness and mercy for all the length of her days through churches and Christians in many places. Though our part in her story was small, God had woven her story and ours into a story much larger than we get to see.
And that’s what we see in 1 John 3. Beloved, what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears, we will be like him, because we will see him as he is. Can you hear the echoes of Genesis chapter 1? God creates Adam and Eve to be like him – to be his image, to bear his likeness and protect and guard all the earth as God would protect and guard. And then we hear chapter three... do you remember the lie of the devil? “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Not like God in the way that God has created you to be but like God in another way. And then we get to 1 John 3, that the promise of salvation can be characterized like this: When Jesus who is God comes down as the Immanuel, to be God with us, then we become like him, when we see him as he is.
This great biblical narrative is all drawn into the body and blood of the God with us, too eat and to drink so that we might be swept up into the story of God saving his people.
Question number two: How are we formed by the way our congregation does this Sacrament?
Our altar was built in 1923 at the same time when our church was constructed. It’s communion rails are worn smooth by tens of thousands of people kneeling hundreds of thousands of times before their God to ask forgiveness. Four, five, six generations of church-goers all pouring out the same sins, the same inadequacies, realizing that the same faults have always and inevitably kept them from a God who loves them.
Now, look to your right and to your left. You will notice that the rail extends both ways until it reaches the back of the altar. This is intentional, to show that the rail extends out around the world and more than that, to remind us that we are eating and drinking with all the saints that have gone on before us, that I eat with my Grandma Utech, that I am celebrating with my Grandpa Muther, all those loved ones who died in the faith. They are feasting with you, under the Lamb.
Here is the picture of Revelation 7, where all nations and tribes and languages and peoples are gathered underneath of the throne, singing praises to our God, among the angels and archangels, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb.
And you can’t help but let your eyes look up from the communion rail to draw your eyes heavenward. You see next the carved statue of Jesus, with angels on the right and on the left. With his outstretched arms, he sends out his angels to guard and protect his people. His angels are with you. He sends them, for your sake, to stand at your side, so that you are never alone.
If you can, take a closer look at the statue. You can see in Christ’s outstretched hands the nail-marks of the cross. Christ could have healed himself of these things. It is his glorious body that we see depicted. And yet. And yet on his hands we see the wounds by which we are healed. And yet we see that he will bear his sacrifice for us through eternity.
And your eyes are drawn up even further. Above Christ’s head, among the three gothic spires, you can see a crown, reminding us that Christ who descended into hell, who rose from the grave, who ascended into heaven, is the same Christ that will one day come again, to deliver his people once and for all. It reminds us of our sure and certain hope that Christ has not abandoned his people but will come back in order to make all things right.
And above that on the topmost spire, coming through the crown we find another cross. Because even in his glorified body, Christ still bears the wounds that heal us. In his crown, we find the cross glorified even more.
Our altar raises our gaze until the ceiling, where you can find the marks of the Trinity. First, the sacrificial lamb, representing Jesus, who carries a slender cross that has been made into a banner of victory. The tool of his defeat has now become the symbol of victory. The weakness of death has been swallowed up by God’s strength. Let the cross be our glory.
And to the left, you can see the hand that represents the Father. It is the hand that formed man from the dust of the ground, the hand that sent his son on the earth, and the hand that will one day recreate all things to heal a broken creation.
And to the right, you can see the pure white dove, the symbol of the Spirit who comes down at the behest of the father and the son to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify the whole Christian Church on earth. Because God does not only send his angels to guard and keep us; God himself is by your side, leading, guarding, and keeping his people.
I want to conclude with a story, about a woman from our congregation who was facing some surgery. At least from what she told me it was a major surgery, the kind where they had to make an incision from the front, scoop out all of her organs and fuse her spine before putting everything back and closing her up. She said that she only had a 50% chance of surviving the surgery and the recovery, so she called and asked if she could have communion, and I went over there as quick as I could.
We celebrated the forgiveness of sins by eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus in with and under the bread and the wine. And then there was a little pause – there’s always a little pause after you do that – until she broke the silence with something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. She said, “Pastor, don’t get me wrong, your sermons are fine.... but there is something unspeakably good about the Sacrament. It means more to me every time I take it.”
There is something unspeakably good about the peace that surpasses your understanding as it surpasses your understanding. There is something unspeakably good about being drawn into the divine narrative of God restoring all creation. There is something mysterious and enormous about eating and drinking for the forgiveness of sins, for a godly strength, for an unearthly grace.
There is something unspeakably good about the Sacrament, because our God is unspeakably good.
Amen and amen.
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