Third Sunday of Epiphany (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, January 15, and Sunday, January 16, 2005
The school bell rings. Class dismissed. There’s the hurried shuffle of feet, backpacks, and chairs. There’s the flurry of voices, activity, and the door swinging open. Faster than a Corvette can go from 0 to 60, the classroom is empty. Class dismissed.
The whistle sounds at the factory. Shift over. There’s the sound of machines stopping and tools laid down. There’s the flurry of putting on jackets as you’re grabbing your lunchbox as you’re getting in line for the time clock. The time clock punches out those workers as fast as it can. The parking lot is spinning tires, idling engines, zooming into traffic. Shift over.
That’s the kind of image we get when we think of being dismissed. So then maybe it sounds a little odd to think of being dismissed from communion, from the Lord’s Supper. The words that Pastor Miller or I say to each group at the communion rail before you return to your seats, that’s called the dismissal. “Now may this body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in the true faith until life everlasting. Depart in peace. Amen.”
Thankfully after we say those words, after we say this dismissal, there’s not the same kind of rush for the door like in a classroom. Thankfully, there’s not the sound of punching out on the time clock and revving the engine as you peel out of the parking lot. Thankfully those words, that kind of dismissal doesn’t make you run out of church, but what should happen? When you hear those words, what should you think about, what should you do, how should you react?
Let me start by telling you about what I’m trying to think about when I say those words to you. I mean, I’ll admit it that just as you might be distracted by thinking about returning the empty cup to the tray, finding your pew again, seeing someone you haven’t seen in awhile as you pass by their pew, I’ll admit it too that sometimes I’m thinking about the wrong things during the dismissal. But what I’m trying to think about is what I hear Paul saying in 1 Corinthians, the reading for today from the first chapter, verses 8 and 9: “[God] will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”
The words that the church has used for dismissing people from the communion rail are very similar, possibly even directly based on what Paul says here in 1 Corinthians. At communion, we say, “Now may the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in the true faith,” just as Paul declares that “God will keep you strong.” At communion, we are asking God to strengthen you in the faith “until life everlasting,” just as Paul talks about God keeping you “strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, keep you strong until Jesus returns to bring us to eternal life.
And those are the things that I’m trying to think about when I dismiss you from the communion rail—may God keep you strong to the end. As I look at each of you at the rail, I think about how those words are a prayer, a blessing for each of you. “Now may the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and keep you in the true faith until life everlasting. Go in peace. Amen.”
When I say, “Now may the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ,” I think: you, dear people, children of God, have received the very body and blood of Jesus. This isn’t just about bread and wine; this isn’t something that we can laugh about and say that it’s “Styrofoam and alcohol.” This is truly the body and blood of Jesus given to us for the forgiveness of sins.
It’s then that I remember some of your sins that I know, that I can see, the sins that we’ve talked about in the privacy of my office, the struggles with sin that you’ve shared in a Bible study, the sins that I see in your life but we haven’t talked about. I think about your sins, and I hope and pray that you’re seeing how the Lord’s Supper, the body and blood of Christ are given to you for the forgiveness of those sins. I hope and pray that you’ll see how this body and blood are given to you to remove your guilt.
I think: these sinners are eating and drinking from the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God who is sacrificed for us on the cross. When I say, “Now may the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ,” I think: you, dear people, have just received a truly incredible, gracious, and divine gift from God. Your sins are covered in the blood of Jesus.
As I look at each person at the rail, I continue, saying, “strengthen and preserve you [or keep you] in the true faith.” I think about how difficult it is for us to remain strong in the faith. I think about how you, dear people, face so many difficulties, so many challenges. I remember your sicknesses and losses, your fears and worries. I remember your successes and joys, the things that are gifts in your life but the things that could easily lead you away from your faith. I remember your defeats and pains, the things that have troubled you that could easily strip away your confidence in God.
And then I think: yes, Lord, keep them strong. Keep them in the faith. They need your Holy Spirit in their hearts to keep believing. They need your Word to keep reminding them of what they believe, of the great and precious gift of salvation that is ours through Jesus Christ.
Then I come to the part that has become such a strong prayer in my heart for each of you: “until life everlasting.” I pray with those words, I say to God in my heart: “Yes, Lord, please keep them in the faith. I want to see them all in eternal life. I want to rejoice to see them before your throne forever.”
It’s at that moment during the dismissal that I imagine seeing you in eternal life and being so overjoyed, remembering how you knelt at the communion rail, remembering that it was God who kept you strong until the end, strong in the faith until eternal life. That’s such a strong image in my mind during the dismissal—hoping and praying to see us all together in eternal life, eating and drinking together at the eternal feast of Christ.
Finally, we come to the part that sounds like the school bell, the whistle at the factory: “Depart in peace.” Maybe you just think of it as the signal for you to get up and follow the line back to your seat. As much as it is the last thing said, meaning it’s time to leave the communion rail and return to your pew, really there’s a lot more in that phrase: “Depart in peace,” “Go in peace.”
When I say those words, I think: You, dear people, go from this altar, go from this sanctuary today with the peace of God in your hearts. You have received forgiveness of your sins. You have received God’s strength for your faith. You have received God’s promise that He will keep His Holy Spirit working in your heart. The gifts that God has given you today in the Lord’s Supper are gifts that will give you peace.
When I say those words, though, I also think: “You, dear people, depart from this life in peace. You may die in peace when you die in the faith.” When I say, “Depart in peace,” it’s not like I’m wishing that you’d die. Nothing could be farther from the truth; I actually pray that you’ll go into the world with the peace of Christ and share that peace with others for as many days as God allows. But when I say, “Depart in peace,” I do pray that God will keep you strong in your faith, so that your death will bring peace, the peace of everlasting life. The Lord’s Supper is just one way that God is working in your life to make sure that you will depart from this life in peace, depart from this life with the promise of everlasting life instead of everlasting death, depart from this life with the joy and bliss of life with God forever.
Now, like I said, I’m just as easily distracted as the next person. If you’re uncomfortable with me admitting this, then I guess you’ve got the wrong idea of who a pastor is. I ain’t no perfect person; I can’t keep myself focused on God any better than the next person. I mean, to be perfectly honest, one of my biggest hang-ups or fears while serving communion is that you’ll be upset if it is taking too long. I know that I really can’t go any faster—and that’s not what it’s about anyway—but still I think about it. I know that it is extremely important for us to take this time to receive the body and blood of Christ, to receive God’s forgiveness, that’s more important than the service lasting five extra minutes—but still I think about it. I worry about it. I worry that you’ll be upset that I took too long to serve communion.
You see, I’m easily distracted. I’m committed to serving God, but my sins trip me up just as much as the next person. Which is why I don’t want you thinking about me, about Pastor Miller, about who is saying these words out loud. These are words of truth because they are words of God. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t get it’s power from the pastors; it doesn’t have to do anything with me.
God uses me as a servant, like a waiter who reads the specials on the menu and brings the meal to the table. God uses me as a servant to read His Word: “He took the bread, broke it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take eat, this is My body.’…He gave them the cup and said, ‘Take drink, this is My blood.’” God uses me as a servant to deliver the meal, the bread and wine, the body and blood.
I didn’t make this meal; I don’t give this meal its power. And even though I am a sinner, a poor, miserable sinner, a sorry excuse for a child of God, a messed up, no good, son of a gun, even so, the Lord’s Supper remains unchanged. It’s still the body and blood of Jesus; it still brings you the forgiveness of sins. It has its power from the Lord, and only the Lord.
So I’m sorry that I get distracted. I’m sorry that I don’t always think about all of those things I said earlier—that during the dismissal I try to concentrate on the words, thinking and praying for each of you, that God will give you strength and peace. I’m sorry, though, that I have to admit that I get distracted. What I want you to remember, though, is that even when I get distracted, even when I fumble over the words, even then, the Lord’s Supper and the blessings of the dismissal still come from God with all of His power.
But perhaps you’re not as worried about me being distracted as you are worried about yourself being distracted. Does God still give you the forgiveness of sins if you got distracted during the Lord’s Supper, if you started giggling with a friend, if you were chewing on gum forgetting that you’re at God’s altar? Thankfully, yes, God still gives you the forgiveness of sins, the body and blood of Jesus, even when you get distracted. The power of the Lord’s Supper doesn’t depend on the pastors, and it also doesn’t depend on you.
If you come to the Lord’s Supper not believing that you’re a sinner or not believing that it is the body and blood of Christ or not believing that the Lord’s Supper has power, then you are in danger. You’re rejecting the gift God is giving you.
But that’s different than coming to the Lord’s Supper, believing in God’s Word, believing you need forgiveness, believing that you receive the body and blood of Christ, believing that this is a most wonderful gift—but then getting distracted, letting your mind wander. That’s a symptom of sin, the very difficulty we all have of remaining focused on God, remaining focused on our faith. That’s not a complete rejection of the Lord’s Supper; that’s the kind of thing that the Lord’s Supper comes to forgive, comes to give us strength against. The Lord knows we become easily distracted, and so He comes to “keep us strong to the end.” The strength comes from the Lord, not from ourselves.
So if you do catch yourself thinking of the dismissal from the Lord’s Supper as being sort of like a school bell or a whistle at the factory, a dismissal that sends you running for the doors, a dismissal that means you’re done, don’t beat yourself up for it. Realize that you get distracted, and then perhaps now it will help to know the blessing in the dismissal. If you get distracted, thinking about other things, then focus in again on what the words of the dismissal mean.
As you hear those words, and then as you walk back to your seat, think again about what it means to be dismissed from the communion rail. You just received the body and blood of Jesus—a mysterious, incredible, divine gift, all because God wants to forgive your sins. You just received strength for your faith, so that God will keep you strong to the end, strong until eternal life. You just received peace in your heart—peace for right now, peace for eternity.
And as you walk back, behind someone and in front of someone else, walking past many of the other people here in the sanctuary, you can know that they received the same things too—the body and blood of Christ, forgiveness, strength of faith, and peace. You can pray and hope to see them in eternal life. You can imagine rejoicing to see them, remembering how you knelt together at the communion rail and how God kept His Word, kept you in the faith until life everlasting.
May I think of these things today as I dismiss you from the communion rail. May we all think of these things today as we rejoice in the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life that God has given us.