For as long as I can remember, I have concluded nearly every Sunday morning sermon with Communion. It wasn’t always this way. While I was growing up, I attended Nazarene churches that typically served Communion on a quarterly basis or perhaps at the close of a retreat. That made Communion a rare and special event, and the whole service (music and message) was focused on Communion.
There were sermons, and then there were Communion sermons.
At the beginning of my ministry, I followed that pattern. To be honest, I dreaded Communion Sundays because I felt like I had to come up with something better than ordinary to make it a “Communion-worthy message.”
When I was in college, I did a summer internship at a house church that celebrated communion every week. I was surprised to discover that this did not lessen the significance of Communion. It actually had the opposite effect: Communion was anticipated and appreciated each week. However, I wasn’t sure if this could work in most Nazarene churches.
Early in my pastorate, I came into contact with a number of pastors from other Nazarene congregations who celebrated Communion on the first Sunday of every month. They mentored me as I gained a deeper understanding of the covenant of Communion. I also read how John Wesley celebrated Communion as often as he could. Given the openness of my congregation to celebrating Communion, and given our Wesleyan heritage as Nazarenes, I began to consider that we should begin celebrating Communion the first Sunday of every month. Typically, I preach my way through a book of the Bible, passage by passage, and I attempt to stay balanced between the Old and New Testament books. Rather than “interrupting” a series on the first Sunday of every month with a special Communion message, I began to see Communion as a fitting response to the Christian proclamation of all Scripture. I stopped making a distinction between “regular sermons” and “Communion sermons.” Every sermon became a Communion sermon.
In the weeks that followed, the practice of Communion began to feel more normal but no less special, so we made the decision to serve Communion every week. On occasion, it seemed more appropriate to close with an altar call rather than to serve Communion. On these days, however, even if we have an altar call as the immediate sermon response, we follow with Communion. Our church members consider the service incomplete without Communion. We need this means of grace as we prepare to “re-enter” the world in Jesus’ name.
Communion and the Sermon
Communion is more than a method of response to the message. It actually bears influence on the message, too. In so many ways, Communion establishes a link between specific events and prophesies in the Old Testament and the significance and fulfillment of those prophesies through the Person of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.
For example, preaching the Old Testament story of Passover establishes a link between the redemption of God’s people from the bondage of slavery to freedom and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to redeem the world from the bondage of sin to salvation. The Passover story serves as a shadow of the reconciliation that was to come. In fact, celebrating Passover as a ceaseless reminder, Sunday after Sunday, keeps us focused on the price Christ paid on the cross to save us from eternal punishment. Accordingly, knowing that I’m concluding the message with Communion forces me to examine and affirm how Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament text. It makes me go the extra step of proclaiming the gospel, God’s defining work in Jesus. The Communion conclusion reminds me that I have to understand God’s Old Testament work through the lens of God’s revelatory and saving work in Jesus. Serving Communion requires my Old Testament preaching to be Christ-centered. Serving Communion also demands that my New Testament messages be centered on the gospel. I am prone to focus on the “shoulds” of the Christian life without providing hope or without proclaiming the possibility of living the Christian life through God’s power. In this form of preaching, the Sermon on the Mount can become a weapon for “guilting” people and insisting that they “do better” while offering them no hope of actually fulfilling the righteous requirements of the Sermon.
This moralistic kind of preaching offers no hope of fulfilling Jesus’ commands in this life. However, if I conclude with Communion, I am sharing the Good News rather than mere “shoulds.” The good news of Communion is not only that Jesus died so I might be forgiven but also that through receiving Jesus, I have power to live like Jesus. Communion does not diminish the “shoulds” of the Christian ethic but fills them with the power to live in the grace of Jesus. The significance of Communion keeps me preaching the gospel! Communion also safeguards against a reduction of the sermon to simply sharing wisdom, or what I like to call “advice preaching.” These are “how to” sermons that give advice on topics such as Christian marriage, raising kids in a Christian home, exercising good stewardship, and witnessing, etc. These are important subjects, and of course, we all need wisdom, but we need more than wisdom alone. Advice preaching is easier on the conscience than moralistic preaching, but like moralistic preaching, the former neglects the power of Christ for right living. Wisdom or advice preaching says that if I do x, y, and z, then I’ll get this happy result. The focus is on what I do. Closing a wisdom sermon with Communion forces me to shift from myself to Christ. The calling of the gospel and the power of the gospel both require us to live faithful to Christ. Communion reminds me to preach Christcentered messages rather than me-centered messages. Communion keeps me preaching a Jesus-centered narrative rather than offering a “success” seminar. My congregation needs Jesus far more than they need my advice.
Keeping the Gospel as the Focus
Concluding every Sunday message with communion has brought me to the conviction that if I cannot easily move from my message to Communion, then I have not preached a gospel message. Communion calls me to keep my preaching Christ-centered: it demands that I proclaim Christ. In taking Communion, the congregation is receiving the One whom I have proclaimed.
For those who have not yet entered into a personal relationship with Christ, Communion is an altar call—a tangible way to confess, repent, and come to Jesus. It is a symbolic way of entering into right relationship with Jesus and His Church.
As believers, Communion is a way for us to repent and to acknowledge our constant need for fresh grace so that we can become more like Jesus. It keeps us humble and thankful, reminding us that Jesus died for our sins. Receiving the bread and the cup is a means of receiving Jesus and yielding lordship to Him over every facet of our being. Communion as weekly response opens us up to receive grace upon grace to be continually transformed into the likeness of Jesus until eternity.
On any given Sunday, people come to the table praying about a wide range of things: confession and repentance, surrendering to Christ’s lordship, seeking power for a particular challenge, or grace for a difficult relationship. At the table, we are reminded that Christ is the center of our community. We are a people created by Christ for Christ. In receiving the bread and the cup, we are knit together ever more tightly as Christ’s Body.
Beyond Empty Ritual
All the means of grace are simply means. Apart from the gracious ministry of the Spirit, both sermon and Communion can turn out to be empty rituals. The communication of grace is entirely the work of the Spirit. Nonetheless, the celebration of Communion in response to the preaching of Christ puts us in a place to receive what we need the most: Christ’s indwelling presence. We attend to these means of grace so that we might know Christ and be made like Christ, individually and collectively. This combination of the Word and Communion invites meaningful transformation. Everyone knows that we become what we eat. May the Spirit help us to chew on the Word well and to partake of Communion with hungry hearts.