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Barnyard Echoes

The ceremony of Communion calls us to remember Christ's death.

I came awake at about 6 A.M. on a Saturday morning when we were living in New Jersey, and I knew I had heard something in my sleep extremely familiar yet unusual enough to have wakened me. I lay there trying to search the receding remnants of my dreams to see if I could identify the sound, and then it came again. I knew at once what it was, though I couldn't figure out how I was hearing it. It was the whistle of a steam locomotive. I jumped out of bed and telephoned the railroad station. Yes, said the ticket agent. There was a steam engine chugging through Morristown. Yes, there was to be a railroad bus excursion that day from the station in the nearby town of Dover. I rushed into my clothes and headed the car toward Dover because I feel about steam engines the way you do about football or volleyball.

When I heard the steam whistle, even though I was asleep, it set off the memory bank in my mind. It took me back to my childhood bed when I would lie in the dark and hear the shrieks of the engines and associate that with travel, which I thought was the most exciting adult thing anyone could ever do. Decades removed from the sound and emotion a steam engine and a steam whistle stirred, I can never hear it again without being instantly transported over time and space to those childhood associations. Sounds, like sights and smells, can easily do that.

Every once in a while I hear a clock, the chimes of which sound like those which were on the mantle in my grandfather's house fifty years ago and I am instantly taken back. To say, "They're playing our song," is a hackneyed joke, and yet the right music will unfailingly awaken memories to special times and special places and special circumstances on which the treasured foundations of life are built; music has that power more than anything, I believe. A voice in the crowd sounds like someone you used to know, someone you cared about, someone now gone. Yet the sound opens a whole hind of recollections you didn't even know you had stored away in your heart. The way the floor creaks in one certain spot is the way the floor creaked in our first home after we were married, and if I step on that particular board I am instantly back years to that place and to that time in our lives.

The echoes of certain sounds are mighty reminders of things that used to be once but are no more. Sometimes those memories can be very pleasant and sometimes very painful.

Every rooster crow reminded Peter of the night Jesus was arrested.

What do you suppose went through Peter's mind all the rest of his life whenever he heard a rooster crow in the morning dawn? I must say, I tend to be less critical of Peter than some. There is a legend that all the rest of Peter's life when people would recognize him in the street, unkindly, behind his back, in derision, they'd whistle the rooster's call; and he'd look back but he couldn't tell who'd done it.

I mean, he'd made such a big issue of it: "Others may deny you, Lord, but not me! I'd never, ever deny you!" And Christ smiled patiently at Peter and said to him, "Before this very night is over, before the rooster crows, you will have denied me three times." And Peter did.

But even so, I admire Peter. See how he acts; look where he is. Where were the other eleven? Or if Judas had already defected, where were the other ten? No one knows. But Peter reckless, courageous, impulsive Peter had taken up a watching place in the very courtyard of the High Priest's house where Jesus was being held under arrest.

People who are high achievers and people who get things done are usually people willing to take risks. Sometimes when you take a risk, you lose, not win, and there are penalties to be paid.

I admire Peter for his willingness to risk coming right into the High Priest's courtyard. Someone stirred up the fire, threw on a fresh log, and in the brief sparkle of the flames' flare, one of the maids from the High Priest's kitchen thought she recognized Peter, but he said no, he wasn't who she thought he was. That was the first no. She kept at it. The second no. She taunted him, didn't let up, kept coming back until Peter swore at her. The third no. But Peter stayed. That's the part of Peter I like. Anyone prudent would have left that fireside as fast as his legs could carry him. But Peter stayed. I admire that in Peter a risk taker.

Now the Romans were the police in Jerusalem. They were the force that Caesar had sent there. And they worked to a schedule that divided the night into four watches, beginning at 6 P.M., ending at 6 A.M. The third change of the guard came at 3 o'clock in the morning, and it was called the gallicinium, which is Latin for "the rooster's call." So, was it a real barnyard rooster, or was it the Roman bugle, the gallicinium signaling a change of guard, Peter heard indelibly when finally he had told off the High Priest's maid, cursed her, and sworn to her that he was not a friend of the convict Jesus?

And suddenly he remembered what Jesus had said earlier, what he had scorned, what he had made light of. "Before the rooster crows, before the gallicinium tomorrow morning," Jesus had predicted, "You will have said, 'No, I never knew him,' three times."

There is something else about this story that intrigues me. Who could have possibly told it other than Peter? Peter told it on himself. Chalk that one up for Peter, too. Another courageous act. He wasn't afraid to admit his own mistakes.

Barclay tells of a famous preacher in Scotland by the name of Brownlow North. In Aberdeen were some people with a grudge against Brownlow North, and when he came there to preach, they threatened to publicly reveal a shameful incident they had discovered in Brownlow North's past, something that had happened before he became a Christian. They told North in a letter what they intended to do to expose him. North took the letter into the pulpit with him. He read it to the congregation. He told them that the ugly incident was absolutely true as described. And then he said that through Jesus Christ he knew he had been forgiven. Through Christ he had put the past behind him and through Christ he had become a different man, a new creation.

I can see Peter doing exactly the same thing. "I hurt Christ," he told anyone who would listen. "I let him down like that. Three times in one night I failed him. Yet he still loved me and forgave me, and he will do the same for you." Through his friendship with Christ, Peter had to learn to live with the memory of the sinner he had been, had to mentally regurgitate his own accusation of himself every time the rooster crowed, which is like saying every time the alarm clock went off, Peter would waken to the memory of the kind of man he was. But then would come flooding in the assurance of Christ's forgiveness and acceptance, and Peter would arise for another day as a new man in Christ when the rooster crowed.

Every Communion reminds us of Christ's death and resurrection.

This Communion table combines the remembering power of all the senses sight and sound and touch and taste and aroma those are Aristotle's five. But let me, for our purposes here, add to aroma one other: atmosphere. This table is within an atmosphere that makes it sacred. It is here in this sacred place some of you have said to me at times, "Don't let the children run in the church." You must think I have a lot more authority than I do! But why do you feel that way about children running in church? It's a great place to run and jump and slide. It must be that you feel a special, holy atmosphere here. And Communion wouldn't be the same down in the furnace room, because the atmosphere would be wrong.

It all began in an upper room high, lighted, lifted up, set apart, and special. And when this place is made ready and we serve the sense of sight with these lovely silver vessels and with the clean, white, new linen the Communion community has provided, and when we say the right words, then, we remember and it is good for us. We remember all the other times we've done this and who was present and how we felt and what it meant to us. We remember the strange mystery of this ritual from childhood, and how the people were so solemn and so serious about this. We remember that we are one, even if in few other ways, with a billion and a half Christians all around the world who will be doing this same thing this same Sabbath starting in Fiji where it is already tomorrow by now and ending in Samoa where it will be 11 o'clock in the morning when it is 5 o'clock tonight in Pittsburgh.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Kerr's little international ecumenical idea for Shadyside Church, which grew into Worldwide Communion Sunday. Come up after the service make a pilgrimage and read the tablet which is set in the marble compass in the middle of the chancel floor.

But Communion is meaningless without the sound of its words to awaken our memories: "That the Lord Jesus, on the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; this do in remembrance of me.' " It is all being done to make us remember.

In Communion the church perpetually reconstructs, remembers the crisis in which God impacted human history. At each celebration of Communion we are there. We are on the Mount of Olives the night in which he was betrayed. We are watching at the three crosses of Calvary. We are dumbfounded before the empty tomb of Easter Day. We are present with all the company of heaven and earth awaiting the final trumpet. Communion is never irrelevant, because it is always rooted and grounded in real history. It is the memory of real events.

This morning God calls you and me to be more than observers, but participants. He wants this to be a time of life changing by the working in us of his Holy Spirit.

(c)1987 Preaching Today

Robert Holland was for eleven years, until his death in November 1983, Pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Robert Holland

Preaching Today Tape # 41


A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. Every rooster crow reminded Peter of the night Jesus was arrested

II. Every communion ceremony reminds us of Christ's death and resurrection