Thursday, May 02, 2013

preparing to encounter God


At Grace UMC we receive communion once a month, on the first Sunday of each month (plus the occasional special service, like Holy Thursday). Compared to some churches, this is pretty infrequent, but compared to my experience growing up, where we might celebrate the Lord's Supper three or four times a year, once a month is treasure for which I'm so thankful.

I'm thankful because I find communion to be a powerful, life-giving experience. I'm thankful because I believe something truly miraculous happens at the Lord's table: we encounter Jesus Christ--"this is my body" means that is his body, and "this is my blood" means that is his blood. There's nothing magic about the service or the words I say there, but when I pray for the Holy Spirit to touch the bread and the cup to "make them be for us the body and blood of Christ," the Spirit uses that time and those elements to connect us to Jesus.

I could spill a lot of digital ink here over why I believe these things and what exactly they mean, but that's not my aim right now. Instead, I have a question for those of us who will be kneeling this Sunday morning with our hands out to receive a piece of bread. If this moment and this sacrament uniquely and powerfully connect us to Jesus through the Holy Spirit, how are we going to prepare for this?

Thomas a' Kempis, in his classic devotional book, The Imitation of Christ, forces his readers to face this question. Jesus invites us, sinners, weary and burdened, to come to him (Matt 11:28). Jesus instituted the practice of communion at the Last Supper so that we could have an established means of drawing near to him and encountering him--he didn't leave us without a way to find him. At this table, we find grace, our souls are restored, and "the beauty destroyed by sin returns again"! And yet, how do we prepare ourselves to receive this gift?

Moses, he points out, made the Ark of the Covenant "out of imperishable wood, overlaying it with the purest gold," to place the two tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments, inside. "Then how shall I, a corrupt and perishable creature, dare so lightly to receive the Maker of the Law and the Giver of life" at communion?
King Solomon spent seven years building "a resplendent temple, for the worship of Your Name, the dedication of which was celebrated for eight days; a thousand peace offerings were sacrificed - and with great solemnity and rejoicing - and accompanied by the sound of trumpets." And yet I, he goes on, who can barely devote myself to you for half an hour, shall I invite your very presence at the altar?
"O my God, how much did those great persons of the Old Testament do to please You! How little I do and how short is the time I give to prepare myself for the reception of Holy Communion!"

How are you going to prepare yourself for Holy Communion this Sunday?
Maybe you should take some time to pray that God would "cleanse the thoughts of our hearts" for an encounter with Jesus.
Maybe you could read over the story of Christ's execution in one of the gospels, to remember the cost he paid with his body and blood so that we could be saved.
Or maybe you could just use some time of quiet, to let the voices in your mind fall silent and let the distractions fade away, so that you can focus and appreciate what's happening at that table and that kneeling rail.

Whatever you need to do, just do it. This week, let's try to honor God with some fore-thought and some preparation. You just might find that all of your hurried experiences of grace at communion were only the tip of the iceberg.

But.

As important as preparation is, and as seriously as we ought to take it, we can't forget that the Lord's table is first and foremost place of grace--and that means you don't have to earn a spot at it.
a' Kempis makes the point powerfully in an imaginative dialogue between Jesus and a follower of Christ. "You must realize," Jesus says, "that you cannot make adequate preparation for Me through your own merits, even if you prepared yourself for an entire year with your mind on nothing else. It is through My generosity and grace that you are allowed to approach my table."
Because we only come to the table by Christ's generosity and grace, he can say: "Do the best you can and as well as you can... I am He Who has invited you, and I have commanded this Sacrament to be; therefore, I will make up for whatever is lacking in you. Come, then, and receive Me."

Prepare yourself to come to the table. But remember, we approach by grace, so however unprepared or unworthy you feel, Jesus welcomes you still. He'll make up for whatever we lack.

So let's come, then, and receive him.

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