This morning we begin a 5-week sermon series on the Eucharist. Each Sunday in the month of August we will consider different aspects of this holy mystery, of this great sacrament. But before we can really even begin, we need to ask a question: what is the Eucharist?
The word itself comes from a Greek word for what Jesus does in John 6:11, which we read last week; before the feeding of the 5000, John tells us that “Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated.” The Greek word for “give thanks” is eucharisto, and from very early on the church called the meal it celebrated together the Eucharist, the meal of thanksgiving. Other names for this meal include the Lord’s Supper, which is what Paul calls it in 1 Corinthians 11, and holy communion, which is what we usually call this meal at Centre. Even for us, though, the central prayer of holy communion is the Great Thanksgiving. That’s when we begin, “The Lord be with you/And also with you; Lift up your hearts/We lift them up to the Lord; Let us give thanks to the Lord our God/It is right to give our thanks and praise.” And then we give thanks to God the Father for Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
So we celebrate Eucharist every week here at Centre, even if the particular name “Eucharist” itself is a little unfamiliar or even foreign to you. But if “Eucharist” does sound strange to your ears, that’s not entirely a bad thing, because one of my goals in this series is for us to listen to new and unexpected ways God speaks to us through this holy mystery. By the way, if you want to learn more about what The United Methodist Church teaches about Eucharist, you can search online for a document called “This Holy Mystery,” which is free for anyone to download and read.
I decided to preach on the Eucharist this month because of something Jesus says at the end of this morning’s gospel reading: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It’s a puzzling thing to say, even for Jesus, even in John’s gospel But Christians for almost two thousand years have found in Jesus’ words the central point of the Eucharist: we eat the bread and drink the cup so that we might be fed with the bread of life, so that we might never hunger or thirst again for the life God offers to us in Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is our principle connection to Jesus’ promise in John 6:35.
We’ll talk about all that in the weeks to come, but today we’ll start in a very different place, with a very different person, in a very different situation. We begin our series on the Eucharist in 2 Samuel, with King David and his confrontation with the prophet Nathan. If you’ve been following our Old Testament lessons for the past few weeks, you’ll know that we are at the point in King David’s story where David has turned down a very dangerous path. Here is God’s chosen king, the man after God’s own heart, who is supposed to lead Israel through wise decisions and faithful worship. Instead, David has given into his lust, committing adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and conceiving a child with her, while Uriah is on the battlefield fighting David’s wars. Eventually David conspires with his generals to murder Uriah as a way to cover up his adultery. Now the prophet Nathan, in one of the most unenviable jobs in the entire Bible, goes to David to confront him and to reveal that David’s sin is not just some private matter but is an offense against the Lord God.
Sin will out. David has fooled himself into believing that no one sees what he’s up to, that one sin can cover for another, but there is no hiding from the sight of the Lord. David has become a practical atheist: he believes with his lips, and maybe even his heart, but he acts like they don’t matter.
All of us are sinners. All of us have behaved like practical atheists at some point in our lives. I don’t want to generalize too quickly, however. If you have found yourself tempted by an adulterous relationship, you need to remove yourself from the situation at once. And if you have succumbed to the temptation, then you need to meet with me to begin the process of repentance and reconciliation. The marriage covenant is a sacred covenant, and there is no such thing as a good reason to commit adultery.
But most of us, hopefully all of us, are not adulterers. We have not violated our marriage vows, and we have not seduced someone else into breaking her or his vows. Is sin any less real for us? Certainly not! All sins can strangle us in their grasp, from a stray harsh word to a petty act of greed, an unfounded attitude of self-righteousness, or a stubborn and hard heart, from the most minor infraction to the great hidden offense no else in the world knows about. Even following after Jesus does not happen without risk of sinning. In John 6, Jesus warns us against following him to receive some benefit, like eating our fill of loaves, rather than out of sincere belief.
It’s amazing, too, how much the sins of others rankle us while we forget about our own failings. We hear about a politicians who has committed some crime, or about an athlete who has cheated, or about a neighbor who has been disrespectful, and it just burns us up. In 2 Samuel 11, Nathan relates the story of a wealthy man who steals his poor neighbor’s one ewe lamb to feed a passing traveler. King David hits the roof: that rich man deserves to die! How dare he! You can almost hear the royal snarls. David, the adulterer and murderer, is up in arms for justice over a crime far less serious than his own. And Nathan confronts David, not only with his crimes, but with his cover up, with his practical atheism, and with his pathetic sense of justice: “You are the man!”
Imagine being in poor prophet Nathan’s shoes, pronouncing God’s judgment upon the most powerful man in the kingdom. David has already killed once to cover up his crimes; might he not kill again? But something of the prophet’s words stirs David’s heart, and Nathan receives from the king a confession.
David has sinned in his adultery with Bathsheba, and he has tried to flee the guilt, the shame, the embarrassment that all of us feel when we’ve done something wrong. But you cannot flee sin by running away from God. That only leads to more sin. If you want to escape sin’s grasp, you must flee to God. And it’s not enough to say, “I have sinned against the Lord.” A true confession is with the heart as well as the lips; otherwise, you’re just babbling (Augustine, Homilies on John’s Gospel, 26.2). And we know David’s confession is a true confession; Nathan proclaims God’s pardon at once: “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Now. At once. In this very moment, you are forgiven.
Each week, before we celebrate Eucharist, we confess our sins before God and one another. It is a corporate confession, because even if some of us have had a pretty good week this week, we approach the table as a people who live in a world still tainted unavoidably by sin. Corporate confession is not a substitute for individual confession, though, which can happen any time between one member of the body of Christ and another.
We confess our sins each week because Paul warns us in 1 Corinthians 11 not to eat or drink in an unworthy manner at the Lord’s supper. We confess because the author of 1 John says in chapter 1 that “if we say we have no sin, then we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” and we do not want to approach this meal as deceivers. But above all we confess our sins because we believe that God will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1), because like David we know that if we flee from our sins to the Lord, we will find mercy, and a clean heart, and the joy of God’s salvation (Psalm 51).
Sin is death, and a life of fleeing sin without Jesus is a life of spiraling death, which is no life at all. Jesus is the Bread of Life. We give thanks, we celebrate Eucharist, that when we confess our sins, instead of punishment we receive grace: the gift of life that we find given to us in the bread and the cup. And when we leave the table to go back into the world, we find ourselves no longer death-bound but rather heaven-sent, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to love as we have been loved, to show grace with the same measure which we have received: unlimited, unending, unfailing, and unimaginable. Let us flee to God, and let us give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his steadfast love endures forever.