The sacrament of service

Last week I recalled those travelers on the road to Emmaus and how they came to know the presence of the living Christ in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:1-35). And I wondered, during this pandemic, while we’re unable to gather for the Lord’s Supper, are there other ways we can know that presence? The last words of Matthew’s gospel are the promise of the risen Christ, “I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20). What else besides the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper helps us recognize the constant presence of Christ?

John’s gospel answers that question. In his account of Jesus’ last evening with his disciples, exactly where the other gospels describe the institution of the Lord’s Supper, John says nothing at all about the supper. There is no eucharistic prayer, no breaking of bread or sharing of the cup, nothing about the symbols of Jesus’ body and blood. John replaces the Lord’s Supper with the washing of the disciples’ feet. The sacrament of a holy meal is replaced by the sacrament of holy service. Jesus gives us that example to follow, not to break bread together but to serve one another.

The first letter of John is full of that image. “God is love,” John writes, “and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16b). Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way, “When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us.” It’s how we commune with God. The love John writes about is not a description of how we feel toward anyone; it’s an ethic of action that often goes against our feelings in order to serve the welfare of everyone.

We seek the welfare of others without limit and without discrimination for no other reason than because that’s how God loves us, showering grace upon the good and the evil, upon the righteous and the unrighteous, without discrimination, distinction, or limit (Matt. 5:45). The letter of James puts it this way: If you see someone who lacks the necessities of life, and you bless them but don’t give them what they need, your faith is no good at all, it’s dead and useless (James 2:15-17).

So if we’re looking for a sacrament, an action we can perform to open the channel of communion with God, the Lord’s Supper can work. But the sacrament that can be just as effective, maybe more effective, is the sacrament of self-giving service to others. So if you’re hungry for intimate communion with God, serve the welfare of those around you, and bring to that service the same reverence you bring to the Lord’s table.

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