The Language of Grace
Luke 4: 21-30
A Communion Meditation by Thomas R. McKibbens
February 3, 2019
If you have ever been fascinated, or even a little curious, about the relevance of Jesus in our world, the story we read today will intrigue you. Jesus is preaching in his hometown, and at the beginning of the story, it says that they were amazed at the gracious words that came out of his mouth. But by the time he finished his sermon these same people were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
What in the world could have made these people so angry? They had known him since childhood. They had watched him grow up among them. They were friends with his parents. And now they want to throw him off a cliff!
The truth is that when you read this story closely Jesus appears to be picking a fight with his own people! He started out with gracious introductory remarks. I can hear them now: “It’s so nice to be back with you, to see old friends and reminisce about times past. It is wonderful to feel at home!” And, of course, they eat it up. They think he is the cat’s meow. They have never heard better! “Gee! What gracious words! That’s our boy! I used to teach him in Sabbath School, for heaven’s sake!” Jesus could have left it there. He could have stroked their egos and reminded them how much they meant to him as he grew up.
But he doesn’t. After a few nice, soothing, glad-to-be-home kind of words, he begins by telling them what they are thinking! Doubtless, you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” Then he describes himself as a prophet and his listeners as those who refuse to heed the words of the prophet. He implies that they don’t understand their own scriptures and that all they want is for him to show off some of his miracles for them. He says outright that God loves Gentiles as much as God loves the proud Jewish congregation in Nazareth! You might say that he sounds a bit irritated! And they returned the compliment! They were filled with rage, says our text. They come close to throwing him off a cliff.
Here, at the very beginning of his ministry, he flirts with the death that would eventually find him on Good Friday three years later. All along the way, he was conscious of the danger of being a prophet. A few chapters after this story in the gospel of Luke, some friends warn him that Herod is out to kill him. But he continues on his way to Jerusalem. Then he rounds a bend in the road, and seeing the shining city of Jerusalem in the distance, he breaks down in tears: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.
He knew he would not be accepted gladly because he was preaching that God’s love extended far beyond the people of his own country, his own race, his own religion. He had the gall to say to his own people that God loved even Gentiles! It made them furious to think that God cared for people outside their tight, exclusive circle.
I once had a conversation with someone about “open communion.” For those not schooled in church lingo, open communion means that we offer communion to anyone who wants to take it. “Closed Communion” is practiced by many churches, meaning that only people who are members of that church are allowed to take communion. My conversation partner objected to open communion on the grounds that someone might take communion who is not worthy!
Is any one of us worthy? Does any one of us take the bread and wine of communion and say, “I’m so good that I deserve the love of God made known so clearly in Christ?” Every communal meal has a host and a venue. The venue, of course, is the location of the meal. The host, however, is the one who has sent out the invitations and paid the price for the meal.
The Federated Church of Sturbridge and Fiskdale is only the venue; the living Christ is the host! This church does not control the invitation list; we do not edit Christ’s invitation; we do not check your credentials before you are served; we only extend the invitation in behalf of the host, whose invitation is quite clear: Come unto me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
We do not squeeze that gracious invitation into a narrow theological or denominational or racial or ideological or even religious box. The only credential you need for Communion is to be wary and to be carrying heavy burdens. I don’t know a soul here who fails to qualify. Are you ever weary? Are you carrying heavy burdens? Did you enter this place of worship with a furrowed brow, sleep deprived, struggling with problems you are facing? Are you here today wondering where you fit into this great universe?
There is a 12th-century hymn that churches love to sing during Lent that is entitled “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” In the lyrics the question is asked, “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?” Communion is that language, the language of symbols, and that language speaks clearly to all of us who are weary and are carrying heavy loads.
It is the language of grace, welcoming every last one of us. And when we consume these elements, we discover that it is not the bread and wine that are transformed; rather, we ourselves are transformed, and we become part of Christ’s life and work. He lives in us and we in him, and then we are called to love and empower each other to do the work Christ calls us to do.