Sunday, August 26, 2012

You've got the whole world in your hands

Pentecost 13, John 6:56-69, August 26, 2012, Epiphany Manhattan, Jonathan Linman:

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We might be as baffled by all of this as were the religious people and the hearers of Jesus’ own day.

Then he up’s the ante by further saying, “The one who eats this bread will live forever.”

No wonder that many of his disciples complained and said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

We in our own day might say the same thing about our teaching about the Eucharist, that the bread and wine somehow convey Jesus’ true body and blood. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Indeed.

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel is John’s Eucharistic chapter, as there’s no Last Supper institution narrative in John, just the washing of the disciples’ feet.

Today we conclude several Sundays of focus on John 6. Sunday after Sunday, it’s been bread of life, bread from heaven, bread of life, bread from heaven, bread of life, bread from heaven. Now I know why Jennifer invited me to preach today: to give her a break from all of this bread of life stuff!

I guess the editors of the lectionary decided that it takes several weeks to make sense of all of this about Jesus as bread from heaven.

So let’s claim the opportunity to go deeper. Since we’re talking about bread, let’s look at bread.

[Holding up priest’s host]

Look at what I am now holding: is this bread? Barely: wheat flour and water. The design of a host is evocative, I suppose, of the manna from heaven described in the Old Testament, the flaky substance that mysteriously appeared on the ground after people complained that there was nothing to eat in the wilderness after the Exodus.

So here’s the million dollar question: how can this little thing that barely resembles bread as we know it become Christ’s body, the real presence of Christ in the flesh? And this for eternal life?  It’s hard enough to imagine this as bread, let alone something that carries the divine and can give us a share in living forever.

Let’s start our exploration with this essential proposition or observation: I’ve got the whole world in my hands. And when you hold bread, you do, too.

Think of the host as sign, as symbol. Imagine it and its meanings.

To help you do this, I want to hold up another item which also functions as sign and symbol, and in such a way help you understand, perhaps, how a host can also convey Jesus as bread from heaven.

Here’s my Nano iPod (holding it up). This little thing is about a size of a Eucharistic host, perhaps slightly bigger. But this little thing contains and conveys 432 songs currently, and that’s only 36% of its capacity.

I grew up listening to music first on lp’s and then on audio cassette tapes. Think of how much space it would take in an apartment to contain all of those albums.

But here are 432 songs. And not just that, but songs which are deeply meaningful to me and really are a remembrance of so much that is precious to me, holding so much of my identity.

By extension, then, this iPod is a sign, a symbol of my whole life in music.

E.g.: wedding dance song by Shania Twain AND “Day by Day Your Mercies Lord Attend Me,” sung at my ordination, from Swedish tradition, here offered by a congregation that included the daughter of the pastor who baptized me.

So, with the Nano iPod in mind, let’s return to the host. Look at it, think about it. What I am holding is a sign of the whole creation. It’s wheat flour that had been mixed with water, signs of God’s gracious love to us in creation. Grain and water, two primary symbols of creation that make life possible.

To further our understanding, here’s what a pre-eminent Lutheran liturgical theologian, Philip Pfatteicher, has to say about the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine: “God’s gifts to us, grain and grapes, are returned to him as human labor has transformed them into bread and wine for use in the Holy Supper. God’s gifts of grain and grapes have been harvested, baked or pressed, packaged or bottled, delivered, stored, displayed, purchased, and presented in a world of economic inflation and depression, marketing analyses, price negotiations, collective bargaining, injustice and greed, sacrifice and concern. The elements are rich with suggestive meanings and connections with life in a complex modern world…. The bread, a necessity of life, suggests the wonderful aroma of the bakery and food of which some have too little and others, far too much. The wine, an enrichment of life, suggest the drink which makes glad human hearts and warms and cheers the spirit and also which is the cause of drunkenness, violence and degradation. Moderation and excess, nourishment and deprivation, enrichment and intoxication are all gathered in the bread and wine which are offered to God for blessing and redemption, justice and purification and renewal.” (Pfatteicher’s Commentary on LBW, p. 155).

Think of it. This little host contains so much signification as Pfatteicher suggests. I’ve got the whole world, in a sense, in my hands right now. And again you will, too, when you come to this table of grace.

As an interesting aside, have you ever wondered how these hosts are made and who makes them? There’s actually a great essay about this online. It’s called “Buying the Body of Christ,” by Rowan Moore Gerety. It’s subtitle, “How the communion wafer arrived in the capitalist marketplace.”

‘Turns out that host-making is, like so many things today, big business. Making hosts used to be the domain of nuns and monks in Catholic religious orders. But like so many mom and pop shops, the bigger firms have cornered the market, and driven a lot of the religious out of business.

The Cavanaugh Company of Greenville, Rhode Island now makes 80% of the altar breads consumed in the United States. Like so many food producers, compared to the kitchens in monasteries and convents, it’s a big factory that’s mostly automated. Every three weeks, 18 wheelers deliver wheat flour in 42,000 to 45,000 pound shipments. Their supplier is Archer Daniels Midland, one of the biggest corporations in agribusiness. “The same flour that ends up on altars across the country in the form of hosts could, according to ADM, end up in tortillas, refrigerated doughs, Asian noodles, bagels, and doughnuts at your local supermarket.”

Once again, to drive home the point, we’ve got the whole world in our hands, as this little host signifies all these complex economic relationships in and dynamics of our current world.

And thus far, we’ve only explored the profane meanings of the host as sign of creation, and human involvements therein.

Into this profane world of big agribusiness, God in Christ enters. Just as God in Christ entered the complex world of ancient Palestine.

Here’s the key to understanding how the profane becomes the sacred: Connect this little manna-like piece of bread with God’s Word (“This is my body given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me”), and the Holy Spirit makes this Christ’s body indeed. That’s what we confess and believe.

According to Martin Luther, without God’s Word, the bread, of course, remains bread. But with God’s Word, this thing is enlivened to convey the fullness of Christ’s presence in the flesh, in, with and under this bread, this manna, now from above.

Think of it. God’s word in connection with the bread unleashes all that God is in Christ.

Like the Nano iPod that contains so much of my personal identity in music, this host with God’s word in the power of the Spirit contains all of Christ, and in so far as Christ points to God, it contains all of God, in a fleshly, earthly, ordinary thing.

Once again, when we hold the bread, we’ve got the whole world, the whole cosmos, all of God’s creation in heaven and on earth, in our hands.

Once this little piece of bread is consecrated with the Word, this sign doesn’t just point to Christ, it is Christ, it carries Christ to you with all the blessings offered by Christ:
·         Forgiveness
·         Life
·         Salvation
·         Jesus’ death and resurrection
·         The Last Supper: the past becoming present.
·         A foretaste of the feast to come in heaven: the promised future coming to us now.
·         The presence of the saints in the communion of saints
·         Joy
·         Peace. God’s Shalom.
·         The justice of God’s promised reign
·         The unity of Christ’s church throughout history and throughout the world
·         And the joining in union heaven and earth, things human and things divine. All peoples, us with each other, all of us with God
·         And it’s somehow, some way, as Jesus’ suggests in John’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ flesh. Bread as flesh containing all the meanings and blessings I’ve listed.

It’s all here without limit to its capacity for memory and meaning unlike my little iPod.

Think of it. It’s an amazing thing.

This living bread from heaven will be yours, it’s for you. Given, broken for you. All that Christ is coming to you, for you, personally, intimately, and communally, all of us together.

And when you finally get this gift of life, this bread from heaven, into your tummies, then you’ll have the whole world, in heaven and on earth inside you.

Think of that, the wonder of that, the beauty, the sacredness.

This sermon and its meaning for you will conclude only when Christ is in you sacramentally, in, with and under bread and wine, making you one with Christ and all creation.

Let this be an amazing experience for you. Receive this Eucharist as if for the first time, full of wonder and awe, in the wisdom of child-like adoring faith.

Come to the table today with the words of Simon Peter on your mind, one who did not turn and leave the fold of disciples as some did because they thought Jesus’ teaching too difficult: “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.”

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