Try to imagine yourself as a first century Jew. Everything in your life is geared around keeping yourself ritually pure and clean. Your culture is full of strict rules about what you can eat, touch, wear and see. To eat the wrong thing at the wrong time, to touch the wrong animal, person or object, to see an inappropriate sight – to do any of these things is to place yourself outside of the faith. To do any of these things is to make yourself unclean and no one can approach the temple or the synagogue for worship if they are unclean. Now, imagine that someone who calls himself a rabbi, someone who is esteemed by many, stands up and says – “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” And further – “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
Incredible! Shocking! Repulsive! Jews were never allowed to get near any kind of blood or corpse and here was someone proclaiming that the faithful had to eat from his body and drink his blood. In fact, Judaism taught that all butchered animals had to be drained of all their blood before they could even be handled. Moreover, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the reasons the priest and the Levite did not stop to help the wounded man along the side of the road is that the wounded man might have been dead and to come in contact with a corpse was to completely defile oneself. And yet, here was Jesus asking people to literally feed on his body. Unimaginable!
Every Sunday the Eucharist is celebrated at St. James’s. Every Sunday children, teenagers, adults and senior citizens come to this rail to feed on the body and blood of Christ. Isn’t it interesting that the very act which seemed the most bizarre, the most, extreme to first century Jews, has become the most common and accepted practice of Christians for more than two millennia. In fact, I have people who tell me they think we have Communion too often, that the church is too focused on the Eucharist as our Sunday morning liturgy.
You know something; I do not believe in coincidence, I believe only in grace. As a result, I see it as the most wonderful manifestation of God’s grace that on this Sunday of all Sundays we would have Jesus’ saying – “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” On a Sunday when much of the Anglican world is in turmoil over the decisions of General Convention regarding the bishop elect of New Hampshire and same sex relationships I think it is superbly graceful that in today’s gospel we should focus on what brings us together when so much seems to be pulling us apart. I cannot think of anything more personally comforting than to be reminded today of our common need to feed on Christ.
Many of you may not know this, but in the summer of 2000, before I came to St. James’s, I was a delegate from the Diocese of Georgia to the last General Convention. Actually, I was an alternate who became a delegate at the last minute when for health reasons another delegate was unable to attend. Melissa and I spent ten days in Denver, Colorado working with thousands of other Episcopalians on a myriad of subjects trying to discern God’s will for the church. Many of the same hot button issues dealt with in Minneapolis were on the table for discussion in Denver. And then as now the emotions were running high and the labels were flying. Everyday when we arrived for the morning session we literally received dozens of publications each one pushing some sort of agenda. People wore various buttons labeling themselves and declaring their support for one issue or another. “Are you the right kind of Christian?” all these groups seemed to want to know. “Are you progressive enough, orthodox enough, open enough, biblical enough?” As two people who arrived with very few preconceived notions we found all this pressure a little overwhelming.
But as we look back on those ten days what Melissa and I remember most are not the issues or the fights, the arguments or the positions. Honestly, what we remember most, what we found most powerful and life changing were the times when all of us came together in worship. Every morning before our day began thousands of us would gather together in small groups to study the Bible and share together in the Eucharist. Quite honestly I didn’t expect much from those times together. They seemed more like duty rather than opportunity. Sure it was worship, but I think I thought the real work would begin when the worship was over. I could not have been more wrong – what was most real was the worship. You see, our divisions were obvious enough. Words highlighting our differences were cheap and in great supply. It is what held us together that was actually profound. We were different people from across the country and around the world. However, as we worshiped together and shared scripture it became so obvious that each one of us was trying to understand God’s word – whether we were gay or straight, liberal or conservative, lay or ordained – each one of us was trying to serve Christ. As Melissa and I stood in line with those thousands to receive communion, all of us with our hands outstretched and our mouths opened, everything that stood between us seemed to melt away. We were many but in the eucharist we were being made one, one Christian with a thousand hearts, rising up, standing together, moving forward to feed on Christ.
Jesus shocked the Jews of his day by telling them that they had to feed on his body and his blood. This was not something they were prepared to hear from their rabbi. Perhaps the Eucharist is still shocking, wonderfully shocking, not because of what it stands for but because of what it implies. It shocks us because as different as we are, as much as we may disagree, we are all invited to come, kneel down and be fed. With our knees bent and our hands reaching out the Eucharist implies that we are more the same than we are different. With the bread in our mouths and the wine on our lips every single one of us is nothing more than another of God’s hungry children looking for strength and lasting sustenance, looking for a way to make it day by day, minute by minute.
I am tired, I have to admit it. There has been so much talk these past ten days. There have been so many words – Emails, phone calls, letters, and long conversations. Some people are excited by what has happened and they want me to know it. Some people are confused and they want me to help. Some people are hurt, deeply hurt and as their pastor their pain weighs heavily upon my heart. On this Sunday just maybe our God is telling us that for now there has been enough talk. Maybe Jesus’ words this morning are an invitation for us to quiet ourselves and receive the food which binds us together in spite of everything that might threaten to pull us apart. For, when we allow ourselves to come to God’s table humbly and openly we find an abundance of life that can be experienced in no other way, at no other time, and in no other place. It is food for life, food for our life together in the body of Christ. It is life made new every time we take his body and drink his blood and say, “Yes, I will share this cup with others just as he shares his very life with me.” Amen.