The Feast Of Freedom
Text: Jeremiah 52:31-34
Let me dramatize for you what it means for me to take communion.
Picture for a moment the sumptuous beauty of the dining hall in Babylon. Sense the array of kings. Let the moving images of the colorful pageantry, the perilous protocol, the dazzling splendor loop through the gate of your mind.
Evil-merodach sits at the head of his magnificent company. From an obscure door at the side of the room, a slight figure enters. He is stooped. His psyche, his deep inner self is also bowed, obviously the result of years of imprisonment. He has bypassed the fanfare of an entrance because he wants no recognition, only a seat at the edge of the splendor. It is enough that he is free, that his bowed head has been lifted up after thirty-seven years.
A stir ripples across the great chamber as the new visitor is intercepted. Instead of being placed at the side of the banquet table, the frail figure is called forth and given a seat above all the kings in Babylon!
Thirty-seven years before, Nebuchadnezzar had swept down on Jerusalem, taking the queen mother and Jehoiachin off to Babylon. After an insurrection, jehoiachin was banished to solitary confinement. Year after year he languished there until Evil-merodach came to the throne. One of the new king’s first acts was to go to the prison, lift up the head of Jehoiachin, and whisper these drenchingly beautiful words, “You are free!”
Not only did the king take him out of prison, he invited him to put off his prison garb and dine at the royal table. What serendipitous grace! What a fantastic portion of Scripture as the basis of Holy Communion!
“So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And … he dined regularly at the king’s table.”
This is what it means for me to break the bread and take the cup. It means laying aside my prison garb to dine with the King. It means that I am set free to be the man I was created to be. To live life as it was meant to be lived.
And it means that I now invite you to this incredible feast of freedom.
What is it that binds you and keeps you from being a free man or a free woman? What memories of the past, what relationships of the present, what uncertainties of the future keep you bound?
What cycle of condemnation are you locked into? What inflexibility, what habit patterns keep you incarcerated in the prison of life? Why is it that you react in certain situations the way you do and find it so difficult to grow to be the liberated, unique person you were meant to be?
The living Christ moves among us, and our bound and imprisoned spirits are suddenly lifted. He takes hold of us, lifts us up. Tenderly we see him face to face!
Suddenly we are experiencing communion with him. In his presence, the prison garb no longer fits. It binds. It distresses. In such a moment, we want more than anything else to be a free person.
Paul said, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom!” (2 Corinthians 3:17)
It is the Spirit who comes within us as we reach out for these symbols of costly grace. And as we eat of the bread and drink of the cup, he comes to live in us, and from within us he does a magnificent thing.
From deep below the level of words, he assures us that in spite of it all, we are forgiven. That whatever distracts us and gives us a sense of guilt or uncertainty when we come into his presence can be washed away. And he reminds us that he can take the raw material of our future and shape it into something significant and splendid.
We can never earn a right place with God. It is by grace that we come to this Table. To those of us who would cower at the sight of the banquet hall, who fear to come to the table, let alone stand with the kings, he says, “Friend, come up higher. Come sit with me for I have released you from your own prison. I love you. I want you to be free.”
I invite you to come to this feast of freedom, to come and dine with the Lord and his people as a liberated person. For freedom Christ has set us free!
Text: John 14:1-3, 6, 15, 23; 2 Corinthians 5:6-9, 16
Ian Maclaren has distinguished himself in his great Scottish stories. He tells a delightful tale of Lackland Campbell and his daughter Dora.
Dora left home and fell into the wrong kind of relationships. She began to misuse the gifts of life. Soon she did not respond to her father’s letters because she found it difficult to relate to him.
Maggie, Dora’s aunt, wrote her a letter that finally melted her heart. Next to the words of our Lord, the last words of the letter comprise the most poignant, the most magnificent invitation to Holy Communion that I have ever read. At the end of the letter Maggie writes:
“Dora, your Daddy is a grievin’ ye. Come home for your own sake. Come home for your dear Daddy’s sake. But, Dora, come home most of all for the dear Lord’s sake!”
The invitation to Holy Communion is simply the invitation to come home.
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling. Calling for you and for me. Come home … come home … come home.
John described the Incarnation very simply. He said, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11, RSV).
Now the term John used for the word home is the same word that’s used for mansion. It’s the very same word that’s used in Greek to translate Jesus words: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” Jesus went to prepare a place for us which will be our eternal home. Meanwhile, he said, “The Father and I shall come and make our home in you.”
“When I am in the body,” the Apostle Paul said, “I am away from the Lord. I long to go home to the Lord.” And yet as you study the context of his writing and couple it with Paul’s whole message, you recognize the gripping nowness of what he has said. “The old has passed away, behold the new has come. Now is the acceptable time” (2 Cor. 5:17; 6:2).
The people’s astonishment was because they had never heard any one speak and act the way Jesus did. Nor have we. Our vital encounter with the living God as he comes to us in the Savior at communion breaks open our reserve, blasts us free from resistance, and bursts the chains of the prison of self-imposed fear.
In that light, I returned to Psalm 60 to meditate on the wine of astonishment as the gift which is given when we experience communion.
The context of the total Psalm was equally rewarding as my mind grappled with this amazing phrase. God had gained the Psalmist’s attention through a series of emotional calamities. A shattering national defeat had awakened him out of the slumbers of complacency, and he was forced to see God’s judgment in what was happening. He was not simplistic in his view of tragedy as the chance fatalism of meaningless forces over which he had no control. The Psalmist was a God-sensitized man who faced difficulties in himself and his nation and asked, “Lord, what are you trying to tell me and your people?” He knew God was in charge and did not equivocate with an evasive, “If it hadn’t been for that, or them, or me!”
Instead, he listened for what God had to say and what he wanted to have happen to his people through what was happening to them. And what he heard was the experience of the heady wine of astonishment. There is a progression in his astonishing realization: God’s judgment, God’s intervention, and God’s ultimate victory for his people. The wine of communion is all three for us.
We are astonished by the blood of the Cross. It startles us with the realization of how seriously God takes sin. It’s rebellion, self-justification, separation from him, and disruption of his plan and purpose for us. It’s the running of our own lives that eventually, irreversibly runs our lives amuck. From our sin of separation from him come all the little sins of selfishness and pride that twist our own natures, starve the people around us for love, and confuse our daily lives.
When we catch a vision of what God intended life to be — dependent on him, surrendered to his will, and filled with Spirit — then we can focus the nature of our sin. The rupture of our relationship with him makes us the selfish, anxious, compulsive people we are. All because we refuse to allow him to love us and fail to accept his unlimited grace!
Only a Cross could astonish us! Only a love like the Son of God’s could blast us out of our self-erected incarceration. Frankly, I am astonished that it would take that for me. T. S. Eliot was right, “Our age is an age of moderate virtue and of moderate vice.” It is so difficult for us to see and admit our need! The wine of the communion confronts us. We cannot take it lightly or with ceremonial uninvolvement. To take the cup is to take the cup of salvation. That’s radical. It’s saying, “Lord, you died for me! My sin and sins made it necessary! Forgive me, Lord!” Then we can say with W. M. Gregor,” Thou has made us and we are Thine; Thou hast redeemed us and we are doubly Thine.”
But that must be rediscovered in every circumstance, problem, and tension. The Psalmist was astonished, after what he and his people had done, that God would still persist to help them. Who wouldn’t be astonished?
Thou hast set up a banner for those who fear thee….
That thy beloved may be delivered.
Oh, to be God’s beloved! That’s the source of amazement, joy, astonishment which blasts us open in incredulous delight. It’s one thing to know that we have failed and been forgiven, but to go on compulsively, repetitously, intentionally to do those things which break God’s heart and still be “beloved” is so far beyond our barter concept of love that we find it difficult to appropriate. That’s why we need the wine of astonishment repeatedly and often. We forget so easily. No wonder Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
J. S. Whale once said that we “take photographs of the burning bush from suitable angles instead of taking off our shoes because we are on holy ground.” We do that at the Lord’s Table. Everything’s fastidiously crisp and clean, laundered and starched, pleasant and beautiful. But there’s a burning bush that’s not consumed on this Table. It’s the cup of our Lord, filled with the blood of a sacrifice for you and me. We need not only to take off our shoes, but to open our minds and hearts. We are the Lord’s “beloved” and that means that forgiveness and a new beginning is but a repentant prayer away.
That’s what galvanizes us together around the Lord’s Table. Our astonishment enables acceptance of each other. “Real fellowship,” says Jamie Buckingham,” is … coming together like grapes … crushed … knowing each other’s sins and failures and weaknesses … with skins of ego broken … the rich, fragrant, exhilarating juice of life mingling with the wine of sharing, understanding, accepting, forgiving, and caring. Fellowship is the fusing of personalities in the Presence and Person of Jesus Christ.”
After we read the opening lines of Psalm 60, we feel the jig is up; man finally did the thing which would make God stop loving him. Not so! There’s a banner for those who fear him. It’s a Cross! Why? That his beloved may be delivered.
John Buchan once said,” An atheist is a man with no invisible means of support.” Clever rhetoric! But we are God’s “beloved” and the invisible means of support are visible here before us. Bread: A broken body for us. Wine: A Savior’s blood shed in our place for what we have been and done.
That should be enough to astonish us. But the Psalmist is not only amazed at God’s judgment and forgiveness, or even that his love persists through repeated rejection, but that he intervenes to help his people. He is free to pray, “O grant us help against the foe, for vain is the help of man!” That is a prayer for specific help in daily battles in which neither our own strength nor the assistance of others is adequate.
Unless I miss my guess, many of us have known the pain of spoken or unspoken words. We approach the Table with a little bit of uneasiness — a little bit of strangeness. Good marriages could well become our rarest works of art, someone had said, because character and selflessness are required in such large doses.
There are parents whose effort at shaping and molding their children has met with futility and rebellion. And there are children whose relationships with their parents are filled with a combination of love and hostility.
Jesus says, “Let me take that.” “Stop playing God.” “Let me forgive that.” “Let me help you dismantle those walls.” “Let me cleanse your spirit and give you a new beginning.”
A man came to my office who had been away from home for three weeks. He felt he couldn’t go home because of the things he had said and done. After we talked for a long time, I called his wife and asked, “Fran, would you like your husband to come home?” She answered, “On what terms?”
I talked to her about her judgments. Her wounded feelings. Her husband. When he picked up the telephone some minutes later, he heard something which sounded very much like what Maggie said to Dora:
“John, come home. Come home for the children’s sake. Come home for my sake. And come home because God loves you.” He put down the phone and said, “I’m going home.”
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling!
When the sailors took the body of Admiral Nelson and carried it high into the cathedral, it was draped with a magnificent Union Jack. Later they carried it to the graveside. When the body was being lowered down, almost as if there has been a whistle from an unseen quarterdeck, each one of those sailors who had served with the Admiral took hold of the flag and ripped it apart. “I’ve got a piece of him,” they said “and I’ll never forget him.”
We’ve got a piece of him and well never forget him!
He anticipated our need for this sacramental identification when he broke the bread and blessed the cup. He said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
We come to the Table, O God. We’ve been away from home. You are our only security and peace. We reach for you. We long for you. We want you. We come for our own sakes. We come for the sake of those who have prayed for us and modeled your love. But most of all, we come for the dear Lord’s sake. Amen.
The Wine Of Astonishment
Text: Psalm 60:3; Mark 1:22
There are times when I read the Scriptures, trying to get hold on their meaning, that I come across a phrase which gets a hold on me. My own needs, the concerns of the people whom I lead as a pastor, and the conditions of the times in which we live strike on the flint of an eternal truth, and I am set on fire with a new insight which burns like a wildfire across the dry fields of my imagination.
That happened to me one day when I was reading Psalm 60 in the King James Version. My eye paused at the third verse. I had never seen the phrase the way I did that day. I was anticipating a service of communion at the Lord’s Table and had asked our Lord for a fresh insight to share in this meditation. What he gave was a new excitement for what the sacrament can mean to all of us.
There it was. The words leaped off the page. “Thou hast made us drink the wine of astonishment.” “What an impelling image for the cup of the new covenant! The wine of communion, the sacramental element of the crushed grape, is the wine of astonishment for us. Christ’s blood was shed for us. We are astonished, indeed, by the depth of love, the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation, and the intervening power of his Spirit infused within us for the facing of the circumstances of our lives.
My mind quickly sped to the original Hebrew words the King James version had translated and then to the context of this spellbinding phrase. I found that the Hebrew roots of the words meant, “wine of staggering” or “wine of agitation.” The Revised Standard Version translates it, “Thou hast given us wine to drink that made us reel.”
Astonishment in the Old Testament is a reaction to the acts of God. Often it is stirred by the judgment of God or some event which caused the response of surprises, wonder, and awe. But dread is also a part of astonishment. The Living Bible translation of our text emphasizes, “You have been very hard on us and made us reel beneath your blows.”
The word “astonished” had captured my attention. I thought of the response to Jesus’ teaching and healing in the synagogue in Capernaum. “And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” The Greek word for astonished, ekplesso, used here and elsewhere in the Gospels to describe the reaction of the people after hearing the message and witnessing the acts of Jesus, means “to strike out, expel by a blow, drive out or away; to strike a person out of self-possession.” It describes prolonged amazement, stirring impact.
That’s exactly what happened to people who came in contact with with Jesus. They were driven out of themselves and their careful containment. He spoke about God with firsthand experience and knowledge. He did not quote authorities, he had authority. He did not quibble about regulations but communicated a relationship with God. He was filled with God’s Spirit and every fiber of his being mediated love and hope.
I believe that the thrust of that passage is that there is a quality of relationship with the living God that is like truly being at home!
And it begins now. We know that our death shall be no more feared than our bed at night. That our dying shall be no more than a transition in our living. That our going home will be secure because we have been at home with the Lord during the days of our life.
Home is not a place. It’s a person. Who hasn’t discovered that? Home is not a position, not an address with a mortgage. Home is a passion. Home is where the heart is and the heart is where Jesus Christ is.
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.
Come home. Right now. Come home to him!
Take the letters of the word sin and you get an acrostic that takes you to the very heart of the theological meaning of the nature of sin. Sin is separation, independence, and negativism.
Sin is separation from God. It is to be independent and to want to run your own life. It is to be negative about the amazing potentials — the unbelievable surprises of God waiting serendipitously in every day.
To be a sinner — and none of us likes that word or likes to be identified with it — is to be one who in any part of his life is separated from God. One who in any quarter of his life is trying to go it alone. With clenched fists. With knuckles white.
To he a sinner is to be one who cannot appropriate the amazing power that God has offered.
Now I suggest that there are many people who, like the prodigal son, are away from home. Some of us are away because we have never known what a home is like. We’ve never met the Savior. We have never known that gracious, accepting, forgiving, empowering love.
But there are others who do know him and still live in a sort of quasi-exile because there are areas of their lives not under his control. The closer you get to him, the more you realize that there are little insurrections in areas of your life that make it difficult for you to take the pure Christ-symbols of bread and wine into your being. You say, “I’m not worthy. With the kind of life I’ve lived, I should’t even be here.”
And the memories flood in. And the uncertain plans are exposed. And the broken relationships ache and hurt.
And then there are those who have both met him and know him. They have moved close enough to him to have discovered something of the nature of God. They have seen the door into eternity begin to swing open and suddenly their little souls are satiated. The people who know all there is to know and have all of the answers topically and hermetically sealed for instant access have never really come face to face with the magnificent, living Lord.
To know him is to know that you have barely begun to grow.
I suggest that we need to come home in all the areas of our lives — from all the alternatives of our lives, from our sealed, esoteric faith, away from the attitudes which have led to the atomizing of life — and find the Savior. Every time we come to the Table we are reminded of things we’ve done and said. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an experience that would once and for all take those things that make us uneasy in the presence of the Lord, take them to him in a prayer of confession and commitment and destroy their power?
I can remember a breakfast in a downtown club in Chicago with a very sophisticated group of leaders of the business community. We were having an informal communion. We just took some bread and some grape juice and before we began I said to the men, “Write down the thing in your memory that always comes to your mind when you take communion.”
Highly polished gold-plated pens went to work immediately. There wasn’t one in that room who did not have something to put down. I took that pile of folded memories, put them together, and lit a match to them. As we watched them curl and char, I said, “My brothers in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.
Come home. Come home.
What are the unresolved questions and fears in our lives that keep us from coming home to God? The turgid, turbulent inner thoughts that lurk at the edge of our subconscious and draw energy off our being? What are the alienating feelings and the attitudes that make it difficult for us to be in relationship with our living Lord?
As one great man said, “There seems to be a tapestry between the Lord and me. I hear him calling but I can’t see him. I don’t sense his reality because there’s something between the two of us.” What stolen, contraband threads weave together the tapestry of your rebellion? What in your life makes it difficult to see his magnificent face and feel his present power?
And what are the plans for the future? What have you planned without counsulting him? Do you find yourself marooned somewhere between tomorrow’s hopes and yesterday’s scrapbook?
He’ll give you strength to support anything that’s in character with his nature in you. The strategy of the Christian is to be so close to him that he’s already willed the power for the things we plan and do.
Many of us are in far countries of broken relationships. Far countries of criticism. Far countries of settled opinions where we have placed people in the category of our own intransigent judgment and left them there. And Jesus is saying, “Leave that judgment in the far country and come home to me. Let me give you a new relationship with that person as you come to my table.”
Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling!
Communion is an astonishing experience because it enables us to see God at work in all of life. We commune with him now in order that all of life will be a successive series of astonishments with what God is able and ready to do through intervening love. Jesus’ “Lo, I am with you always” becomes the basis of a sensitized recognition of his breakthrough into our problems. When we least expect it, he is there. When we are not aware of his presence, he gives us what we need. There are times when the language of the old gospel song alone suffices, “Hallelujah! What a Savior!”
Suddenly all of life is alive with the Holy Spirit. What we need is what Newman called a “wise receptivity,” yet many of us who participate in communion will not be in communion with our Lord during the next week.
I have come to believe that an outward evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the capacity to be constantly astonished at what God is up to in our lives. A bored, bland, unsurprisable, unamazed Christian is a contradiction of terms. My prayer is, “O God, keep me sensitive to see you alive in the world around me, active in the lives of people, and abundant in unexpected blessings.”
Saul Kane expressed that kind of astonishment after his conversion in John Masefield’s poem “The Everlasting Mercy.”
The station brook, to my new eyes
Was babbling out of Paradise.
The waters rushing from the rain
Were singing Christ has risen again.
I thought all earthly creatures knelt
From rapture of the joy I felt.1
But the cup of astonishment is not yet empty. There is one further draught for our thirsty souls. If we sipped the wine of judgment and forgiveness, drank the wine of limitless love, gulped the wine of intervening grace, it is now time to empty the cup and experience the last drops of the wine of final victory. “With God we shall do valiantly” is the settled confidence of the Psalmist. That’s the triumphant faith of draining the cup.
It is astonishing, isn’t it, that all the enemies in life and death have been defeated through Jesus Christ’s life and death. Fear of any eventuality, even our own death, can not destroy us. He has done all things to set us free to live the abundant life.
An authentic experience of communion deals with all dimensions of past, present, and future. What’s done is forgiven; what’s now is given power; what is to be will be dealt with valiantly. The future is ablaze with yet undiscovered evidence of his grace.
Now we can empathize with the enthusiasm the apostles felt after Pentecost. The experience of the Holy Spirit burst forth in a joy that made the leaders of Israel say that they were drunk with new wine. “They stood there amazed and perplexed. ‘What can this mean?’ they asked each other. But others in the crowd were mocking. ‘They’re drunk, that’s all!’ they said. Then Peter stepped forward with the eleven apostles, and shouted to the crowd, ‘Listen, all of you, visitors and residents of Jerusalem alike! Some of you are saying these men are drunk! It isn’t true! It’s much too early for that! People don’t get drunk by 9 A.M.! No! What you see this morning was predicted centuries ago by the prophet Joel — “In the last days,” God said, “I will pour out my Holy Spirit upon all mankind”” (Acts 2:12-17, TLB).
The experience of God’s Son as Messiah and Lord, the witness of his loving death and appearances giving them assurance, had now been maximized by the experience of his indwelling Spirit. No wonder their joy was mistaken for drunkenness. They had emptied the cup of salvation. They were filled with the wine of astonishment.
If a stranger walked in upon our communion celebration, would he be forced to explain our joy by saying that we were filled with new wine? Should not our delight, warmth, and love be that exhilarating? Only astonished Christians will ever amaze the world.
Have you even been astonished at communion? Has faithless familiarity or commonness of custom robbed you of being driven out of yourself in an experience of sheer amazement? I pray that what happened to Proconsul Sergius Paulus when Barnabas and Paul communicated the power of the gospel, might be our communion. The Living Bible translation of Acts 13:12 is very impelling. “When the governor saw what happened he believed and was astonished at the power of God’s message.”
I ask God for nothing less for all of us as we grasp the cup and are astonished out of ourselves and into limitless joy. It’s time to celebrate!
1John Masefield, Poems (New York: Macmillian, 1930), p. 80.
The Feast Of Freedom