The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
August 6, 2017
I’m aware that not all of us do it, but some of us seek God in hopes of having “communion” with Him – that is, in hopes of having ongoing, person-to-person interaction with Him, as one good friend might with another.
So how does a person do what today’s scripture says: “Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually”? This scripture itself provides the answer. It tells us to regularly remember and relish the greatness of God by four specific actions – all of which, by the way, are involved in the celebration of Holy Communion, a ritual in which we remember Christ’s sacrifice of Himself for our salvation and relish the redeeming love behind it.
Though rituals have a bad name in some circles, they are helpful practices even in secular life, especially when one needs to remember something awful in order to fully relish something wonderful that came from it.
Consider a ritual that’s been practiced in London a very long time. Just last year, a giant wooden replica of medieval London was constructed, and then ignited and burned to ashes. That planned conflagration commemorated the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, an inferno that in 1666 incinerated the entire city.
As devastating as London’s burning was, it is celebrated as a positive turning point in the city’s history. For that catastrophe set off a surge of rebuilding and renewal that made London better than it was before.
Though Holy Communion commemorates Christ’s crucifixion, something that looks at first like an unmitigated and devastating catastrophe, it celebrates the renewal of hope and life that came from it. It reminds us of how God took what seemed the ultimate triumph of evil and turned it into the ultimate triumph of grace. By it we remember Christ’s broken body and poured out blood in order to better relish the rescue they enable, and rehearse the darkness of Christ’s suffering in order to enter the bright light of His mighty love.
Our scripture lesson today is part of what is called a Hallelujah Psalm. The word “hallelujah” transliterates the original Hebrew and means “praise the Lord”. The Bible translation most used in Jesus’ day placed the last verse of what we now call Psalm 104 with what we now call Psalm 105, which – in defiance of our modern, added-on-later chapter divisions, causes Psalm 105 both to begin and to end with a Hallelujah or a “Praise the Lord!”
Our scripture lesson from Psalm 105 spells out four specific actions by which to seek God by remembering and relishing His greatness. First, verses one and two call us to worship God, directing us to “give thanks” to Him and “sing praises” to Him. Second, those same two verses also call us to bear witness to Him, directing us to “make known His deeds among the people” and to “tell of all His wonderful works”. Third, verse three call us to wonder over His grace with glad and grateful awe, directing us to “glory in His holy name” and “rejoice” in Him. Fourth, verse five calls us to recall what God did and said, directing us to “remember…His miracles and the judgements he uttered.”
It is striking that the celebration of Communion involves all four of these actions. At the table of the Lord’s Supper, we worship the Savior as we thank Him for His self-offering for our sake and praise Him for the love that made Him willing; we bear witness to His saving deeds as we re-enact them for any who would open their eyes; we wonder over His grace with glad and grateful awe as we swallow down His body and blood in the faith they’re the true food of life; and we recall His stupendous accomplishment as we remember the actions and revelations of His suffering.
We repeatedly practice this symbolic ritual in order to get in touch, and stay in touch, with the ongoing reality it represents.
The ritual that is Communion is like a private ritual that an aunt of Alister McGrath practiced for decades and that McGrath writes about in his book, Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith.
McGrath’s aunt died in her eighties, having never married. In the course of clearing out her possessions, the family came across a hard-worn, old photograph of a young man, and some handwritten letters of his on yellowed paper. No one had had any idea, but it turned out that this spinster aunt had, as a young girl, fallen hopelessly in love with a young man who in turn loved her passionately and irrevocably. His tragic death prevented them from consummating their love in marriage; but she always loved him, and never came to love anyone else as she did him. From its worn edges, it was clear that she had taken out that photo again and again, and cradled it against her bosom, in a ritual of remembering and relishing a reality that had changed her life forever.
She appeared to have practiced the ritual of hugging the photo until the day she died. She did it, McGrath suspects, all the more often in her later years when she grew older and less interesting to many people, and when many of her best friends passed away leaving her alone as never before. It was, very likely, a time in life in which she most felt the need to hold on to the truth that once she had meant the world to someone, that once she had been adored and cherished, that once her life had overflowed with joy and hope. Without the physical reality of that battered old photo, it could all have seemed a dream, an illusion, something she’d invented in her old age to console herself in the tough declining years of her life. The photo put her in touch with the reality of her being treasured.
This meal on this table acts like that. It reassures us that something that seems too good to be true – something we might be tempted to think we made up – really did happen and that we are treasured in truth – and by Someone who still lives! It thereby restores us to the joy and the hope that is rightfully still ours forever.
God really did so love us that He gave His only Son. God really did take on Himself the horrors of crucifixion to spare us the horrors of the judgment we had coming. God really did desire, and really does still desire, to enter the depths of our broken lives and make us whole, healthy, strong and luminous with His love.
We need this ritual in order to believe and to receive the ongoing, life-giving gift Christ gave so long ago.
Let us prepare then to remember and to relish, and to allow the reality behind the ritual to reassert itself in the depths of our being.