Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Scandal of the Eucharist


There is little doubt that September 11th 2001 will serve as a defining moment for my generation of Americans. I was in college at the time, a time in my life where my adult identity was just beginning to come into focus. I reflect upon those days often, as I’m sure many of you do as well. One thing I will always recall is the way the nation seemed to pull together in the days immediately following. There was a greater sense of solidarity between people, a collective mourning that made us all a bit more sober. There was indeed goodwill among neighbors at that time, but sadly, my memory is also marred by its opposite. I’ll never forget walking by the store front Gudwara—the place of worship for our local Sikh community—and seeing that it was vandalized, pelted with eggs, and the words, “Go home terrorist” sprawled on the front. The Sikhs are not a Muslim sect and certainly have nothing in common with the extremists who attacked us, but the vandals didn’t know that or for that matter care. All they knew was that these people were different. They were strangers and they bore some ethnic similarities with the terrorists who hijacked those planes.

We fear what we don’t understand. Those who are different from the mainstream culture will always be vulnerable to fear, hostility, and on occasion even violence. In the Old Testament, when God brought his people into the Promised Land, he charged them that they should not forget that they too were once strangers and sojourners in a foreign land and so they should treat the foreigners in their midst with compassion. As Christians we too would do well to remember this exhortation. We have not always enjoyed the place of respect and cultural prominence we do today, and if the latest Pew research findings are to be believed, that influence is waning. In its earliest days, Christians were a despised minority in the Roman Empire and persecuted for their beliefs.

The Roman historian Tacitus described the persecution of Christians: “In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and torn to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights.”

What escalated into violence began with misunderstanding, fear, and suspicion. Christians were accused of atheism because they refused to pay tribute to the pagan deities. The mingling of social classes and the intimacy of fellowship among Christians was considered indecent. “They love each other almost before they know each other” one critic said. They were accused of sexual immorality because they greeted one another with a kiss and suspected of incest because even husbands and wives referred to one another as brother and sister. Some historians suggest that, like the Sikhs in my home town, the Early Christians may have suffered from guilt by association with heretical sects that used similar language but practiced licentiousness.

Among the most feared and misunderstood practices of the Early Church, was the sacred meal that we celebrate today, the Holy Eucharist. The Christians were accused of indulging in dark, abhorrent, rituals involving sorcery. In fact, the phrase Hoc est corpus meum ("This is my body") from the Latin words of institution is where the term "hocus pocus" derives from.

 Most shockingly it was believed that these rituals involved human sacrifice and cannibalism. It easy to see where those rumors came from. In the Eucharist, we believe that we receive the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’ words are indeed shocking to the uninitiated, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53 ESV). Even the disciples said amongst themselves, “This is a hard saying! Who can listen to it?”

Last week we spoke about the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Our receiving of the true body and blood of our Lord in Holy Communion and the participation in his death and resurrection that accompanies it is another holy mystery that transcends our ability to comprehend in its fullness. Just as our attempts to define precisely how God is three and yet one tends to lead us astray, so I believe do attempts to define precisely what happens in Holy Communion. The Eucharist is best understood in practice. It is like a burning hot coal. While in the fire it glows with light, but if you remove it to examine it, it turns dead and cold.

We must not shrink back from the mystery and say that it is merely symbolic, but neither can we comprehend its fullness, we can only receive the gifts of God believing that they are indeed what Christ said they were: his body and blood. Jesus is the true bread that comes down from heaven. He speaks of his flesh as like the manna that was given to the people of Israel by God in the wilderness to sustain them. Our reading from 1 Corinthians compares his blood to the rock the gushed out water in the wilderness.

Jesus gives us himself in the Holy Eucharist to strengthen us in our spiritual journey until we reach the Promised Land. Through this meal we receive life. Our communal participation in this feast is also meant to bind us together as one family in the body of Christ. We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread and one cup.

The mystery surrounding this rite and the shocking claims made about it have done much to fuel scandal, but too often it is we ourselves who have brought scandal on this holy feast. Our Lord intended that the Eucharistic celebration be an instrument of joy and unity for his people, but too often it has been our greatest source of division. Perhaps no other single issue has brought more strife and contention among Christians than disagreements about the meaning of Holy Communion and how it should be celebrated. It seems to me that this can only be a demonic inversion of the true purpose of the Eucharist. There are many things that divide us; we have different theological opinions, different political convictions, we come from different economic classes and cultural backgrounds, but Christ calls us to set aside those differences and be united as one people. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

We are united in this sacrifice of bread and wine. We present to God these humble gifts but it is we who receive from him a blessing that surpasses all that we can ask or imagine, the grace of Holy Communion. We are the constant recipients of God’s love and generosity. Every breath that we take is a gift from him. All that we have and indeed our very existence comes from him. This is how we say thank you to God for all that he has given us.

The key to unlocking God’s blessing is gratitude. We have not received all that God has for us if we let his blessing die with us, rather it multiplies like the loaves and fishes when we offer it up in thanksgiving. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
It was the Christian commitment to this principle that began to turn the Church from a despised minority to an ever growing and influential people in the Roman Empire. When a horrible plague broke out, many at first blamed the Christians for what was happening. But the love and compassion that believers showed in caring not only for each other but all the sick and suffering—often at great personal cost and danger for themselves—astonished their neighbors and led to many conversions.
It was C.S. Lewis who said “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses” and Saint John Chrysostom who said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the Church door, you will not find him in the Chalice.”

At the end of the Eucharistic celebration the congregation is blessed and sent out to do the work that God has given them to do. Having been fed with the spiritual food of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, we are sent out in strength to love our neighbor and serve the Lord.

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