Pic by Bernadette Morris (creative commons)
Sermon: Emanuel Lutheran Church, Strawberry Point, Iowa
August 23, 2015
Lutherans talk about two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion— visible signs of God’s invisible love. In Baptism, what’s visible? (Water). But Martin Luther taught that it’s not really about water. It’s about God’s promise inwithandunder that water. (Cool expression, huh? Say it with me: InWithAndUnder.
In the same way in Holy Communion, what are the visible, tangible elements? (Bread and wine or juice). Lutherans tend to say it’s not magic food. It’s the mystical presence of Christ’s body and blood inwithandunder the elements of food that are important.
In both Baptism and Communion, we celebrate the invisible, unspeakable mystery with ordinary earthy stuff.
Today’s gospel reading seems to be an invitation to think about the question: What is Holy Communion?
It’s more than a mini-Meal. It’s about being intimately woven into God’s love, connected to the wider church and living day to day at school, where you work, where you play and at your kitchen table.
Last week our confirmation students and their parents gathered to talk about what confirmation instruction might look like at Emanuel, and I was remembering when I was in middle school in Rochester, Minnesota going through my 3-year career of confirmation: Classes each Thursday night including lecture, memorization of Luther’s small catechism, writing papers, Bible study, class discussion.
What was that like? To be honest…
I kinda loved it.
It was an important time for me. My intellectual self was so ready to explore my faith. Someone brought up at our meeting that Martin Luther loved questions. As both a pastor and a professor, he framed religious education with questions. So in his Small Catachism, for example, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father, who art in heaven” and we stop there and ask: “What does this mean?” We think about the words, we wonder at their meaning. And then we move on with the next petition: “Hallowed by thy name.” And we pause again. “What could this mean? We study carefully and take it in, following our curiosity and allowing the mystery of faith to soak into us over a lifetime, our education never complete.
I think part of Holy Communion is being students sitting at Jesus’ feet over a lifetime. A holy communion— togetherness—all of us with Jesus. Asking our questions, feeling the richness of our ancient tradition and experiencing what’s brand new that God is doing in you and me.
But we don’t do this alone with Jesus. Holy Communion is also about being connected to one another.
And to me that means jokes.
You see, almost every Sunday, my friend Gabe and I find each other and share a joke. All week I’m on the lookout for a good one to tell him on Sunday. Sometimes he has one for me. Because one of my favorite things in the world is laughter, I love that Gabe and I are connected this way. So, Gabe, here’s my joke for you today. Musicians will appreciate this one.
What’s the most musical part of your body?
Your nose, because you can pick it and blow it.
[Wait for uproarious laughter and/or disapproving groans]
Communion is about community with one another. Laughing with Gabe. Knowing where people at Emanuel usually sit. That Elle will probably be at the organ, Cathy at the piano, Robbie strumming and one of our many brilliant singers helping to lead singing. Passing the peace and knowing that some of us don’t like to be touched so I can hold my hands together as a handshake-hug for them. Being in touch with Chuck’s cancer, the success of our youths’ 4-H showings at the fair. Feeling the newness of our life together as the call committee works to discern calling a new pastor.
Communion means we are doing life together. I’m grateful for where we are together and how God is leading us into the future.
But community is not only us in this room. Let’s pull the camera back. We in this room are part of a larger body, along with every other little church worshipping this morning— here in town, across the country and all over the world.
The Apostle Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church is one single body to which the many, many body parts belong (obviously) and where each body part belongs to the others. Picture a human body— male or female— with each arm, leg, ear, toe and pancreas are fully whole, each body part good, good, good and clearly belonging to the whole person. Where would we be, Paul asks, without any one part?
Holy Communion means we’re jerked out of our individualism and self-centeredness to understand we are part of something way bigger than ourselves. Something we’re not in charge of. It’s world-wide, made up of all kinds of people, most of whom do not have white skin, do not speak English and do not own a car. The church we are part of is embarrassingly wealthy, and it is dangerously poor. Our one church suffers, our one church rejoices. Our one church has AIDS, cancer, and gets shot at; our church celebrates birth, scientific discoveries and the teensiest sign of peace anywhere in the world.
Holy Communion means we claim one another– all the One Anothers to whom we belong. Beyond this room, beyond our personal preferences and prejudices, even beyond this time!
That’s another dimension of communion. We are surrounded, the book of Hebrews reads, by a great cloud of witnesses, beyond space and time. So we are part of the whole people of God that includes Abraham and Sarah, King David, Ruth and Naomi, Simon Peter and Mary of Magdella as well as our loved ones no longer with us.
Who comes to mind for you? Picture there faces, hear their voices.
We are the church that includes our ancestors going way back, our dearest companions of our lifetime as well as children and grandchildren yet to be born.
A Russian Orthodox theologian named Alexander Schmiechen puts it this way: Worship with our One Body never really begins or ends.
When we ring the bell here at Emanuel and start our service, we are simply joining the worship that has been going on continually for eons and that continues in other time zones when we at Emanuel Lutheran are finished. It’s like we just sort of step into a stream that has been flowing almost forever.
Because we are in Holy Communion.
Let’s close with John’s gospel today.
Jesus says again, “Eat and drink. But look deeper. It’s me. Eat and drink and make me part of you.”
Now people who heard this were starting to get what Jesus was about. And it made them nervous. Why? They noticed the people with whom Jesus ate and drank.
Treasonous, cheating tax collectors working for Rome.
People so sick there were laws against touching them and being close to them.
Prostitutes, and women of ill repute that didn’t have much standing in the community apart from a man.
People it was a waste of time to be with, so ridiculous a prospect to be seen with them that it truly effected the reputation of Jesus’ 3-year ministry.
Because Jesus touched them, ate with them, laughed with them, went to football games with them, quilted with them, hung out with them. He treated them like he didn’t know they were a Them. You could make the case that Jesus was killed because of who he ate and drank with.
So when Jesus said in a number of different ways, “Eat and drink me,” it began to dawn on his students what he meant. Their lives would have to change to be with those Them. The barriers between Us and Them would be dissolving into respect, compassion, maybe even handshakes and hugs.
It must have seemed impossible.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus went on: “I’m telling you. This is the Only Way. God, the Holy One of your ancestors, is calling you.” (John 6.65)
This was the last straw for some followers, the gospel says. Reading from chapter 6 that we heard today:
“Because of this many of his followers turned back and no longer went about with him.
And Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
There was, I imagine, a pregnant pause. The twelve looking around at each other.
And out of the awkward silence 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.” (John 6.68-69)
Can you feel a bit of what that must have meant to them?
And we sing those words from Peter’s mouth every Sunday around the gospel reading: “Alleluia. Lord, to Whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia.” Except what’s different about what we sing and what’s in the story?
I imagine the tone of Peter’s words to be pretty heavy. Maybe even agonizing.
Like: “Jesus, this is hard. You’re asking for a revolution. A way to live where there is no Them? Nobody that’s not part of who we think of as Us?! No male or female, no black or white, no gay or straight, no republican or democrat, no honor student or drop-out, no diseased or healthy. You want our whole lives to change to be about Communion— you even want to change the way we think!”
And the twelve men looked around at each other. And the women disciples who probably were there but weren’t counted. Restless silence.
“Jesus. A change that’s inwithandunder this meal like a contaminant? Jesus, a new world that’s somehow hidden within this world? Holy Communion with you and *Those* People— the Only Way? Outrageous. Impossible. So much at stake.
Maybe there were tears in Peter’s eyes when he said it:
“Where else can we go? You have the words of real life.”
And maybe, in considering his failures of the past and knowing so well his fear of the future… maybe Peter added under his breath: “Alleluia.”