The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 19, 2018
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen.
As I get to know more people, and talk to you about what you love in the worship here at St. Stephen’s, I hear about many different things: the beautiful music, this sacred and inspiring space, the time with friends and family, the peace and solace in a busy week. All of these are important elements of what we do here. These things are hung around a structure, as ancient as the earliest centuries of the church, and even before that, drawing on the worship of the temple in Jerusalem. The structure has two parallel parts: in the first half of the service, we share the Word, reading from the Bible and reflecting on it; and in the second half we share in the Eucharist, coming together for Holy Communion. The Word is pretty clear, but what is going on when we have Communion? This practice is so central to our faith lives. And it is something we have in common with other Christians, over time and all around the world—we can think about it as a continuous, movable feast, that lasts for a whole day, as the earth spins on its axis: from Australia to Istanbul to Rome to Cohasset to California, the meal goes on each Sunday. This ritual binds us together so fundamentally that we call the whole body of the faithful, the Communion of Saints. We are part of a subset of Christianity, based on our particular history, and we call it the Anglican Communion, the churches that grew out of the English tradition. When we forge bonds with other churches, like the Lutherans of the ELCA, with call that being in Communion. So what is it, then, this Communion that we’re doing all the time, and why do we do it?
First, we do it because it’s commanded in scripture: the Story of the Last Supper, which we read in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, there is the account of the words Christ used, instructing them to “do this in remembrance of me.” A celebration of this meal has been part of the worship of Jesus’ followers from the very beginning, right down through two thousand years of the history of the church. So everyone agrees that we should be doing this, because Jesus said so, and because this is what the church He created does. The practice is nearly universal, among the Christian traditions. But what do we believe is happening, when we do this? That’s where we begin to differ.
One of the most influential thinkers who shaped our theology was St. Augustine, a bishop in North Africa right around the year 400—he wrote about sacraments, which is another way we describe Communion. What makes this meal a sacrament, rather than just dinner? Augustine said that a sacrament happens when the Words of God and physical elements, stuff from this world, are joined. God has promised to be here with us, when we put these words and these things together. In Baptism, that’s the Words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” together with the water that we wash or sprinkle, or dunk the person in. In the Eucharist, that’s the Words from the Last Supper, together with the bread and wine that we eat.
In those Words from the Last Supper, as well as in our Gospel passage today, Jesus connects this eating to himself, and that has always kind of freaked people out. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” The early Christians were accused of being cannibals by those who heard about this ritual, and the discomfort and questions surrounding it have persisted, and caused Christians to think about it in different ways. Medieval Christians weren’t so bothered by the cannibalism idea, but they wondered, as any child does, why the bread and wine don’t look and feel and taste like flesh and blood. Using the science of their time, they came up with transubstantiation, saying that the bread and wine keep their appearance and form but change in their essence, so that the elements physically are flesh and blood, they just look and feel and taste like bread and wine. As scientific theories have evolved, we’ve lost that idea of an essence of things, that goes beyond what our senses can perceive. Christians who’ve focused on the cannibalism problem, have denied that the bread and wine ever become Jesus’ flesh, except symbolically. In this way of thinking about it, there is not a physical eating, just a spiritual remembering. How do we understand what Jesus told us to do, how do we explain it to ourselves, and to other people? Is it a symbol, or is it “real” in some way, and what does that mean? Eating His flesh and drinking His blood—that’s pretty gross. Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we can be pretty gross. The way our bodies are, the things that happen to us, can be downright undignified, to say the least. Do we want a God who’s above it all, purely spiritual, or One who lovingly comes right down into the mess with us, and says, there’s nowhere I won’t follow you? There’s nothing I’m afraid of, nothing I despise—decay, disease, death, you don’t go there alone, I go through it with you.
That is the gift of the Incarnation, the coming together of physical and spiritual, human and divine, for us. God’s Word of mercy and love comes to our hearts and minds. And God’s Word comes to our bodies, as well. Our bodies are made by God, and God desires to redeem them, too. Some people have believed that flesh is less than spirit, is evil or dirty, that we have to transcend it to become pure or even recognizable, to God, but the sacramental traditions say that God embraces all of Creation: Words and stuff are joined. God wants to feed and heal us, and live within us, in every way. Not just as an idea, but as every part of us. This is how we begin to live our eternal lives, at the same time as we are still here on earth. That is how we become, as the Rite I prayer after Communion says, “The blessed company of all faithful people.” I always think it is especially poignant to share Communion with someone who is grieving—for we say, as we distribute the elements: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” In that sacred moment, we are breaking bread again with our beloved ones, sharing the feast, across the great divide. Tasting the same food. I don’t know how that works. But I know, with gratitude, that this is the gift of Christ’s coming, to bring us all back together, so that nothing, no one, is lost. The one who eats this bread will live forever. Amen.