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Worship and Sermons
April 5, 2020

“The Kingdom and the Cup” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, April 5, 2020, Year A / Passion/Palm Sunday – Matthew 21:1-11 •  Matthew 26:14-27

THEME:  In Communion, Christ gives us a foretaste of the Kingdom in which we are united with God and one another.

 

A couple summers ago, I had a truly remarkable experience.  During a preaching conference in Washington DC, a pastor friend and I went to an exhibit at the National Geographic Museum.

The exhibit was called the Tomb of Christ.  It focused on groundbreaking work that National Geographic scientists and archaeologists have done at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  This is the church which was built on top of the spot where tradition tells us Jesus was crucified and buried.

We’ve all seen lots of museum exhibits, but this one was superior to any I can remember.  The highlight came at the very end of the tour.  It was an immersive 3-D experience of the tomb and the church around it.

It didn’t look promising when we first came up to it.  We had to sit down at a desk and strap on what looked like night-vision goggles.  They were actually virtual reality headsets.  And what happened next was utterly amazing.

Everywhere our eyes went, we saw a different aspect of the tomb.  It was as if we were there.

We entered different rooms, even the rock tomb where they laid Jesus’ body.  It was breath-taking.  We weren’t physically present, but we experienced it as if we were.  It was a virtual experience.

That experience reminded me of what happened here in worship last Sunday.  If you missed it, let me invite you to view that service again on YouTube to experience it for yourself. 

Like so many churches, we have been bending over backward trying to recreate online what we do in person on Sunday mornings.  As you would imagine, there are many challenges in doing that.

One of the most difficult is the question of communion.  The prospect of celebrating communion online presents both practical and theological issues. 

The solution to the practical issue was to have you all source your communion elements from your own kitchens.  I’m told that a number of you used real wine, perhaps even in quantities that may have been slightly liberal, as you deemed appropriate.  In retrospect, that may explain some of the more enthusiastic responses we received!

All joking aside, it turns out that the harder issue to resolve was the theological question.  Should we, as good Reformed Christians, celebrate this sacrament when we are not gathered together in person?

What do we understand to happen in communion?  And can it still happen when our connection is only virtual?

If you and I were Catholic, the answer would be a flat “no, we shouldn’t, and it can’t.”  The Roman Church has taught for a very long time that proper worship requires physically engaging with what Catholics understand to be Christ’s literal body and blood.

That’s why Catholic parishioners are currently limited to watching their priest celebrate Mass online. Meanwhile they pray at home with the intention of eventually returning to church to participate in the sacrament. 

Naturally, Catholics everywhere are hungering for the renewal and unity that the Eucharist brings.  And it’s not just Catholics who are starved for that sacred connection. 

Our Reformed brothers and sisters, all of whom have a different interpretation of what happens at the table, are also struggling with the question of whether it can still happen when we can’t be together physically.

Now, we Presbyterians are not always at the forefront of theological and liturgical change.  But in this instance, we are.  That’s something of which we can be proud.

A week ago, the PCUSA became the first major denomination to offer guidance permitting the celebration of communion online in emergency circumstances, such as we now face.

This was done primarily for pastoral reasons, but it has a lot to do with how we Presbyterians understand what happens as we celebrate the Eucharist.  For us, there is something mystical that happens in communion, something that transcends our physical bodies, and even time and space.

In the Lord's Supper, you and I are fed with Christ’s body.  But the food we receive is spiritual food, not his literal body and blood.  

That makes sense.  We’ve all been born into a new life in Christ.  That new life is a spiritual life.  So, naturally, the food that strengthens us to live this new life has to be spiritual as well.

Further, in the Eucharist, we’re joined into the Body of Christ.  Through Jesus, we are connected to God and one another. 

So, we celebrate not only a new life, but a new family.  Our theological ancestor John Calvin called this family the Communion of saints.

This communion of saints includes everyone who trusts in Jesus, whether living or dead.  It doesn’t matter where they live, or when they live.  To you and me, they’re all family.

The Lord’s Supper is Jesus’ assurance that we will be together with them all, including those who died before we were born, and those who have yet to be born.  All of them will be with us for the greatest family reunion ever. 

That reunion will be held in the Kingdom of God.  It will be catered by Christ himself.  We will all drink of the fruit of the vine with him, just as he did on his last night with his disciples.

What we receive here at this communion table is the foretaste of that heavenly banquet.  Calvin called this experience of spiritual nourishment and unity “mysterious and incomprehensible”.

An experience like that does not fit neatly into our preordained notions of doing all things decently and in order.  It defies reason and logic; and it strains the boundaries of time and space as we understand them. 

We can have this experience whenever we receive the Lord’s Supper in the context of a worship service.  Yes, even online.

Now, is it more appropriate to be gathered in the church in order to experience together what happens in this sacrament of grace?  Yeah, you bet. 

But can we also, when circumstances require, experience this mystical foretaste of the Kingdom virtually?  Yes, we can.  And, in not so many words, that’s what several of you told me you experienced last week.

You might say we had a virtual reality experience through communion.  We weren’t physically present with one another, but we experienced the unity, the nourishment and the hope of communion as if we were.

 And, oh man, did that feel good.

Can you just imagine what this experience will be like when we have it for real, and forever, in the Kingdom?  That’s what life will be like when God’s reign is complete and his Kingdom is here in all its fullness. 

That’s why the crowds were rejoicing, waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna!” as Jesus rode into Jerusalem.  They were hoping Jesus would be that kind of King, and that he would bring that kind of Kingdom.

They had had enough of Roman rule.  They were done with the oppression and exploitation.  They were poor, tired and hungry. 

And Rome didn’t give a damn – as long as they didn’t revolt.  When the people did revolt, Rome did to them the same thing Rome did to Jesus on Good Friday.

And, as Jesus sat at that table after his last meal with his disciples, looking each one in the eye, he knew one of them would betray him to Rome. 

But that didn’t stop him from giving them the gift of communion.  Because he knew they would need it.

They would need a way to remember him and stay connected to God and one another.  He knew later that same night, he would be arrested and they would be scattered and shattered.

And every generation of Christians since then has needed this reassuring sacrament of God’s grace.  Frankly, we need it now more than ever. 

As more and more of us are doing the right thing by staying put and not going out and about, we are feeling increasingly isolated, depressed, bored, worried, and hopeless.  

Psychologists tells us we are going through an experience of national – even international – trauma.  Many people the world over believe there is imminent threat to their lives and well-being.  There’s widespread fear that our economy will collapse, and that our lives will never again be the same.

This fear and anxiety are reinforced by the constant stream of negative news we see every day on the Internet and TV.  It only makes our sense of isolation and hopelessness worse. 

So, let’s turn off our TVs and let’s get our heads out of our newsfeeds.  Now is the time for us to stay connected: with God and our neighbors.

Whatever your prayer life was like before, now is the time to expand it and make it more regular.  There are some helpful websites like IgnationSpirituality.com, Pray as You Go and Daily Audio Bible that will help foster this routine.

And let’s use all this unexpected time that we now have, along with whatever technology we’re comfortable with, to reach out to family, neighbors and friends.  

How about a quick call to Mom or Dad?  Or a Skype call with that cousin who has a new baby? 

Or how about holding a mini-family reunion on Zoom, the videoconferencing tool that allows up to 100 people to be together online, with voice and video?

Friends, these are all practical ways we can stay connected to God and to our neighbors.  Like communion, they give us a foretaste of what the Kingdom will be like.

It may be a virtual experience, but the unity and hope we feel will be very real.  And very welcome.

May it be so.

Last Published: April 6, 2020 2:15 PM
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