A Focus of Faith

Holy Communion as a Means of Grace
By: Gregory S. Neal

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:41-51 NRSV)

By: Gregory S. Neal

The Mysteries of God are amazing to behold.
Often beyond our comprehension,
God’s amazing glory calls on us to seek Him out and comprehend His amazing
Holy Presence.

And, yet, even in our best moments,
our search for God is so often like that of the 3 blind men
Each has a cain, and each come into contact with an Elephant.
One bumps into a leg
The second one bumps into the trunk
The third bumps into the underside of the elephant’s belly.

The one who encountered the leg can:
touch it
feel it
put his arms around it
smell and caresses it
And from this contact he can be certain what an elephant is like:
“Elephants are great big, thick, musky, treelike creatures
that hop up and down and swing back and forth.”

The one who encountered the trunk can, likewise:
touch it
feel it
pick it up
put his finger’s in it’s nostrils
caresses it
And, from his contact he can be certain what an elephant is like:
“Elephants are like long, thick, warm snakes that have no head,
just two breathing holes at the end.”

The one who encountered the underbelly of the elephant has
the most amazing understanding of an Elephant of all of them,
yet he is equally certain as to what an elephant is like:
“Elephants are like great big, round, soft balloons, floating over the ground
about 4 feet off the ground.”

Each is certain
Each gives a different description
And, given each man’s experience and encounter,
he’s right.
The elephant is just like all of those things ...
And quite a bit more.

We are just like these three men
in our encounter with God.
Limited in inward vision
Narrow minded
Filled with preconceived notions of who and what God is
yet certain that our own limited experience MUST be the entirety of God.

The Mysteries of God go beyond our human ability to apprehend God
Even from our limited contact.
Our contact is valid, true, and meaningful,
but it is limited.

When I was a kid, in Mr. Waggner’s 7th grade natural science class
I studied the wonder of birds.
As I studied, I came to understand that there were all sorts of different kinds of birds,
that birds did many things in the created order,
that birds came in many different colors, shapes, and sizes,
that birds made many different sounds
and that one could tell something about the kind of bird
by its marks, its song, and its size and shape.

Learning about birds didn’t destroy, however,
my sense of wonder, appreciation, and envy
which I felt for birds in flight.
For a bird in flight is as beautiful and mysterious today
as it was when I was a child.
I can understand, better now than ever before,
How a bird flies
And what they’re flying for,
But this understanding,
This comprehension
Doesn’t rob me of my wonder and enjoyment of birds.
What a wonderful creation -- the bird.
Why would God make a being that could fly through the air?
Just to charge us with wonder?
Just to fill us with the desire to fly?
Just to flood our souls with the rapture of watching a bird sour through the air?
Yes -- all of these things, and more,
Just so long as the bird doesn’t poop on me ...

The Mysteries of God.

At the Table of the Lord, this morning, we will encounter,
and be encountered by,
Yet another mystery of God's amazing love.

I hope we approach God’s altar filled with something like the wonder and awe I feel
when watching a bird in flight.
But I also know that we come plagued with the affliction of those blind men,
trying to comprehend the elephant
from only three independent,
and narrow
All too often our encounters with God are blind encounters.
limited encounters
encounters made on our own terms
and not on God’s terms
And OUR terms are so very limited, indeed.
We come to the table, far too often,
thinking that we know what we will find here.
We come, far too often, with a limited vision
and a narrow mind,
unwilling to see, afresh, the wondrous
awe inspiring presence of the Holy Spirit
of God, soaring into our hearts
at this, the Divine Table.

And we are, all of us -- myself included --
guilty of this.
We are, all of us, blinded to the things of God
because of our sin.
And that is why we need to come to the table,
this morning.
You see -- it is here that we are encountered by God.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement out of which this church sprang,
preached a sermon in which he identified a number of sure, scripturally based
points of encounter with God,
Foci of Faith, if you will, for being encountered by God’s Grace.
He called them the “Means of Grace.”
Many means of Grace have been identified in the past. Wesley had his list,
Martin Luther had his,
John Calvin had his,
Thomas Aquinas had another list
Among the many Means of Grace that have been enumerated,
it seems to me that the following are among the most prevalent in the Church today:

Foot washing
Holy Communion

These are all Means of Grace,
They are “Foci of Faith”
around which we, as the Church, gather
and through which we receive God’s powerful grace.
They are instruments through which God’s love
are imparted to us.

Now, the question arises, how does God meet us in these means?
Let’s take Prayer, Scripture, Baptism, and Communion.
How are these Means of Grace for us in the Church?
How does God communicate His Divine Grace to us
through these simple instruments,
through these Foci of Faith?

In prayer -- in our times of quiet meditation and reflection,
If we listen and if we are truly honest with ourselves and with God,
we can hear the voice of God speaking to us
in the silence
in the scriptures
in that still-small voice within us
in the voice of our neighbor
Through prayer we open ourselves to God and,
as CS Lewis said,
we open ourselves to allowing God to Change us.
In this way, Prayer is a Means of Grace for us.

In Scripture -- through the inspired word of God,
we come to know God’s will for us.
The scriptures contain God’s Word for us,
in human words,
and when we read, study, and inwardly digest these words
they inform us regarding God’s will
and God’s provision for our spiritual lives.
In this way, the Scriptures are a Means of Grace for Us.

In Baptism -- through the Grace of God truly present in the Sacramental act of
Baptism and our Remembrance of Baptism,
and in the faith of the community in which we are Baptized,
We are empowered by the very presence of Jesus Christ,
by being plunged into his Presence
by being filled with his Glory
by being submerged into his Death and Resurrection,
We find, in Baptism, a very powerful Means of Grace, indeed.

But what about Holy Communion,
which we are about to celebrate, today.

How is Holy Communion a Means of Grace for us, today?
How does God meet us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist?
In other words: How is Jesus Present to us in and through Holy Communion?

This seems to be the hardest Means of Grace for many protestants to accept.
I mean, we can see how Jesus is present to us through Scripture
and through prayer
and even through baptism.
But how is God in Jesus Christ really present in Holy Communion?
in a ritual meal consisting of wheat and wine?
How is God made known to us in the breaking of the bread
and the drinking of the cup?
How is Communion a focus of faith?

Think with me for a moment, here.
Many Christians believe that the Bible is:
Many Christians also believe that the Bread and the Wine of Communion are:
And both, in a mysterious, spirit-filled way, are correct.

You see -- in the beginning was the Word
The Word was God
and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
The Word of God, my brothers and Sisters,
Is Jesus Christ our Lord --
The book ... the Holy Bible ...
contains the Word of God
transmits the Word of God
reveals the Word of God
And that Word, the divine “Logos”
is Jesus Christ our Lord.

I know it’s hard,
it’s not the way we’ve been trained or brought up to think about the Bible,
But hang with me for a moment.

This [hold up the Bible] is not THE Word of God.
It contains the Word of God, and through it we know THE Word of God,
and, hence, we often call it the “Word of God” or
“The Word of God in Words of humans,”
But the Bible is NOT the Word spoken of in John chapter 1.
That’s Jesus.
We don’t worship the Bible, do we?
Some Christians seem to, from time to time,
But if we are truly Disciples of our Lord,
we Worship THE WORD, Jesus,
whose authoritative, true, and salvific revelation of God is contained
within the pages of this wonderful book.
And it is the Holy Spirit which brings alive the Gospel Message,
making the word active and able to save, today.

Likewise, the bread and the wine contain and convey to us the Body and the Blood,
the Real Presence,
of Jesus.

It’s more than just a memorial meal that we eat,
for in and through it
if we eat in faith
focused upon the presence of the Lord
we receive the Grace of God into our lives,
And that Grace is able to save our souls.

Hear it again.
Just as the Holy Spirit enables the Bible --
a book, bound in leather ... pages with print on it --
to contain and convey the Word of God to us,
because the Holy Spirit both inspired the authors and the hearers of it,
So also the Holy Spirit enables the elements of bread and wine
to contain and convey the true, grace-filled presence of the Word of God,
the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And that is why this table
and the Sacrament of Holy Communion,
is so important as a Focus of Faith.

The Scriptures bring the Living Word to us, by faith, through the power of the Holy Spirit
Holy Communion brings the Living Word to us, and into us, if only we eat and drink with faith.

Let this table, and the elements resting upon it, be a focus of faith for us today,
so that,

Just as you approach the Holy Bible with awe and reverence,
You may also approach the Table of the Lord,
not blindly casting about,
not narrow-mindedly,
not focused upon our own inadequacies,
But open to the majesty
the wonder
and the life giving Real Presence
of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Who’s grace makes it possible for us to approach the Heavenly Father.
Attend to the Focus of Faith,
Partake of this Focus of Faith,
And, by Faith, Receive the Real Presence of Jesus.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

© 1993, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.