David A. Davis
October 4, 2020
At the conclusion of worship last week, after Michael finished the prelude and the livestream broadcast was finished, the few of us in the room started to work to rearrange the chancel for the livestream interview with Jim McCloskey that was to begin in just a few minutes. It is very odd for me to not walk down the aisle after the benediction and head to the front door and wait for you to come out. So I went to the office, dropped off my robe, and came right back in here. At that point one of the five people in the sanctuary said something to me that I have heard over and over and over at the church door through the years. “Dave, it felt like you were preaching just to me this morning!” Now, usually when I someone says that they are referring to something in the content of the sermon that touched their heart or was spot on timely for their soul. My response is usually to say something about the work of the Holy Spirit. Of course, last Sunday, it was said more in a joking way. It allowed all of us to sigh a bit about the strange experience of being the only few in the room. The pews are empty but I don’t need the cut out photographs or virtual screen shots of faces like they are using at sporting events. I see you faces because I know where you sit in here!
“Preaching just to me.” More than a few people have written to me over these months who, while saying it differently, have described the surprising intimacy of virtual worship. Folks have sent screen shots of me preaching in their home. Some of the shots of me on your larger screens are a bit unsettling. Others have told of how meaningful it is to hear and experience the word just between the preacher and you. Everyone knows exactly what we have been missing. For me to name all of that makes us it even more. But worship paired down, worship in your home, worship “unplugged”, worship just me, just us and you? Some, of course not all, but some, have found an unexpected intimacy too it.
In the third chapter of Philippians, the Apostle Paul describes his encounter, his relationship, his longing for Christ with language that connotes a kind of intimacy. All of his accomplishments, his power, his privilege, his status he regards as nothing when compared to his life in Christ. Nothing when compared to what Paul describes in Romans as “putting on Christ”. Everything else, when compared to life in Christ is “rubbish”. The word in Greek is stronger than that. The King James translates the word as “dung”. So we will just leave it there. The rest of life falls away, for Paul, as he is drawn into Christ. “I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ….I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection….I press on because Christ Jesus has made me his own…I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call in Christ Jesus.” Paul and his intimate relationship with Christ Jesus. Intimate is not too strong of a word.
In the sermon last week I described the Epistle to the Philippians as Paul writing to congregation that was experiencing persecution to them and opposition to the gospel itself. A congregation trying to be the church of Jesus Christ in a world that was pretty much antithetical to everything he taught. Here in the third chapter, arguably the very core of the letter, Paul urges the Christians in Philippi amid all the chaos to draw near, to refocus, to cling to Christ himself. For some, Paul describing his intimate relationship with Christ Jesus is interpreted as another example of his self-centered, look at me, style of writing. But one could hold to the interpretation that Paul is pleading with the followers of Jesus to realize the importance and the essence of life in Christ, especially in turbulent times.
“Only let us hold fast to what we have attained, Paul writes. “Hold fast to what we have attained.” “Hold fast”. Most translations, most commentators, most preachers take this “holding fast” in the direction of a plea to continuing to live the life of discipleship. An exhortation to the community of faith to live up to the expectations for the Body of Christ. Paul’s call for the Philippians to live in a manner consistent with the gospel of Christ received and passed on. But I hear it a bit differently these days. “Hold fast”. In the head and heart spinning days we are experiencing, these words of Paul are less about a clarion call to keep the faith and more a gracious, love-filled invitation to cling to Jesus Christ and him alone. Hold fast to Christ because he has made you his own. Hold fast to the prize of the heavenly call in Jesus Christ. Hold fast to him who forever holds fast to you.
The Book of Revelation includes seven letters to churches. Perhaps one could describe them as letters to the church living in apocalyptic times. The letter to the church in Ephesus includes the indictment that the church had “abandoned the love you had at first.” (Rev 2:4) Or as the King James puts it, “you have forgotten your first love.” Yes, it is an exhortation for the church to turn back to a Christ centered life of faithful discipleship where their works of love can be a light to the world. But that first love, that love they had a first, is their love for Christ. Two of the seven letters to the churches in the Revelation to John include these words, “hold fast to what you have.” (Rev 2:25, 3:11) Hold fast. Hold on. Hold tight the love you had a first. Your love for the one who first loved us.
I spent three days in a virtual meeting this week with national committee of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I have been elected and now serve on the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. At the beginning of each of the sessions, the members and staff took turns sharing memories and stories of their baptisms. Many, like me, were baptized as infants and so any sharing was dependent on pictures, certificates, and family stories. But a surprising number of folks were not born into the Presbyterian Church and therefore could give a first person account. Several told of their baptism by immersion. One man told of his baptism in the rural south in a Baptist church at the age of 11 or 12. Noting that no one back then in his town was taught how to swim, there was a genuine fear and a real need for trust when the pastor held his nose, and dropped him back in the water of the baptistry. “I will never forget that physical sensation of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ.”
I learned a long time ago that one of the theological themes of baptism is dying and rising to Christ. I have also preached and taught that the action of baptism by immersion emphasizes dying and rising while the action of infant baptism highlights the grace of God that pours out on us as we can do nothing to ask for it or deserve it. But I realized last week that I had never heard a first-person account from someone immersed at baptism; especially one for whom that action had lasting impact on his relationship with Jesus Christ.
Like baptism, our celebration of the Lord’s Supper has several theological fenceposts, several themes, a cloud of meaning. When we gather at this Table at any particular time, one of those themes can come to the fore. The easiest to mention is a Holy Thursday communion service when the sacramental actions all point to remembering Jesus’ suffering and death. Perhaps a Lenten small group or home communion celebration is an action that highlights the Table fellowship of the holy meal shared together as children of God. One could lift up that same theme at a service here in the sanctuary as we sing together while the elements are shared. “Let us break bread together on our knees, on our knees.” If a soloist was singing “Spirit of the Living God, fall a fresh on me”, a person feasting on bread or drinking the cup could find themselves reminded of how the Holy Spirit falls on us in the taking, and the breaking, and the passing, and the sharing.
In just a moment, we will share in a communion meal so different from how we have experienced it for pretty much our entire faith journey. Well, at least until Holy Thursday last April. When the sacramental action is just me here and you there, you in your home, there is a theological theme that can shine forth in a way, maybe like neve before. Usually the word communion for Presbyterians connotes a meal we share with one other. But before this Table is communion with one another, it is communion with Christ, and him alone. And when I am here, and you are there, taste and see that Lord is good. That Christ is for you. That Jesus loves you. For this morning when we share this meal, we are bound by the Holy Spirit, but when you take and eat, this is my body broken for you, when you take the cup and sip of the new covenant for the forgiveness of sins, it is just you and him. An intimate meal for an intimate relationship.
Hold fast to that. Hold fast to him. When your head and your heart is spinning at the pace of all that keeps happening, hold fast. When you wake up in the middle of the night and worry keeps any more sleep away, hold fast. When your prayer list is too long for one sitting, take a deep breath and tell yourself to hold fast. When there is joy in the family to celebrate, but the celebration comes at distance, let that joy linger deep and help you to hold fast. When your spouse or your parent or a really good friend is in the hospital and a phone call or Facetime is all you have, hold fast. When a morning walk at the breaking of a cool day allows the changing season to remind you that the creation and the world and yes, even today, belong to God, hold fast. When any signs of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom are nowhere in sight, hold fast. When you find yourself wondering where God is, or what God is up to, or whether God even seems to care about what feels so apocalyptic in the world, in our lives, hold fast. When you take and eat, when you take and drink, hold fast.
Because sometimes a communion meal is just you and him. And because sometimes, it feels like God’s love for you in Christ Jesus is all you have to hold onto.
Take, and eat. And my prayer for all you, is that you will never forget the physical sensation of a sacramental action of God’s unending, unconditional, sacrificial, heart filling, head calming love for you.