The Promised Land Of Our Souls
Today we come to the Table of the Lord. What we do here is basic to the belief of all Christians. For 2000 years, all Christians, in one way or another have observed what we observe here today. The string is unbroken. Empires and nations have risen and fallen, but the sacrament remains a cool, deep, refreshing, renewing well for the thirst of the generations. Therefore, I would like to speak to the significance of what we do here by reminding you of the names we call this sacrament.
We sometimes call it “The Lord’s Supper.”
In fact, in the tradition of the church, that is probably the oldest name that we have. By 90 A.D., when the Gospel of John was written, the Lord’s Supper was the term used to describe what we do at this Table. And, of course, it certainly is the Lord’s Supper, for the Lord is the host at the Table, and He is the food of the Table, and it is His love that unites us about the Table. In other words, Jesus is present at this Table.
Now, as Presbyterians, we don’t believe that He is here physically. Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers believe that the bread and the wine, in their substance, are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. As Presbyterians, we respect the right of others to hold to that belief, but it is not ours. And we don’t believe that He is here just as a memory the way some of our Methodists and Baptists sisters and brothers do. They see the sacrament as essentially a symbolic meal for them. Jesus is no more present here than He is present in the rest of our lives. Again, we respect the right of others to hold that belief, but it is not ours. As Presbyterians, we believe that Christ is actually and uniquely present here at this Table, but that His presence is a spiritual rather than a physical reality. Of course, the spiritual is just as real as the physical even though it is of a different order. Love is just as real as a doorknob, but they are of a different order.
So we maintain that while Jesus is present with us in all of our lives by His spirit, here, in this meal, He comes to us in a unique and very powerful way. In other words, if we come to this Table in faith, we encounter Jesus Christ as a spiritual reality. We become aware of His presence in our experience. He takes up residence in our hearts. We establish a profound and loving relationship with Him. He becomes our ultimate friend in life.
James Cleland was for many years the distinguished Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He was raised in the Scots Presbyterian tradition. He tells how his mother never missed communion for more than 60 years. She would go on Friday, after the Scots tradition, to prepare herself for the sacrament. Then she would go on Sunday morning to partake of the sacrament. Then she would go on Sunday evening to the service of thanksgiving, remembering with joy what had transpired that morning. Cleland, on one occasion, asked his mother what she thought the sacrament really was. Knowing how central it was to her Christian experience, he thought she would have some high and lofty theological response. But this is what she said: “Our Lord has asked His friends not to forget Him. I am one of His friends. I do not forget Him.”
That’s what the Lord’s Supper is. It is when the friends of Jesus come into the presence of the One who is their true friend and they experience the welcome of His unconditional love.
But we also call this sacrament “The Eucharist.”
The word means “Thanksgiving.” It is taken from the words of Scripture: “And He took the cup and when he had given thanks…” So here at this Table, we engage in Eucharist, in thanksgiving to God.
You know, it has always amazed me that the Church has held to the name “Eucharist,” even in the days when the church was suffering terribly. I mean there were many times when they would get together around the Table of the Lord and would not know how many of their number had been slain since last they met. Yet still in the midst of such hurt and harm, they could call this “The Eucharist”—a feast of thanksgiving.
Of course, that parallels the spirit and the experience of Jesus Himself. You remember how Jesus, at this Table, knowing that the very next day He would suffer on the cross, still said: “These things I have said unto you that my joy might be in you and that your joy might be full.” He was rejoicing and giving thanks even in the face of the horrors of the cross.
When I think about that, I am reminded of the rather sheltered and protected Christian life I have led. I have never had to endure suffering and hardship because of my faith in Christ. I have never been imprisoned or actively persecuted for what I preach. I have grown up in a free society and I have freely worshipped and served my Lord. You see, that first Good Friday was”D-Day,” when the forces of good and the forces of evil met in mortal combat, and on Easter, the forces of good triumphed. But there are still mopping up operations to be done. And as I think of those mopping up operations, I realize that in the army of God, I have been assigned relatively easy duty with little pain and limited suffering. And I am very much aware of the fact that my faith and my freedom to exercise that faith have been bought and paid for by the blood of Christian martyrs down through the ages. People like Bonhoeffer, hanged by the neck; Niemoeller, imprisoned for years in a concentration camp; Kagawa, going blind in the slums of Tokyo and contracting the diseases to whom he ministered; von Fadden, standing and preaching with a very guttural voice because he had been beaten and lashed so many times across the throat—yet in the midst of it all, they could rejoice and give thanks.
Or I think of Hans Lilje, the German bishop, arrested by the Gestapo, beaten, tortured, and thrown into a cell. There on his knees, he prayed to God and then he began to sing the words of the great hymn:
“O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing; my great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King, the triumphs of His grace!
He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.
My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim;
To spread through all the earth abroad, the honors of Thy name.”
In a Gestapo death prison, and he’s singing “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing my great Redeemer’s praise.” Giving thanks no matter what. That’s what happens at this Table. We can give thanks no matter what.
What is the significance of this Table? It brings us into the spiritual presence of our best and truest friend, Jesus. And it is a place where we give thanks and where we promise to keep on giving thanks to God, no matter what. It is a place where we can find forgiveness for our sin and the power to make a new start in our lives.
At the end of the First World War, a French soldier, who had been shell-shocked into amnesia, was trying to find his family. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that his face had been so terribly disfigured that he could not be recognized. There were three different families who claimed this young man, yet none of them could know with certainty that he was theirs. So they took this young soldier to the three different villages where the families lived. In the first village there was no sign of recognition. In the second village there was no sign of recognition. But in the third village the young man pulled free from his doctors and walked unerringly to the street where his father lived and up the steps and into his father’s house.
Well, I come to this Table, like some victim of amnesia, out of a shell-shocked world, and I walk down the street and up the steps to a room where a table has been furnished and made ready. Christ is here, ready with His love, His friendship, His power and His forgiveness. I come because this is the only place in all the world where we can find our way back to God. This is the only place in all the world where we can learn the truth about God and the truth about ourselves. This is the only place in all the world where we can be restored in our minds and hearts and renewed in our spirits. This is the only place in all the world where we can find the courage to keep on believing in Jesus Christ. That is why I dare to call this Table nothing less than “the promised land of our souls.”