This is an abbreviated version of today’s sermon at Grace Anglican Church.
This Sunday’s lessons teach about our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, and the sacrifice that he made as our High Priest. In Hebrews 9 we hear of how Jesus offered himself up, not just in dying on the Cross, but also in ascending into heaven to pour out his own blood of the covenant before the Father. That blood which presents to his Father he also then sprinkles down upon us to purify us from our sins. Where the Old Covenant called for the blood of animals (like we read in Exodus), the New Covenant instead calls for the blood of Christ.
The blood of Christ and his high priestly sacrifice are most prominently celebrated in Holy Communion, so that’s why I wanted to conclude our series on spiritual disciplines by talking about Communion this morning. Holy Communion is a spiritual discipline? Absolutely! Let’s look at this in three ways. First, simply going to the Communion service is a discipline in itself. Second, participating in the Communion liturgy is a spiritual discipline. And thirdly, receiving Holy Communion also is a discipline.
PART ONE: Going to the service of Holy Communion
First of all, simply going to church is a discipline of sorts. You get up on Sunday morning, when the rest of the world is sleeping in, and go to a distinct location where you meet up with a bunch of different people who you may not normally see during the week, and you worship God. Can’t you worship God anywhere you want? Can’t you worship God anytime you want? Why bother getting together with these people at such an odd time of the week? Add newborns and infants into the mix, and you quickly see how simply getting up and going can be a discipline.
Of course, what makes it all worthwhile is something quite profound. When we gather here together, we offer to God a time of worship that none of us could have done on our own. And we not only say some prayers and read some of the Bible, but we also hear God’s Word preached, and we celebrate Communion with God and his local family. And from an invisible spiritual perspective, we do this not only with the local congregation, but the entire Church, throughout the world and throughout history.
So while it doesn’t really matter where you go to have a church service, the fact that there is a location is important for creating a local picture of the big picture. Our little church family meets here in this room at 10:30am, and it’s supposed to remind us that the whole Church is gathered together around Christ, even though we cannot yet see it. Oh, but when Christ returns, boy will we see it then! We’ll be so excited we’ll actually be lifted up to greet him as he returns, we’ll be so enraptured with joy. Even the dead will rise, so all God’s people really will finally be all together with him, and the ultimate worship service will soon begin!
The normal spiritual discipline of going to Holy Communion these days is to go every Sunday. One example of a Lenten discipline that some people do is to go to church more often during Lent. Larger churches frequently have mid-week services, or even a daily mass, so people have the option of attending more frequently if they want to ramp up that part of their spiritual life. If any of you are interested in some mid-week services during Holy Week, let’s start that conversation after worship today. Every day during Holy Week has its own set of readings and themes, extending our meditation on the crucifixion of Jesus all the way from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. Normally we at least celebrate either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday; we need to decide which one we’ll do next week, and if we’ll celebrate more or not.
PART TWO: Participating in the Communion liturgy
The second spiritual discipline surround Holy Communion is participating in the worship service. You know it’s one thing to show up, and another thing to participate. There was a saying I heard a lot as a kid: “going to a garage doesn’t make you a car, any more than going to church makes you a Christian.” Similarly, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Congratulations, you’ve all made it to church, but now what?
There are parts of the service that we like more than other parts. It happens. When I was a kid, I took out my colored pencils and drew during the sermon. It was so long, and boring, and I didn’t understand what was going on, so I tuned out. When I got older, I found that sermons were actually really interesting to listen, most of the time. But then I also started getting picky about what music I liked, or didn’t like. I’m sure many of you can relate to some of those like and dislikes, and could make my list a lot longer. Anyway, considering that we all have different preferences, it turns out that forcing ourselves to act together in worship is a spiritual discipline. You may prefer to read, rather than sing, but out of loving submission to your brothers and sisters in Christ, you try to sing along anyway. You may find it arbitrary to pray some of the exact same prayers every single week, but you take it on as a discipline that helps you break past your own likes and dislikes, and connects you with a larger shared life of worship with those around you.
A very important part of participation is comprehension. When we don’t understand what’s going on, it’s difficult to be an active participant. Strange prayers can make us bored, strange words can make us confused, and strange concepts can make us suspicious. If we’re not careful it can feel like the priest is just taking you for a ride through theological la-la land. Take the time to read through the Communion prayers, examine and ponder what they mean, so that when the priest is reading them, you can follow along actively in your heart.
PART THREE: Receiving the Body & Blood of our Lord
Finally, the act of receiving Holy Communion is also a spiritual discipline. Let’s take this in three acts: preparing, partaking, and processing.
First of all, there is preparation for receiving Holy Communion. Two weeks ago, we were looking at the discipline of acknowledging and confession our sins to God. One of the examples we heard that week was the practice of examining our sins before coming to the Communion Table. Besides examining our hearts and judging ourselves before Holy Communion, there are other practices that many have done over the years to prepare themselves for receiving Communion. Some people fast on Sunday morning, so that the first thing they eat that day is the consecrated bread and wine. Some people make a point of praying quietly on their own before the worship service starts. The more profound you find the gift of Holy Communion to be, the more radical a preparation you may be inspired to make.
Secondly, as for partaking, even the physical act of handing out the bread has significance. Those of you who were raised in this tradition may remember being taught to present your hands flat, one on top of the other. Part of that is practical – it can be confusing for the priest to know where to give you the bread if you present both hands next to each other. And when your hands are next to each other, they tend to form a cup, and bread doesn’t go in a cup, it’s supposed to go on a plate. So we stack our hands, one on top of the other, so they’re flat like a plate, or the paten, up front. But there’s another symbolic image at work there. Your outstretched hands are also like an altar. The sacrifice that Christ performed on the Cross, and here is presented to us afresh in Holy Communion, is laid out first on the Church’s Altar up front, and then on the altar of each and every one of his people! We all share in Christ’s priesthood when we approach the Altar of the Church, and share in the sacrificial meal of bread and wine. Presenting your hands like an altar is a picture of sharing in the ministry that I’ve cherished since I first started attending Anglican worship services.
Lastly, once we’ve partaken of Holy Communion, we then undergo the discipline of processing it. While your digestive system is busy carrying out its function with the tiny bit of bread and little sip of wine, make sure your spiritual system is also busy, letting the Body of Christ cleanse you and the Blood of Christ wash you. This means that we don’t leave church and promptly forget about Jesus for the next 6 days. Instead, we try to do what that Post-Communion Prayer says – to see ourselves as being sent out to live a life of good works. After all, if Jesus is within us, don’t we carry him everywhere we go? And if we carry him everywhere we go, shouldn’t we make a point of acting like it? Jesus described himself as the light of the world, and then later said to his people, you are the light of the world. That’s because he dwells in us, and we in him.
So let this beautiful act of Communion not just be an act for which you prepare and in which you participate, but one that you also process, and make into a lifestyle. Whether you attend daily mass, or just on Sundays, may the life of Christ be lived out in each of your lives every day to the full! May his faithfulness be your faithfulness; may his hope be your hope; may his love be your love; now and forever.