Just recently, I read an essay in First Things by a Presbyterian theologian named Carl Trueman. The essay was titled “A Protestant Apocalypse?’ Trueman has been talking to protestant pastors and church leaders, and they are concerned about the long-term effects of this pandemic season. Some of them are making dire predictions and may have some reason to be concerned.
One denominational leader said they expected perhaps a third of their churches to close in the coming months (he did not mention which denomination this was). Another predicted that as many as 30% of Protestant churchgoers may not return to church gatherings, after all, is said and done.
People seem to have figured out that it’s much easier to do church at home. You switch on the Livestream, get an hour’s worth of uplifting music and inspirational teaching, and you don’t even have to take a shower or get dressed.
The pastors and leaders that Trueman spoke with described these potential scenarios as apocalyptic because they are “cataclysmic” and “disastrous. We tend to associate that word “apocalypse” with just these words – an apocalyptic scenario is one where the world comes unhinged and a nightmare unfolds. Shows and movies like the Walking Dead, World War Z, and The Road only prove this point. Apocalypse means destruction in these contexts.
However, none of these nightmare scenarios really captures the full meaning of apocalypse in the bible. You see – the word apocalypse doesn’t mean “disaster” or destruction or anything negative at all, really. An apocalypse is simply an unveiling – it is a revelation. And in the Bible – apocalyptic literature unveils the true nature of good and evil – showing that evil leads to destruction and good brings blessing and life.
So, the book of revelation might seem like a nightmare. After all, you’ve got angels blowing seven trumpets, and with each blast comes something terrible. Seven bowls that look like offerings, but when they are poured out, they contain devastating plagues. “the Whore Of Babylon” riding a beast, drunk on the blood of saints and martyrs. These are not comforting images.
But the truth is, a biblical apocalypse is only a nightmare for evil and death. For God’s people, the apocalypse of John is hopeful and joyous – it offers a beautiful vision of the victory of Jesus over evil and death itself. And the Book of Revelation ends with the most beautiful scene imaginable – the city of God descending from heaven and the people of God streaming into that city where they will be nourished with the water of life from all eternity. And God will be with them there.
So Carl Trueman, in First Things, said yes, this pandemic may be apocalyptic, but not in the way you mean. This pandemic may bring some things to light – but that’s not all bad. And here I quote Trueman, he says,
“if vast swathes of Protestants do not return to physical church when COVID settles down…it will reveal that preachers have become confused with life coaches or entertainers, and congregations have been replaced by audiences and autonomous consumers. Such a scenario will be apocalyptic. And in both senses of the word.”Carl Trueman, A protestant apocalypse?
So here is the question I want us to consider: if some kind of protestant apocalypse comes and churchgoers decide Facebook and YouTube are all they really need – what will that unveiling reveal about us? Will it be frightening? Or could this terrifying light be kind to us? Before I answer, let me say a few words about our use of technologies like Facebook and YouTube.
So, as I see it, Zoom was a very good thing for this church. When we were all asked to isolate ourselves (as Christians have done before) it allowed us to stay in touch, to share prayer requests and praises…. I really believe this technology helped us maintain a sense of community even when we were apart. Moreover, I am grateful that we can livestream our services. There are high-risk members of our church who are more comfortable staying home, and our Livestream keeps them connected during this strange time – though I know they look forward to a return to normal. It also gives people the ability to get to know us before visiting.
However, I’ve not had the slightest worry that the people of St. John’s will confuse virtual church for the real thing. Perhaps this is because I’m obviously no life coach, and my sermons aren’t that funny. But it is much more likely that we understand the meaning and the importance of this gathering.
So this morning, I’d like to make a few comments about all three of our lessons – they all shed light on the meaning of our gathering and the feast that God lays out for us. Turn in your Bibles or bulletins to Isaiah chapter 25:6-12.
Now, before I read, you should know that the prophet Isaiah lived at a time when Israel was facing conquest by the Assyrian empire. The book opens by laying out a picture of God’s judgment of Israel through the destruction to come at the hands of the Assyrian army.
But Isaiah also prophecies a coming restoration or redemption where the Righteous ones of Israel will experience a great Day of the Lord when God will join his people and rule the nations from Mount Zion. We need to understand that the great Day of the Lord is portrayed as a rich and joyous feast.
Remember, during the time of Passover, all the major milestones of Israel were marked by a feast: The Feast of Passover, The Feast of Pentecost, The Feast of Tabernacles, etc. So when the prophets of Israel looked forward to the ultimate salvation of all things, they described it using exodus language. God’s final victory will be a great feast, but this time, it will be the feast to fulfill all other feasts. All the others were just shadows – the day of the Lord will be the real thing. Listen to the prophet Isaiah:
6 On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoplesisaiah 25:6-9
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
7 And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
8 He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
Again, it has always been God’s plan not only to free His people’s bondage to sin and evil but also to gather them together in His own presence under his own protection. Think of this passage from the gospel of Matthew:
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!Matthew 23:37
God intends to gather his people, in rebellion, his people resist, but in the end God Himself will prevail, and we will be blessed despite ourselves. So let’s turn briefly to the book of Revelation, chapter 7 beginning with verse 9. Here we see all of God’s gathering work come to fruition when John writes in vs 9-10:
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”revelation 7:9-10
He continues in vs. 15:
15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God,revelation 7:15-17
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
And if we skip ahead to Revelation 19:9, we read that these saints of God enjoy the Lord’s Day as the great and final feast. John writes of God’s people, all clothed in white – “blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the lamb.”
Now, let’s have a look at our text from Luke 22:14-20. This passage brings us to Jesus’ final Passover meal. He gathers with his own disciples in the upper room, and he institutes the Lord’s Supper. What I hope you can see more clearly now, is that this supper occupies a kind of middle ground. It looks back to the long history of salvation and to the great celebrations of the Exodus period. Jesus is saying – all of those feasts are fulfilled here in your presence. So it also looks forward to the great wedding feast of the Lamb – where Jesus’s victory through the cross and resurrection will be finally and definitely made known.
The Lord’s supper is remembrance – it looks back. The Lord’s Supper is anticipation – it looks forward. But the Lord’s Supper is also what we might call – actualization. Listen to Jesus’ words from Luke 22:14-20:
14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him.15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it[a] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise, the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.Luke 22:14-20
I know that none of this is news to any of you. However, this old news is very good news, and we can never hear it too much. God has gathered us here to come among us. He invites us to his table, so we come and we dine with Him here in this place. This is our communion with God. This Eucharistic gathering has been the lifeblood of the church for 2,000 years, and God’s people will be bound together as one in this way until that day when we meet God face to face in the great marriage supper of the Lamb.
Cyril of Alexandria, a great father of the early church, writes that “as two pieces of wax fused together make one so he who receives Holy Communion is so united with Christ that Christ is in him and he is in Christ.” Likewise, Francis of Assisi marvels that “the Lord of the whole universe…should humble Himself like this under the form of a little bread, for our salvation…in this world I cannot see the Most High Son of God with my own eyes, except for His Most Holy Body and Blood.”
If you turned to question 134 of your Anglican catechism, you would read these words: “what benefits do you receive through partaking of this sacrament?” And you would be prompted to answer like this:
“as my body is nourished by the bread and wine, my soul is strengthened by the Body and Blood of Christ. I receive God’s forgiveness, and I am renewed in the love and unity of the Body of Christ, the Church.”To Be a Christian: An Anglican catechism, Q. 134
This Eucharistic gathering is a great gift to us, so we gather together – in each other’s presence – to receive this gift and to draw more deeply into communion with Jesus Christ.
Now, if you’ve wondered what this sermon has to do with prayer, I will finally get to the point. Every Sunday, just before we receive the body and blood of Jesus, we recite the Prayer of Humble Access. I hope this sermon makes this prayer richer and more meaningful for you. I’d like to read it now, and of course, we will say it again when we celebrate at the table. You can find it in your prayer books on page 135 or on the second to last page of your bulletins. Listen to these words, and think carefully about their meaning:
We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy, Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.The prayer of humble access, Book of common prayer
So friends, if this season of pandemic is apocalyptic….. if it brings some things into the light… then my hope is that we will look good in the light. My prayer is that when the light of Christ shines upon us, we will be a people ready for the feast.