The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The Eucharist John 6
As I mentioned two weeks ago, for 5 Sundays in a row our gospel has been about bread. As we’ve remained in the 6th chapter of John’s gospel, we’ve heard of it again and again. Today Jesus repeats himself: those who eat his flesh as bread from heaven will live forever.
For the early church, this chapter of John’s gospel was a song of praise about the Eucharist, their central, sacred meal. And so today as we conclude this chapter I thought it might be good to reflect on this, our most important form of worship. I’m going to walk us through the Eucharist, saying a little bit about each section of it.
Our Eucharist is a kind of mystery play, a sacred drama about the big things in life. Worship doesn’t explain these big things to us; it provides an atmosphere where we can experience them. For who can explain such things as creation, suffering, hope, and the reach of God’s love? We can’t. All we can do is dance around in the atmosphere of this mystery for an hour or so, and see what rubs off on us.
When we arrive here, the play begins. Greeting our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are all on the same level. Unlike many social settings, here it does not matter what kind of car you drove into the lot, what you do for a living, or what your political opinions are. You walk onto this campus as a child of God. You are that lowly and that precious, and so is everyone you meet. If you are looking for it, you can see everyone this way. What a relief to just be human together, having taken off our roles and masks. Where else can we do this?
Before we worship, many of us dip our fingers into the baptismal font and make the sign of the cross on ourselves, reminding ourselves of who we are, at the core of our being. We are baptized, marked as Christ’s own forever; we are already one with God in Christ. And so worship is not a struggle to get to God. We’re already there, and it is a celebration of this fact.
In the pew, we pray. We request silence before worship, so that each can prepare in their own way. Some reflect on the week that has passed, offering it all, good and bad, to God. Others come with something heavy that is pressing on them, and offer that. Some of us just sit in the morning light, settling in to this holy place where so much illumination, healing, and unspoken intimacy takes place.
After we praise God in opening hymn, we pray the Collect for Purity. Our hearts are open, our desires are known, and no secrets are hid. We pray that for the next hour, the thoughts of our hearts will be cleansed, so that we might perfectly love the Holy One who reaches out to us in this sacrament. What better preparation for worship could we make?
Next, we listen to ancient Hebrew scriptures, a psalm, and early Christian texts. We call this “the living Word.” For us, as People of the Book, it is different from listening to poetry or an inspiring passage from some spiritual author. It is alive. This is truth about life that has been revealed to humanity by our Creator. God’s truth in scripture s certainly mixed in with lots of not-so-edifying personal and cultural baggage, but the light from heaven nevertheless breaks through. God speaks.
For what human author, all on their own, could write such things as “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them…come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest…what is it that the Lord requires, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?”
We can only listen expectantly as the living Word is proclaimed, as it works its way into our hearts, as preachers fumble to say something helpful about it. The living Word has a life of its own, and if we expose ourselves to it, if we approach it with a humble and open mind, it will affect us. God reaches into us with this revelation.
We then affirm the ancient creed of the church, some of us thinking we know what we mean by these words. Others aren’t so sure, simply reciting it out of respect, because it is the primary faith statement of the historic and worldwide church of which they are a part. In any case, these highly symbolic phrases of the creed should not be fretted over word by word. It is a hymn of praise, an affirmation of our trust in the Creator, the human and divine Jesus, the Spirit, and the gift of Christian community.
In the Prayers of the People, we offer our individual needs, to be sure. But we also rise up out of ourselves in communion with millions of our brothers and sisters who suffer hunger, illness, and injustice. We give thanks for the gift of life, for those who have died, and we offer ourselves as servants to the world. All of this is vastly bigger than what we usually pray about, isn’t it? We need this self-transcendence at least once a week in order to put ourselves in perspective.
In the confession of sin, the words we use out of the prayer book are refreshingly matter-of-fact, to the point. Unless we’ve recently done something awful, this isn’t a time for emotional hand-wringing. And in our tradition, it isn’t a time to grovel because we know that at our core, we’re miserable wretches. Our confession is a public acknowledgment, here in the presence of our brothers and sisters, that we all do things that compromise God’s intention for us, and that we want God to strengthen our goodness. And in being absolved, we are reminded that while our sin matters greatly, in another way it doesn’t matter at all. We are only human, and God is the renewing power of pure love: complete and unconditional love.
The offertory is when we present to God our lives, as they are. We are an open book, vulnerable and willing. Everything in our worship up to this point that has been remembered, revealed, and given thanks for is offered back. We offer food for our hungry brothers and sisters in our neighborhood. We offer bread and wine, fruit of the earth, made by human hands. We offer our money, a reward for the work we have done in the world, so that it might be transformed into the work that God does in the world. Above all, we offer thanks in music and praise.
And finally, the denouement, the final act where all the strands of this sacred play come together: holy communion. We begin by recounting the history of God’s interaction with the world from the beginning of creation. This history culminates in Christ’s self-offering, and then it extends into this time and place.
This is more than a remembrance of what took place 2,000 years ago at the Last Supper. It is the past become present. We are the apostles. Jesus is speaking through the celebrant. He is telling us that he is here, now, in the consecrated bread and wine, just as he has already been here in our gathering, in the living Word, in the prayers, and in the absolution. He is here.
As we come up to the altar, we take into our bodies the body of Christ. He mingles with our being, and is embodied in us. This is more than a spiritual vitamin. It is Christ himself inhabiting us. If we know this, then our spiritual life is not just something we are struggling to carry out all by ourselves. It is the resurrected Christ living through us. As he said in today’s gospel, Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
Having done this, there is no need for further delay. We are immediately sent back into the world as Christ’s hands, heart, and mind. Go, we say, go forth into the world as witnesses of Christ, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit; go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
This is when the real worship begins, when we carry out what we have experienced here and take it seriously enough to live it. True worship of God is not a pious sentiment in this room. Worship is a response, a willingness to be poor in spirit and rich in faith, to abide in God, to love justice, do mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
I have only mentioned a few of the possibilities of this mystery play. That’s all I can do. Don’t try to hold on mentally to all that I have said. Just hang around in this holy atmosphere with an open heart. Watch for what God is trying to reveal to you, and be willing to respond in how you live. And, as the people in recovery groups say, Keep coming back; it works if you work it.