Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
"Created for Communion" a three week sermon series on one sacrament, week 2 of 3
Preached May 30, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
Today is Trinity Sunday, a special day in the life of the church when we celebrate the one God who comes to us as three persons, personas, the one who imagined and created all that is and breathed life itself into the world, the one humble and loving enough to come into the created world as one of us, in it with and beside us, and the precious presence of God that moves between us and among us forever.
This is also week 2 of our 3 week sermon series “Created for Communion”. Last week, we met at the Lord’s Table, partook the Lord’s Supper together. We watched Jesus feed thousands, then watched those thousands come back to Jesus for more. We heard Jesus teach the crowds. He’s happy to feed those who are hungry, but he is here to feed us the fullness of life itself. That’s why we do church and come to this table. At church and at this table, we are fed by Jesus. We are given a bit of who is he is, the life he lived, and the wisdom he taught. There is bread and wine here, but this meal points us to taste and see a life that was truly full and abundant, and to absorb something from that life into our own, so our lives are changed and look more like his.
This week, we enjoy the Eucharist. Let’s pray and hear the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Romans 14:1-9
14:1 Welcome those who are weak(er) in faith,[a] but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weaker (in faith) eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them (all).
4 Who are you (all) to pass judgment on someone else’s servants? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord[b] is able to make them stand.
5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe (a special) day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; (mean)while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord, and give thanks to God (doing so).
7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 (And it was) to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both… the dead and the living.
10 Why do you all pass judgment on your brother or sister?[c] Or you, why do you all despise your brother or sister?[d] For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.[e] 11 As it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to[f] God.”
12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.[g] 13 Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.[h]
I remember the first time I was invited to serve the Eucharist. It was in our Worship and Sacraments class in seminary. We had been discussing the theology of why we worship, the meaning behind certain parts of worship or ways of worshipping throughout history, and especially the sacraments of baptism and eucharist. Finally, the day came for us to practice at the table.
The professor made it very clear, this is a class, NOT worship. This is practice, not the sacrament. We are doing it for practice only. We would be gathering around a table in a space with one another, and give each other the chance to practice our language, our tone, the words of institution, and our embodiment from the table. After each one practiced, we would regather in the group and discuss it. We were being graded in a way on our ability to lead the eucharist.
Since it wasn’t the REAL sacrament, I decided to bring my normal breakfast as the elements, Nekot peanut butter crackers and a Dr. Pepper. When it was my turn, I stood behind the table, said the invitation and a prayer, said the words of institution, as I broke open the pack of crackers and broke one, and as I popped open and poured the can of Dr. Pepper.
Afterward, back in our small group. one person was quite offended, that I had been disrespectful by using peanut butter crackers and a soda. Others defended me, reminding her it wasn’t the sacrament. It was just a practice run, like the professor had told us. Still, one person was upset. I felt her pain, and felt defensive about it, tried to dismiss it as her not understanding. But something about her complaint haunted me.
What I realized later is how I had put a stumbling in front of her at the table. In my own faith and understanding, I was differentiating the sacrament from this prototype of it. My choice of practice elements was fine for me and for most of my classmates in that occasion. But for one, for her, her faith and experience of the Eucharist did not clearly differentiate when we do it in a worship service after a sermon in a congregation together from when we do it as practice with a small group in a seminary class. It was fine that I led practice-Eucharist with crackers and Dr. Pepper. It wasn’t fine that in doing so, even in practice, I had put a stumbling block before one who’s faith wasn’t able to sense the difference.
Paul wrote this section of Romans about their eucharist meal. When the ancient church met together for this thing we sometimes call the Eucharist, it wasn’t just a little taste of bread and wine in the midst of a worship service, like it is for us. It was often a communal meal where all those associated with the church community, and anyone else who might show up and be hungry, could be fed. It’s what happened on Pentecost, the birthday of the church, when Acts 2 says “44 All who believed were together and shared all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their (shared) foods with glad and generous[l] hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill for all the people. That’s why, day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Imagine if a Eucharist Sunday for us didn’t mean a small piece of bread or a little cup of juice, but meant this congregation puts on a massive potluck after worship, where everyone, anyone from this church or community is invited. Those who are members or regulars of this church community, we bring whatever we can, plenty for ourselves and plenty more to share. We spread it all out, and we linger and eat with one another. And if a stranger or new person arrives, someone jumps up, welcomes them, pulls out a chair for them, asks them what they would like, makes a big plate for them, and brings it to them. If they worry or feel self-conscious because they are new or because they didn’t bring anything, we reassure them. What you bring or what you need isn’t judged here. All people are always welcome at the Eucharist meal. Whatever you bring is enough, and there will always be enough for everyone who is hungry. That’s what the Eucharist meal was for the early church.
When Paul wrote this, he was addressing some issues that were arising around the meal. Some brought meat, perhaps even meat that wasn’t allowed in their religious beliefs. Many who came to the early church from Judaism still had feelings against pork or shellfish. Others, maybe Gentile or Jew, worried about the source of the meat, did it come from someone who had sacrificed an animal to a Roman god? If so, they weren’t comfortable eating. Some others, Jew and Gentile, had come to the point in their faith through Jesus that all God’s creatures are God’s and its not right to think of any creature as unclean since all creatures come from God, so they felt comfortable eating any meat. Others, Jew and Gentile, because of their faithfulness through Jesus, knew there was only one God, the God we know in Christ. So if someone sacrifices an animal to a Roman god, that means nothing. That god isn’t real, doesn’t exist, and doesn’t change the meat.
At the Eucharist meal, there were Jews and Gentiles who had different understandings and emotional reactions to the meal because of their faith. And they began to argue about it with one another at the meal. Some were angry about the others bringing or eating meats. “How can you betray everything God in scripture has taught us all these years? How can you let anything that served another God touch your lips?” Some were dismissive and judgmental of those who abstained from the meat on so called faith reasons. “Real faith in Jesus knows there are no other Gods. To abstain isn’t faith. Its fear!”
Paul laid out the more important purposes of this meal. We welcome one another here, everyone here, even those who might not have the same faith or be as mature or nuanced in their faith yet. We welcome anyone and everyone to this Eucharist feast, and not for the purpose of arguing or proving someone else wrong. Some will have a faith that lets them eat, and others may not. That’s okay. Don’t judge one another for where you are on this faith journey. Those who have decided all creatures and meats are of God, and there is only one God, must not judge those who abstain. And those who still follow the Kosher laws and resist the proximity of Roman mythologies and choose to abstain must not judge those who eat. This meal is God’s, and God welcomes all these different degrees and diversities of faith together.
Paul parallels the differences at the Eucharist with how different people treat different days. Some judge one day to be better, more important or holy than others… the Sabbath. What was allowed or prohibited on that one day a week was a very important belief to some. Others had decided, in faith, that they would try to honor and follow Jesus the same all seven days a week. Paul doesn’t pick a side on that, but encourages those who treat one day more special, “okay, be committed to that IF you do so in sacrifice and service to God, to honor the Lord, not to lift yourself up to a place you can judge others.” And those who treat every day the same, “fine, IF you do so in sacrifice and service to God, to honor the Lord, not to prove yourself right and better than others.”
Those who do or do not can both make their choice in good conscience, good faith. In other words, its not the actions themselves that are holy. It’s the authentic motivation behind the action that gives it credibility and the embodiment of that action toward others. If we eat or abstain as a faithful sacrifice we willingly give to God, then its good. If we choose any difference or action to separate us from others, to put ourselves as judge over others, then it breaks the purpose of the Eucharist.
The binding agent at the Eucharist meal is now what or how we eat, but why. Those whose faith lets them eat, great! Eat in honor of the Lord, giving thanks to God. Those whose faith compels them to abstain, fine! Abstain in honor of the Lord, giving thanks to God.
Then Paul wonders, if we could learn this lesson at this meal, maybe, maybe we could embody this lesson with our whole lives.
Some in faith think it’s all about how we live. Every word and every action of this life is to help recognize God’s kingdom which is already here, all around us, and to help the fullness of God’s kingdom come, not just for ourselves but for all creation. If we live like that, not to give ourselves something extra or special or over others, but for the benefit of all God’s kingdom, all God’s children, all God’s creation, great. That is a faithful life to the Lord.
Some others in faith believe it all about when we die. Life is spent to grow and guarantee a connection with God from life, through death, and beyond. The choices made in faith, every action and every word, are to help people go through death into God’s coming kingdom. If we live like that, not just to give ourselves some extra or special benefit over others beyond death, but sacrifice something of ourselves to host all God’s children and all God’s creation into God’s Kingdom, that too is a faithful life to the Lord.
This meal is practice, a prototype, where we come to it and see if we can bring whatever faith we have, and test it to see if we have the faith not for personal power or privilege, but in honor of God, in service to all God’s children, and in gratitude, thankfulness for the abundance of this meal for everyone.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown