Amazing Gifts Worth Celebrating

[]Today we continue our sermon series about what we, as the church, do. A very important role of the church that shows a growth in attendance on the first Sunday of the month is celebrating Holy Communion, the sacrament given to us by Christ and celebrated by his disciples at that Last Supper. It was a time of Jesus sharing a final fellowship meal with his disciples and explaining to them that this is something they are to continue in remembrance of him, to remember not just who Jesus was that night, but all that Jesus had done and all that Jesus would do in the days ahead. It is a sacrament that calls us together as the church.

In our denomination, we have Communion once a month, and sometimes on special holy days of the church season. In other denominations, the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) is the central focus of every worship service. In our past history as the German Reformed Church, often churches only had Communion four times a year…celebrating that gift which God has given us only four times a year! I did some research on why we only had this gift four times a year. Part of that extends back to our earliest history when Michael Schlatter rode on horseback from place to place in the 1700s. In the olden days when the church was in its earliest stages here in the United States, and even in Maryland, pastors were hard to come by. Churches didn't have many of them. Michael Schlatter actually came from overseas as a missionary to serve as an itinerant preacher going from church to church to church.

As you can imagine, people wanted to receive Communion from an ordained clergyperson, a pastor. And he didn't get here very often, so often the earliest missionaries tried to get around quarterly to the churches. Hence, we got into the tradition of quarterly Communion. In the years that passed, the tradition held fast and it soon became, "We don't want to have Communion more often because it might diminish the wonderful nature of this gift that God has given us." But that has changed. We're up to twelve times a year at least, maybe fourteen because we have an extra Communion here and there. But the gravity of the gift God has given us calls us to worship in spirit and in truth, and to come and to lay ourselves bare and ask God's Spirit to be in us in a very physical and human way, by eating and drinking. Jesus, who met with his disciples, knew the very human nature of those who he was with, and how easy it is for us to forget things. It's why he told many of his teachings in parables that he knew would continue on and be easily spread and understood in an era of much oral tradition and not much writing or reading.

Jesus imparted the gifts of this meal at a time when his disciples were very fearful for their own lives and for what was going to happen next. Jesus did one of the simplest things we do as human beings…to sit down and have a meal. And from that meal, from a simple loaf of bread and a glass of wine, Jesus took those elements and showed them how holy these elements can be when put into the context of worship, being in relationship with him and being in relationship with God. And so we have this sacrament, this bread and this cup…ordinary things that have been transformed into a wonderful, amazing gift from God.

The sacrament of Baptism also is something that can seem, on the surface, very ordinary. We see it very spiritually in the church, and it is right that we celebrate the sacrament of Baptism. And each time we have a Baptism, I see joy radiating throughout this church. We could almost stand up and sing If You're Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands. That kind of happiness and joy is seen in everyone's face, and it's wonderful that we do that. But the simple ritual of being washed clean (Jesus himself being washed clean in the river in a spiritual context) brought a whole new dimension to being washed clean, God wanting us to be cleansed, God wanting us to be redeemed from the ways that we know were wrong and to start afresh and new again.

Now, most of us, I'm sure, have a shower or a bath every day. Could you imagine going a week or two or three like they did maybe in the Middle Ages? It's hard to imagine. We like that fresh start for the day or to feel refreshed when we go to bed. But this spiritual refreshment of Baptism has such meaning and depth to it that goes beyond even all that we can possibly understand, but is instituted in something that each of us does pretty much every day. Here is an ordinary thing that, through Christ's participation and God's participation in this amazing event, becomes a holy, spiritual event. And we do celebrate that in the church very well, these two sacraments from God, Baptism and Communion. They bring an amount of joy and/or peace into our lives in a very real way. We are called as the church to celebrate these gifts.

One thing I've noticed about Grace Church and a lot of the churches in the German Evangelical or Reformed tradition is that Communion often is a very somber time. In my home church, there's a picture behind the altar of Jesus praying at the rock: "Take this cup from me." We see the anguish and the agony in his face. Every time I had Communion as a child, it seemed like the saddest of events. The music that was played was very somber. And it wasn't until years later, in a different church, where I saw a church family celebrating this wonderful gift of the sacrament by God. It was done with wonderful singing. And as people went forward to receive the Communion, there was an element even of some emotion that people had in them. Not something I was used to from the stoic German church that I grew up in or that I really see a lot of here at Grace. But there was a different element of spirit in that type of celebrating Communion.

And we try to introduce, here and there, another avenue of this incredible and amazing gift from God, that it is not just something to be a mournful remembrance of what Christ has done, but a celebration of life for what Christ has done, and that these very simple and human elements of bread and cup that are the very essence of sustaining life are also sustaining our spirits. And that is something for us to give thanks for. It is something for us to shout about. Do I hear an, "Amen"? (one 'Amen') Yeah, see…stoic Germans. Hard for us to get excited about things. I know that's not a tradition in this church and I'm not expecting that to change anytime soon, but just to offer a different expression of Communion as a time of incredible joy, as a time of seeing these simple elements transformed into spiritual nourishment. They are gifts to behold and to celebrate with the same joy as we celebrate baptism when we carry the child around and celebrate the newness of life and Spirit brought into this child.

So as the church, we do many things…we worship, we pray, we learn, we fellowship, and we celebrate these sacraments that have been passed down to us for more than two thousand years. These are very important things that we do. And there are more things that we will recall and reinforce that we do as the church in coming weeks. But these sacraments are something for us to behold and to celebrate with a sense of joy in our hearts as well as for the sense of peace that they give us.

Read other Sermons by Pastor Steve