Sunday, August 16, 2009

11 Pentecost

August 16, 2009

John 6.51-58

For the third week in a row, we have heard Jesus expand on his image of him seeing himself as the Bread of Life. Now, for some preachers, this might be downright daunting. After all, how many times can one preach about the Bread of Life? Well, I’ll be honest, I don’t have a problem with this. If I could preach about the connections between Jesus’ message that he is the Bread of Life and the holy Eucharist every Sunday I probably could do it. I realize sometimes that I don’t think I have even scarped the surface on understanding the mystery of the Eucharist or the mystery of Jesus’ message to us concerning this Bread of Life.

Last week, although Alice Hauan preached here at St. Stephen’s, I preached at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. In my sermon at St. Mark’s, I talked a bit about how important the Eucharist is and, just so they didn’t think I was just another one of those spiky Anglo-Catholics, I explored a bit about a decidedly Lutheran understanding of the importance of the Eucharist.

This week, on my home turf, I get to preach about the Anglican understanding of the Eucharist. And it’s important for us to be reminded sometimes of this event we come together to share every week. And because the Eucharist is so important to us, its’ vital to remind ourselves of its importance because, since we do it every week, we might easily become somewhat complacent about what we are doing. Habits are easy for us to fall into. And sometimes we simply go through the motions of the Eucharist, without considering the importance of our actions. It is also good for us, as we hear this somewhat blunt language about flesh and blood to actually consider for a moment what we believe happens in this Eucharist we celebrate each Sunday and each Wednesday at this altar. It’s important, because our life as a congregation here at St. Stephen’s revolves around what we do here at this altar. The Eucharist is what our life together here at St. Stephen’s is centered around. Everything we do—all the ministry we do, all reaching out, all our welcoming of others, stems from this meal and in turn draws us back to this event.

Over the years, Anglicans have debated about what actually happens in our Eucharist. Some have been uncomfortable with the idea of the so-called “real Presence” of Jesus in the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion. And to some extent, we still do debate these issues. The Anglican view of this issue is complex to say the least. It has taken a decided (and characteristically) middle road between the definitions maintained by the Roman church—which believed in Transubstantiation—and the various Protestant denominations—which ranged from the Lutheran “in, with and under” view to the Calvinist belief that Christ is not present at all in the Eucharist—it’s purely symbolic.

I think one of the best Anglican summaries of how Jesus might be present in the Bread and the wine was written by Charles Price and Louis Weil in their book Liturgy for Living:

“…for…in the question of how Christ is present, Anglican churches have maintained their characteristic agnosticism. ‘The whole service consecrates,’ is a customary expression among us. No one part of the Eucharistic prayer, no one part of the Eucharistic liturgy, is considered more effective or more sacred than another. When the Christian community meets to do the whole eucharistic action in obedience to the risen Lord, he comes. He gives himself to us, again and again. It is part of the mystery of time.”[1]

Price and Weil then add a statement that summarizes perfectly the Anglican stance on Anglican Eucharistic theology:

“To say anything more than this in the name of the church would, we believe, transgress Anglican restraint.”[2]

Or to quote Queen Elizabeth I, as was famously quoted by Dom Gregory Dix, O.S.B.,

"He was the Word that spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it."

Whatever the case might be, the fact is that in the majority of Anglican churches, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. We reserve the Blessed Sacrament here in this tabernacle, with a light always shining before it to remind us of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Bread and the Wine that we reserve there. In those cases in which it is not reserved, it is a universal understanding in the Anglicanism, that left-over bread and/or wine is reverently consumed or properly disposed of, rather than simply being discarded or reused. This reverence only goes to show that we do believe Christ, in some way or form, is present in a distinctive way and that the elements we have—the bread and the wine—are more than just ordinary bread and wine. They contain Christ and as such should be respected.

Now all this sets us on slipper road we might not want to travel. If we think about it too much, we start getting nit-picky. We start worrying about little things, such as dropped hosts or the crumbs from broken bread.

The important thing about Eucharist is not those nit-picky little things. The importance of the Eucharist is that, at this altar, we celebrate Christ’s presence. We take Christ’s presence. And we then share Christ’s presence with others. The is the real meaning of Eucharist and that is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel. The Jesus we encounter in the Eucharist breaks down out barriers. The Jesus we encounter in the Eucharist binds us all together.

In 1984, a film came out called Places in the Heart. Some of you remember it. The story takes place in west Texas in the 1930s. Sally Field plays a housewife, whose husband is the sheriff of their local town. At the beginning of the film, her husband is just sitting down to eat with his family when he is called away to deal with a young drunk black man wielding a gun. As he gets up form the table, he puts the dinner rolls in his pockets. While he is confronting the young man on the railroad tracks (which is, incidentally drinking wine), the young man’s gun accidentally goes off and kills the sheriff. The young man is eventually lynched for the murder.

At the end of the film, we find Sally Field, Danny Glover, John Malkovich and Sally Field’s children gathered at the Baptist Church with the rest of the congregation. As the old hymn “In the Garden” plays, there is panning shot as the bread and the communion juice is passed along the pews from one person to the other. As we follow the bread and the drink being passed from person to person, we suddenly start realizing that some of the people are people we saw earlier in the film who have died. For instance, we see a family who has died in their car during a tornado. Finally, the camera stops on Sally Field’s husband and the young man who shot him. As the scene fades, they are seated side by side, sharing Communion.

In a sense, this is where our beliefs about the Eucharist come together. Sharing the Christ whose Presence sustains us and feeds us also binds us together. In the Eucharist, divisions are broken down, Old wrongs are made right. Whatever problems we might have with each other out there have vanished because here, at this altar, we are sharing this meal and partaking, in a real way, of Christ.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus, in today’s Gospel says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

What we eat here at this altar is the living Bread of heaven that has come down to us. And in this bread and in this wine we have found life. We have the eternal life he talks about in today’s Gospel.

What we do here at this altar is not a private devotion. Yes, it sustains and feeds us in our spirits on an individual basis. But what we do here is more than just for us as individuals. It is about us as a whole. I, as a priest, cannot celebrate the Eucharist alone. What we do here, we do together. We come together, we celebrate, we affirm, we consent. We come forward of to feed and then we go out, fed, to feed.

Just as the Eucharist is not something we do as individuals, it is also not something that just stops happening once we leave this church building. The Eucharist sustains us to do the work Christ calls us to do as Christians. The Eucharist gives us life so we can help life to others. What we share here isn’t just dead bread and crushed, fermented grapes. What we eat here is living flesh and living blood. And this living force drives us and provokes us and causes us to go out and share what we experience here with others.

So, yes, we can get all caught up in the nit-picky theological arguments about the reality of Christ’s presence with us in this bread and Wine. Or we can simply accept our characteristic Anglican agnosticism, we can accept that somehow, in some way more powerful and mysterious than we can even possibly imagine, Christ does give himself to us here at this altar again and again in a very real and living way. So let us take part in this living Presence that comes to us in a very basic and beautifully vital way—in food and drink. And let us together share this living presence with those whom we are called to serve.

[1] Price and Weil, Liturgy for Living. p.219
[2] Ibid.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I would like to thank-you for your wonderful sermon ..
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