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Finding Our Way to Holy Communion
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Lam. 3:22-33; Ps. 91; Rom. 8:18-23; Lk. 6:36-42
The spiritual life is a life of (hopefully) constant growth and maturing. There are often changes and challenges which can affect us deeply. We all carry with us unhelpful baggage which we gathered as we grew up, beginning even as far back, I suppose, as early in the womb.
We at St. Luke’s are in the process of sorting out our own sense of identity, and finding a way to move forward in the direction to which God is calling us. Communities have histories somewhat like individuals. Communities have memories, experiences, and events which helped form their identity. Somewhat like individuals, communities can, and do, incorporate wrong information or bad habits or false expectations into their communal identity.
The lessons this morning point to facts about the spiritual life which might help with our sense of direction – individual or corporate. As you read or hear these lessons, ask what they say about your personal participation in the Body of Christ.
Take, for example, the Old Testament lesson from Lamentations – a rejoicing – which follows immediately after a passage of abject despair. A few verses:
The steadfast love of the Lord never
ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness....
….It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord
It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth...
Let him sit alone in silence when He has
laid it on him.
Let him put his mouth in the dust – there yet may be hope;
Let him give his cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults...
These verses sound like the suffering servant poem in Isaiah. Good situations can turn sour, but even there, if we look for it, God provides:
Richard Wurmbrand, who spent 15 years in a torture chamber for being a Christian in Eastern Europe at the wrong time, said that he had a good mutual relationship with his guard. The guard would torture Richard and Richard would tell the guard about Jesus. One of those guards was converted and found himself in the same prison cell with Richard. Another soul for Christ – even in the worst of circumstances. And a new community formed in prison.
For the Lord will not cast off for ever
but, though He cause grief, He will have compassion
according to the abundance of His steadfast love;
For He does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men.
That verse has helped me through many a hard time.
God does not afflict us in order to “get even”, to even up the score. God is not keeping revenge accounts. God is interested in bringing us into His Kingdom, which means that He might have to change (1) our sense of obedience and direction, or (2) our perception of Him.
He might have to heal our inner being which got damaged by painful experiences in our lives. We might have become incapable of responding to His offer of grace and forgiveness. We might have become so convinced (perhaps through parental abuse) that God is mean and malicious so that we do not trust anything He says. Our past history may be more of a block to our relationship with God than a fostering of it. So God has to reveal Himself through all that tangled mess.
When God punishes us, when He seems to be hard on us, that is in order to change us, not to cause pain to get a sin account paid up. God may have to raise the pain level for a stubborn person so that the pain outweighs the pleasure of the sin. As one parent said, the child’s punishment must be as outrageous as the infraction. That may be the only way a rebellious child will decide that my sin is not worth the cost, that my parents really are in control, and that I cannot get away with my disobedience. But that is for our healing, repentance, and forgiveness, not for debt payment.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, and his mercies have not come to an end just because we are being disciplined. God does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men. That is, God does not afflict or grieve willfully, arbitrarily, or maliciously, but only for our own good. In many, maybe most, cases, the affliction is the natural outcome of our disobedience. By withdrawing His protection, God lets us have what we have created and deserve – the natural consequences of our own behavior and attitude.
When we go through hard situations, such as changing our worship venue, or watch our congregation shrink, such times can be painful. But God always has us right where we need to be to do our moral and spiritual growing. So our best response is to thank God for testing us. There is no hardship which we cannot turn around by recognizing both the law and the grace of God at work. There is always some blessing in the situation when we see it from the perspective of God.
Stories abound of God intruding into a disaster situation – as people discovered in themselves a grateful heart. “Thank You, God, for testing me... Thank you God in the midst of this situation...” A community of Christians who do that will grow in depth and numbers.
God does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men. All of this discipline is so that we can enter deeply into relationship, community, with God and one another. Life is about relationship.
So the question we might put to ourselves when we are in hard straights is “Am I trusting that God can indeed get me through this situation? Am I still thinking that I am alone in this? What kind of close relationship do I have with God? Do I sense myself standing in the palm of His hand? And hearing His voice?” Am I in this with my fellow Christians?
Finding our way to Holy Communion... Living in the Light.
Psalm 91 is about the dependability of God in all circumstances to defend and protect His people. ...a few verses:
I will say unto the Lord, Thou art my
hope, and my stronghold;
my God, in Him will I trust.
For He shall deliver thee from the snare
of the hunter,
and from the noisome pestilence
His faithfulness and truth shall be thy shield and buckler...
There shall no evil happen unto thee,
neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling
God says..., With long life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation.
The Hebrews had not yet come to a clear notion of resurrection and life after death, so they had to imagine the rewards from God coming in the present. But the issue in the Psalm is, as with the Jeremiah Lamentations passage: Do we have that kind of trust in God that He will indeed take care of us in these circumstances?
A refugee in a famine-inflicted part of Africa was in line to receive a handout of food from plane which had just flown in. A worker watched as the fellow got closer. The worker noticed that the fellow had a remarkable sense of peace. Then, just three persons away from getting his batch of food, the supply ran out. The fellow went and sat under a shade tree to wait for the next batch, which might be a week away. The worker struck up a conversation with him, and asked how he got his sense of peace in the midst of such hardships. To which the fellow replied, “I did not know that Jesus was all I needed until Jesus was all I had.”
It is these persons who have sold out to Jesus who can enter most deeply into community – because they are personally an morally secure. They can tolerate the risks of community life, and indeed, flourish there.
As we struggle with our own needs and disappointments, we might ask: Can we share the conviction of Jeremiah, of the psalmist, or of the African refugee? We may or may not get our hoped-for reward in this life, but we are promised all the riches of the Kingdom down the road. We might think of heaven as very far away, but when you get to be 75, you know that, time wise, Paradise may not be far at all. Halleluia!
And Jesus told us that the Kingdom is already among us, in our midst, in our relationships – if we will live the life He has given us to live. We can begin, as Psalm 91 says, sharing the riches of God here and now, as we live safely under His wing – certainly spiritual riches right here and now, and often, in a Godly culture, material riches as well. As God so often points out to the Hebrews, a Godly culture produces enormous material riches – the natural produce of obedience to God. When we live God’s way, everything works better. Everything. That is demonstrable.
Paul, in Romans 8, reflects on such matters: “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
Paul says that we have been subjected to vanity for the sake of hope. We have to walk the Way of the Cross through a fallen world, to come out the other side in the Kingdom where all good things come together. The good things begin here, but are fulfilled only with the coming of the King – “...ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body”, i.e., the resurrection to eternal life. Even though we sometimes groan, we have the first fruits of the Spirit here and now, what Paul calls the “guarantee” of those things to come – the presence of the Holy Spirit in our inner being, that peace which passes all understanding. The sharing of that presence is the foundation of all enduring community.
We at St. Luke’s can have that inner peace even in the midst of the world’s troubles. No Christian, I suppose, has that peace all the time. But it is always available. Each of us individually – as well as together – should bring that peace with us into our fellowship, and out into the world.
“Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom.”
When that peace is lacking in our fellowship or in ourselves individually, we need to ask ourselves what the block might be. We need to do what Jesus points to in the Gospel:
“...why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
The eye of God has neither mote nor beam, so He can be our model of perfection.
“Be merciful as your Father is merciful.” The theme of being like our Father runs all through Scripture, especially Leviticus. We are to be holy as He is holy. Because we vastly different individuals are made holy by the same Holy Spirit, we are part of that community of the one Church.
God treats us like He wants us to treat each other, with truth, righteousness, and love. Holiness means being set aside for God. The law gives us examples of how to be holy. The commandments to love are the commandments to be in communion with one another. So the two Great Commandments define the meaning of holiness – loving God and one another. Being in that communion is how we are to set ourselves aside for God. Holy Communion at the altar is meant to produce a holy community out there in the world, living the life of God right out in public.
Jesus’ words not to judge do not mean that we are not to judge the behavior of others. Jesus did it commonly. Parents must judge the behavior of their children, employers of their employees, teachers of their students, etc. The judgement that is forbidden is in the next clause: “condemn not and ye shall not be condemned...” We are to judge behavior, but not persons. We have no authority or capacity to judge whether a person is going to heaven or hell. Only God can do that. We have no capacity to judge the person, only his or her behavior.
So, when something is amiss, when something needs to be corrected, we are told to first get the log out of our own eye, ask whether our own behavior or attitude might have been the cause of the problem, or at least whether we might do something to help correct the situation. Only when we have first been honest about our own relationship to the problem can we be helpful with anyone else’s guilt in the matter. Love of my neighbor requires that I examine my own behavior and attitude before I examine and judge his.
Finding Our Way to Holy Communion...
How might these thoughts help us at St. Luke’s as we go about our business?
A community in one sense has no identity of its own – apart from the relationships and identity of the individuals in it. Yet, a Godly community is more than the sum of its individual parts. As the community matures and ages, it can develop an identity by which people come to know that community. The early Church came to be known for the quality of its love relationships. Some non-Christian noted, “See these Christians, how they love one another...” Even pagan emperors noticed, and tried (unsuccessfully) to imitate that love.
Love is the definition of the law and therefore of our reason for existence. That is the standard by which we must judge whether or not we are a successful community. The number of members is important only as a reflection of the number of persons entering the Kingdom of God.
If it is true that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases”, and that God never “willingly afflicts or grieves the children of men”, then we have an absolutely firm and steady base upon which to stand together. If it is true that the faithfulness and truth of God will be our shield and buckler (as in the psalm), then we have nothing at all to fear for our future, no matter how bad things might appear. And if it is true that our obedience to God will bring riches in “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over...” then we have every reason to pursue as one community the will of God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. That image is of a grain dealer filling your bushel basket, making sure that every space is filled – pressed down, shaken together, and running over. That is the joyful bounty with which God wishes to bless us.
But it requires obedience. It means judging justly, beginning with ourselves so that we can be truly just with our neighbor. It requires getting out of ourselves and becoming engaged with each other and the world around us. It requires leadership and followership. It requires our discovering more and more deeply, sometimes the hard way – when Jesus may be all that we have, that Jesus is indeed all that we need. And then sharing that deep richness and abundance of Jesus with one another and the world around us. That is holy communion.
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