Saturday, July 28, 2012

Food for the Journey

RCL Proper 17B
29 July 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus texts:  Ephesians 3.14-21 and John 6.1-21

For the audio recording of the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 eucharist, please click here.

A Public Work for the Common Good

            Recently the House of Bishops published a statement reaffirming our church’s practice of welcoming all baptized Christians to share in holy communion in Anglican congregations.  But the question of who is welcome at the table has become a matter of public discussion and dispute these days.  Our Primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, has set up a task force to explore this question and has asked me to one of the members of this task force.

            Given the debate within our church, it is serendipitous that we now come to a series of Sundays when our lectionary focuses on the sixth chapter of the gospel according to John.  In this section of the gospel John has Jesus engage in a lengthy discussion and, at times, debate with his followers and others about the meaning of ‘the bread of life’.

           So I thought that I would begin this series of Sundays with my own reflection on the five ‘movements’ of our eucharist.

            (1)  We gather as people whom God has called to share in the divine mission of creation, redemption and renewal.    

           Early in the third century a group of Christians in Asia Minor were arrested and brought before the local Roman magistrate.  They were charged with violating the imperial edict forbidding the gathering of illicit religious sects.  The magistrate asked them to recant their faith and to obey the imperial edict.  Their answer was simple, Without the Sunday gathering, we cannot exist.”  Their confession of faith was seen as a confession of guilt and their execution followed immediately.

            We can lose sight of the power of gathering together in one assembly.  All of us fear the anonymity which can happen when we participate in a large gathering of any sort.  Yet, the most important thing we may do as Christians is to continue to gather together for worship throughout the world, to hear the Word proclaimed, to offer prayer for all of creation, to share in the bread and the wine, and to be sent forth strengthened and renewed.

            To be the ekklÄ“sia means to be the assembly of those who are called out for a special purpose.  Originally used to describe the assembly of free men gathered to make decisions for the common good of the polis, ekklÄ“sia now describes the Christian assembly, summoned by God to serve the common good of all creation.  When we come together for worship, the dispersed people of God are given an opportunity to ‘collect their wits’ and to remember who we are and what we are to do.

            When asked what was the glue that held the Anglican Communion together, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said this, “We gather.”  Despite all the forces that conspire to prevent our gathering, we gather.  Despite all the temptations to do something else with our time, we gather.  We gather because we know what our sisters and brothers knew in the first centuries of the church’s mission and ministry, “Without the Sunday gathering, we cannot exist.”

            (2)  We gather to proclaim the Word of God not just to read the words.

            At an early point in his public ministry Jesus travelled to Nazareth, the town in which he had been raised.  He entered the synagogue and was invited to read the appointed reading from the prophets.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus read, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  After sitting down, Jesus said to the assembly, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[1]

            When the reader proclaims the texts appointed for the day, it is tempting to forget that he or she is speaking God’s Word to us.  Like the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, we have heard all of this before; sometimes the words roll off the surface of our minds and hearts like rain rolling off the roof of a building.  Yet, we never know when there is someone sitting next to us, in front of us, behind us --- dare I say, in us --- who need to hear the Word of God again --- for the first time.

            When the preacher interprets the words we have heard, he or she seeks to release the power of the Word of God into our midst.  Within her or his grasp lies the power to free the Word from the texts that sometimes imprisons it, so that the heart of some one sitting near to us may be “strangely warmed” and God’s new creation begins again to work its transformation of our loneliness, our despair, our fear into solidarity, hope and commitment.

            For this reason Anglicans have been loathe to omit a sermon or a homily or some reflection on the text or texts read on a given occasion.  There are many Christians in the world today who know what the Bible says.  There are fewer who have reflected upon and be trained to comment on what the Bible means.  All of us intuitively recognize the importance of context in human communication.  Often we will respond to a statement or questions by asking, “What do you mean by that?”  Likewise, the Scriptures have a theological, historical, social, cultural, and literary context that influences what is meant by what is said.  It is to the preacher that the responsibility falls to help us move from the surface of the text into the depths of its meaning.

            (3)  We gather to offer our intercessions, petitions and thanksgivings.

            When I was first ordained, it was my responsibility to travel with the Bishop and the Suffragan Bishop of Colorado on their parish visits.  On one such occasion, I accompanied the Bishop, Bill Frey, to a parish in which there was considerable dissension.  I joined him as he listened to three representatives of the congregation give their interpretations of the situation.  After each one had spoken, the first asked the Bishop, “Well, what are you going to do about this?”  “The first thing I am going to do is pray,” responded the Bishop.  At this the second person turned to the other two and said loudly, “See, I told you he wasn’t going to do a damn thing about it!”

            There are, no doubt, many people who share this view.  To some of them, prayer seems more like shouting into the wind rather than entering into conversation with the Holy One of Israel who caused all things to come into existence and who has entrusted us with the stewardship of these gifts.  To others, prayer has more in common with sending to heaven a shopping list of wants rather than the more difficult task of discerning the presence and activity of God in us and around us.

            I confess that I do not know how prayer participates in the eternal purposes of God.  But I do know that prayer changes the one who prays.  Prayer orients us to God’s purposes and opens us to God’s grace working through us.  God responds to our new-found awareness of the needs and concerns of the world by offering us the means to use the gifts we have.  We discover new avenues and ways that seemed obstructed are re-opened.  This is God’s work, not ours, but we are the agents of God’s purposes.

            Our confession of sin is a prayer that all that prevents this grace from working in us may be lifted from us, a prayer that our spiritual arteries may be cleared of the clots which prevent the blood of the Spirit from reaching our muscles.  And lest we believe that these prayers and this cleansing are meant only for ourselves as individuals, as personal possession, the liturgy brings us to our feet and face to face with the other members of Christ’s body.

            We are lifted from our prayers into an embodied expression of those intercessions, petitions, and thanksgivings.  We are bidden to exchange the peace with one another.  From the earliest generations of the Christian people it has been understood that Christian faith requires concrete expressions.  To exchange the peace is (a) to acknowledge our fellowship in Christ, (b) to put our bodies where our mouths (or thoughts) are, and (c) to commit ourselves, one to another.  Unless we choose liturgical perjury, then the exchange of the peace requires us to consider how we, in keeping with our stations in life and our personal abilities, will work for Christ’s peace in our congregations, our homes, our communities, and our world.

            (4)  We gather to share in the bread broken and the wine poured for us.

            One of the central passages of the New Testament for the history of the Holy Communion is found in chapters 10 and 11 of 1 Corinthians.  In these chapters Paul describes his understanding of the eucharist and gives instructions about how the eucharist is to be celebrated.  At one point Paul writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”[2]  To the Corinthians Paul is saying that the person who would rightly participate in the eucharistic meal must be prepared for communion with more than Jesus Christ.  Those who truly discern the presence of the body of Christ know that the body of Christ is not only on the altar:  it is in the pew in the person who is next to us.

            Christians in the early days of the church had a saying, “The temple of God is the people of God.”.  While buildings and places of worship are important as shelters for the work of the church, they should not be confused with “church”.  “Church” means people not buildings; “Church” means a people who, through the power of the risen Christ, have been given a share in the mission of God in the world.  That people needs to be sustained, fed, and strengthened in its mission.  The eucharist is food for the journey not a reward for regular attendance.

            Perhaps the oldest and most constant part of the liturgy is the Lord’s Prayer.  For two thousand years, whenever and wherever we have gathered, we have joined in this prayer.  Perhaps, however, the most difficult petition ever spoken is contained within it:  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  We impose a risky condition on God’s activity in our lives.  For those who cannot forgive, forgiveness is unlikely.  What we cannot give, we cannot truly receive.

            Then we share a loaf and a cup.  There are few places left in the world today in which strangers will share a cup together.  Despite the fears of some, Anglicans have continued to resist the temptation to diminish this visible sign of our communion by using other means.  We should take comfort in the fact that after four hundred and fifty years there are still more than seventy million of us in the world! 

            The Great Thanksgiving and the Lord’s Prayer constantly hold before us that this meal is intended to create and sustain a holy people for God.  There can be no true reception of the body of Christ in the bread wine if we are not prepared to receive it in our children, our parents, our spouses, our neighbours, the stranger in our midst, and those whose views differ from our own.
            (5)  We gather so that we can be sent forth to participate in God’s mission.

            In the Acts of the Apostles the account of Jesus’ ascension is told in some detail.  Among my favourite dimensions of the story occurs at the very end.  After Jesus has ascended into heaven, the apostles and those with them stand around looking up into the sky.  Two angels appear and, in some many words, say, “Why are standing around gaping?  Go home.  You have a mission to perform and you will soon receive what you need to perform it.”

            The shortest section of the eucharistic liturgy is its ending.  The presider may offer a brief prayer.  We join in an act of faith.  We may even sing a hymn and clear the sanctuary of its personnel.  The presider or an assisting minister says, in some many words, “Why are you standing around?  Go home.  You have a mission to perform and you have received the gifts you need to perform it.”

            The prayer after communion sets our action into its context.  We are reminded that the eucharistic meal is not to be praised but to be used.  This meal forms us into a missionary people and sends us out into a missionary field.

            So when the eucharist ends, let us go home or go to school or go to work or go on vacation.  We have a mission to perform and we have received the gifts we need to perform it.  And should we find that mission difficult and should we find our strength flagging, there is always another Sunday, either next week or the great Sunday of the promised reign of God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] Cf. Luke 4.16-21.

[2] 1 Corinthians 10.16-17 (New Revised Standard Version).

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