Following on from my first sermon, here’s the next in the series.
Holy Communion 2
Friends, its a privilege for me once again to be here and speaking to you. Many of you will remember that a month ago we began a series looking at the Holy Communion service where were looking to understand what it is were doing together so that we might know how to make better use of it.
Allow me just to very briefly recap what we learned. If youll recall we saw that the service is built around 3 cycles, each one containing three elements.
1. Sin acknowledged
2. Grace announced
3. Faith exercised in response.
1. Sin acknowledged
2. Grace announced
3. Faith exercised in response.
Having seen that we followed the first cycle through its main course.
Sin acknowledged as the Law was read to us and we responded with the Kyrie Lord have mercy. That, of course, is the only proper response to understanding our sin. We dont resolve to try harder as though we can somehow pull ourselves up by our shoelaces to the point where we are pleasing to God. No, on the contrary, a right understanding of our sin leads us to cry out for mercy. Youll remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector which Jesus told its the tax collector who says God have mercy upon me, a sinner who goes away right with God and so we, too, say, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.
From sin acknowledged we moved to Grace announced. And here we saw that Cranmer had insisted that the Communion service be a feast of scripture. So we have the Old Testament, the New Testament and a further gospel reading read to us so that we might hear from the whole scriptures of Gods mercy in Jesus Christ.
And then we responded in faith in both the words of the Creed – where we acknowledge the truth about God and what he has done to bring his people into right relationship with himself and then we pray. We ask God to do what we cannot possibly do ourselves.
Asking God to do what we cannot possibly do ourselves is, of course, the heart of faith. It is the empty hand which claims nothing of itself but everything of God. To pray is to act in faith, for faith is nothing more than trust.And trusting God, for the Christian, is everything.
So that was the first cycle. I want to turn now to the second cycle.
It has to be acknowledged that the prayer books that were using here have moved slightly from the structure laid out in the Book of Common Prayer. Whether thats a good or bad thing remains to be seen I actually think its a little bit of both.
At this point in the 1662 service book we come to what is known as the exhortations. Although they come at that point in the service book theyre actually for use some time before the service. Perhaps a week or two beforehand. They were a call to those who were going to take communion to be serious about it. Or, instead, if the priest thought that there were those who would be negligent and not take communion, there was an alternate exhortation to encourage them to participate.
But whats interesting about these exhortations is that they assume that Communion will be celebrated far less frequently than our weekly service. Indeed, Cranmer was so wary of the danger of Communion being undervalued that he thought it best that it be had perhaps 2 or 3 times a year. Which is, of course, where we partly get the tradition amongst Anglo-Saxons of Communion at Easter and Christmas since those were days when it was guaranteed that there would be Communion.
What Cranmer was reacting against, of course, was the weekly (and even more regular) Roman Mass which was done as a routine. Worse still, it was in a foreign language so that those who participated didnt really understand what was being done anyway. Those 2 factors together bred nothing but superstition, a piety that had little to do with simple trust in Christ and far more with all the wrong forms of ritualism.
Of course, its far too easy for us to look on from a distance at that sort of thing and criticize it, far more difficult for us to recognize the same tendencies in our own habits. So, as we consider the exhortation we need to ask ourselves whetherCommunion has also become habitual for us? Thats a question we all need to answer for ourselves, let me just make one observation before moving on though and it is this: the movement away from a weekly communion is not necessarily an devaluing of the Communion it may very well be a way of making it more valued. I suspect if I had a free reign I might be persuaded to move to have Communion once a month. Perhaps youre glad I dont have free reign! Whatever position we take, lets make sure that we take what we do at Communion seriously.
So, having set out the invitational exhortations the 1662 service then moved towards the second cycle of sin, grace and faith with a further exhortation which our blue prayer book still has. Let me read that to you now because it sets out quite clearly a proper understanding of what we are about to do.
Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, andwalking from henceforth in his holy ways, Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to almighty God.
The first thing to notice is that we have a repetition of a theme thats first been touched upon in the original cycle. When the prayer reads earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours its a rephrasing of the 2 great commandments, Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbour as yourself.
So whats happeninghere is a call to get our lives straight before we approach the Communion Table. Before we even approach the Table we must repent of our sins, that is to say that we must set straight the problem that we have not loved God with all of our lives. And we must be in love and charity with our neighbours that is to say we must set straight the problem that we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves.
What that means, I think, is that (if you like) the confession and absolution which are to follow are where the main action of the whole Communion Service are centred. Let me say that again for it is vital that we understand in correctly. The confession and absolution which follow on from this invitation are the central part of the whole Communion Service for this is the moment where we are set right with God.
We must get this right for it will save us from a vast amount of confusion and misunderstanding. It will save us from doing the very thing which the whole service is intent to protect against, it will save us from the wrong form of piety.
So what are these 2 prayers that are so central to the communion service? The confession and absolution.
We have different confessions in the blue and yellow service books but they follow much the same pattern. The blue book follows the 1662 far more closely.
ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The key phrase there is at the end Have mercy upon us for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christs sake. Forgive us all that is past.
That is the central moment of the whole service. That is where we are on our knees appealing to God for mercy on no other basis than what Jesus Christ has done for us. He is our only means to being right with God and that sentence, Have mercy upon us for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christs sake. Forgive us all that is past is the very core of theChristian faith. That is the moment when business is done with God. It is that moment, not the distribution of the bread and wine, that is the highest mountain peak of the whole service.
And we simply must understand it or we will, I fear, misunderstand the Christian life. For the Christian life is, as we have already seen, simple trust in Jesus Christ. It is, ultimately, nothing more and nothing less for there is nothing more that we could do to please God than trust Jesus and God has done nothing less than give His very Son in our place.
And, since this is the very centre of the whole service that is why the bishop, is he is present, will stand to give the absolution. This is the only part of the service where the bishop acts. Throughout the rest of it Cranmer was quite happy to have the priest presiding. But the absolution is the bishops job if he is present.
So what is so profound about the absolution that the bishop should be called in to draw attention to it? Well, lets look at it together.
ALMIGHTYGod, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all them that with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It is, simply put, the gospel. God the heavenly Father promises forgiveness of sins to anyone who turns with real repentance and a true faith, a true trust.
Thats it. And at this stage in the service, of course, we know that this is the case for we have already had the first cycle with its reminder of our sin and our inadequacy. We have had the scriptures read to us which hold out Jesus to us. And we have been reminded in the exhortation that all we need is to draw near with faith.
It is not, of course, that a priest or even a bishop is needed in order to absolve. On the contrary, the priest or bishop denies that conclusion by the very words that he reads out, both in this absolution and in the comfortable words which follow. No, it is just that a priests job is to point others towards Jesus and to also assure them when they trust him.
The prayer book then turns to the comfortable words. At this point youll probably notice that one of our own prayer books has them before the confession and absolution, not after as the 1662 does. When they come before they act more as an invitation, they invite a right confession. When they come after they provide a ready assurance that a confession made sincerely will always receive the right response from God. He is faithful to his promises.
So lets look at those comfortable words. These are words that should bring comfort. Lets hear them.
Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him
COMEunto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matth. xi. 28.
The 1662 draws from the King James translation. A better rendering might be, come to me all that are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. The King James loses, to my mind, the key notion of rest. The word here is the same that the greek version of the Old Testament uses for Sabbath rest, rest with God. So the implication here is not just that Jesus provides an oasis of calm in a busy world but much more that he provides a right relationship with God for the man or woman who longs for it, who is burdened by the impossibility of being right with God. I dont know about you but that is wonderful news.
Next we have a very famous verse,
So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. St. John iii. 16
Of course, the implication is clear. Those that do not believe in the Son, those that dont trust him will perish but those that turn to Him will have everlasting life. So, if you confess with sincerity then you have everlasting life.
But Cranmer wants us to have more. It strikes me as one of those all-you-can-eat buffets. You know the sort they give you a plate and let you go back as many times as you want! This is like that, Cranmer keeps taking us back to the table of Gods promises and encouraging us to fill up.
Hear also what Saint Paul saith
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Once again, a clear message. Whats interesting about this one is that it calls us to a right reckoning of ourselves. If these are comfortable words then they are comfortable for only one sort of person the sinners that Jesus Christ came from. Once again, its only when we understand that we belong to this category that these words will be of any comfort to us.
Finally, Cranmer takes us to one more piece of scripture.
If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins. 1 St. John ii. 1.
This time the language is that of the law court. Jesus is now presented as our advocate, our defence lawyer in the court of God a court where we are undoubtedly guilty. But now we have Jesus to plead on our behalf. But more than that, he represents us by propitiating for our sins. He is not just our lawyer but our sacrifice, slain so that we might not bear Gods punishment.
That is, I think, the best place to stop. Not at the end of the second cycle but in the middle.
Lets just think over what weve seen this morning. If you remember one thing please let it be this the confession and absolution are the high point of the service. The rest of the service points towards them. The reading of the Law, the Kyrie, then the reading of the scriptures, the creed, even our prayers they all point to our complete dependence upon God and his mercy in Jesus Christ. Following on from the confession, as well see in future sermons, everything points back to this.
And why? Well, because the confession is the whole gospel crystallised. It is the one moment where we actually lay claim to the promises of God. We dont see our need for them as the reading of the law does, we point to them as the scripture readings do, we dont declare them as the creed does, we dont give thanks for them as we will see the communion itself does. No, although those are all wonderful moments it is this moment where we dont just talk about the promises of God but we actually lay hold of them that surely mustbe the centre of the service for the confident confession of sins, confident because we know the promises of God in Jesus, is the very heart of the Christian faith.
Pray with me this morning that we would ultimately not seek God in any other place.