FAITH AND VALUES: Beginning at the ending
A certain young woman was celebrating life as a joyful wonder. She had married the man of her dreams, and they were ecstatically happy together. Then her father, whom she deeply loved and respected, died suddenly, and part of her died with him. Not many months after his death, she was injured in a head-on collision and lay for weeks in a coma, hovering between life and death. She recovered and, through intensive rehabilitation, was able to take up her life again.
Sometime later, her husband informed her that he wanted a divorce, that he could not take the stress of her illness any longer; and he left her for another woman. Once more she struggled through grief and pain, tried to pick up the pieces and begin again. She met another man; they fell in love and were married. Four months after their wedding, his life was snuffed out in a fatal hunting accident.
How much can one person endure? That was the despairing plea of this woman, who decided she had had enough and began to plan her suicide. For some reason she cannot now explain, she went one Sunday morning to church, something she had given up doing when she was a teenager. When Communion began, she planned not to participate, but an inner urging prompted her to join the people moving forward to be served the elements of Holy Communion.
She knelt, and when the minister offered her the elements and spoke the familiar words, “The body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, given for you,” she felt the presence of God enfold her with such warmth and peace that she could not move. She stayed on her knees, softly crying.
At the shadowed ending, she had found a new beginning. Today she is living out that beginning in a beautiful life, which includes taking the risks of love once more and will soon marry again.
Christ reveals his presence to persons today in the same way that he revealed himself after the resurrection to those first disciples – namely, in the Scriptures and in the Communion of his Table. We can encounter his presence as we engage the Scriptures and as we share in the Communion.
We can intentionally expose ourselves to God’s written Word in Scripture by rigorous study, by reverent listening, by being reachable and teachable. And we can present ourselves for the mystery of Holy Communion, humbly opening ourselves to receive God’s power and whole-making love offered to any who will claim and trust them.
If we want to meet Jesus, to experience his presence and to have a glory moment of awareness and encounter, we need to get inside the Scriptures and have the Scripture get inside of us.
We need to keep company with Jesus through the gospels and the testimony of Paul and the other writings of the New Testament, as well as learn the salvation history of God in the Old Testament.
We need to sit a spell with Simon Peter, to venture with Paul, to keep love’s vigil with Mary Magdalene, to climb the mountain with Moses, to anguish with Job, to live by faith with Abraham and the prophets and to listen to the psalmist until the outcries and upswellings of joy become our own.
When we spend time, person to person, with the Scriptures, we not only will believe more, we will experience more. Moments will come when, through the words on the pages of the Bible, we will hear God speaking His personal word for us. And other moments will come when Jesus draws near, stands beside us and is among us.
It happened during World War II to a Norwegian resistance fighter, who was captured by the Nazis and condemned to death. While not a Christian, the prisoner asked to see a minister. A local Lutheran pastor came and spent the whole evening with the prisoner. He brought him a Bible, and they talked and prayed about God, about faith in Christ and about salvation and eternal life.
The next morning, as the prisoner was led from his cell to be executed, he met the pastor who had come to be with him. The young man said to the minister: “I read the Bible you gave me all last night, and in its pages, I met the Jesus you talked about. He is now my savior, and I know that death is not the end.”
People also meet Jesus in the Holy Meal. They sense his presence, as the young woman who knelt to receive almost in spite of herself did. Jesus has promised to meet us at his Table. He has told us that he will be present as we receive the elements and as we remember his death and resurrection, which reveal how much God loves us.
Oh, it does not happen every time, and for some it never happens because they do not really want it to happen. So many times we come to the Table with ambivalent feelings. We would like to meet Jesus, yet we are afraid that such an encounter may make us face the truth about ourselves or else we feel unworthy to meet Jesus. Deep down we are not sure we are lovable and do not want to find out.
Is that why many people avoid coming to the Table? Or trivialize it? Or impugn the mystery? I do not know enough to say for sure, but I think such feelings are part of why people distance themselves from an encounter with Christ.
I remember how it was with a young man I met at Youth Camp one summer. He stands out as one of the most gifted and sensitive persons for his age – or at any age, for that matter – whom I have ever met. He had only recently begun his faith pilgrimage, after a troubled childhood and a stormy adolescence. While he wanted to be a good Christian, he had no sense of inner assurance about God or himself, and he was still struggling with self-doubt and unresolved problems.
Youth Camp always ended on the last night with Communion around the campfire. It was a peak experience for many youth and adult leaders. On the morning before that service was to occur, this young man sought me out and poured out his inner turmoil and conflict. He wanted to accept Christ, but he believed he was not good enough, that he was not acceptable to Jesus. He said he had decided not to attend the evening service because he did not feel worthy to receive Communion.
I listened as best I could but then gently suggested that the Holy Meal is for the unfinished and unfed, that is not some exclusive privilege for the perfect or for the righteous who have all the answers. I reminded him of those ones who first received the broken bread from Jesus and how far from perfect and faithful they were. I added that we all need spiritual nourishment, renewal, forgiveness, refreshment and reassurance – which is what Jesus offers from God at his table. We prayed together and then he left.
That night around the campfire we sang, shared testimony and prepared to receive Holy Communion; but my young friend was nowhere to be seen. The service proceeded, and the young people came forward to kneel under the stars and receive the elements. Then I saw him on the fringes. Slowly he began to approach the makeshift Table. He knelt to receive, and, after a moment of meditation, he stood up with a special light in his eyes which were swimming with tears.
He embraced me and whispered, “I met Jesus here tonight. I feel so right! I met Jesus here tonight.”
Meeting Jesus is always a new beginning when we feel we have reached a hopeless ending.
Rev. Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.