August 19, 2018, 13th Sunday after Pentecost, PR 15 YR B

Year B, 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15
August 19, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was


“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Is there one thing in your vocation that is why you really do it?  Like if you are a scholar, is it learning that thing, figuring something out?  Or if you are a teacher, is it that student learning that thing, figuring it out?  If you are in healthcare, is it the look on someone’s face when you figure out what the problem is?  Or when what you did relieved their suffering?  In business is it closing a deal?  Satisfying a customer?  Having a grateful employee?  Or if your vocation is parenting, is the thing that makes it all worthwhile looking in on the kids right after they fall asleep (certainly not before) but just watching them, thinking, “there goes another day together with these people”?  For many of us, our calling, our vocation has that one thing that makes it all worth it.  For me, as a priest, I will put up with a lot of credit card receipts, a lot of night meetings, a lot of bad coffee (not here, but everywhere else in the church), I will put up with a lot of the hard for me parts of ministry in order to celebrate the Mass of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

As I celebrate the Mass, raising the elements and bowing and the rest of it, besides the occasional glare at the unruly child, all that is going through my mind is “Arrived.”  You.  Me.  God.  We are here, we have arrived at this moment, in this place.  We are here, together, eternally and actually, encountering each other, abiding in each other as we eat His flesh and drink His blood just as He told us to do.  That is why I am a priest; that is why I am your priest.

Today I want to talk about the Eucharist; Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Divine Liturgy, the Great Offering, the Mass, all of which are appropriate Anglican names of the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.  The Mass is one of the two great sacraments, with ____.  (Baptism)  There are five others, which are? (Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Reconciliation and Unction).  Why are the first two special?  ___ (Jesus gave them specifically to the Church).

What is a sacrament?  Someone quote St. Augustine for me… “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  It is something that we do out here, that has something to do with God’s presence, God’s action in here.  This is the first and most important aspect of sacramental theology:  it is all grace and mystery.  Both of our theological jokers are in play.  (I’d call them our trump cards but I’d get emails).  Grace and mystery.  By grace, this comes from God alone.  Whatever efficacy, whatever benefits, whatever spiritual, relational growth you experience is God’s doing.  We who celebrate, who enact these rites, its got nothing, nothing to do with us.  That would be magic.  The Sacrament is given by grace, and by grace mysteriously.

The whole sacramental realm is cloaked in mystery.  The Anglican smug shrug is the best we can do in explaining what is going on and how.  How does it work?  {Shrug} What is actually going?  {Shrug}.   Why do we do them?  We’re all over that and will get to it in a minute, but howWhat is going on?  All we know, and you hopefully know this for yourself, is that for 2000 years people, Christians, have and do encounter the Living God around tables just like this one.  In those always stale little wafers and plastic bottles of Welches and in the hand-made organic loaves and fine Oregon port made by a friend of a friend of this church, God is there.  The proof is in the experiential pudding of billions of the faithful in every time and clime and place.  But how?  {Shrug}.  Great is the mystery of faith!

That leads us to the second super important aspect of sacramental theology.  The sacraments are the property of the church.  They were given to the Church, they are guarded by the Church, they are administered by agents of the Church in the midst of and on behalf of The Church.  The authority I have to conduct these rites is given (and can be taken away) by the Church.  My authority to celebrate is given in sacrament of Ordination, and the sacrament of Eucharist happens only here, where 2 or 3 are gathered and one of them having that authority.  It is not the ritual action that matters, it is ritual action within the relational universe that is the Church of Jesus Christ that does.  On some Sunday you feel like sleeping in, you could break out your BCP, get a little bread and wine and say Mass.  I am as certain as I can be that lightening won’t strike.  If you do it with respect in your intention, there is nothing wrong in that, it just is not a sacrament of the church, it is you, on your own, making a ritual action.  In other traditions, like the Disciples of Christ, anyone can do communion, and they do.  Dan Bryant never says the Sunday communion prayers.  Their tradition is that a lay person does it each week.  Not bad, or wrong, just different from the right way.  (That is a joke – don’t tell Dan.  The variety of Christian practice is a gift from God’s own laughing heart.  That is right for them.  And it is.  This is right for us. And it is, too).

But why do we do it?  Why do we break bread and drink wine this way?  Well here we do have a simple and definitive answer: Jesus told us to.  OK.  We good?  In our Gospel today, Jesus said“…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”  In the synoptic Gospels and St. Paul, we get the Words of Institution, the key words in the consecration of the elements.  “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you.  Do this for the remembrance of me.”   We do it because Jesus told us to.

Over time, though, the plot has thickened.  We do it because Jesus told us, but the revelation has expanded and our tradition has deepened our understanding of what is going on.  Part of it is recreating the agape-fellowship meal of the Last Supper.  It is a memorial, a symbolic  remembrance of meals past, a gathering of people together around a sacred thing in a sacred way in a sacred moment.  The past two weeks of the Bread of Life discourse sort of intimates that side of it.  Today’s reading is distinctly about a second aspect of the rite, participation in the Paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.  In the Eucharist, we participate in the Passion, the suffering, the death, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is a sacrificial, an atoning act of surrender; it is an eternal and actual participation in the entirety of Jesus Christ.  The Eucharist, as we celebrate it, is not just a memorial fellowship meal, not just a ritual act… there is a whole lot more going on.

The key word in that last sentence is “just.”  Because it is a memorial meal.  It just also is something more.  And this is the most basic Anglican theology.  From 1559 and Queen Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity, every Anglican Eucharistic prayer has included a proclamation of the Eucharist as a memorial feast, purely symbolic AND as that something else.  That something else is participation in the Paschal Mystery; it is the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament.  It is right there in the Eucharistic prayer.  In the one we’re using today, we’ll say “for the remembrance of me” twice and “Remembering now his work of redemption, and offering you this sacrifice of thanksgiving.” It is a memorial meal, very satisfying to the Protestant half of our heritage.  And we also say, at the Epiclesis, the actual moment when whatever happens we understand to happen, “Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Not “to be like” the Body and Blood, but “to be.”

Which brings us to the big misconception about what the bread and wine become.  In Roman Catholicism, they call it transubstantiation.  That is not a claim that it changes physically in any way.  It is the idea that the substance, the essence, the bread-ness and wine-ness of the elements, that changes into Jesus’ Body and Blood at the consecration. In the Anglican way, we speak of consubstantiation.  The prefix con- means together, with.  By faith we understand that at the consecration the substance of Jesus coexists with the substance of the bread and wine.  We usually call it the real spiritual presence of Jesus Christ.  Consider that when you partake.  Imagine that Jesus, mysteriously, inexplicably inhabits this bread that Jane Smith made and this wine that Bob Sogge is responsible for, or that juice that Charlie at Grateful Harvest Farm made; because He does.  In that space here between you and me and God, in our attention and intention, by grace and in mystery, that happens. These mundane, profane things become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, sacrificed, for us, on the Cross.

To be true to our way, it is worth your while to really mediate on the very real nature of all of this.  We are talking about flesh and blood.  Really.  Jesus’ body was torn and broken.  His blood was spilled on the ground.  He was publicly tortured to death by agents of an Empire at the behest of traitorous, collaborationist religious leaders.  There is nothing clean or nice in this.  It is the stuff of life and death, as real as is divinely possible.  Don’t shirk from that language.  There is a pretty obscure early 20th century Cofe scholar and priest named Sir Edwyn Hoskyns who nails this.  He preached that the language of flesh and blood is the language “by which Christianity stands or falls…”  (He was not a subtle chap).  He continues, “By our Christian language, by the express doctrine of the Church and its worship, we are being thrust into the whole relativity of human life, into the life where human beings are not God, where their ideas and notions are not the absolute Truth of God, where at best human beings speak in parables, and where their actions are not the righteousness of God, where life in fact passes to death… Into this realm of death the Lord passes with eyes wide open, with inexorable purpose, and into this realm, He draws His disciples with Him.”  In the Eucharist, we are brought with Christ into the fullness of existence, from the very best to the very, very worst that we have to offer.  Immersing ourselves in this sacrament, there is no denial, no dishonesty, just the piercing, cleansing light of a God who subjected Himself to the same world in which we dwell.  In taking the Body of Jesus into our body, in commingling the Blood of Christ with our blood, we have the chance for the scales to fall off of our eyes and encounter God, and in the light of God, encounter our world, our neighbors and ourselves in all the beauty and brokenness, in the heroism and the horrors that is the “whole relativity of human life.”

We need to see the world with the honest eyes the Mass can give us.  The CDC just reported 72,000 overdose deaths last year, we had someone passed out on our lawn on Tuesday, took like 45 minutes to wake her up.  Fires are raging in our northwest forests.  Our tax dollars are paying for bombs dropping on people all over the world.  Our empire is creaking along with its evil heart ever more obvious and its and corrupt leaders ever more shameless.  I can’t imagine facing this world, raising up children into it, let alone mustering the courage and strength resist the mounting evil, to even work on getting an actual public shelter built in our fair city, I can’t imagine doing anything worthwhile without some connection to the foundation of existence.  I am not strong enough, brave enough, patient or forgiving or loving enough to do anything helpful on my own.  I don’t think many of us are.  But the regular little dip into eternity we get around this table each week; the commingling of our bodies and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, His substance, our memory, all of it, in that encounter offered here at the altar of the Church, we are tapped into something much larger, infinite even.  What we do around this table does not end here.   There is splendor and honor and royal power in this true food and true drink.  It can, it has, it will change the world.  And it does that if you follow Jesus Christ with your eyes wide open and let Him take you where you are supposed to be.  AMEN.