Monday, August 14, 2006

Sermon on the Eucharist, part I

I don't normally do three-point sermons, and each of these points really deserves a sermon all its own; but parishioners have asked for some broad, basic instruction on the Eucharist so I thought breadth would be appreciated in this case. Also for pastoral reasons this sermon tries to be charitable toward Open Communion and Universalism, but let it be known I oppose both theologies. Also I planned to finish with the wonderful paragraph from Dom Gregory Dix about how the Eucharist has been found to be of value in all human circumstances -- but that's not included in this text of the sermon, and my ending here is weak. All commentary from koine is my own.

“When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” As you know, our Rector is away on vacation, so I thought I might take the opportunity to do something which is rather infrequently done in Episcopal churches – no, we’re not going to show movies in lieu of Morning Prayer – I’d like to present to you, this week and next, a two-part series of sermons on the Eucharist. The idea is not mine own, I must confess, but seems to be suggested by the gospel readings for this week and next. We’re reading in the gospel of John, the section, as you heard today, where Jesus proclaims Himself to be the Bread of Life, come down from Heaven, and given for the life of the world. I’ve divided these sermons based on the readings themselves: today’s will have to do with the meaning and effects of the Eucharist upon our lives of faith, and next week’s will have to do with the ambitious subject of the miraculous change that takes place in the elements, including the subject of transubstantiation.

By way of disclaimer, one thing that I would like to mention now is that neither of these sermons constitutes an argument for the abolition of our parish’s tradition of Morning Prayer on alternating Sundays or a change in our liturgical style. I love our services of Morning Prayer and neither the rector nor I intend to see them disappear. My intention in these sermons is not to urge change, but to help us appreciate more deeply the practices we already do.

Another thing that needs to be mentioned at the outset is that these sermons will not be systematic or comprehensive. They will probably raise questions that they won’t answer or can’t answer in the short time we have together on Sunday morning.. That’s ok – we encourage questions. They set us to thinking about God, and that’s always worthwhile. I have always enjoyed the feedback this congregation gives, and if you’d like to talk more about the Eucharist with me or with any of your clergy, please know that you’ll be welcome.

Let’s turn our attention now toward today’s Gospel reading. This exchange takes place in the city of Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Palestine. At this point in the narrative, Jesus has, within the last 24 hours, fed more than 5,000 people from five loaves and two fishes; walked on the water across the Sea in the middle of the night in an attempt to escape the crowd unnoticed; and calmed the wind and waves and fears of his disciples. He’s been tracked down by the hungry crowd, and they’ve badgered him with requests for more miraculous food production, missing the point that it’s not earthly food that Jesus offers, but spiritual food; in fact, it is himself that he offers: “I myself am the bread of life!” he exclaims in exasperation.

This is where we pick it up today. As Jesus is trying to help the crowds wrap their heads around this idea of himself as spiritual food, he emphasize three things that are important for us as we think about the Eucharist. He talks about Access to the bread of life its Effects upon our souls, and the promise of Resurrection. The key to Access here is in verse 44: “No one is able to come unto me unless the Father who sent me draw him.” The interesting word here is ‘draw’. This is not a gentle word. It’s the word used for ‘drawing’ a sword from its sheath, for seizing somebody and dragging them into court for judgment, or outside the city for stoning. To be dragged kicking and screaming is not too far off the mark here. It’s a violent word, a stark word, a word that brooks no objection, that won’t take ‘No!’ for an answer.

Does Jesus mean we should be violent people, kidnapping others like terrorists in black ski-masks and dragging them to our Eucharists? As effective as that tactic might be for increasing our average Sunday attendance, no, I don’t think that’s what Jesus has in mind here. Rather, he’s describing the grace of God in these violent terms. He’s saying that God draws us to Jesus, the Bread of Life, by an irresistible call of grace that amounts to spiritual violence. It is God’s call to us, and His grace in getting us to this table, that brooks no opposition, overcoming all obstacles in our souls and lives that tend to keep us from responding to the call. This is why Jesus can say in this passage that no one who comes to him will by any means be cast away – he’s been working hard to get us to this table – remember the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one who was lost – and once he’s found us and brought us here, there’s no way he will ever shoo us away.

What does this mean for the Eucharist? It means, primarily, that access to this table is only by grace. No one can come here unless the Father draws them – and He does draw them; He draws us! It’s only because of the Good Shepherd’s hard work that any of us lost lambs can be here at all. This should, first and foremost, cause us to approach the feast with profound gratitude. But it should also cause us to approach with humility, because this access can’t be earned. It’s not a right or an entitlement, a membership to be bought with money or good deeds or by association. When we walk up these stairs, we approach the Savior who gave his life to clear the path so that nothing would stand in our way. When we cross the floor of the choir, we come near to the God who won’t let our sins or anyone else’s keep us out. When we kneel at this rail, we embrace the God whose arms have been open to us from the very beginning, and who will never let go. That’s what it means when Jesus says, “no one can come to me unless the Father draws him” – He’s a God who won’t let go of you for any reason or at any time in your life’s journey. He’s a God who won’t let go.

That’s an amazing truth. It means we’re all in process of being brought before God’s throne – dragged, really – not so that He can judge us and punish all our wrongdoing, but so that He can insist on forgiving us. Imagine if you lived in a totalitarian state, such as the Soviet Union used to be, and you were known for resisting the ruling government. Suddenly, as you sit in your home, the secret police break in your door and haul you away to an unmarked van. They drive you to the home of the totalitarian ruler, hustle you into a throne room, and pull you across the floor to the throne of the very ruler you’ve spent your life resisting. But as you look up, you see that this ruler is your own father, your own mother; and the ruler’s first reaction is not a stern “off with his head!” but to suddenly drop everything he’s doing and come running to you, embracing you in tears and insisting that all is forgiven and that he’s missed you so much. That’s the picture that Jesus is drawing for us here. We’re all in-process of being dragged to God’s throne, as it were; in-process of meeting our Maker face to face. The Eucharist is itself the means and fulfillment of this process. In it we respond to the powerful call of God, and when we come, we meet our Maker, who insists that nothing stand in the way of full reconciliation and peace between Him and us.

There is a growing movement in the Episcopal Church for Open Communion, which means removing the one restriction we do place on access to the Eucharist – Baptism. The argument for Open Communion is that Christ has removed the obstacles here, so everyone is called, everyone is welcome to come to the table; it’s His table, not ours, and we have no right to turn anyone away. This radical openness is, I must admit, an attractive prospect, but it’s important to note that the Church already has a radically open sacrament. We already have a sacrament from which we never, ever, turn anyone away for any reason – it’s Baptism. Baptism is our radically open sacrament. Everyone is welcome – there’s no obstacle to baptism, if you want to be baptized and you’re willing to profess belief in the Gospel. Baptism is our radically open door, and it leads to the Eucharist. We never close the door to anyone, but we do insist that you go through that door and no other to get to this altar. That’s the only way, really, to take God’s powerful, even violent grace seriously. Baptism, you see, is the sacrament of Grace. It’s the way we acknowledge that God is calling us and the way that we respond, starting our journey toward Christ. That’s why we offer the Eucharist to everyone who has been baptized – everyone who is in the process.

That’s why Jesus goes on to say in verse 45: “Each one who hears the Father’s call and responds arrives at me.” The interesting word here is ‘responds’ – the word in Greek denotes increasing in both mental knowledge AND the knowledge gained by experience; it also means developing habits that support the knowledge you’ve gained. In short, this single word is a fine description for what it means to be a disciple. It’s a lifelong learning process, a commitment to a spiritual journey toward God that consists of increasing in knowledge and practical Christian living. This is what it means to be ‘dragged’ to God, as we discussed above. Each of us here today has heard the call of the Father, so each of us has begun our spiritual journey of mind and practicality, of heart and hand, led onward by the God who won’t let go. Jesus is telling us that as we progress along this journey, we eat the bread of heaven and learn the better to believe in Him. The Eucharist’s Effect upon our spiritual journey is unique, and we can’t find it anywhere else but at Christ’s table. Each Eucharist gives us a little push along the way. Not only are we called ‘dragged’ to the table, but once here we’re given a boost, like a child that is called in to supper but who is too small to reach the table himself, so he’s given a phone book or a booster seat to sit on, so he can reach the table. So it is with us – we’re called in to supper by the God who won’t let go, and not even our own human weaknesses and inadequacies are allowed to keep us from the feast. The Eucharist gives us a booster seat in practical Christian living. It helps us do what we are too weak in ourselves to do. It helps us find not only the knowledge of God but also practical, every-day ways to be disciples, to live out the love of our God who won’t let go. This is the Effect of the Eucharist on our spiritual journeys in the present.

But in this passage Jesus doesn’t speak only about the present. He mentions no fewer than five times that He will raise us up at the last day, or give us eternal life, or bring us to the goal of our journey. Our Eucharistic prayer emphasizes this future effect of the Eucharist, telling us over and over again that this Body and Blood are the pledge of our inheritance. The Eucharist is a foretaste of what is coming for us in the future. This Body and Blood of Christ is the guarantee that God will never let you go. It is the will of God, Jesus says in today’s reading, not to lose any one that he’s been given, but to raise them up at the last day.

The Eucharist is God’s given word that He will include us in the resurrection, that because Jesus’ body was raised from death and made perfect, so also our bodies will be raised from death and made perfect. The God who won’t let go, who pulls and pushes us along the journey, wants all of you – your soul and body; and saves all of you, both soul and body; and gives eternal life to all of you, soul and body. The Eucharist is that process of salvation.

Through the Eucharist, we approach the God who calls us and who won’t let go of us on our journey toward Him. Through the Eucharist, we receive help to grow toward Christian perfection, to know and practically to live out the love of God. Through the Eucharist, we have God’s guarantee of salvation and resurrection in the last day. This is an incredible gift. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. This is why, in our worship, we treat it with reverence. We bow toward the altar upon which this miracle gift comes to us. We approach it through prayer and praise and gratefulness, and we precede it with confession of our sins and the assurance, in absolution, that God forgives us. This is why the Eucharist is so important; we don’t have to do it every week, but we do have to do it. May the God who won’t let go keep us in His love.



DDX said...

Beautifully written sermon. I particularly love your eloquent desciption of the Father as "the God who will not let us go." Wonderfully and beautifully said.

However, ("...This exchange takes place in the city of Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Palestine.) I happen to know that you have been to Capernaum, not once...not twice, but four times and know very well it is not in Palestine but in Israel, or more precisely in Galilee as it was at the time of the gospel reading.

There was no Palestine in the bible. If it was not Palestine then and not Palestine now...wonder why "Palestine" is so popular?

(You know how I love to grind that axe dear FrWB)

Wonderful sermon! DDX

oops, DDX said...

Oops! Just noticed FrWB didn't write this sermon. Don't know if Fr. Thorpus has been to Capernaum or not! Thinking it to be the work of Fr WB (who is quite familiar with Israel and Capernaum) I was surprised thinking he would attribute it's location to the land of the Philistines! Sorry 'bout that... DDX

father thorpus said...

You're very kind, DDX. No, I haven't been to Israel. My choice of the word 'Palestine' was not intended to pump any Philistine egos, but rather to direct the attention of my congregation, whose geographic knowledge is not as minute as yours, to the general area of the world in which the events took place using a designation I thought they would understand and which would be heard by them as politcally neutral. Call it a harmless condescension to ignorance, if you will.

DDX said...

Dear Thorpus If our Lord called His land Israel so should His servants. in your position condescending to your own congregation's ignorance is not harmless. As God's "man on the scene" you must thoughtfully enlighten and not perpetuate ignorance...replace the political with the factual.

And, you are doing so. Good for you and us who know you. Again, beautifully written sermon. Please carry on...

J-Tron said...

Fr. Thorpus,

A wonderful sermon! And a topic that is so central to our faith. Your congregation is lucky to have you.

The one thing that I question is your suggestion that Holy Baptism is "our radically open sacrament. Everyone is welcome – there’s no obstacle to baptism, if you want to be baptized and you’re willing to profess belief in the Gospel."

While this may well be the way that we should treat Baptism, I don't think it's the way that we do. After all, we've created a liturgy in which those being baptized (or their sponsors) must make an elaborate set of promises about how they will act as Christians before we allow them to be baptized. We do not simply take their profession of faith as sufficient and allow the Holy Spirit to do the rest. In truth, we make them take classes and perform various functions before we allow them to be baptized.

Likewise, in the course of a Sunday service there is no place for baptism for someone who may come forward and present themselves for it, nor a theology presented to explain why they must wait to be baptized later. There is not even a sentence from the priest to the effect of "Those who wish to confess their faith in Christ and be welcomed into the Church should speak to me after the service so that we may discuss Holy Baptism."

If Baptism is to be a radically open sacrament in which those who are called by God to confess their faith are welcomed to both Church and the table, then we need to rethink how we do Baptism. If we are to leave Baptism and Eucharist as they are now, with the restrictions we currently hold, then we need to rethink how we understand the conferal of grace and the call that the Lord makes to those who have not yet come into his Church.

But again, a wonderful sermon overall. Excellent Eucharistic theology. I hope you'll post part II when it is ready!

father thorpus said...

My experience, in one year and a little longer of parish ministry, is that most clergy interpret the 'elaborate' promises generously, such that they do not constitute an obstacle to baptism. And all the baptisms we've done in the last year have been infant baptisms, in which case we have been approached by someone in the parish (or long-lost from active membership) asking for baptism, and they're not willing to let the baptismal promises get in their way, whether they agree with them or not. Most do, so it's not a problem. So I've not seen the baptismal promises actually be an obstacle to anyone who wants baptism. Which is not to say it can't happen. I suppose if someone found belief in the gospel a problem but still wanted baptism, I'd have to ask why. If they believe in the gospel in some way but find the Baptismal Covenant so objectionable that they can't in good conscience make those promises, again, I'd have to ask why. Does anyone have experience in this kind of situation?

Regardless, we do have a theology that accepts emergency baptism as the minimal standard of baptism, classes or not, so it's hard for me to see that the classes present an obstacle. Seems rather that they help people understand baptism better.