August 19, 2018 Proper 15B
Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
So here we are again. We’ve gathered on this Sunday morning for the weekly remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus and to celebrate Holy Eucharist. And you may already know this, but the word Eucharist is from the Greek which means thanksgiving. After the 1979 Prayer Book Revision, the Eucharist became central to our worship as Episcopalians. And the prayer book states that the Holy Eucharist is the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day, Sunday. This is what we do as a Episcopalians. We gather on Sundays to give thanks.
This shift from the theology of the 1928 Prayer book to the theology of the 1979 Prayer Book, the one we use today, was novel at the time, and it took a while for this to become the norm for many Episcopalians. Some Episcopalians are still catching up to the shift because it isn’t what they were used to. But it’s important to realize why there was a shift. It was the result of a liturgical movement throughout global Christianity that put us more in touch with the ancient practices and ways of worshiping as the Church.
I’d like to read you an account of early Christian worship. It’s written by Justin Martyr between 153 and 155 C.E. and describes their meetings on Sunday when they gathered for the Eucharist. It begins with a service of the word in which as Justin says “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read.” After that, follows an address by the presider. Then there are prayers and then the assembly greets each other with the kiss of peace. And this is how Justin describes what happens next:
“Then there is brought to the president of the brothers bread and a cup of wine mixed with water, and the president takes them and sends up praise and glory to the Father of all through the name of his Son and of the holy Spirit, and makes thanksgivings at length for being considered worthy of these things by him. And when he has finished the prayers and thanksgiving all the people present give their assent saying “Amen.” . . . Those called deacons amongst us give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine and water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and they carry it away to those who are not present.”
It sounds familiar doesn’t it? It’s remarkable how closely our liturgical pattern of worship matches theirs. And I personally feel a deep connection to all those who have come before us and worshiped in this way for the past two millennia whenever we celebrate Holy Eucharist. I think of all the many Christians from different places, languages, and eras, gathering together as a community to give thanks. They experienced all the aspects of life: birth, death, loss, joy, conflict, fear–all of it. And through it all, they kept meeting and giving thanks. That’s how they made the journey, and today we continue in the same ancient paths.
So now we know that the Eucharist is our principal act of worship for us as Episcopalians and for so many other Christians, but why do we do it? What does it mean? And what are we to make of it in light of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John about being the bread of life?
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus is telling his fellow Jews something very important about himself that plays on their shared story of God’s greatest saving act. For Jesus’ audience the greatest saving act of God was what God did in the Exodus. God delivered Israel out of their slavery and bondage in Egypt. God brought them through the waters of the Red Sea and was with them as they journeyed through the wilderness into a new life. And then God gave them a new law and way to live in relation with God and others as they lived into God’s new life for them.
This is the story they all share as Jesus tells them he is the living bread from heaven. As their ancestors journeyed through the wilderness to new life, God was with them and gave them bread from heaven in the form of manna. And when they complained that they didn’t have meat, God sent them quail and filled their bellies with flesh. They ate the bread and the flesh but they died. And here Jesus stands and says that he is bread and flesh from God that will sustain life forever. And whoever abides in him will know life.
And here’s the thing: Their story is our story. We have been delivered from our bondage and slavery to sin and death, and have been brought through the waters of baptism. And God is with us as we journey through the wilderness into new life as we learn to walk in the law of love with God.
But the only way for us to make the journey is to stay connected with Jesus whose own life makes possible the life of the world. And this is why we celebrate the Eucharist. It is to give thanks to God for all that God has done for us and to strengthen our union with Jesus Christ who is the source of life itself and of all creation.
What is fascinating about Jesus is that he never wrote anything down for his disciples that we know of. But what he did was leave his friends a meal to remember him by. The bread of heaven who makes us worthy to stand before God. The one who give his flesh and blood to heal what is broken and who will ultimately restore all of creation.
We celebrate the Eucharist, which means Thanksgiving, because that’s the only way to make it through the wilderness into the life that God offers us. We make the journey by giving thanks and drawing near to Jesus who is the source of life itself.
And for us it looks like what Justin describes. We hear the scriptures read. Then someone interprets them for the assembly and invites everyone to hear what God might be speaking to them. We pray and pass the peace of Christ to each other. Then we share in a holy meal and receive the gifts of God in the bread and wine, where each of us is invited to remember that Jesus’ died for each of us and to be nourished by him while giving thanks for his great love.
At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. But oftentimes, even when we receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, we can be distracted and miss the invitation to abide in Jesus.
But this morning I want to invite you to take up what is offered to you. Be aware of what we are doing in this ancient path of worship. Don’t just go through the motions. Feed on Jesus in your heart and be nourished. Trust that you are loved and that the source of life itself, Jesus Christ, is with you and will never leave you. And then give thanks, because that is how we make the journey.