2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; John 6:35, 41-51
This morning we continue our journey in the sixth chapter of John and our exploration of the Eucharist. It is interesting to note the unusual way this morning’s gospel reading begins: It repeats the final verse of last week’s reading.
Of course, that’s because this statement is the linchpin of the chapter: “Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
This is the first of the “I am” statements offered by the gospel of John. Later in the gospel Jesus says:
“I am the light of the world”
“I am the door”
“I am the good shepherd”
“I am the resurrection and the life”
“I am the way, the truth, and the life”
“I am the true vine.”
Clearly this gospel writer likes metaphor—and the writer understands that it is difficult to pin down exactly who this Jesus is. The people Jesus is speaking to in this passage are certainly confused. They simply cannot square the idea that this man, who they remember as a little boy—whose parents they know—could be the Son of God. I am sure we would react the same way. If one of us here at St. Paul’s were to begin speaking of him or herself in such terms, we would be sure that it was a joke—or that that our friend was clearly crazy. Certainly we would not accept him or her at his word.
And yet, we hear these words of Christ and take them as truth. Of course, that’s because we know the end of the story; and we have years of scholarly guidance and tradition to help us understand the truth of who Christ was and is. We believe.
And we have the reinforcing ritual of the Eucharist that reminds us each week of the power of this man and his actions, and the way that he guides us into fruitful relationships with each other and the world.
This morning I would like us to think about who we are when we come to the Eucharist—what we bring, what our roles are, what is happening with us in the midst of this sacred act. All of this is in anticipation of next week’s instructed Eucharist, when we will have a sermon in parts – spaced throughout the service, to explore what we are up to at each part of the ritual.
First, a little etymology: The Greek noun εὐχαριστία (eucharistia), means “thanksgiving,” but that is not the name used in the New Testament for the communion rite. The related
Greek verb is found in this the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, in the earliest reference to this ritual. Paul says: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” [1 Corinthians 11:23-24][i]
Some scholars think that the Eucharist had its origins in a pagan context, where dinners to memorialize the dead were common. Of course, it is also tied to the Passover Seder meal, which was the occasion for the meal. Justin Martyr, writing around the middle of the second century, gives the oldest description of something that can be recognized as the ritual that is in use today.[ii]
We take the Eucharist to be one of the sacraments, the others being baptism, confirmation, ordination, marriage, confession, and anointing of the sick. The Catechism at the back of The Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace – the means by which we receive the grace of Christ.[iii]
The sacrament of baptism is tied to the Eucharist—that is, our church Canons, or laws, say that only baptized Christians should take communion. For church nerds, this is a real point of contention. There are folks who are equally vehement on both sides of this question—some think that indeed only baptized Christians should take communion, and some believe that, as a real representation of the grace-filled gift of Jesus—that is, that Christ death and resurrection as a sign of the triumph over death itself is a gift given to any and everyone—no one should be turned away from Communion.
I find that I have changed on this question myself. Those of you who know me realize that I am pretty much a company man; if the church says you need to baptized to receive communion, I have been willing to go that way. But over the last few years I have realized that this is not really how I feel about it. I now see that, in my heart of hearts, I want to offer communion to anyone who wants to receive it. I hope they will then come back and ask questions, and that together we can explore the meaning of this gift, hopefully resulting with their desire to be baptized. But I am OK if they don’t. Again, I believe the gift is still theirs, even if they have not passed through the waters of baptism.
I hope that is not too shocking to any of you. I am happy to talk further with you about it, if you like. And I may feel differently about it in a few years. Of course, the flip side of this coin is that if we allow anyone to take communion, whether or not they are baptized, we rob both sacraments—baptism and communion—of much of their meaning. Now, I want to hasten to add that there’s nothing wrong with the unbaptized taking communion—lightning will not strike, nor are there liturgical police lurking about, ready to issue a citation. In any event, I think we need to understand what we are doing and why we do it, and then stand firm in that understanding.
John Westerhoff, a professor from Duke Divinity School, says in his book, Living Faithfully as a Prayer Book People that, “each week we set apart a sacred time to become aware of God’s grace, God’s presence and action in our lives and history, made known to us in Baptism. And in doing so there is a meeting, an encounter, an exchange that is life giving and life empowering. And then we are sent forth… to witness to the gospel of God’s radical action in human life and history.”
And then he says this: “Through our weekly participation in the Eucharist, we are reconstituted as Christ’s body, made aware that we are infused with Christ’s character, and empowered to be Christ’s presence in the world.”[iv]
Yes! I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is so much of why I believe in what we do here in worship, and why I have given my life to this vocation. Before a service starts, I pray. And again and again I find myself giving a prayer of thanks for the privilege of leading the people of God in worship, and a petition that our worship will equip us all to be the hands and heart of Christ in our world.
The Eucharist is the primary way that we are equipped for that work. We are reminded not only of the beautiful gift of grace that Christ has given us all, but also that we have everything that is needed to be the instruments of God. We receive a reminder of the gift of God’s grace.
Through the ritual acts of the Eucharist—as bread and wine are prepared, blessed, broken, and given—we remember again our place in the history of Christ’s people and our obligation to continue that history.
That brings me to another powerful point of Westerhoff’s. He says, “At every Eucharist, we, the Church, make present again that which happened long ago, and at the same time, make present now that which is yet to come in God’s good time.”[v]
In the ritual of the Eucharist we are not only remembering the actions of Christ. We are also getting a taste of the promise of God: That all of God’s children (that means EVERYBODY) will be gathered around God’s dinner table, and that all will receive what they need to thrive. That’s a beautiful idea, and a lot to strive for. But we know that Jesus shows us the way to that kind of abundance for all, by focusing on love and daring to be the instruments of God.
Forgive me for quoting Westerhoff one more time, but what he says is just too good. He says, “Every Sunday God invites us to leave our homes, labors, and absorption in this world so that we might experience ascending out of ‘this world’ to be participants in ‘the world to come.’ For a few brief moments we enter into a redeemed world, freed from the horrors of life in ordinary space and time. Miraculously, this is not an ‘other’ world entirely different from the world of our daily lives and work. It is the same world, already perfected in Christ, but not yet perfected in us. It is the same world we know best, but redeemed and restored in Christ.”[vi]
The Eucharist gives us a new reality, a new way to look at the world around us and see what is possible. It is a sign, a symbol of the world that we desire and that is possible, but only if we live as people of the bread and wine.
Jesus invites us to the table to eat of the living bread, which is his body and blood. We are called to remember his love for us in death and his promise to bring each of us to eternal life. To learn the ritual—to partake in this dance of liturgy that is ours, is not hard. But to be fully present to the moment, to really take in the gift of grace that God offers through Christ, that is the work of a lifetime.
Those who were with Jesus in today’s gospel found living into this gift grace to be hard work. Like them, we are called to open our minds and our hearts to the truth of who Christ is, and to the promise that he holds for us and for our world. Amen.
[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_the_Eucharist, accessed 8/10/2012
[iii] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, pp. 857, 860.
[iv] Westerhoff, John H. Living Faithfully as a Prayer Book People. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004, p. 76.
[v] Ibid. p. 77.