The "Why" of Communion
“I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead, and there is no current to plug into.” that’s what Ernest Hemingway said of his life. How could that be? He was known for his tough-guy image and globe-trotting pilgrimages to exotic places. He was a big-game hunter, a bullfighter, a man who could drink the best of them under the table. He was married four times and lived his life seemingly without moral restraint or conscience. But on a sunny Sunday morning in Idaho, he pulverized his head with a shotgun blast.
But there was another side to Ernest Hemingway that you may not know. He grew up in an evangelical Christian home. His grandparents were missionaries and his father was a devoted churchman and a friend of none other than D. L. Moody, the great evangelist. His family conformed to the strictest codes of Christianity and, as a boy, he was active in his church.
But something didn’t ring true for Hemingway. While he seemed to embrace all that he encountered, there was a hollow ring in his soul. It came bubbling out when he went away to WW1 as a war correspondent and observed the death and despair that only war can bring. His ritualized faith failed him. He soured on God and rejected the religion he once had.
It’s always a danger. Divorce ritual from meaning and disillusionment follows. It is inevitable. Which leads me to this Sunday and to this table. We are here, on this Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the greatest Christian celebration of the year, Easter. Today we come to what most protestants call, “Communion.” Others call it, “The Lord’s Table.” Whatever you call it, the same disconnect that happens for millions of Hemingways can also happen for you: You can eat the bread and drink the cup while never connecting the meaning. And that is dangerous!
If ritual is so dangerous, someone might ask: Why? Why do we even have rituals? Are they really necessary? Why not just take the belief without the symbol? Really what is the deal with communion anyway? Why do we do this?
I want to attempt to answer that question this morning. In fact, I want to take you to a passage of scripture which really explains the answer and offer you three reasons why we’ve prepared this table for you this morning. Now, let me just admit right up front that these verses do not specifically mention communion. The symbol isn’t anywhere to be found in these verses. The meaning, however, is. And it really is that meaning I want to celebrate this morning. I want to remind you of the sacrifice this ritual symbolizes and, from that, show you why it is so good to remember and physically celebrate what Jesus did.
The verses I’m talking about are found in the Book of Romans. This book thoroughly explains the gospel. In chapter one Paul indicts the Gentile pagan for his unbelief and willful rejection of God. In chapter two, he skewers the proud Jew who thinks that just because he has been given the law, he is righteous even though he cannot and does not keep it. In chapter three he concludes both Jew and Gentile to be under the judgement of God telling both groups that the wages of their sin will be death. In chapter four, he presents the way to real righteousness. It is through faith. Trusting in Christ makes us right with God, not keeping the law.
Now all of this would have been confusing to the average Jew. On what basis was a holy, righteous God able to accept a sinful man? The answer to that question is addressed in these verses. Read with me beginning in chapter 5, v 6:
6 For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. 10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. 11 And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
These verses give us a depth of meaning in this celebration that, if you really understand it, can change your life. My fear, however, is that so many church goers are really Hemingways. They are caught up in the ritual but devoid of the reality. They mumble pious phrases, but mean not a one of them. It isn’t that they are willing hypocrites, it is that they are unwitting victims of disconnected religion. They have a form of godliness, but they, for whatever reason, deny it’s power. That’s why I ask you to concentrate on this sermon and this celebration. By the end of this next hour or so, I want you to really “get it.” Perhaps for the first time in your life, I want you to meaningfully celebrate communion.
It all begins with the “Why” question. Why do we eat this bread and drink this cup? Three reasons are clear from Romans 5. The first is this: We celebrate communion because:
DIV 1: WHO WE REALLY ARE IS OFTEN MISUNDERSTOOD.
The biggest reason people miss the reality of Christ is that they miss the reality of themselves. They never connect with their true identity. So let me ask you: Do you know who you are? “Well, I reckon I do, Rusty. Ever since I’ve been breathing I’ve been . . . Well . . . Me!” Fair enough, but do you know yourself the way the Bible knows you? Have you ever viewed yourself in the mirror of Scripture?
In case you haven’t, let me tell you that this passage of scripture makes it clear who we are. In fact, four separate terms define us. v6 calls us “weak.” It says, “ For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died . . .” This particular term doesn’t speak of our moral weakness so much as our human frailty. We were mere humans, unable to do what was needed for ourselves.
It is revealed in a couple of ways. As one writer said, “the weaknesses of individuals apart from God is both the limitation and steady decay of their mortal body, and their inability before the power of sin to do God’s will. We are weak.
But it gets worse: v.6 also calls us “ungodly.” It says, “ For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” Not only are we weakened and unlikely to do good, we are “ungodly,” and completely unable to do good. This is the same term used in chapter 1:18 when it says that the wrath of God is being poured out against all “ungodliness” of man. We are incapable of good. We are ungodly.
But it get’s worse: v8 calls us “sinners.” It says that God shows us His love to the extent that while we were still “sinners,” He died for us. To “sin” is literally miss the mark on purpose. It is to fail to keep the law of God because we are willfully rejecting it. Rom 1:21 “Because although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became vain in their imagination and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise they became fools and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man and birds and four footed animals and creeping things.” We are not only unlikely to do good; we are not only unable to do good, we actively choose to miss God’s mark. We are sinners.
And it get’s worse. v10 calls us “enemies.” Because we choose to reject God, He is at odds with us and we, in our foolish flesh, are at odds with Him. Imagine that: the weak creature at war with the all-powerful creator! Now who do you think will win that battle? Here’s the terrible truth that communion shouts at us: Who we think we are in our human pride is not who we really are in God’s eyes. In His eyes we are weak; we are ungodly; we are sinners; and we are enemies. Not a very flattering picture, is it.
And you may be saying, “Well, maybe your picture of me isn’t too flattering, but that’s ok: I reject your picture. Man isn’t bad, man is good. We all have a spark of divinity lit in our soul and if you’ll just fan the flame a little, you’ll be transformed. We’re not all bad, we’re really all good.”
Well, ok, but I think you’ll have to agree that we’re not all good, right? I mean, if you say we’re all good, ever heard of Col. Khadaffy and the Lockerbie bombing? Ever heard of Sadam Hussein and the “butcher of Bagdhad?” Ever heard of Hitler and the Holocaust? Listen we’re not all good. In fact, the Bible says that there is none good, no not one!
You see, when you start judging your own goodness, you really get into trouble. You may fall victim to the “Lake Woebegone Effect.” Garrison Keillor, the inventor of the show, The Prairie Home Companion, told stories of a fictional town in Minnesota named “Lake Woebegone.” In this town, “all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” Psychologists talk about our tendency to, as in Lake Woebegone, see ourselves way above average as the state of “illusory superiority.” It simply means that we tend to inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially when compared to others.
Numerous research studies have revealed this tendency to overestimate ourselves. For instance, when researches asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60 percent of students believed they were in the top 10 percent; 25 percent rated themselves in the top one percent. You'd think college professors might have more self-insight, but they were just as biased about their abilities. Two percent rated themselves below average; 10 percent were average and 63 were above average; while 25 percent rated themselves as truly exceptional.
Of course this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: "It's the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person." Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that the "Lake Wobegone Effect" reveals our pride. He writes, "One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves."
Most people who die in their sins miss heaven because of the Lake Woebegone effect. They think of themselves more highly than they should. Will you please grasp these truths?
You are at war with God! You are not His friend and you are not just distant. You are at war if you’ve never turned your life over to Him. And by the way, there’s only one way for that war to end: You’re going to lose. Nobody ever fought God and won!
And because you are at war with Him, you live in guilt! I know you may not want to admit it. You hide it behind the curtain of your own good works. You tuck it under the temporary euphoria of pot or booze or worse. You try to outrun it in your pursuit of sexual exploits trying to fill a soul bucket full of oozing holes. But in the center of your life there is a room whose door you refuse to open, because lying on the shelves of your memory are all the promises you’ve broken; all the people you’ve hurt; all the disappointment you’ve caused. You live in guilt.
And here’s the worst part: In your current condition, you will die in fear! The wages of sin is death and not just the physical cessation of life. It is a spiritual death that goes on forever in a place called hell. Rev. 20 says:
13 The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. 14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15 And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
You see, we celebrate communion because who we are is often misunderstood. God doesn’t labor under the illusion of our superiority. He knows that we are at war with Him, we live in guilt, and, if nothing changes in our lives, we will die in fear.
And I can, again, hear someone arguing, “but wait a minute preacher! I didn’t think God was that way. I thought God was loving. How can a loving God create a lake of fire?” Well, that question brings us to the second reason we celebrate communion. You see, not only do we celebrate communion because who we are is often misunderstood, but also because
DIV 2: WHO HE IS IS OFTEN MISINTERPRETED
Even though v9 is a positive verse, and we will deal with the positive side of it in just a minute, it explains the reason for this lake of fire we so often want to avoid talking about. It says, “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from (what?) That’s right: WRATH.
Now, that’s not a happy term. In fact, the second-century heretic, Marcion, when he would read Romans 1:18 (For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness . . .) he would omit the words “of God” so that the wrath would not be attributed to God. Seems that concept of wrath was incompatible with his enlightened understanding of God. Countless others since then have joined the cause, seeing this concept of wrath as archaic.
But you cannot have the God of the Bible without knowing of His wrath. In the Bible anger is a part of God’s make-up. One commentator wrote:
“As long as God is God, He cannot behold with indifference that His creation is destroyed and His holy will trodden underfoot. Therefore He meets sin with His mighty and annihilating reaction.” Paul works with this same conception of God’s wrath, stressing the working and effects of God’s wrath. He speaks of wrath as a present reality under which people outside Christ stand and predicts the outpouring of God’s wrath on the future day of judgment.
If you say that God is a Holy God, it could be no other way. He must be a God of wrath. Carl Henry writes of God’s coming judgment on our country:
Our massacre of a million fetuses a year; our deliberate flight from the monogamous family; our normalizing of fornication and of homosexuality and other sexual perversions; our programming of self-indulgence above social and familial concerns--all represent a quantum leap in moral deterioration, a leap more awesome than even the supposed qualitative gulf between conventional weapons and nuclear missiles. Our nation has all but tripped the worst ratings on God's Richter scale of fully deserved moral judgement.
Miroslav Volf, a Christian theologian from Croatia, used to reject the concept of God's wrath. He thought that the idea of an angry God was barbaric, completely unworthy of a God of love. But then his country experienced a brutal war. People committed terrible atrocities against their neighbors and countrymen.
His last resistance to the idea of God's wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, his home. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. Villages and cities were destroyed, people were shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination. In light of such evil, he said he could not imagine God not being angry.
Or think, he said, of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators' basic goodness? Wasn't God fiercely angry with them?
He went on to write:
Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God's wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn't wrathful at the sight of the world's evil. God isn't wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.
You see, this really must be personalized in your own life. Can you grasp it? God isn’t just angry at Molosivic who brutalized Croatia; He isn’t just angry at the Rwandan murderers, or Stalins henchmen, or Hitler’s syncophants. Apart from Christ, He is also angry with you.
Now I know that isn’t pleasant to hear. In fact, it is absolutely foreign to us in this country. But that’s the problem: In this country we’ve abandoned the God of the Bible for an idol we’ve constructed out of our own politically correct opinion, and you’ll never understand communion nor really celebrate it until you see Him for Who He is. We celebrate communion because who we are is often misunderstood and Who He is is often misinterpreted. But there’s one more and it’s the good news! We celebrate communion because:
DIV: WHAT HE DID IS OFTEN MINIMIZED
By the way, the reason that we minimize what He did is because we fail to understand ourselves and we misinterpret His holiness. When we do not see our sin and His judgement, we are able to minimize what Jesus did for us because we just don’t see ourselves as really needing what He is offering. But when we see ourselves as sinners under God’s wrath, what He did becomes very precious to us.
And just what did He do? V 7 says: For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. Paul, here, compares what we might be willing to do compared to what Jesus did. He says that no one would hardly die for a “righteous” man. What is in view here is probably a law-keeper; someone who was meticulous about doing things right. He says that, for someone who was a stickler about the law of God, very very few would be willing to die.
Then says, “yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.” In other words, while someone might not die for a legalistic law keeper, they might be willing to die for someone who was a genuinely good, moral and helpful person—someone who helped them when they were in need or, perhaps, had even risked their own life for them.
But here’s the amazing part. God didn’t die for us when we were righteous—when we were law-keepers. (The sad fact is, you and I have never been law-keepers, because no matter how many of the ten we’ve kept, we’ve not kept them all and James makes in clear in James 2:10, 10 “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.)”
God did not die for us because we were righteous and He also didn’t die to us because we were genuinely good, caring people. We were not! All of our good deeds are always tainted by our own sinful will and our own sinful motives.
No, God, v8 says demonstrates His love to us that when we were yet sinners. That is, when we were His worst enemy; when we were still shaking our fist in His face and giving in to that pet sin that has become our idol and hardening our hearts against His will. When we were yet sinners, Christ died for us! He, the God of the universe reached out to His worst enemy with His best gift. He made the ultimate sacrifice. That’s what He did!
And that’s what this moment and this celebration is all about. It’s His reminder to us of Who we are, Who He is, and what He did.
Right after I arrived in Wilson, I met Bro. Preston Gregory. I still remember him speaking at some event and telling about a ritual of his own. He blows his horn. His car horn that is. He blows it at his wife three times.
Now, I have to tell you, blowing my horn at my wife just one time can earn me a trip to the dog house for a month, but it’s not that way with Preston. He blows his horn at his wife three time to say (pantomime) “I Love You.” Whenever he pulls out in the morning, he blows his horn, and I think she returns the favor when she goes somewhere.
Well, the only problem with blowing your horn is that your neighbors do not have “selective” hearing. In fact, all his neighbors would hear Bro. Preston when he would take off in the morning to go to work blowing his horn to say “I love you.”
One day, a little boy next door asked him, “Mr. Preston, why to you always blow your horn three times?” So Preston told him what it meant and then he told him, he said, “Listen son, you’re never going to hear me blow my horn again. O, I’m not going to stop doing it, but from now on when you hear that sound, you’re not going to hear my horn blowing, you’re going to hear me saying, “I love you.”
When you get right down to it. This celebration is not a ritual anymore than Preston’s honking was just blowing a horn. This celebration is God’s way of reminding us that He loves us.
TAKE COMMUNION: The Power of the Cross; I Belong
Now can I just take a few minutes and apply what we’ve just experienced? You see, you can be guilty of just coming here and not really focusing on what this means. You and I can really minimize this event.
If you’ve never really become a disciple of Christ, the tendency when I talk about you and your sinfulness is to compare yourself to others instead of comparing yourself to God. You know we do it to make ourselves look good all the time. If we like to tie one on every Friday night, we’ll excuse our drinking binges by comparing ourselves to someone who drinks on the job. We’ll say, “Yes, I do drink a little on the weekend, but at least I don’t drink during the week.” If we scream at our wife, we’ll say, “Yes, I know I say some unkind things when I’m angry, but I’d never hit her.” If we’re a hard worker who refuses to acknowledge God, we’ll say, “Yes, I know I not a very religious person, but at least I’m honest and I work hard.”
With every excuse, what we are really saying is, “I see what You did on the cross, Jesus, but that must have been for someone else because me? . . . I really don’t need that.” We minimize our need.
And then we can minimize what Jesus did by intellectualizing His love. That is, we agree with the facts of the crucifixion, but it never reaches our heart. We may give a mental assent to the gospel, but that gospel never touches us where we really live.
Listen! Anything you are doing or thinking that keeps you from responding to what this table represents with anything less that complete surrender to Christ minimizes what He did.
So what about you? GIVE INVITATION - PRAY THE PRAYER, THEN TURN TO THE CHRISTIAN.
What about you, Christian? You can also minimize what Jesus did. You minimize your need when your worship is a boring routine rather than a hungry search for His presence. You minizze your need when your prayer is only a discipline you go through and not a genuinely connected conversation with God. You minimize your need when your Bible Study becomes a chapter to read and not a highly anticipated opportunity to hear from Christ. Your Christianity is much too precious to take for granted.
SO WHAT ABOUT YOU? GIVE INVITATION - ASK THEM TO REDEDICATE THEIR LIFE TO FOLLOW JESUS WITH ALL THEIR HEARTS.
8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.