Scripture Readings: Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

Around the Table

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In many ways, these last few weeks have been a time of new beginnings for me- and the weeks ahead are also going to be full of new beginnings. Today is another first- the first time I’ve led a Communion service here at St Stephen’s (I led the Communion at Old High last month).
After I had been off for a few months, I realised how much I was missing the Sacrament. So I was grateful to our Pastoral Assistant, Rev Arthur Sinclair, came to the Manse and led a Communion service there with me, my wife, Katharina, and our elder, Andy Pyott. Our living room coffee table became, for us, the Table of the Lord, and I was reminded that even if I couldn’t get to the building, I was still part of the Church. 
Taking Communion to people at home is part of my ministry I have always enjoyed, and I look forward to doing that again in future. So if you know someone who can’t get to Church due to ill-health or infirmity, do make sure you let me know! I can now say from personal experience that it a Home Communion is a wonderful blessing.
As we celebrate Communion together today, both our scripture readings say profound things about the Church and her ministry. St Paul, writing to the church at Rome, reminded them that Christian life is a life of service: ‘I appeal to you’, he says: ‘Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to God’. Most of us have taken vows of church membership, but in many ways, this is all we need to promise: that we’ll dedicate ours lives to God’s service. We Christians are people who have been called by God through Jesus Christ to serve others, just as Christ served others. And the Church is a place where can all serve.
I’ve spoken just now of my ‘ministry’: and that is an important word for me, perhaps because, in the Church of Scotland, we call people who do what I do ministers. Sometimes it’s not a very helpful word, because it can lead to people thinking that only ministers can minister. But today’s text from Romans reminds us that all Christians are ministers. ‘To minister’ is just another way of saying ‘to serve’. ‘Ministry’ just means ‘service’. We Christians- all of us- are called to lives of sacrifice to God, dedicated to God’s service, pleasing to God.
Paul then goes on to remind us that we are all part of one body (it’s not the only time he uses that as an image of the Church). We are ‘we are one body in union with Christ’ he says. And here is the key difference between being part of the Church and being a member of any other club- we have unity, not just with each other, but with Jesus Christ himself. And, says Paul, ‘we are all joined to each other as different parts of one body’. As part of the body of Christ, we still retain our individuality. For we all have different gifts. Some might be good speakers- so they should speak God’s message. Some are good at various kinds of service- if you are- you should do so! Can you share something- open your home, use a skill that you have, share some of your time with someone who needs it? That can be your ministry, your way of serving God.
If you can teach, do that, says Paul- a specialist role at which some people are, which is essential to the life of the Church. Work hard if you have authority, says Paul, speaking to those who have responsibilities in the Church. Where would the Church be without people willing to shoulder responsibility, people who work hard at administration or looking after our money our property on behalf of the rest of the Body of Christ? These are also ways to serve, to minister. And if you are going to do a kindness for another person, please, says Paul, do it cheerfully. There’s nothing worse than making someone feel bad because you’re doing good!
And then he mentions an often-overlooked gift- the gift of encouragement. How many of us would have abandoned our faith except that someone encouraged us, helped us to see what was good about us, strengthened our faith with encouraging words? In today’s Church, there is plenty to complain about. But I thank God that there are people who have a ministry of encouragement- people who serve God by encouraging other people. Let’s have more encouraging, please.
So, Christians are people who serve- in the Church and in the wider world- according to our different gifts. In a moment, we will serve each other. We will pass bread and wine, hand-to-hand, neighbour to neighbour. For this Sacrament reminds us that serving, ministering, is at the heart of the Gospel, at the centre of the Christian life. Jesus served God’s purpose for the world by giving his very body and blood. And today the risen Christ lives in the world when his people serve one another and serve the world. In this Sacrament, we enact what the Church is- the Body of the Servant Christ, a body of servants, ministering on behalf of Christ to the world. And when it is over, we will go from here to serve so many other people, in so many other ways.
You may call me your ‘minister’- although we are all of us here ‘ministers’. But my particular role in the Church, the special way I try to serve God and the Church, is, to use my official title, a ‘minister of Word and Sacrament’. The word ‘sacrament’ is ultimately derived from a Greek word meaning ‘mystery’ (see The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p1435) of. For the heart of our faith is mystery, in the best sense of that word. In faith, we are trying to grasp something which cannot be put into words. We can only go so far explaining the Communion service. We know that it leads to practical results- we will leave here renewed, reminded of our ministry of service to the world. But how God has saved the world, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ- all that is mystery beyond our thoughts and telling. But in leading you in worship and sacrament, I hope I help you be caught up the mystery of being part of the body of Christ.
A New Testament writer once asked his fellow Christians, ‘Pray… for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel’ (Ephesians 6.19. Ephesians is pseudonymous). If we are truly going to be ‘dedicated to God’s service and pleasing to God’, we all of us need to listen for God’s Word to us. The Church needs people to help us hear the Word for our lives. That’s where the other part of my job description comes in- I’m a minister of the Word, as well as Sacrament. I’m tasked with trying to share the mystery of Christ using words, as well as sacraments. Others can teach and preach as well, of course. Indeed, if we are following Christ properly, our lives should teach others about who Christ is and what the Christian hope is all about. Yet, as I said to you a couple of weeks back, my particular vocation is to grapple with the words of Scripture, with you and for you, in order that we all hear a Word from the Lord together. So, as I return to work among you, pray for me, so that I’ll speak boldly of the mystery of the Gospel.
The Word of God is not same as the text of the Bible- but we hear God’s word in the Bible, as it speaks to us of the Word has been made flesh in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, the Word of God spoke from a human body. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Paul spoke of the Church as the Body of Christ. Today the Word of God can only speak in the world through you and me- through the words and actions of those who today try to live according to the example of Jesus Christ, and who confess that he is Lord.
In our Gospel reading today, we hear a very early confession of faith. Jesus has been healing and teaching, and the people are amazed and wonder what is going on here. So he asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ (Son of Man is a title he has been using of himself). They think me might be a prophet- Jeremiah, Elijah, perhaps the most recent prophet, John the Baptist (recently put to death by King Herod). So much for what the people think- ‘What about you? Who do you say I am?’ Jesus asks his disciples.
At this crucial juncture, Simon the fisherman, who has been one of the first to leave all and follow Jesus, speaks up: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. Peter becomes the first person to confess faith in Christ- to say that Jesus is not merely another prophet or healer or teacher. He’s the Son of the living God: he’s the real deal. Peter says ‘yes’ to Jesus. And Jesus says ‘yes’ to Peter: ‘Good for you, Simon son of John!’
Matthew tells us that Simon had a nickname: he was called The Rock- Petros, Peter. Peter’s confession is the start of the Church. On the rock of Simon Peter’s confession stands the subsequent 2,000 years of Church history. I am the Church, you are the Church, because we have all chosen to follow Jesus and to believe that his words are Good News for the world. As long as the Church confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God, she remains the Church- built on the rock of Peter’s confession. As long as we confess that Christ is the rock of our lives, we remain Christians, and part of the body of Christ. Even death cannot overcome the Church, for we possess the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This Sacrament speaks powerfully of so many aspects of the Gospel. It speaks of the Good News that Christ had died and has risen again. It speaks of the hope that despite how uncertain the world might be right now, still there is hope. It speaks of the truth that just as Jesus came as a servant, so we, too, are to serve on God’s behalf in our world of need. It speaks of how we Christians are a community, united by our faith in Christ. It speaks of new beginnings- of the possibility of forgiveness of sin and the renewal of the world.
For the host at this table is none other than Christ himself. And so this Sacrament:

is for me, for you, whether in this building,
or at home, at a hospital bed,
for the healthy and the sick,
the living and the dying,
grace for people who think they are saints,
and people who fear they are sinners.
It’s hope for our uncertain world, wisdom for the perplexed.

This Table is the place where we learn to servants be servants to one another, and to be served by our friends, and by Christ himself.
And every time, this Sacrament is a new beginning- for me, for you, for each us. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Let Jesus serve you now, so that you will go from here strengthened to serve others.
Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo