We are now in week two of our sermon series, Eucharist. Eucharist is a name for the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, or holy communion. It comes from the Greek word eucharisto, which means, “I give thanks.” And even though we usually call this sacred meal holy communion at Centre, each week we also celebrate Eucharist through the central prayer of the Great Thanksgiving. And each week this month we are discussing different aspects of and various ways God addresses us through this holy mystery. The series itself was sparked by words from Jesus in John 6, which we heard last week and again this morning in the 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.”
Last week we began with confession and pardon. We should not approach the bread and cup without first making true confession: not only saying words with our lips, but affirming them with our hearts. We make our confession trusting in the mercy of Almighty God, and we receive the grace of pardon in the forgiveness of sins, a mercy that should radically transform how we live as the body of Christ with each other and in the world. In the story of David and Nathan, we heard about a king confronted by a prophet with his adultery and murder: “You are the man, David,” Nathan proclaims. A judgment is issued for David’s sins: trouble within his household, public humiliation, and defeat by his enemies. David is crushed, not by the just wrath of God but by the weight of his offenses. He confesses his sin with honest repentance, and Nathan proclaims the forgiveness of the Lord: “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
There’s a joyous immediacy to this declaration of forgiveness, an instant reason to celebrate and give thanks. David doesn’t perform any ritual sacrifices or other acts of contrition. He confesses, and at once he receives God’s pardon. And this quick cycle plays itself out in our own worship every week. We pray the prayer of confession together, declare God’s forgiveness, and the next thing you know, everyone’s shaking hands passing the peace of Christ, and then it’s off to the celebration of Eucharist with the Great Thanksgiving.
The problem here is that repeating this rapid-fire succession of confession and pardon week in and week out can lull us into false ideas about how easy God’s forgiveness really is. We need to be careful that we are not perpetrating what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Cheap grace is forgiveness without transformation, sin without consequence, love without sacrifice. The opposite of cheap grace is not, as some might fear, works righteousness, as if we could earn our way to forgiveness or force a claim on God to release us from our sins. The opposite of cheap grace is costly grace, a real gift that requires much of both the one who gives and the one who receives. Cheap grace tells us that we’re all okay, that our offense didn’t really matter in the first place, and that we can basically keep doing what we’ve always done, only maybe now with a little better attitude about life, a more optimistic outlook, and a cheerier disposition.
Costly grace liberates us from sin’s grasp while looking unflinchingly at the real consequences of our sinful deeds. Several weeks ago, after the Charleston shooting, prominent activists and thinkers questioned whether people at Mother Emanuel had been too quick to offer forgiveness to Dylann Roof. Many people no doubt heard these questions as a way of saying Roof shouldn’t be forgiven at all, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was whether forgiveness offered so quickly in this case amounted to cheap grace. And the response from Mother Emanuel and elsewhere was to say, “We’re not offering anyone cheap grace. The consequences of his sin cannot be undone in this life, but as followers of Jesus we can only begin to wrestle with them if we start with the costly grace of forgiveness.” And they proved their point by helping facilitate the removal from the grounds of the legislature of the Confederate battle flag, one of the great insignias of hatred in our world today.
King David learns all about costly grace in our Old Testament lesson this morning. David has received God’s forgiveness, but the consequences of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba have already been unleashed, and they cannot be contained. Civil war among David’s children and supporters in Israel breaks out, and this morning we hear words of great agony: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Few words of Scripture or anywhere rival David’s lamentation in despair, anguish, and unbearable grief. It is a cry that far too many mothers and fathers have made from the depths of their souls.
The way of our Lord is not to throw down a protective barrier around the consequences of sin, so that we can take a scenic detour along an easier path. His way is to steer through the disaster, to take on the damage, to ride through sin’s effects to the other side. God rescues David from his sin through pardon and forgiveness, but the forces David’s sin unleashes cannot be swept aside with the flick of the hand of God. These forces propel David’s family into chaos that causes unspeakable harm, including the death of his son Absalom. Eventually the kingdom of Israel itself splits into Israel and Judah, north and south, in part because of David’s sin. And the power of his sin, and of the sin of the whole world, leads inexorably down the line of his heritage toward great David’s greater son, Jesus.
So when we hear from Jesus in John 6 that no one can come to him, can eat of the bread of life, unless drawn by the Father, we must understand that Jesus does not mean that God the Father hand-selects each person deemed worthy to commune with Christ. What the Father uses to draw us is Love, Love that goes ahead of us in the person of the Holy Spirit, that speaks to our hearts’ deepest desires, that whets our appetites for true bread and true drink. It is Love that has flesh and bones, the body of a real human being, the body of Jesus Christ, an embodied Love that is every bit as real as you and I—in fact, even more so.
And the Love with which the Father draws us to Christ is no cheap love. It is Love that knows full-on the consequences of human sin. It is Love that aches to its very core in the overwhelming tide of chaos and evil. It is Love whose body has been ravaged, beaten, torn, nailed, and pierced by human hands. It is Love who cries out to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And it is Love, we must imagine, who responds, “O Jesus, my son, my son Jesus! Would I had died instead of you, o Jesus, my son, my son.”
Among many things, the Eucharist is a sacrifice. This is an aspect many people, perhaps some of you, would prefer to forget. But each week in the midst of our prayer of Great Thanksgiving we bring to bear the memory of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and we offer ourselves “as a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us.” There is no cheap love at this table, no love that is not wrapped up in sin-caused death, no love that does not also require us to put to death our sinful selves.
Charles Wesley never forgot this. I’ve been reading over his Hymns on the Lord’s Supper this month, and one thing you cannot avoid is how frequently he refers to Christ’s death in these 166 hymns on the Eucharist. At one point he writes:
Sinners, see, he dies for all
And feel his mortal wound,
Prostrate on your faces fall,
And kiss the hallow’d ground;
Hallow’d by the streaming blood,
Blood, whose virtue all may know,
Sharers with the dying God,
And crucified below.
Love’s wounds draw us to Love’s feast. We cannot come to Christ, we cannot eat of the Bread of Life and drink from the cup of salvation unless we have been drawn by the Father, who beckons us to the table not with force or with objects beautiful and lovely to see, but with love’s wounds. And we who respond receive Love’s greatest gift and maybe learn to say, “O Jesus, Jesus, precious Savior; o Jesus, my Jesus, would that I had died instead of you, o my Savior, o my Love, o my God!”