Sunday, August 19, 2018
Love in Flesh and Blood: Sermon for Proper 15B
I grew up in the so-called “Bible Belt,” in churches that did not observe formal liturgy, in places that never spoke of the word “sacrament” or pondered what that word might mean. Yet, the first time I took part in an Episcopal liturgy when I was 12 years old, I felt an astonishing thing come over me.
At one level, I had no idea what was happening. Instead of sitting still, listening to a 40 minute sermon followed by a twenty minute altar call, there was all this movement—what the late great comedian and Episcopalian Robin Williams called “pew aerobics.” Up, down. Stand, sit, kneel. Genuflecting. Bowing. Crossing yourself. Juggling a service leaflet and a prayer book and a hymnal—and, this being Oklahoma— a Bible.
But it was at the start of the Holy Communion part of the service that I was absolutely broken open, heart, body, and soul. It was there that I truly felt to be a part of the great body of the Church, and felt received and accepted as I was, with all my faults. I saw how the practice of communion empowered the church, with each and every one of us as a full minister of it, to offer ourselves and all the world’s prayers before God. It left me reeling and rejoicing, all at the same time.
Jesus’s words today can leave us reeling, too. Jesus reminds us that he is the living bread sent by the living Father, and that by taking Jesus into our physical bodies we are made one with him. That promise resounds for us two thousand years later and asks us to take it seriously. And that’s hard for us. The gospel is so radical and life-changing that we often can’t help but try to tame it a little—or a lot. We try to domesticate it, water it down, and therefore place it under our control. But that’s exactly what Jesus is pushing back against in our gospel today. His words call us to renew our understanding of how earth-shaking this act of communion and thanksgiving really is.
For weeks now, Jesus has declared that he is the bread of life, and the crowd asked him for this bread, always. And we DO have it always, in the Eucharist. In our faith that lives and breathes through us, when we let it. We have it always, when we open our hearts to the presence of Christ within us, both as individuals and as a parish and in the world at large.
Count how many times the word “life” or some form of it appears in this reading. We are talking about matters of life and death here—literally. Perhaps a question we can ask ourselves is this: are we really living, or are we just existing? Are we opening ourselves to the blessings and wonders of God’s gifts to us, and then seeking to reflect that joy and hope and light into the world?
There are often times that we get so overwhelmed that we just drift along, reacting rather than being mindful. And who can blame us? There seems to be a constant tattoo of bad news—illnesses, crises, struggles to put food on the table, struggles to find time to spend with those we love, political turmoil, natural disasters—the list goes on and on. Yet it is at moments such as these that we sometimes have to be shaken out of our cycle of anxiety, take a deep breath, and remember that we are not in this alone.
Look again at this passage. Jesus PROMISES us full, rich, abundant life in him—true and real communion with him and in him. That communion with Jesus also draws us into a precious communion with each other. Such devotion Jesus offers us can be overwhelming.
Jesus is asking us to have faith enough to let ourselves be wide open to his grace, light and truth.
To have faith in the Way of Jesus, a way that is governed by a wisdom that goes against the cynicism and miserly fears that attempt to dominate us.
To be wide open to being fed with the very substance of love.
Jesus is asking to be welcomed into our inmost beings, and to recognize our oneness with the divine love that is at the beating heart of the spiritual life-- of life itself.
If we take that seriously, of course it shocks us.
Jesus’s words this week are meant to shock his listeners. When he talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, it probably makes most of us uncomfortable, and rightfully so. But even in our discomfort, we also need to see that Jesus is stating as forcefully as he can that he will feed us with his very self, seeking to be alongside us and within us always. And that’s why, for many of us, Eucharist is such a central part of our worship together each week. Yet hopefully it never becomes for us something commonplace, something expected, something routine. I personally hope to never take this for granted.
I remember the first time I listened to the Eucharistic prayer in an Episcopal church, and was invited to kneel alongside people who were largely strangers to me and raise my hands to receive this miraculous sacrament. Something electric went through me, and I have never been the same since. Even though it is years later, I can still see the faces of those around me as together we received the Body and Blood of Jesus. Each time we gather around this altar, we are joined together, and not just within this service or within this building, but across time and distance.
My father was not a church-going man, and hardly ever took communion that I can recall, yet in his last days, a priest from one of the churches I attended in Tulsa came to minister to my dad, assuring him of God’s love and offering him and all of us in the room communion. It gave him a sense of peace which I had seldom seen within him. I am convinced that every time we share in communion, he is there alongside me, and all those we love and see no more are gathered with us too. This altar stretches through time and space as we reaffirm that we all share in the heavenly banquet.
Sharing in the Eucharist together reminds us that eternity is not something trapped in the future but is now. If “Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again”… if Jesus “was, and is, and shall be, world without end, amen”… then we participate in Christ’s life right now when we gather together in worship and singing and praise (as was discussed in our reading from Ephesians), and certainly when we eat of Christ’s body and drink of his blood. We are then “in Christ, and he in us.”
And isn’t that what the Christian life is all about? To be transformed and transform ourselves and others; to be healed and to heal ourselves and others; to be fed and to feed ourselves and others. If we are in Christ and Christ is in us, we aren’t just waiting around for God to fix us or fix our society or fix our world. We are part of the life of God. Can we have faith enough to turn that around, and let God be a part of our lives, in the ways that really matter?
This is sacrament: a making holy of ourselves regardless of place, rank or time. In our gospel passage Jesus promises us this gift as part of his living ministry. We are given this gift for our benefit, and for the benefit and service of the entire world—no exceptions.
And while sacraments are all around us, and we live in what Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple called “a sacramental universe,” this sacrament of communion, along with the sacrament of baptism, melts away our walls and defenses, uniting us as one Body even outside the walls of this parish church. It reminds us that we are not just individuals, but we are members of the Body of Christ, and charges us to be Jesus’s hands, eyes, and heart in the world.
It’s an incredible thing. “This is my Body, given for you” has a multiplicity of meaning and seems foolish when we hear it. Yet through this statement, we reach up with hopeful hands and we accept that gift of Christ’s very body for us. We are also made part of that Body, and are thus called to sacrifice and service, ourselves. This sacrifice is not just done for us, but is done by us, and with us, and in us, and throughout the world. We all are empowered as ministers through this sharing and being willing to share.
It also means that, as Christ lives within us, sustaining us both body and soul, so we must be about the very real work of sustaining others. Living as Christ’s Body in the world calls us to hold nothing back, but to offer of ourselves in response to very real hunger we encounter in the world.
Here, around this altar, we meet a God who loves us enough to be one OF us. Jesus holds nothing back from us, but becomes one WITH us in spirit but also in our very bodies, absorbed into our very cells and sinews and bones. In defiance of our failures and shortcomings, because Jesus is always there with us, we become love in our bones; we are anchored within the eternal life and love of God, no matter where we are at that moment—in happiness or sorrow, in comfort or in pain, in joy or mourning, in peace or in turmoil.
In all times and in all places, may we trust in your promises, Beloved Savior, and remember that we are one with you, and you with us.
Preached at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, August 18 at the 505, and on August 19 at 8:00 and 10:15 am.
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
1) Joey Velasco (1967-2010), Filipino, Hapag ng Pag-asa (Table of Hope)
2) from wiirocku.tumblr.com
3) detail from an early depiction of the Heavenly Banquet