Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What is the Eucharist?

Today we celebrate Corpus Christi, or the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus. It is an occasion to celebrate and meditate upon the miracle of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. As Episcopalians—and especially as Episcopalians in the catholic or high church tradition—the Holy Eucharist is absolutely central to our identity and our life together.

So what exactly is the Eucharist and why is it so important? It would be impossible to say everything that needs to be said about this holy feast in one homily, but I want to offer a three point definition of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, a sacrament, and a covenant.

First, why do we call the Eucharist a sacrifice? The entire context for Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in which he instituted the Eucharist is the Passover in which lambs were offered for the salvation of the people. The sacrificial lamb was consumed in the ceremony of the Passover meal celebrated in the homes of devout Jews.

But Jesus was not merely celebrating an ordinary Passover. He was proclaiming a new Passover sacrifice. There were similarities to the Passover meal, but there were also differences. For instance there is no reference to a lamb in the gospel descriptions of their meal. There may have been one present, but the emphasis is shifted away from it. Instead when Jesus explains the meaning of the unleavened bread, as it was the hosts’ duty to do, he took it and said, “This is my body.” When he took the cup of wine he told them, “This is my blood.” In doing so, he was proclaiming himself to be the Passover lamb, the sacrifice that would deliver them from sin and lead them out of bondage.

Is the Holy Eucharist then the new Passover in which Jesus Christ is sacrificed for our sins? Not exactly. Jesus offered that once and for all perfect sacrifice upon the cross. We are not re-sacrificing Christ again and again. That would imply that Jesus’ death was not enough to save us. Everything necessary for our forgiveness and reconciliation with God has already been accomplished. This should fill our heats with peace and gratitude.

The Eucharist is a sacrifice but it is not a bloody sacrifice. The scriptures speak of a number of different kinds of sacrifices, not all of them blood sacrifice. There are grain offerings, drink offerings, and also what is called a “wave offering.”  A gift would be symbolically presented to God as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. This is how we speak of the gifts of bread and wine in the Eucharist. They are presented to God as an act of thanksgiving for Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice upon the cross.

More than a simple offering of thanksgiving, however, the Eucharist is also a sacrament. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of a heavenly, spiritual, reality given as a sure and certain means through which we receive the grace of that heavenly, spiritual, reality.

The heavenly, spiritual, reality presented in the Holy Eucharist is described in our Epistle reading from Hebrews.  What the author is saying is that Jesus is our eternal priest interceding for us in heaven.

In the old testament times the high priest would enter the tabernacle in a cloud of incense to present God with an animal sacrifice, but  Jesus Christ passed through the clouds of Heaven, entered the true heavenly sanctuary and there, as our high priest, presented his body and blood before the Father as the one, perfect, all sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

Our offering of the bread and wine in the Eucharist is meant to be an outward and visible representation of that heavenly reality. Under the species of bread and wine we present Jesus’ body and blood before God.

It isn’t that God needs to be reminded of our salvation in Christ, but we do. We need to be reminded again and again that we have been redeemed by the cross and reconciled to God.

The Holy Eucharist is an assurance of God’s love and the peace we have with him. The once and for all sacrifice of Christ is represented in the Eucharist, but more than that, we also receive the benefit of that sacrifice. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, but we must remember that it is also a sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.  

In the Eucharist we receive the true body and blood of Christ. He gives himself to us there as surely as he gave himself to us on cavalry. Jesus is present in heaven for our sake as our eternal priest and he is present in the Eucharist for our sake as the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.

Finally the Eucharist is a covenant. A covenant is a solemn binding promise made between individuals or peoples. For instance, Marriage is a covenant. Two people stand up before God and their community and make a solemn commitment to love and care for one another.

In ancient times covenants were  made with a sacrifice. God made a covenant with us through Jesus Christ, and Christ sealed that covenant with his sacrifice. Christ promised to bring us into God’s kingdom and give us eternal life. We are called to respond to that promise in faith and to keep his commandments.

When Jesus gave us the Eucharist, he also gave us a commandment. He told us to love one another as he loved us.

Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we renew that covenant with God. We reaffirm our faith in him and we ask his assistance in helping us to keep his commandments.

The Holy Eucharist cements our fellowship. It brings us closer to God, but it also brings us closer to one another.  Because there is one bread and one cup, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread and one cup. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Who is the Holy Spirit?

Pentecost is a feast of the church of which I have a particular fondness. I well recall my first Pentecost in a neighborhood Episcopal Church much like this one. I was not raised in the Episcopal Church so it was a new experience for me. As the choir and ministers processed down the aisle, a kite depicting a white dove trailed by flame colored ribbons swooped above the congregation.

I remember thinking to myself, “Why had this observance not been part of my faith growing up?” I of course was familiar with the story from Acts when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church, but only as a kind of curious incident in Holy Scripture. This feast raised the moment to a whole other level of significance. It did something else as well, it gave the spotlight to the Holy Spirit in a way I had never seen before.  I realized then that I had not fully acknowledged the full importance and centrality of the Holy Spirit.

It has indeed been said that the Holy Spirit is the “neglected member of the Trinity.” This has been especially true here in the Western side of the Church with the exception of the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions that have emerged fairly recently. Too often the Spirit has been a kind of afterthought. His role and identity, sadly, remains hazy to many Christians. Therefore, this morning, the Day of Pentecost, I want to address the question, “Who is the Holy Spirit?”

The first thing we need to understand about the Holy Spirit is that he is a person. Holy Scripture uses personal pronouns to refer to the Spirit. He possesses all the distinctive marks of personality.

For instance, the Holy Spirit has knowledge. As Saint Paul writes, “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” The Spirit imparts his knowledge through teaching and revelation.

The Holy Spirit has a will. He exercises choice. Our Epistle lesson speaks of the various gifts of the Spirit that he, “allots to each one individually just as he chooses.”
The Holy Spirit speaks. In fact, one of the things we confess about the Spirit in the Nicene Creed is that “he has spoken through the prophets.”

Saint Paul writes that the Spirit intercedes, “for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
Finally, the Spirit has feeling and emotion. Scripture speaks of the “love of the spirit.” It also tells us that the Spirit can be grieved. It warns us, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”

 The Holy Spirit is not some sort of inanimate power, or energy that can be harnessed or controlled.  The attempt to manipulate spiritual forces for one’s own purposes is called magic or sorcery. It is a practice that is strongly condemned in Holy Scripture. In the early days of the Church, there was a man named Simon the Magus or Simon the sorcerer who—after witnessing firsthand the power of the Holy Spirit—offered the Apostles a large sum of money saying, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ He was strongly rebuked by Saint Peter.

 Because the Holy Spirit is a person and not a commodity, we can’t get more of the Spirit, rather we develop a growing relationship with him by opening ourselves more and more to his presence.

The next thing that we should understand about the Holy Spirit is that he is God. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Holy Trinity.  We confess in the Nicene Creed that, “With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.” The Holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son in his divinity. He has all the basic attributes of God: Holiness, eternality, omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience.

He also does the work of God. Genesis says that the Spirit of God hovered over the formless deep at the dawn of creation.  It was through the working of the Holy Spirit that God became man in Jesus Christ. The Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most Highs will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Likewise, It is also through the Spirit that believers are born from above and made holy.

Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit as another advocate like himself who proceeds from the Father. He says, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. The Spirit of Truth.”

In our Epistle reading Paul identifies the Spirit as God. He writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”

All three persons of the Trinity are equally divine and therefore equally worthy of our worship and devotion. There is no hierarchy of divinity, with the Father first, the Son second, and the Spirit as some sort of third rate, C-list, deity. No! The Holy Spirit is our God to whom belongs all our love—heart, mind, and soul.

Finally, in order to understand who the Holy Spirit is, we must understand the work he has come to perform. The descent of the Holy Spirit described in our reading from Acts marks the beginning of the Church’s existence. It is an event that was prophesied and long expected. The Church was born of the Spirit and so we are a people of the Spirit. The Spirit’s presence is the animating force and life of the church, the breath of the Body of Christ. The Spirit is the one that unites us to Christ. It is through the Spirit working in us that we can know that Jesus is Lord. It is the Spirit who equips the Church for its mission.

As Ignatius of Laodicea said, 

“Without the Holy Spirit, God is distant, Christ is merely a historical figure, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is just an organization, authority is domination, mission is propaganda, liturgy is only nostalgia, and the work of Christians is slave labor. But with the Holy Spirit, Christ is risen and present, the Gospel is a living force, the Church is a communion in the life of the Trinity, authority is a service that sets the people free, mission is Pentecost, the liturgy is memory and anticipation, and the labor of Christians is sanctified.”

Trying to live a Christian life and be the Church without the Holy Spirit is like trying to drive a car with no air in the tires or gas in the tank. Through Baptism we each have been given the Spirit. He lives inside of us, but too often we keep him locked in the basement. We ignore and neglect him. The miraculous life of signs and wonders described in our readings is meant to be the ordinary life of the Church!

If we want to live a life of victory, strength, vitality, freedom, and mission, we need to let the Spirit loose. That is scary. The Holy Spirit is fire, wind, and a raging flood. He is dangerous but he is good. Do you trust him with your life?