This is the Lord’s Supper meditation I gave at Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada on Dec 2, 2012.
Sometimes people stand up in front of a group and just start saying stuff.
They just have a microphone, and an audience, and some ideas in their head, and they start talking. And you don’t know if the stuff they’re saying is accurate, or if they’re going to do anything about what they say, or if it has anything to do with what’s going on in real life. Take me, for instance. I’m supposed to be up here saying something about the Lord’s Supper. But who knows if the stuff I’m saying right now has anything to do with that? (It does, in fact: trust me. But it’ll take a couple of minutes to get there.)
There are plenty of things to worry about when a human being starts saying stuff. When we say stuff, we don’t always really mean it. There’s no necessary connection between the words that come out of our mouths and the condition of our heart. We may be telling the truth, but it’s also possible for us to lie.
Think of it! We can lie! This is the amazing thing that every kid discovers at some point. It occurs to them that they can use words to construct an alternative to the truth. Have you watched a child come up with this idea? “One thing is true, but I will say another thing. I will stay.. stuff.” What they stumble on is the fact that there’s an actual state of affairs, and they can use words to describe a different state of affairs, one that did not happen. This is an amazing discovery, one that we all made at some point. It’s as earth-shattering as the discovery that you can just steal things. One minute you’re in a world where most things are not yours, and in the next moment it occurs to you that you can take things secretly. Suddenly it’s a world full of free stuff, and only you know about it. Suddenly it’s a whole new world, a fallen world, the world all of us live in.
Another problem when people say stuff is that we don’t have to follow through. There’s no necessary connection between what we say and what we go on to do. Your actions can leave your words hanging. There doesn’t have to be follow-up on words, they can remain empty. This is a different sort of lie, a lack of faithfulness in which our actions leave our words hanging.
But our words don’t actually hang: they go away. Our words come flying out, bounce around the room for a while, and then they’re gone. They echo weakly, diminish, and then fade. We have to replace them with a constant stream of more words to fill up the places of the ones that are gone. That’s why some people talk so much. If I could speak perfectly, I would be done by now. I would already have said the right thing, and it would still be with us.
But listen! Listen. God says stuff, too. And the stuff God says is totally different from the stuff we say. He says LITERAL STUFF. He speaks, and worlds come into being. He says, “let there be,” and it is. Stuff is, because God says for it to be. Of course I’m referring to Genesis 1, but it’s all through the Bible. For instance, look at Psalm 33:6 “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” He says “let there be stars,” and all the stars come out. They obey before they exist. They exist by obeying the word of the Lord.
There’s no gap between God’s words and his heart, no gap between his words and his actions. There is a necessary connection between God saying something, and the something being true. It’s a necessary connection. The King James translation of Titus 1:2 says “God cannot lie.” I’m always nervous about sentences beginning “God cannot,” so I looked it up. Literally, what it says there is that God is “the unlying one.” ESV translates it, “God who never lies.” King James isn’t far off: there is no gap between God’s word and his works, no gap into which God could insert unfaithfulness, even if he had any to insert.
And when God says stuff, it doesn’t go away. It abides. It remains. It stands.
There are a lot of good examples of this, but since we’re a few Sundays from Christmas, how about this one: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten one from the Father. We don’t have time to get into all of that –we’ve still got to get to the Lord’s supper eventually— but that glance at the Trinity and the incarnation reminds us how solid a thing the word of God is. It always existed, it never didn’t exist, and it became flesh: That’s a solid word!
When God says stuff, it stays said. His words go forth and get their work done. They do not return to him void. In fact, they get bigger and bigger, they have their necessary effects, they keep echoing and don’t fade, but reach more and more people. The Psalmist says, “Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: power belongs to the Lord.” His word does not return to him void. He declares: “it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” That’s an Old Testament promise, from Isaiah. But look at the way it is fulfilled in the New Testament. In the book of Acts, whenever the church grows, Luke says that the word of God increases:
Acts 6:7 – And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
12:24 – But the word of God increased and multiplied.
19:20 – So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
This is also Paul’s way of thinking about the power and solidity of God’s message. In 2 Thessalonians 3:1, he tells the Thessalonians, “pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it did also with you.” The word of God spreads, it has legs, it runs fast and gets glory.
Now, what does all this have to do with the Lord’s Supper? There’s an old, Protestant way of talking about the church, about the main reasons that Christians gather together for church: we do it for word and sacrament.
Word: That’s the public reading of scripture, and the authoritative preaching of it from the front of the room, and the discussion and exhortation and counselling among all of us afterwards, and the teaching that happens in the sung worship, and whatever it takes to get the word of God into us. What I love about Grace EvFree is that we do whatever it takes to get the word of God into us.
But the old, Protestant motto is word and sacrament. What’s with that addition? What do we need besides the word of God?
Well, “sacrament” points to two things, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Two ordinances commanded to us by Jesus. One of them you do at the beginning of your Christian life, and one you do over and over and over, because you need it over and over and over.
But here’s the thing: The best way to understand the sacraments is to understand that they are not saying anything different from what the word says. The water of baptism, the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, are the same exact message as the preaching of the scriptures. They say the same thing the Bible says, but they say it in water and in bread and wine. They don’t contradict what the word says. They repeat the promise, but they repeat it physically. They act out the promise. The Lord’s Supper in particular is a promise of salvation from Jesus Christ, whose words are faithful and true.
Here’s a visual illustration of what I’m talking about. In the Getty Center, high on a hill above Los Angeles, there’s a medieval painting called “the Chiarito Tabernacle.” It’s from about the year 1300. It says something about word and sacrament.
The big golden figure in the middle is the risen and ascended Jesus, and he is commissioning the twelve apostles. The artist shows that commissioning as beams of power coming from the Lord. These are the 12 who will spread out and take the gospel to the world.
But look at the little figure at the bottom: it’s a contemporary person taking the Lord’s Supper. And as the bread and wine go into his mouth, so does a golden beam from the Lord:
Is that guy partaking of word or sacrament? Yes.
And to make sure we don’t miss the point, the artist (whose name is Pacino di Bonaguida), puts in a parallel scene, in which a preacher stands in a pulpit and gives a sermon to a crowd of people. But those people are not just hearing the words of the preacher. They are also having the blood of Christ applied to them, which the artist portrays as actual streams of blood flowing down from a crucifixion scene above them.
Are those people just hearing the word? What would “just hearing” mean, when the word we’re talking about is the word of God, the effectual promise of the unlying one, who speaks their reconciliation? The blood of Christ is applied to them in the hearing of the word of promise: faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
I don’t think we can call this artist “Protestant” since it was the year 1300, but you can see in this painting a visualization of the unity of word and sacrament. That little guy who is partaking of the Lord’s Supper is getting the same content as the word of God. Word and sacrament agree.
And that means you respond to the Lord’s Supper the same way you respond to the Lord’s promise: you believe it. God promises to save you, and you believe him. God made a promise to Abraham. Abraham believed him. That was counted to him as righteousness. It was reckoned to him, literally worded to him, as righteousness. God declared him righteous. God said stuff, and it was stuff indeed. In the words of Mary, “let it be unto me according to your word.” No word from God will be impossible. God spoke, and it was so. Abraham is righteous!
The words of the gospel say one thing, and the signs of the Lord’s Supper say the same thing. It’s the same word, but the sacraments are, in an old expression, “visible words.” God is not just saying stuff; he’s saying stuff.
So when you take the bread and cup, you are taking God’s promise in your hand. You’ve already believed God’s promise: That if you come to Jesus, Jesus will receive you. Now take the promise in your hand, eat the promise. We heard in this morning’s sermon from Romans 3, that God the Father set forth Jesus publicly as a propitiation for our sins, to be received by faith. Receive the promise, eat by faith. Just as you believe without eating when you hear the word, believe by eating when you take the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus promised in John 6:37, “He who comes to me I will not cast out.” This was just after he said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He promises to save.
It’s so important that we understand what God promises here. The meaning has to be made clear; word and sacrament have to go together and agree. This is why we would never have an unexplained sacrament. We would never just dunk somebody underwater and then leave it up to them to figure out what that meant. We would never just set a table with the bread and cup of a symbolic meal and let people free-associate about its possible significance. “Here’s some bread, what do you think it means?” It comes to us with a meaning assigned, assigned by the Lord who said “whoever comes to me shall not hunger.” It comes to us with the meaning that Jesus gave it when he said, “This is the new covenant in my blood, drink it.”
What does God say to us in the Lord’s Supper? He says there is a covenant! The core of the covenant is the promise: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” The setting forth of this bread and cup is the Lord’s promise, his side of the covenant handshake. When you come forward to eat and drink, you’re stepping into your side of it, reaching out for your side of the covenant handshake. God has said something to us and we are answering to what he has said, responding to his “I shall be your God” with an “Amen, Lord, we will be your people.”
He’s a lot better at being our God than we are at being his people. Don’t worry about that, you don’t have to be perfect to be qualified for the Lord’s Supper. Quite the contrary! You do have to believe. When the servers hand the bread and cup to you, they’ll say something like, “the body of Christ was broken for you, the blood of Christ was shed for you.” That’s a promise. Believe it by eating it.
Eat the word. Chew up the promise. Swallow the story, and digest its meaning. Taste and see that the Lord is good.