Sacramental Love

Matthew 28:16-20

After the resurrection of Jesus, the eleven disciples left Jerusalem for Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some of them doubted.

Jesus came near and spoke to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.”

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 

For I received a tradition from the Lord what I also passed on to you:

On the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.” For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

 

Testimony from Stephen Walters

Good morning, my name is Stephen Walters and I have been asked to talk about my baptism and what it means to me.  I am excited to talk about this because my baptism at this church 2 years ago was a joyful and powerful day for me.  I was not baptized and a child and religion was simply not a part of my family experience and upbringing.  Throughout my life I have craved a spiritual connection and have continuously searched for meaning and a sense of purpose in my life.  The experiences that I did have with church and religion were not always positive and often left me feeling guarded and apprehensive.  In my quest for a connection with God I wanted to feel his unlimited love and forgiveness, but I had a underlying sense of separation and distance that left me feeling unclear.

The day I walked into this church I experienced genuineness and a welcoming that resonated so deeply my apprehension dissolved and I began to let my guard down.  I realized, the love that came from this church was the key to having a complete and close relationship with God.  On that day I decided to be baptized in this church, opening up my heart completely to Jesus Christ. I finally let go of the fear that was holding me back and I turned towards God making a statement of faith and surrendering myself to the repentance of sin through the power of God’s forgiveness.

This is a picture of my baptism.  Even though I am not completely in the picture it reflects the power of what I was experiencing and feeling that day.  The smiles on my children, Henry and Lucy, convey a youthful joy and my sense of being renewed and alive. Trip and Karen radiate the warmth of acceptance and the love that I felt.  Most importantly this picture represents my feeling of being a part of something bigger than me.  I know now that belonging to this congregation is how I experience and grow the depth of my connection with god.  When I give time and money to our church I feel I am extending my gratitude and love for the opportunity to experience my relationship with Jesus Christ and God.  I am grateful for this opportunity to thank you for being a part of my relationship.

* * * * *

Unlike Stephen Walters, I was baptized as an infant, so I obviously don’t remember anything about it. All I know is that my sister and I were baptized at Community Presbyterian Church in Mt. Prospect, IL – the church I grew up in, the place I first tasted communion, the place that raised me up in faith. That’s where I learned I was a child of God, and where I was fed at God’s table of grace. That’s where I learned about Jesus, and that he loved me, and wanted me to love him, too. That’s where I learned to sing hymns and read my Bible and bring my offering each Sunday because that was part of how we worshiped God. I was part of a family there, that much I knew. It was home – my home away from home. I belonged.

It had its flaws, to be sure, but it taught me a lot about what it means to be church, warts and all. I learned a lot from serving as on Session as a youth elder when I was in High School, and from working as the church secretary one summer during college. It happened to be the summer when the pastor was forced to leave the church because of sexual misconduct. That was quite an education. Honestly, seeing a church I loved go through a crisis like that was powerful preparation for ministry.

Churches are always flawed; all Christians have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That’s why we need to be re-formed, again and again and again.

The Reformation was about a lot of things, but principally it was a brave attempt to get back to what the church was supposed to be.  The church was supposed to help –not hurt – our ability to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. When Martin Luther and others started asking hard questions about the church, everything was on the table. It felt like nothing was sacred.

But the real issue was exactly that: what was sacred in what the church was doing? And what was just habit, or bureaucracy, or power-grabbing? What was essential truth, and what was esoteric minutia, like counting how many angels could dance on the head of a pin?

Martin Luther was considered radical for even questioning the church, but in truth he was cautious – one person described his method as like cleaning out a junk drawer at your house. He opened the drawer and carefully took out everything that was useless, or broken, or just not needed any more. Reformers like John Calvin were more aggressive – they yanked out the drawer, dumped it on the table, and only put back what they thought was worth keeping. It’s why there are so many different kinds of Protestant churches.

The Reformers all agreed that the Roman Catholic Church as it existed then was deeply flawed. But they didn’t agree on what the right corrections were. Take baptism, for instance. Everyone still believed it was a sacrament – Jesus told us to baptize – “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.”

But were infants supposed to be baptized, or just adults? Did you have to be old enough to make a decision to give your heart to Christ, or could parents choose for their children? What happened if someone wasn’t baptized; would they go to hell? What about an infant who was innocent? And what if you were baptized, but still sinned? Was your baptism still real? Was it enough to save you?

They agonized over questions like these…  

They argued about theology, about the meaning of things. Like communion… What happens when we break bread and share the cup? The Catholic Church taught that in the eucharist – that’s what they called it – in the eucharist the bread became the body of Christ, and the wine became the blood of Christ. “Transubstantiation,” is the name for what they believe happens. The substance of the elements really changes.

Luther didn’t think that made sense. Clearly the bread was still bread, and the wine still was wine. But Jesus said, “This is my body, broken for you; do this in remembrance of me.” It all came down to what “is” means… Luther believed what happened was “consubstantiation”; the bread was still bread, but it was also the body of Christ. The wine was still wine, but it was also Christ’s blood. Both substances at the same time.

John Calvin, our theological ancestor, he said, no, it’s just bread. It’s just wine. Nothing’s different about it at all. What’s different is that when we share bread and wine here at this table in God’s house, Jesus is present in Spirit. That’s what makes this meal holy.

Which is why we don’t have an altar in the Presbyterian church, just a table. We have a communion table, where Jesus is host.

The Reformers fought a lot about these kinds of things. Maybe it doesn’t seem important now – people don’t argue much about these theological questions. We’re much more of the mind to live and let live. There are a zillion different kinds of churches; who are we to judge?

But some of the questions linger… They linger…

When I was a teenager it seemed like friends were always asking me whether I was ‘saved,’ and I started to worry about whether I was. Maybe my infant baptism wasn’t enough. For a while I worried a lot about that, whether I had really given my heart to Christ, whether I loved him enough. I even got re-baptized when I was in High school – because I thought I needed to. It wasn’t like Stephen’s experience, out of love and gratitude – it was out of fear. I agonized over this. Until one day I figured that God had more important things for me to be doing than being so self-absorbed, and it was time to get to work on actually being a Christian.

When I was in college I was dating a guy from a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. One weekend I went hoe with him to visit his mom and dad, and of course we went to church. When we got there they signed in, and I start to follow suit, to sign my name, too. But they stopped me. It was the registration to take communion, and since I wasn’t baptized Missouri Synod Lutheran, I wasn’t allowed to take communion. It seemed so strange, so strange. How on earth anyone could anyone call the church ‘the body of Christ,’ when ‘the church’ was so obviously fragmented?

And I thought to myself, loving God shouldn’t have to be that hard…  

When we come to the font and the table, we just want to meet Jesus here. We want to feel God’s holy presence. We want to breathe in God’s Spirit, to be filled with life again. That’s what we want. We crave it. We’re hungry for it, to be close to God.

That’s why we come here. This water, this wine – it’s the ordinary stuff of life – but it reveals God’s extraordinary grace.

It was St. Augustine who said that the sacraments are an ‘outward sign of an inward grace.’ They are ‘a visible sign of an invisible grace.’ They’re gifts Jesus gave us to help us know that we are his, that God is working in our lives, that we are forgiven, and that nothing we do or say will ever be able to separate us from God’s love for us.

That’s what Martin Luther and John Calvin and all the others hoped for: that these sacraments would carry meaning again. Not be just an empty ritual you go through, not a meaningless going-through-the-motions, but experiences of love. God’s great and wonderful and incredible love for you, and for me.

These sacraments are meant to change us. To remind us that we are part of something much, much bigger than ourselves. We belong to God, and we belong to each other. We are profoundly, and deeply, loved. And we love God, and each other, back.

And nothing – nothing on earth or in heaven – can ever take that away.