Thursday, April 21, 2011
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Fargo
Exodus 12.1-14, 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; Psalm 22; John 13.1-17,31b-35
+ This Holy Week I have been surprisingly diligent in my spiritual practice. I have been very faithfully (and prayerfully) reading two books that have been especially meaningful and spiritually worthwhile. The first is Rob Bell’s very controversial book, Love Wins, a book that essentially shares some really wonderful and radical views of heaven and hell. In fact, a United Methodist pastor in Georgia was recently fired from his job for preaching about that book, though, to be honest, I didn’t find it very controversial at all.
The second book that I’ve been reading has been Nora Gallagher’s The Sacred Meal. This book is one of a series of books edited by Phyllis Tickle for the Thomas Nelson Publisher’s “Ancient Practices” series. This was the last book of the series that I had not read and I’m happy that I saved it for last. I actually am a big fan of Nora Gallagher, especially enjoying her book, Practicing Resurrection. Although I actually disagreed with her on some issues in The Sacred Meal, it’s a is a very wonderful and thought-provoking book.
In this book she deals quite honestly and, at times, quite beautifully, with the Holy Eucharist. For Gallagher, Holy Communion is THE radical and transformational event in our lives as Christians, right up there with Baptism. Gallagher, who is a Eucharistic Minister at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, sees the Holy Eucharist as a beautifully physical practice
“Communion,” she writes, “is all about the body. Every ancient practice is bodily, but this one is very, very much so. You have to move and open your mouth and hold out your hands. It is the one practice that is really about ingesting spirit, eating what call God but what may as well be called taking a bite out of infinity.”
This evening of Maundy Thursday, after all, is all about the physical. Tonight, we are experiencing physical signs of God’s presence. We are being anointed in absolution for our sins. We are coming forward to be fed with Body and Blood of Christ. In fact, these next few days are also about that merging between the physical and spiritual—about, truly, Incarnation.
This physical Body of Jesus will tomorrow be tortured and then will be nailed to the Cross. It will die and be laid in a dark tomb. On Saturday, it will be there, laid out, broken and destroyed. But on Sunday, that physical Body will rise out of that darkness. It will rise out of that destroyed state. It will come forth from that broken disgrace and will be fully and completely alive and present.
But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, we are here, in this moment. We are here on Maundy Thursday, experiencing the physical and spiritual life that we have been given. We are preparing ourselves to remember that Last Supper, as we do every Sunday. I think we often take for granted what we do at this altar each Sunday and every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. I know I do occasionally.
But what we celebrate together here is not something we should take for granted. What we celebrate here is truly an incredible and beautiful thing. It is more than just some memorial Jesus left us. It is more than just nice, quaint practice of the Church. It is an unveiling.
For a moment, the veil is lifted between this world and the next. For a moment, as we celebrate this very tangible gift of Jesus in our lives, we get to glimpse the other side of the veil. We get to see the larger worship that is going on throughout time and eternity. We gather here not only with each, but with all the Church—with those of us here, present in our bodies, and those who have gone before. In this one moment, as our liturgy reminds us, we are gathered with all the saints, and with all the angels and archangels, who now sing before God in this moment.
But it’s more than just a mystical experience as well. It also lifts the veil that exists right now, right here between each of us. And we do live in a veiled world. We live in a world in which we ignore each other, in which we really and truly don’t SEE each other. Here, at the Eucharist, that veil too is lifted.
As Gallagher writes:
“Communion is…a community activity. It’s unlike every other Christian practice in that sense. Communion is meant to be done together; it has to be done in community. You can pray alone and fast alone. You can even go on pilgrimage alone. But you can’t take Communion alone. More than any other practice, taking Communion forces us to be with others, to stand with them in a circle or kneel at the altar rail…We are forced to be with strangers and people we don’t like, persons of different colors and those with bad breath or breathing cheap alcohol…It forced ‘them’ to be with ‘us’ and us to be with them. Communion is, more than any other act, a humbling experience. We are struck with each other, at that altar, for at least a few moments.”
Tonight, we are all experiencing humbling experiences. Tonight, we, the followers of Jesus, are witnessing Jesus truly humble himself. He humbles himself in the washing of feet. And he humbles himself in his giving himself to us in the basic element of bread and wine. And he invites us, as well to enter into this humbling experience—this experience in which we need to encounter each other in this most basic of acts. He essentially invites us to enter into what Gallagher calls “the kingdom of the living bread.”
What we experience here with each other at this altar in Holy Communion is truly a bridge of sorts. We find that the divine is present to us in some thing we can touch and taste and in those gathered with us here. And more than just some spiritual practice we do, we do this not just with our spirits, but with our very bodies as well.
We do it with our very physical presence. And, in doing so, we realize that we are catching a glimpse of the resurrected state that we will so glorious celebrate in just a few days time on Sunday morning. What comes to us at this altar, is truly the manna come down from heaven. It is a reminder to us of the sacrifice of that Lamb of God, which we found prefigured in our reading from Exodus.
During this past season of Lent, on Wednesday nights at St. Stephen’s, either Pastor Mark or myself would raise the broken bread and say, “This is the Lamb of God. This is the one who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are we are invited to this supper.” This not just quaint language we use in the church. This not just poetic symbolism. This is the foundation of our belief.
What we celebrate at this altar is not just some archaic sacrament, left over from some forgotten chapter of history Maybe it is the outside world. If someone who has no idea what Communion was saw us tonight they would definitely be confused. Certainly the bit of bread we receive and the little taste of wine is not enough to sustain us. It is not going to quench our physical thirst or sure our growling stomachs. By outward standards what we do at this altar is frivolous.
As Gallagher writes: “Taking Communion…is a creative acts, and it makes no more ‘sense than writing a poem, or for that matter, reading one. It isn’t going to get you anywhere in the world; it’s not networking; it has no practical worth.”
And she is right. As Simone Weil once said, every creative act is a “folly of love.” Still, for us, who celebrate this mystery together, we do leave here filled. We do leave here spiritually fed. We do come away with a sense that Jesus is present and that he goes with us—each of us—all of us—from this altar and from this church, into the world.
So, let us come forward to this altar tonight, with each other. Let us come forward to this kingdom of the living bread. Let us also come forward on this night in which Jesus instituted this incredible sacrament in which he remains with us, on this night in which he humbled himself and invites us, as well, to humble ourselves. Let us humble ourselves and be fed. And let us go from here, humbled and fed, to feed others and to be the Presence of Christ to others.