A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
April 17, 2014
It is always a challenge to find something new and fresh to say about the Lord’s Supper. But then again, that may not be the point; that it be new and fresh, that is. Maybe it is the repetitive act of simply coming to the table of our Lord, and partaking of the bread and the cup, that makes it what it ought to be… that saying something new and fresh is not really necessary, but that just coming to the table is enough.
And sometimes the new and fresh might possibly be found in that which is old. Allow me to explain…
Harry Emerson Fosdick, for those of you unfamiliar with the name, was one of the most famous preachers of the first half of the twentieth century. He was the longtime pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, and for the church’s dedication wrote the familiar hymn God of Grace and God Glory. If you’re not familiar with that, you’ll find it on page 395 of our hymnbook. Fosdick reflects on the scene in the upper room as it is portrayed in the Gospel of Luke. From the Moffatt translation, he quotes Jesus’ saying to his disciples, “It is you who have stood by me through my trials” (22:28).
Does that strike you as a bit odd, that Jesus would say such a thing to his disciples, especially when he has to interrupt them from arguing about their respective greatness in the coming kingdom? Seems odd to me since it is commonly thought that the disciples did exactly the opposite… that when push came to shove, they ran like scattered deer. And didn’t Peter – that brave and lusty soul – melt under the pressure of the courtyard maid when she accused him of being with the Galilean? Didn’t the cock crow to signify his denial, not just once but three times? And weren’t they all betrayers? Sure, Judas was the one who got a bloody honorarium for his betrayal, but they all had it in their hearts to separate themselves from their Master when things got hot.
Isn’t that what comes to mind when we gather round the table on the Thursday of Holy Week?
Yet, Jesus said, “It is you who have stood by me through my trials.”
This is Fosdick’s response: “That was rather fine of him.” I think by that he means that Jesus was being kind and magnanimous, perhaps paying the disciples a compliment when none was really deserved… overstating the case, to make a point, perhaps? Or perhaps Jesus realizes his disciples are all he’s got, and to upbraid them for their lack of commitment to him, especially at this late hour, might have been the same thing as saying this whole gospel enterprise was a failure, and he wasn’t ready to admit that; not just yet anyway. I mean, if he couldn’t get any more than that out of his own disciples, how in the world was he going to change the world?
Yet, he said, “It is you who have stood by me through my trials.”
Fosdick admits the disciples of Jesus “had not done so well. They had continually failed to understand him and had let him down… Even at the table… a contention rose among them as to who was the greatest. They were not so much to be grateful for” (my emphasis).1
Well, if that was true of the disciples of Jesus, that “they were not so much to be grateful for,” I have a distinct feeling that neither are we. And that too may just be the point. We are invited to this table because we are sinners all, betrayers of the One who is so fine… and kind and willing to forgive us our wrongdoings. So let us hear this and hear it plainly and hear it clearly… This is not a table for the perfect, or for those who have their spiritual act together (despite what some people think when they try to interpret Paul’s version of this event). It is not for those who have all the answers. This table, and the invitation to come to it and partake of the bread and the cup, is for those who have it in their hearts to betray Jesus too.
Why? Because it is the only place where we can hear Jesus say to us, “It is you who have stood by me through my trials.”
The problem is, we know better. We know we have hearts of betrayal. We know there are times – plenty of times – when we do anything but stand by Jesus through his trials.
We do it by giving our allegiance to lesser gods. You know what they are. They smile at us every day, and entice us into their places of abode. Like recruiters who woo prime athletes to come and play at their institutions of higher learning, telling them how very good they are and how their particular school will be the springboard to a better, more lucrative life, the gods of our world lure us into believing that there are more important things than listening to and trying to live by the way of Jesus.
Jesus was a lousy recruiter. He never made his way of life out to be any thing other than what it is… narrow, uphill all the way, a journey that leads to the cross… daily, daily. When we come to this table, whether we realize it or not, we are saying that we want to make that journey with him, as difficult as it is and despite the fact that we are not so much to be thankful for.
So how do we do it? Oh, I wish it was as easy as saying “do this, do that and you will be a faithful follower of Jesus.” But it always starts as a matter of the heart, and then how it finds itself revealed in the way we live is as unique and distinct as we are. I can give you an example.
Years ago, in the very first church I served full-time as a young and energetic minister ready to take on the world – the big, big world of Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee, don’t you know! – there was a little old lady in our church, a retired school principal. Her name was Miss Hamm. There was nothing distinct about her. She looked like a little old lady, she dressed like a little old lady, talked like a little old lady, and if you didn’t know otherwise you’d just think that all she did all day was stay at home and behave like a little old lady.
Except… every day – every day – rain or shine and even in the midst of an occasional snow storm, she would walk the several blocks from her home to the church to teach a middle-aged black day-laborer how to read. I was told that she had done the same for countless numbers of others year after year after year. And in that faithful, singular act of doing what she had in her the ability to do, she embodied the very spirit of Christ… to me and to all who knew her. To those who knew her, the very ground on which she walked, in her little old lady shoes, was holy ground.
What do you think it was that compelled her to do such a thing? Could it be that she knew in her heart of hearts that, above all, she was forgiven by the only One who had it in his power to forgive her? Could it be that she knew, in her heart of hearts, that she had it in her to be a betrayer too, that unless she did such a thing as teach the least of these how to read that she might not, in the eyes of Jesus, be so much to be thankful for?
Yes, we have it in us to be betrayers. But the loving grace of the One who invites us to his table overcomes all our betrayals, and takes us by the hand to the place where God resides. And to that end, this too is holy ground, where all our betrayals are forgiven and the One who gave himself to the cross shares his body and blood with us, and says to us most finely, “It is you who have stood by me through my trials.”
We do not feel, Lord, that we have stood by you, and for that reason and that reason alone we come to your table. At your kind invitation, we come. Bless us in this remembrance, we pray, and be to us our Savior and Lord. In your name we ask it, Amen.
1Charles L. Wallis, Editor, The Table of the Lord: A Communion Encyclopedia (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1958), p. 81.