A Sermon in Three Movements: Baptism, the Lord’s Supper & the Communion of the Saints
Today we will encounter the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and embody the life of the church in a unique way. Our service this morning is going to trace the grace of God in the life of the church. As we examine the life of discipleship, our service will be a sort of concerto divided into three movements: the sacrament of baptism, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and a commemoration of the communion of saints. Each movement, will include a meditation or sermon that is rather more instructive in design than usual. May I encourage you to pay attention to every part of the service, where the Word of God will be proclaimed and enacted by all of us, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray: May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Part One: The Sacrament of Baptism
Text: Acts 2:37-42
We begin in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, the day the Spirit of God came to the community of disciples gathered together as Jesus had instructed them. As soon as the Spirit descended on the group, they stepped out into the streets where pilgrims from the known world were gathered for the feast of Pentecost. Peter spoke boldly to the crowd, preaching the good news of the gospel, being heard by each in his or her own language. Having heard the news, the crowd appealed to Peter and the others.
Listen to our first reading; the Word of God:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. The Word of the Lord.
In just a couple of minutes, we will baptize D.H.R., child of the covenant. In so doing, we will make a public declaration and showing of what God has already done in D’s life.
Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the church. Both are outward signs and seals of an inward reality. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that in Jesus Christ, the God who created us is the God who redeems us. By grace, God created us to be in community with God and with one another, and by grace, God redeems us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As Peter shared the story of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ, and as those listening came to hear the story, they were moved by faith to respond to what they heard. They wanted to respond, but they were not sure what to do, and so they asked Peter. He told them to be baptized. The act of baptism is a visible demonstration of our response of faith. Presbyterian theologian Donald McKim explains our Reformed understanding of baptism saying:
When baptism is administered, the Word of God is preached, faith is present, and the Holy Spirit of operative to apply the gospel to the one who is baptized. In baptism, sin is acknowledged, cleansing occurs through Christ, a union of the believer with Christ is established, and the gift of the Holy Spirit is given.
And all of this is the work of God, by the grace of God, in the life of the church. Even in the baptism of infants like D., sin is acknowledged and cleansing occurs through Christ. How can this be? Surely D., after only a few months of life, cannot be accountable for sin? Indeed not. Sin, then is not just poor behavior or wrong action. Rather, we are talking about the human problem of sin, “pictured as rebellion against and alienation from God.” We are all sinners, and in Christ we are redeemed and forgiven sinners. The washing of baptism is efficacious in every part of our life for all of our life. It is for yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
With reference to infant baptism, arguably one of the most clear demonstrations of our trust in God’s grace, McKim continues:
Infant baptism is also a marvelous reminder of God’s grace. Each of us comes like that helpless baby before God no matter what our age. God reaches out in gracious election to bring us into the covenant community, the church, to give us the gift of faith, and to make us God’s people in Jesus Christ. It is God’s action that saves us—just as in infant baptism it is the action of the child’s parents to present the helpless child. We are saved solely by God’s grace, just as the little infant is brought into the believing community by the gracious action of parents. We do not baptize ourselves. Baptism is an act of the church administered to us. Infant baptism reminds us of God’s initiative in our salvation.
Part Two: The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
Next we move to the church in Corinth where Paul teaches the church about the meaning of The Lord’s Supper, a meal in which the Holy Spirit transforms the ordinary into a holy encounter.
Text: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed onto you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. The Word of the Lord.
The Lord’s Supper, Communion, the Eucharist—whatever you choose to call it—is the simplest and the most complex expression of the Christian life that we have. Jesus set apart these most common elements at the table of the first century Middle Eastern table, bread and wine. In these two everyday, common, foodstuffs, Jesus draws together in communion the community of believers and himself. Through these two elements, Jesus promises to be present with us, nourishing our faith and strengthening us for the journey of discipleship which God initiated in our baptism. And we, the community of believers, have been passionately arguing about what this meal means and how it happens ever since! Denominations have risen and fallen over sacramental arguments, and none has split us more widely than the one for which we gather at this table. To date, the theology of communion is the one issue we have not been able to come together over.
So today, let’s talk about our Reformed understanding of this table, the elements, and what we can say about what God is doing in and through us every time we gather here.
It might be helpful to note that even Scripture does not provide a “systematic discussion of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.” In The People’s New Testament Commentary, the authors note that among the variety of perspectives offered by the various New Testament authors, we find these claims. We are well-cautioned to remember, “The Eucharist is a symbolic act instituted by Jesus that cannot be reduced to one or several ‘meanings,’ but points the participant in several directions:”
First, it points us backward to events in the bible: the Passover celebrating God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt; the covenant made with Israel, the inclusive meals Jesus shared with disciples as well as outcasts; and the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples.
It points us forward to the future: the one cup and one bread point to the time when all Christians will be the one church together, gathered at one table in the name of Christ; and to the time of when the fullness of God’s kingdom will come, which we envision as the messianic banquet where all are invited and there is enough food, drink, and fellowship for all.
The Eucharist points us outward: to the whole church, reminding each of us that discipleship is not an individual call or journey, nor is it merely congregational. Together with disciples in every place, we are reminded that we are all called to be one body. It points us outside of the church into the world, as a testimony to God’s act in Christ – and it is a proclamation of the death of Jesus Christ and its meaning for all of the world.
And as much as it is not an individualistic sacrament focused on the believer and God, it does also point inward to a self-examination. By the Holy Spirit, we are called to examine ourselves (not others!) to encourage us to grow in obedience and in grace. In their New Testament Commentary, Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock write, “The Lord’s Supper is the supreme testimony to the grace of Christ, who eats and drinks with sinners.”
And finally, the Eucharist also points upward toward the reality of the divine world, of God’s kingdom and of the experience of the presence of God in Christ. Our attempts to explain that experience are the root of our sacramental divisions that continue, even today.
Again, Donald McKim helps us:
Jesus Christ is present in our service of Holy Communion. As we eat and drink the elements, we do so by faith. Through faith, we believe that these elements are means God uses to bring the benefits of Christ’s death directly to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a “spiritual” eating and drinking that we receive as we trust in Christ’s promises and actions. As we do so, our faith is nourished…The Lord’s Supper is much more than a mere “remembering,” simply recalling some distant event. By the Holy Spirit, the power of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection become ours in the sacrament through faith as we eat and drink.
And in the communion of this meal, we are not only joined by the Holy Spirit to Christ himself, but also to every believer of every time and place – the communion of saints. As we come to the table in a moment, we will be united by faith with the newest members of the body like D. and with those whose lives we will commemorate later in this service—F.B., S.H., M.C., and M.R., and the rest of the communion of saints.
Part Three: The Communion of Saints
For the third and final movement of the service, we turn to Paul’s earliest letter written to the Thessalonian church where believers were distressed by the unexpected death of some of their members before Christ’s return.
The Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. The Word of the Lord.
This text, while serving as a blueprint to numerous speculative works of fiction about the end times – some even in multi-book serial form, is in fact making no statement about what happens when we die. It is not a blueprint for the day of Christ’s return when some will be taken and some will be left behind, or when some will rise up into the sky, or any other literal picture of Christ’s return.
This text offers pastoral care for a grieving community for whom the seemingly premature death of some of its members have caused the surviving members of the church to fear the worst. Paul, and the churches he counseled, including this one at Thessalonica, expected Jesus’ return to occur during their lifetime. All of them expected Jesus to come in a very short time.
As we know now, and as they were learning in the context of the letter, that was not to be. Some of the members of their congregation died before Christ’s return, giving rise to questions about the faith of those who died, or of their inclusion in the kingdom of heaven. To put it plainly, people were wondering if these deaths meant that these particular people were not to be heirs of the kingdom with those who remained alive.
These people were grieving and they were worried about any who would die in the interim while they awaited Christ’s expected immediate return. Paul’s words are a promise to the whole church — at Thessalonica and here — that the fullness of God’s kingdom and promise includes every one of the saints together.
Paul is writing to the Thessalonians to assure them not to despair. He is writing to tell them that in the kingdom of God, all of the church – those who have died and those who are still alive— all of the church will be in the presence of God forever. The membership of those who have died remains active in the invisible church.
We Presbyterians look forward to the future when Christ will come again and when our communion with all of God’s people will be made complete. We believe that Christ’s return is imminent (meaning it could happen at any moment), but not necessarily immediate. We trust that God’s kingdom will break into this world at the precise time that God chooses for that to happen.
Thus we live our lives in the visible church as the body of Christ in this world. We seek to serve God and Christ in one another and in the world, following the example Jesus has given to us in Scripture. We seek the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and direct us in all we do. And we live in certain confidence that when we fail and turn away, God pursues us, and redeems us fully, allowing us to continue in the life of faith.
“In life and in death we belong to God,” we affirm in our Brief Statement of faith. “This is our ultimate assurance and security—to belong to God in Jesus Christ, held by the Holy Spirit,” as McKim writes. This is also our comfort and our hope that allows us to grieve as those whose hope is rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. By the grace of God, we are assured that death is not some ultimate terror, but a natural part of life, and that God continues to hold us, even in death.
And so as we remember the saints of our congregation and of our families and friends, we do so filled with great hope for the future and joy for all they have meant to us in this life. Together with them, we wait expectantly for that day when there will be a “new heaven and a new earth” and where God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). McKim closes with these words:
Eternity will be spent in the everlasting praise of God. For the saints, “there will be no more night; they need no light or lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5).
Amen and amen.
The sermon relies on and quotes from these two works:
Donald M. McKim, Presbyterian Beliefs: A Brief Introduction, (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2003), 99-122.
Eugene M. Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 533-534.
The original manuscript of this sermon footnotes accurately in each case. The format of this blog makes it impossible to do so here.