Monday, August 24, 2015

My flesh is true food and blood is true drink

Sermon notes for Proper 16B (8/23/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

A friend in my youth who rose up the ranks of CCD (Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine), a fancy name for Sunday school, left the church as a teen and, to my knowledge, never returned. His disillusionment started, I think, when began to ask questions of the nuns who taught our confirmation classes. One memorable event occurred during a lecture (discussion were not encouraged in this particular class) about the Lord's Supper, when my friend asked the nun how the Eucharist was any different from ritual cannibalism.

“What a disgusting question! We are here talking about the most blessed sacrament…such beauty…and you reduce to some primitive ritual.” Thus ended the discussion.

The sacrament of holy Eucharist seems, at times, like a refined expression of religious devotion. The altar table is set with its starched linen, the gold-plated chalice, and the silver accoutrement – so wonderfully and adoringly set by the Altar Guild. Your rector speak the institution narrative with the deepest reverence, calls the epiclesis with wonder and awe, and sings the doxology in mellifluous tones :). There is a soothing dignity to the ritual.

Occasionally, however, the imagery of the sacrament comes slashing through the refinements, smacking us in the face with its realism. Once, when I repeated the familiar words of distribution, “The body of Christ," a small girl suddenly loudly proclaimed, “Ew, yuk!” The old ladies looked on with shock and awe and the old men snickered and I was caught a bit off guard. That is the reality of the imagery that faces us in today Gospel lesson from the end of John 6.

In his Gospel account John does not make use of the Last Supper discourse – the so-called words of institution (see Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). John’s account of Jesus’ Passover with his disciples is different, with scenes of Jesus washing feet and foretelling of betrayal and death. Nonetheless, John does have striking Eucharistic imagery, perhaps even more potent imagery than the other Gospels. Indeed, in his sixth chapter, John shows Jesus speaking of himself as “the bread of life” that has “come down from heaven,” inviting his hearers to partake of this bread – palpable and evocative images that recall the manna of the Exodus.

Then, in verse 51, the image turns, appearing much more earthy, striking, and a little confrontational. Jesus says, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews ask the obvious, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Maybe they want to give Jesus a chance to explain. Certainly, he must have misspoke. Surely, Jesus meant to say something else. After all, eating flesh appears in the Hebrew Bible only as a metaphor for great hostility and drinking of blood is an abomination forbidden by God's law.

So they ask for clarification. But Jesus responds by repeating the image and in still more explicit terms. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:53-56).
So what's going on here?

First, Jesus employs imagery here that forces us to confront the absolute reality of the incarnation. No more abstract, disembodied notions of “abiding,” “vines & branches,” and “sheep and shepherds.” Jesus now uses starkly corporeal language, from which we cannot escape. The implications of the incarnation are clear: Jesus is flesh and blood just like you and me. John the Evangelist wants his reader to be assured that Jesus is no a disembodied spirit, no Gnostic phantasm. This means that when the disciples and the Pharisees, when Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, when crowds encounter Jesus, they encounter the flesh and blood of the God who became one of them. This means that when we encounter Jesus in this story, we encounter Jesus who became flesh and blood for us. The imagery certainly gets our attention.

Second, hearing the expression “flesh and blood” would have indicated to the Jewish listeners at the time “the whole person,” similar to the English “body and soul.” So when Jesus uses the Hebrew idiom ‘flesh and blood” he means his whole person. We ought to receive the fullness of Jesus and to that we entails receiving his flesh and blood. This, then, is an expression of an intimate relationship between Jesus and Jesus’ disciples. It is no unlike the earlier expressions of relationship: Jesus is the shepherd and we are sheep. Jesus is the vine and the branches. Jesus abides in God and we abide in Jesus. The consummation of the body and blood of Jesus is an expression of the deepest intimacy that we have with our Lord.

Third, while I deeply believe those first two points are true (particularly from a literary point of view), the language used by Jesus beginning in John 6:51 demands something more. The imagery is pressed the limits of imagination, expression, and common meaning. At some point we just have to take it very seriously and quite literally as an expression of the indissoluble participation of one life in another. For those who choose Jesus, Jesus’ life clings to their bones, coursing through their veins. An indissoluble union is asked for and made. It is the ultimate communion (a coming together) of Master and disciple, of Savior and saved.

Today’s hearing has been a summation of the past five-weeks, a mini-course on the Eucharist. But it’s not an easy lesson, is it? The disciples who walked with Jesus have even declared, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” These women and men were not strangers to Jesus. Some of them had been with Jesus for two years, amazed and astonished by his teaching. They witnessed Jesus make the blind see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk. Lepers were restored and those possessed were liberated. They saw or at least knew of the water becoming wine at Cana and just the previous day had seen Jesus feed a crowd of five thousand with five barley loaves and two small fish (probably sardines), then they saw Jesus walking across the sea. But what Jesus said now was just too much.

And they were right! This is a hard story for us too! It does sound like cannibalism. Even after two-thousand years of praxis, wherein the Church fulfills the command to “do this in remembrance of me,” seeing and believing that the bread and wine become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, it is a still hard. It is hard to understand and accept that the Creator of the cosmos, the Savior of the world, the carpenter form Nazareth, is hidden under the appearance of simple food on the altar. It is hard see that the Eucharist is Word broken, Jesus the Christ, the eternal son of God.

Jesus is teaching is hard. But should that surprise us? Jesus never pretended that his teaching would be easy. We are told to forgive seven times seventy times. We are told to cut out our eyes and cut off our hands if they lead us to sin. We should turn the other check, deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and sell all that we have. Jesus taught us to lose our lives in order to save them and sacrificing ourselves as the greatest sign of love.

So, “Who can accept it?” Simply, the one who want to – the one with faith. That’s what we see in Peter’s response in verse 68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy one of God.” Jesus had watched many of his disciples turn back after the difficult teaching about his body and blood. “Do you also want to leave?,” Jesus asked the twelve. Peter’s response was one of faith and trust. The teaching wasn’t any easier for Peter than for the thousands of disciples who had just abandoned Jesus and it wasn’t any easier for the Twelve than for us. The whole idea seems only fathomable in light of the Passover meal that he would share his disciples when Jesus would take bread and wine into his hands, and totally change them into himself as he said, “This is my body: take and eat,” and “This is the chalice of my blood: take and drink.”

Nevertheless, Jesus had the words of eternal life. Peter trusted Jesus and so put faith in Jesus’ words. We believe this difficult teaching because we believe in him and believe in Jesus and trust in Jesus’ revelation of the Father.

Many attempts have been made to explain this mystery.

The early church simply affirmed that the risen Christ was with them at their celebrations of the Lord's Supper.

The middle ages saw the rise of some rather laborious attempts to explain how and even when (the exact moment) Christ was present in the sacrament. Theories such as transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and transignification, among others, sought to identify the substance of body and blood over against the elements of bread and wine.

Protestant reformers held to the notion that the bread and wine (or juice) in the Eucharist are purely symbolic representations of the body and blood of Jesus, the feast being merely commemorative.

Anglican theology, growing from the Caroline divines, insists on the “real and objective” presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the bread and wine not disappearing but the Body and Blood nevertheless real and present, neither being diminished. In this Anglican theology,, the details of how and when remain mystery

Yes, Christ's presence is real in the sacrament of holy Eucharist but the manner and means of that presence remain a mystery. The mystery is not like that of a magician who pulls a rabbit out of a hat, a feat which we can examine and understand. But the mystery that is present at Christ's table is forever beyond the reach of explanation. It is rather a mystery that we know in truth but do not fully understand. It is a mystery of love that we experience. Where does it come from? How is it sustained? How is it accomplished? We may never know but such is not less real for our lack of understanding or explanation. It is nothing less than the mystery and the power of Jesus made real and made available.

Our cerebral approach to religion often assume that the most important religious truths can always be reduced to words. But some things are beyond words. And sacraments are vital, in part, because they take us where words cannot go.

One of the great blessing of my life is bringing communion to those who are dying. It’s called viatacum, Latin for “on the way” or “for the journey.” I’m able, through the Church and this ministry that God has entrusted me with, to bring holy sustenance, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, for those making the final part of their earthly journey. There is a deep and wonderful connection that is made when this happens that goes beyond understanding and words to the experience of God’s grace and comfort.

I recall giving viaticum to Patricia. When communion was being made, these herons stood outside her window on the fence, tall and noble, all looking our direction. I don’t know but I think they recognized the presence of Christ. And Patricia – seemingly in a far off place, unrecognizable and unrecognizing, agitated and unsure – grew calm, with a serenity overcoming her as she took the communion, the Bread of life and the Cup of salvation. She could not communicate with those around her but she was communicating with the Lord she knew so well.

We had communion with Glad Joiner just a few days before she died. She wasn’t able to remember much when we started the service, dazed and lackluster. But when we started to pray the Lord’s Prayer, she perked up and prayed right along. And then she was ready, with her hands cupped and outstretched, for communion with her Lord and Savior.

I used to visit a woman who suffered from dementia. She didn’t remember me when I arrived and couldn’t hold the point of our conversation long enough for it to make any real sense. But when she put the cup of blessing to her lips, she would smile, “Thank you, Father, for bringing me Jesus.”

When I distribute communion to the littlest of the children, those for whom theological explanations are about as incomprehensible as astrophysics, I revel in the joy they express at receiving the blessings of the table. I am convinced that they know true communion, maybe not expressed in words, with Jesus and the Church.

We may not know how Christ is fully present in the meal. Such close love is always a mystery. But Jesus’ presence is no less real for all of our inability to understand and explain. What we can do is seek the mysterious blessings of the table and receive the palpable gifts of a palpable God.

O God, let us be patient with all that is still mysterious and beyond the reach of our limited minds. Amen.

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