Sermon for August 23, 2009
Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
When we come to the communion rail to receive the bread and the wine, it’s such an intimate act. We take the body and blood of Christ into our own bodies. In that moment, there is no greater closeness, no greater vulnerability to our God. We are touched and touching God.
But even as we sense the intimacy of that moment, we need to remember that this is not a solitary act. The very word “communion” bespeaks something that happens among a group of people. The word “communion” comes from the Greek koinonia, which actually means “community.” Our sharing of bread and wine in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is a communal act. We do not share communion alone.
In fact, in 1552 Book, Archbishop Cranmer required that there be “a good number to communicate” for a valid sacrament of Holy Eucharist. For him, and for us, the Eucharist becomes an act of proclamation with visual aids.
Why do we do this act in community?
One way of seeing this proclamatory act is to remember that it memorializes the Last Supper. Jesus did not institute this act alone, he did it in community…he instructed his disciples to do this in remembrance of him, as a sign of the new covenant (Luke 21:14-20). He expected them to continue following this order to remember him, and to remember what they did not at that time know – that he was to die and rise again in glory.
Another way of seeing it is somewhat more mystical in tone. It is what happens to us as a result of receiving the bread and wine. We are transformed by the word made visible. Our participation in the Holy Eucharist changes us and helps us feel that communion with God, and with the entire Body of Christ. That is why communion makes no sense as a solitary act in an empty church – it is about transforming us as members of the Body of Christ.
When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are given eternal life. That is the message we have been receiving from the Gospel of John for several weeks now. We’ve heard that phrase “bread of life” over and over again, until we’re a wee bit tired of it. But John keeps repeating it because he knows we need to hear it. Think about what happens in today’s passage…some disciples complain that this is a difficult teaching, and some even leave. But the twelve remain. They have finally understood it. Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks plaintively, “do you also want to leave?” And Peter replies, “We cannot leave. We understand now. We can only have this eternal life through you, through your words. You are the Holy One of God.” Through the repeated message, and through the repetition of the receiving of the Eucharist, we finally understand. This is God, and this liturgy is the way to know God.
Liturgy – a word that can be translated as “the work of the people” – is a visual expression of what we believe. The words and the actions are our credo. And doing this together is essential.
The image that works for me in understanding this is that of the labyrinth.
Many of you have had the experience of walking a labyrinth. Labyrinths as Christian symbols date back to medieval times, with one of the first being at the Cathedral at Chartres. You pray before you enter. You follow the path of the labyrinth, round and round in ever smaller circles. A spiral, leading inexorably toward the center. You pray as you walk. Perhaps you stop periodically along the path. Perhaps someone else is one the path, and you slow down to let them continue, or you pass them. No matter. Everyone finds his own tempo as they walk and pray the labyrinth. Round and round, the circle tightens, until at last you are in the center, at the core. You pray, you meditate, you commune with God…and then you step back out onto the path, and wend your way out in the widening spirals to the edge, and step back into the world.
This is a useful image for us as we try to understand what our participation in the Eucharist is, and how it relates to other relationships beyond that which we have with our God.
We may, when we kneel at the communion rail, think we are in that tight center, at the core, one on one with God. But we could not have gotten there without walking the outer circles, the wider more expansive ones. Perhaps at the center we are one on one with God, but the next arc of the spiral path may be those with whom we kneel at the rail – the old friend who we’ve talked to about something that troubles us, the stranger whose children are the same age as ours, the person who shares the task of setting up each Sunday. This close-knit circle widens a little further, and we are part of all those who are with us at Saint Gabriel’s, some newcomers, some old friends, some strangers, and those of us who are part of making this service on a given Sunday. A community of faith and love and mutual support, all of us holding each other together as this limb of the Body of Christ.
But that isn’t the sum total of the labyrinth. Go out further on the spiral path and we see that we are part of a larger community that includes our mother church, where this bread and wine we will receive today was consecrated, and beyond to other churches in our region, and indeed our Diocese, where our Bishop has supported us in pastoral care by allowing us the privilege of Deacons’ Masses and where the Commission on Congregational Missions supports us and prays for us. And the next arc of the spiral shows us walking the path with the whole of the Episcopal Church, even the whole of the Anglican Communion, and beyond that all followers of Christ. We might even consider the possibility that the outermost arcs of the path include all humanity, all God’s creation.
We cannot find our way to the heart of the labyrinth without walking, and being part of, those outer rings. We cannot focus only on our relationship with God to the exclusion of all those elements of the Body of Christ, even all those elements of God’s creation, that help move us toward the center. We do not do this alone.
And this is the true miracle of this day, and this service.
The liturgy, this deacon’s mass, is unusual. We do not consecrate the bread and wine here – since I am a deacon and not a priest, I cannot yet do that – but we receive the gift of consecrated bread and wine from St James, so that we can move to the center of the labyrinth, to that moment of “take, eat this in remembrance of me.” We don’t have the ability to do it alone. We need the larger community – St James, the Diocese – to make this happen. We are held and guided in love as we walk the path to Christ, to communion, with our gracious God and with each other, when we celebrate this meal.
So, having been given this gift, what do we do with it?
The writer Annie Dillard said “Sunday congregations are like children with chemistry sets mixing up batches of TNT. They are blind to the power that they hold in their hands.” We receive the power of God’s love in this sacrament. We have the option of remaining in the center of the labyrinth, alone in contemplation with God, or walking out through the spirals again to the larger community, to the larger world. If we take that walk, carrying the power of God with us, we radiate it beyond ourselves to everyone we meet on the path. Having been transformed by the love of God, we can act in ways that demonstrate what we believe and what we want to share to those who stand outside the path. We invite them to taste and see as well, to taste and see how good this communion is.
This is not a thing to keep to ourselves. This is not a solitary and intimate tete-a-tete with the Divine, it is a raucous joyful banquet meant to be shared, a dance around the brilliant spirals of the labyrinthine pathway. And we do it with others because dancing alone is a lonely thing. We celebrate today with joy, we dance, we sing. Christ is brought to us in a new way. Let us share the feast.