It was an ordinary Sunday morning in a small-town Lutheran church. The summer sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows behind the altar, shining through an image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, gathering up His lambs. Beneath that beautiful picture was the altar, surrounded by the communion rail, filled with those very lambs. The people of God were gathered at His table to dine with Jesus. It was the time for the distribution, the time for Christ’s very Body and precious Blood to be given into their mouths. The readings had been read, the sermon had been preached, the Words of Institution had been spoken over the bread and the wine. The gifts were there, on the altar, for all to see. Now it was time for those gifts to be given out.
The Lord’s Table, the communion rail, is a curious place. It’s the one place where the congregation is visibly in unity, whether they want to be or not. Even in a small congregation you can manage to avoid people you don’t really like or want to associate with, but at the communion rail, you’re all together, perhaps even right next to each other. That was what happened on this day. Two people, who sat on opposite sides of the sanctuary, who had probably never spoken to each other despite being members of the same small congregation, were, by the luck of the draw and an usher’s counting, placed right next to each other. And somewhat uncomfortably, they waited together for Christ’s gifts. One was named Cathy, and the other John.
Cathy had been here before; many, many times before. In fact, she took great pride in the fact that she had been baptized at that font sitting off to the side, confirmed at this very rail, and married before this altar. She had been a Christian her entire life, and had been involved in this congregation just as long. Cathy’s grandparents were charter members; this was her church in a way that it was for few others. She was on the ladies aid and the altar guild; in fact, just last week she had polished the silver chalice that would soon be coming to her lips. Cathy was one of the pillars of this congregation, a good, solid member who was always ready to help. She kept her sins, which were really quite minor, to herself. Sure, she had some wilder days in her past; she hadn’t always been perfect, but who was? Her big mistakes had been committed long ago and far away, so no one around here knew about them, and her little mistakes, well, she kept them to herself.
Not so with the man kneeling right next to her. John’s sins weren’t secret, and they hadn’t been committed far away. Everyone knew what kind of man he had been. His baptism was at the same font as Cathy’s; he had even been confirmed, even though by that point he was rarely coming to church. After confirmation day, he never came back, for twenty-five long years. John couldn’t really tell you what had driven him away from the Church; no one had made him upset, no one had offended him. Maybe that was the problem: the congregation and the pastor simply let him drift away, they didn’t care enough to try and stop him. What he did know was that the Church frowned on the things that he wanted to do, and so he didn’t need the Church. And what he wanted to do was live with his girlfriends, and so he did, one after the other. What he wanted to do was stay out late and have a good time, but what began as fun led to addiction, to substance abuse, which consumed his life and destroyed his relationships. What he wanted to do was cause trouble and have nothing to do with the Church, and he didn’t, for years and years.
John would be the first one to tell you that Jesus is stubborn, He is persistent, He is always working to call the baptized back into the faith. As he kneels at the Lord’s Table, he looks at the crucifix sitting upon the altar. “Those wounds are for me,” he thinks to himself, and tears fill his eyes. Jesus sometimes uses a bucket of cold water (or a 2x4, as John would put it) to wake us up, and John heard of Christ’s forgiveness when he hit his lowest point. Not immediately, but eventually, he came back; he moved out of his girlfriend’s place, began working on getting sober, and he started coming to church. Everyone knew who he was; everyone knew what kind of habits he had fallen into. Nothing had been done in secret—he had lived all these years only a couple blocks from the church! He knew it wouldn’t be easy to come back, and more than once he had convinced himself that it was too hard. But whenever he felt the stares as he walked in and sat in the last pew, in the very corner, whenever he didn’t feel welcomed by anyone, he looked to that crucifix and he said to himself, “Those wounds are for me.”
John wants to talk to the pastor about having communion every Sunday; it has been two weeks since Christ’s Body and Blood have been offered, and he is famished. He needs what Christ gives, and he eagerly watches the pastor as he works his way down the rail, carrying the very forgiveness of the Son of God. With a smile John remembers that private confession and absolution is offered this week: another deep drink from the well of Christ’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is why he comes, why he yearns for Sunday morning, for here and now the blood-bought gifts are given to him. Forgiveness is breaking the bonds of addiction, little by little, forgiveness is cleansing away the muck of his past. It is appropriate that he is kneeling; if he could, John would spend the whole service kneeling, bowing at Christ’s feet in gratitude for His gifts. “Those wounds are for me.”
Cathy shifts uncomfortably. She knows John, or knows of him, and she knows what he became. Frankly, she doesn’t know why he’s here. He never wanted anything to do with the Church before; why now? She doesn’t know what he’s trying to accomplish, but he’s certainly making her uncomfortable. She glances at the pastor, who is quickly approaching. It’s all really his fault. How could he bring a person like John back into the church? What kind of reputation does he want this congregation to have? If he was truly a pastor, then he would know what sort of man this was who is kneeling at the Lord’s Table. And John is only one example; she doesn’t want to be called a gossip, but she knows a thing or two about some of the other members that the elders probably don’t. This is her congregation, right? How much is it to ask that these pews be filled with highly respected, good moral people, like her? Maybe she should take her family and find a church where people are more godly, where she will feel more at home.
Cathy wants to talk to the pastor about having communion less often; it takes so long, and we don’t really need it more than once a month, right? And she has already expressed her opinion on private confession and absolution—that’s too Roman Catholic! Sure, forgiveness is important, but the Church has other things to do. Now, don’t get Cathy wrong; she doesn’t reject Christ’s gifts, and she teaches her children about forgiveness and Christ’s death. But she has been receiving those gifts for so long that they have become commonplace to her, and it is so easy, on most Sundays, to go through the motions, to kneel at the Lord’s Table and forget what she receives there.
She watches with some measure of disgust as the pastor gives John the bread, the Body of Christ. But then she hears the words: “Take and eat, this is the true Body of our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, given unto death for all of your sins.” And she catches a glimpse of John’s face. There is pure joy and deep, deep appreciation for the gift that he has been given. His love for Jesus is plain and clear for all the world to see. Then it’s her turn, and remarkably, the same words spoken to John are spoken to her: “Take and eat, this is the true Body of our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, given unto death for all of your sins.” Then, almost too soon, comes the chalice. Again, the same words are spoken to them both: “Take and drink, this is the true Blood of our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.” These words have never struck Cathy before; it’s almost as if she is hearing them for the first time rather than the thousandth time. Christ’s blood, shed for you. For you, John, and yes, for you, Cathy. This is the very Blood shed upon the cross for you, Christ’s own blood outpoured not just for those who never strayed from the Church, not just for those who have lived a decent life, but for you, John, and you, Cathy.
She looks to the crucifix with one word ringing in her ears: ‘all.’ Those wounds are for all sins; each and every one of them. Those wounds are for John’s addiction and adultery that everyone knows about; those wounds are for Cathy’s sins that are kept hidden from the world. Those wounds are for all sins. Jesus died for them all. Then, with a shock, as the pastor stands before them to speak the blessing, she remembers Jesus’ parable in the Gospel lesson. “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love Him more?” John’s debt was huge, but it had been cancelled by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Cathy suddenly realized that her debt, though not on the public record, was as large as John’s, and perhaps even larger, for she had added to it the sin of self-righteousness. Could she be forgiven, too?
At that very moment, the blessing fills the sanctuary: “Now the true Body and precious Blood of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you strong in the true faith to life everlasting. Go in peace and with great joy: your sins are forgiven!” Jesus answers yes; John’s sins are forgiven, and so are Cathy’s. They have received His Body and Blood, the price of redemption has been given into their mouths for the forgiveness of all their sins. All their sins. On this summer Sunday the light streams through the stained glass of Jesus the Good Shepherd, and the Lord Himself looks down at two of His lambs, forgiven and restored, to Him and to one another. And they kneel together in gratitude, in love, before the Christ whose shed blood covers them both. They kneel together today, and they will stand together in eternity before the Father’s throne, for Jesus has said to them, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Amen.