Working It Out – study questions

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wio-cover-v10A committed Christian sifts through the conflicting pressures applied by work, family, the church and his own conscience in search of a Christ-like response to one of the world’s most hotly debated topics. Putting that response into practice, though, will test his faith in ways he never imagined.

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da Vinci’s Last Supper: a communion meditation

Do you ever feel inadequate or unworthy when the worship service comes around to communion time?  Have you ever shifted uncomfortably in your seat when that somber moment arrives to help us remember Christ’s sacrifice for our sins?  Why would you do this for me, Jesus?  What’s so special about me, God?

Perhaps you learned you should abstain from taking communion if you’re struggling with your Christian walk.  Maybe your week didn’t go so well, or you’re grappling with on-going work, family, health or financial issues; and you find yourself grumbling to God.  Sometimes our busy schedules make it impossible to keep up with daily Bible reading and prayer, and we feel out of touch with God.  And surely, you’ve heard of other Christian congregations who only receive communion once a month to prevent it from becoming routine, thereby diminishing its importance and impact.  Has communion become routine for you?

Consider what Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper might remind us about this seminal event, which we celebrate and remember at communion time.  Although not authoritative since it was painted in the late 15th century, it is the famous artist’s representation of the last supper as recounted in the Gospel of John and depicts the moment when Jesus announced that one of the twelve would betray him.

Interestingly, the Gospel of John largely skips over the portion of the last supper that we celebrate today as communion, focusing instead on several long, well-known passages and prayers that form the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  But, the context in which Christ spoke those words must never be forgotten—the first-ever celebration of communion where God’s covenant with mankind changed in a very fundamental way.  With that in mind, it is instructive to consider what we might learn from the people involved and the environment in which this blessed event took place.

Looking first at Jesus in the center of the picture:

  • he looks calm & composed despite his full knowledge of what was about to happen
  • despite the Apostles’ imperfections, he called them to follow him, he washed their feet (even Judas!) and prayed for them

Do you ever doubt Jesus’ ability to understand your life or empathize with your circumstances?

The twelve Apostles look like us:

  • Thomas has doubts
  • Judas is discouraged, hides a secret (that was just let out of the bag!)
  • Peter wears his heart on his sleeve & speaks before thinking
  • James & John (sons of Zebedee) are ambitious (or momma’s boys)
  • Matthew (former tax collector) probably wonders what he got himself into
  • The Apostles are arranged in groups of three, suggesting perhaps there may have been cliques among them—the fishermen, the tent makers, the farmers, etc.
  • In modern parlance, one or more of the Apostles may have grabbed their phone and sent a hasty “#WHAT?” or “#GodIsNotDead” in response to Jesus’ prediction.
  • They rush to ask, “Surely not me?” instead of seeking to understand the underlying meaning behind Jesus’ words

Do any of those traits sound like you?

The environment da Vinci depicts in the painting is also telling:

  • Upstairs room wasn’t fancy—poorly lit & little decoration
  • Attendees weren’t wearing their Sunday best
  • Food wasn’t noteworthy (other than the symbolism of the bread & wine), no feast
  • Table wasn’t ornate—not much more than a slab of plywood sitting on sawhorses

Does that environment reflect your house and tastes?

Again, the painting is not a portrait of the actual event when it took place, but the conclusions we can draw from it are likely very accurate: Jesus is in charge; his close associates weren’t handsome, well-dressed model citizens and the environment in which the celebration of communion was instituted isn’t notable in any exquisite interior design sense.

As imperfect as each one of us may be, the reality is that God sees those of us who put our faith in Jesus as perfect:

  • “Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God”(John 1:12-13).
  • Ephesians 1:13-14 tells us the Holy Spirit was given to us as a deposit that guarantees our inheritance. As heirs of God, we have an inheritance that no one can take from us.
  • Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit (Psalm 32:1-2).
  • For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (Hebrews 10:14).
  • Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
  • Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But, we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

Therefore, there’s no need to wallow in our perceived inadequacy or question our self-worth during communion time.  Thanks to Jesus’ work, God sees each believer as a fully forgiven heir to his kingdom, and we look forward to the literal #BestDayEver when he comes again to take us with him to the place he prepared for each of us in heaven.  That’s the lesson all believers should take from this special time of communion.

Let us pray:

My God, while your Word indicates we are not to partake of communion in an unworthy manner, the truth is we are all unworthy in one way or another.  It is precisely because of our inadequacies that we hunger to draw close to you and thirst for the refreshment that can only come from the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Eating this tiny wafer and drinking this small cup of juice is our weekly reminder of the grace and mercy you extend to everyone who calls upon your name.  That is what you called us to remember at the Last Supper, and that is what we celebrate at communion time in this small corner of your mighty kingdom.

Pascal’s Wager: a communion meditation

Seventeenth-century Frenchman, Blaise Pascal, was an amazing man. In his short 39 years, he made major contributions to physics and mathematics and was one of the first two inventors of the mechanical calculator. Late in life, he also put forward a thought provoking argument known as Pascal’s Wager.

To quote Wikipedia, the Wager:

…posits that humans bet with their lives that God either exists or does not.

Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).

In short, human beings have much more to gain by believing in God than they stand to lose by not believing.

Examining the argument more fully, it is reasonable to ask what are some of those “infinite gains” to which Pascal refers?  The complete list is extensive–stretching from Genesis to Revelation, but Jesus lays out several compelling examples in the Gospel of John’s detailed account of the Last Supper:

  • He is preparing a place for us in heaven (John 14:2)
  • He will return to take us to the place he has prepared (John 14:3)
  • He is the way, the truth and the life & no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6)
  • Jesus and God are one (John 14:9-11)
  • Those who believe in him will do the works he has been doing and more (John 14:12)
  • Ask for anything in my name and I will do it (John 14:13)
  • He will send the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-17 & 26)
  • Those who love Jesus are loved by God, too (John 14:21)
  • If you remain in me, you will bear much fruit (John 15:5)
  • In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

Likewise, what are some of the “infinite losses”?  The Biblical descriptions of hell are definitely not pleasant!

  • A blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 13:50)
  • Eternal punishment (Mt 25:46)
  • Punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (2 Thess 1:9)

When you weigh the differences between even a handful of examples of the “infinite gains” versus the “infinite losses”, I think any reasonable person would agree that to choose to live life outside of belief in Christ is a huge gamble indeed!

So in this communion time, remember the “infinite gains” Jesus offers not only to the Disciples, but to all who believe in him, and rejoice that you have such extraordinary promises to look forward to.

And if you are unsure in your belief or don’t believe at all, think long and hard about what you are forfeiting.  Pray, examine the scriptures and consult with your pastor.  Bold stock market investments, glitzy gaming venues and new business ventures can certainly rob you of money and pride, but stubborn disbelief in God risks your place in eternity.  Ultimately, don’t place your faith in Christ because you feel obligated by a brilliant dead guy’s argument.  Do it because he offers you hope and rest, grace and mercy, love and forgiveness and a place with him in eternity.

Let us pray…

Father God, thank you for establishing this special reflective time in our weekly worship service to help us remember the infinite gains that await us in heaven.  These are not gains in the earthly sense, but rather precious and eternal treasures laid-up in heaven by you.  As we prepare to receive the emblems this morning, let us never forget the sacrifice you made–sending your only Son to suffer and die on the cross for our sins–so that we could have the opportunity to join you in heaven.  We are forever grateful!  In Jesus’ holy and precious name we pray.  Amen.