Topical Scripture: Acts 2:42-47
Alan Greenspan has called the current economic situation “the type of wrenching financial crisis that come along only once in a century.” The National Debt Clock in New York City, created in 1989 to call attention to what was then a $1.2 trillion debt, now marks the current debt of $10.2 trillion. It was announced this week that retirement accounts in America have lost $2 trillion in the last year.
Meanwhile, the Russian presence in South Ossetia continues; the former Soviet Union has more oil supplies than any other nation on earth, 16,000 nuclear warheads, and a million-man army. Indonesia has recently announced that it expects 2,000 of its islands to be submerged by the year 2030 as global warming causes polar ice caps to melt and seas to rise. This week we learned of a National Intelligence Estimate report which states that the war in Afghanistan is in a “downward spiral” due to corruption in the government and a rise in militant violence.
What about the world has you most afraid this morning? Is it the economy and your retirement? The wars or the election? Your job, or health, or family? Are you worried and angry? It’s easy to feel powerless these days. This morning I want to show you that it’s not so, that the most powerful Being in all the universe is on your side, holding you in his hand, walking with you wherever you go. He is for you, no matter what you fear this day. I can prove it today.
Believe it or not, the simple ceremony we will observe today is the answer to our fears and worries this morning. Here’s the setting in our text:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (v. 42). “Breaking of bread” in this context means more than eating together—it refers to what we call the “Lord’s Supper.” They did this in public and in private: “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (v. 47).
Why? Why was this simple act so important for them? Why did it produce “glad and sincere heart” in the midst of their fears and problems? How can it do the same for us today?
What we remember
Paul gives us the earliest record of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, a record he “received from the Lord” and documented even before the Gospels told the story: “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
The bread represents Jesus’ broken, torn body. Jesus’ loaf was hard-baked—you would have to break it, tear it into pieces, and then crush it in your teeth. So with his body, for us.
Our Lord was beaten with a whip of leather thongs imbedded with pieces of bone and metal; this scourging often killed the victim. Huge, crude spikes nailed his wrists to the cross-beam, then his feet to the upright. There Jesus was left to die.
In 1968, archaeologists discovered the remains of a Jewish man named Yonanen; he had been crucified in AD 70 as part of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. They found the spikes still stuck in his ankle bones. I’ve seen pictures; even they are gruesome, without imagining the flesh which they once bore.
Victims of crucifixion were helpless against the blistering sun and the insects crawling on their bodies and wounds. The strain on their arms often pulled them from their sockets and stretched the chest muscles to the point of suffocation. Crucifixion was so horrible that the Emperor Constantine finally outlawed it after he became a Christian.
Jesus did this for us. He was sinless and perfect; we were sinful and perishing. We deserved to die; Ezekiel 18:4 says, “the soul that sins, it shall die.” But he took our place on the cross, his flesh for ours.
As we have torn the bread into pieces, as we crush it in our teeth, we remember the flesh of Jesus Christ, literally torn and crushed on the cross for us.
The wine represents his spilled, shed blood. “The new covenant in my blood” can be literally translated from the Greek, “the new covenant which cost me my blood.”
In the Old Testament, sin always required a sacrifice. An innocent animal such as a sheep or bull would take the place of his sinful owner; the animal’s blood would pay the penalty for its owner’s sin.
So it was with the cross. Jesus’ blood was spilled by the whips which tore open his back, the thorns which lacerated his scalp and face, the nails which pierced the arteries of his body, and the spear which gashed to his heart.
This he did for us as well. We deserved to die in sacrifice for our own sins. He is the innocent lamb who spilled his blood in our place. He died in our electric chair, on our gallows, in our gas chamber. He did this for us.
Now the cup represents his blood to us. Wine is made by crushing grapes. The red juice—its “blood”—flows out, and we drink it. As we take it, we remember the blood of Jesus Christ, literally spilled on the cross.
Of course, other traditions see the Supper in different ways.
The Catholic tradition has long believed that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ when they are elevated by the priest during Mass, and that they convey the grace of God to those who receive them. Thus “Communion” is part of worship each week.
Most mainline Protestant traditions such as Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Christian Churches, believe that the Holy Spirit is present in the elements in an unusual and empowering way. As a result, many of them observe the Supper each week as well.
Baptists are part of that segment of Christianity which views the Supper and Baptism as “ordinances,” worship activities which we are commanded to observe but which possess symbolic significance. As a result, we share the Supper at Park Cities once a month rather than once a week.
But every time we do, we are called back to the cross, to the sacrificial commitment and love of Jesus for us. To tangible evidence of his presence and power in our lives, no matter what we face or feel. To grace we can feel, as we dine with God.
Why it matters
A few years ago, Janet and I made a trip to Hawaii. Of all the incredible sights and scenes, nothing moved me like Pearl Harbor.
Standing over the hulk of the U.S.S. Arizona where she lays buried in the water, her crew entombed in her wreckage, literally brought tears to my eyes. From part of the ship which still stands above water, the American flag is raised. I can see and feel the experience even now as I remember it.
There’s a plaque over the ship which inscribes words first written by President Abraham Lincoln to a mother who had lost sons in the Civil War. It so impressed me that I recorded its words: “The solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
Why was I so moved? Fifty years after the event, when the threat of that war is gone and so much of what happened seemed to belong to another world? Why did this memorial touch me so much? Because of the sacrifice made there, in that place, on that ship, for me. Could I ever doubt the commitment of those fallen men to their country and the cause of freedom?
Franciszek Gajowniczek was a Polish army sergeant during World War II. While at Auschwitz 53 years ago, he was selected by the Nazis to die in their starvation bunker. Father Maksymilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, volunteered to die in Gajowniczek’s place. Ten days later, on August 14, 1941, he did.
Mr. Gajowniczek would spend the rest of his life bearing witness to Father Kolbe’s sacrifice for him. He helped dedicate churches in his name, gave talks about the priest, and told his story wherever he could. His widow said that he had a “deep sense of Kolbe’s presence” all the days of his life. Could he ever doubt the commitment of Father Kolbe to him?
Athanasia was an elderly monk who lived in the early part of the Christian era. He had a very rare and precious copy of the Gospels, at a time when very few had access to any part of Scripture. It had beautiful artwork and a jewel studded cover, and was priceless beyond compare.
One day a young man came to Athanasia’s home, and the monk took him in for the night. At supper he read from his beautiful copy of the Gospels. That night the young man got up, stole the book, and ran to the next town to sell it. He found a trader willing to consider it, but only if he could keep it for an appraisal.
The trader took the book out to Athanasia, who would of course be the best expert on such matters. All that Athanasia said was, “Oh, yes, it’s worth much more than that—it’s a very rare and precious book.” Later that afternoon the young man returned to the trader for his money. He happened to ask, “By the way, how did you appraise it?”
“Oh, I took it out to the old monk Athanasia and he said it was well worth the price.” The young man, visibly upset and startled, took back the book and returned to Athanasia. He tried to give it back the monk and asked for the monk’s forgiveness.
Athanasia said, “Oh, no, it’s yours. There’s nothing to forgive. You see, I believe that it would be a grave sin to steal a Bible, so I gave it to you. It’s yours now.” The young man stayed there, took care of Athanasia in his last years, and remained for the rest of his life. He would never have reason to doubt the monk’s love for him.
If you’re wondering about Jesus’ presence for your pain, his strength for your fears, his compassion for your guilt or grief or struggles, look to this Supper. Remember his death for you, and his resurrection for you, and his intercession for you today. Know that he is on your side—the Supper proves that it is so.
One of the family traditions I found myself remembering during Mom’s illness was our family dinners. Every night at 6 p.m., no matter what else was happening in our lives, we were to be home for supper. If we were late, we missed dinner. If we were early, we waited. She cooked every night, and we ate together every night. Our father sat at the head of the table, Mom at the other end, Mark and me on either side. We might not see each other again that night or the next day, but when we sat together at dinner we were a family.
Think of the day when you sit at the table with your family in heaven. I like to think that the Father sits at the head of the table, and his Son at the other end, his nail-scarred hands serving us the Supper. In the meanwhile, we come to his table together today. We dine with our Father. We remember his love for us, no matter how unloved or alone we feel. We turn our pain and questions over to him, and trust his grace. His Supper proves that we can.
A few months ago, I found a painting in an attic box which has since become very precious to me. My father served during World War II on the island of Bougainville in the South Pacific. Three hundred men were stationed there; only 17 survived, my father among them. One of the 17 was an artist. Upon his return to the States, he created 17 paintings of the island they had survived, and gave one to each of the survivors.
I have my father’s Bougainville painting in my study at home, just above my computer where I can see it. It reminds me every day of his love for his country and stands as testimony to his character and commitment. It calls me to be a man of character and commitment like him. What does the painting of love before us ask of you today?