“This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Can you keep a secret? I know that’s a curious question to begin a sermon with… but my husband—and maybe me too—could get in trouble for this story. Jonathan is a Lutheran pastor, and his office is near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. A couple of years ago, he was invited for the first time to celebrate one of their midweek Noon Eucharists in a chapel. He was very excited… I’ve never gotten to celebrate the Eucharist in a cathedral, so it was a great moment for clerical matrimonial one-upsmanship. He arrived early, found the sacristy, got on his vestments, headed out to the chapel, and waited until the appointed hour. No one was there. So he started the service… reading the lessons… preaching the sermon… it being the Cathedral, some tourists wandered in and out. A few were present at the Peace and he chatted with them and invited them to stay for the Eucharist but they declined.
And now he was faced with a difficult choice. We obviously do not say private masses in the Episcopal Church… or the Lutheran Church. The correct thing to do was to stop praying and leave. But as Jonathan put it, he was all dressed up, and a Gothic Cathedral feels medieval enough that you can do medieval things… so he continued the service, confident in being surrounded by the Communion of Saints, that in the words of tonight’s gospel, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” so he was not actually alone.
When he broke the bread, and it came time to distribute communion, he went to the altar rail and imagined giving communion to his mother, who died over 30 years ago. What was not possible in real life, and what would not have been possible if other living persons had been present, became possible in the leisure of solitary openness to the Spirit. He gave communion to Walter Bouman, his mentor and seminary professor. To Gerald Youngquist, the pastor of his adolescence and young adulthood who formed his identity as a Lutheran. To grandparents and great grandparents he’d never met; to icons of the church in centuries past. All were around the table in the Cathedral that day. A communion with the communion of saints.
Jesus says in the Gospel today that those who eat of this bread will live forever and have eternal life. And I think in general we emphasize that on the funeral/All Saints Day side of liturgy and less so on the Eucharistic side of liturgy. But it’s here, too. Why are we eating this bread and drinking this wine? Well, we do this for a host of reasons—but today it is particularly present for me in this idea of the food that sustains us beyond the grave and keeps us connected with all the other people who have feasted at God’s altar.
When we die, we do not lose our place at this table. We just move to the other side of it. We do not dine here alone this evening. I pray that the communion of saints can be viscerally present with us even when we’re with others—we don’t have to say a private mass to know that Jesus has called many to the banquet table ahead of us. Who do you know—who do you miss—who will be communing with us today? A parent? A friend? A spouse? A child?
Sometime after Jonathan had this experience I told the story during a sermon at Epiphany and wondered who I might encounter at the table that day. I figured it would probably be some of the people I’d buried in my years there; or maybe family members.
But what happened shocked me. Unbidden, when I celebrated the Eucharist at 8:30 that morning, I thought of Lot Jones, the founding rector of the Church of the Epiphany in 1833, and all the other old dead white guys who were clergy at Epiphany whose pictures hang on the wall of our office. And I felt like I could feel their hands on my shoulders, pressing down, in a line behind me. It was a sort of mystical experience—not what I’m used to, but very powerful. There they were—supporting me in my priesthood, celebrating the Eucharist with me in a very real way. It was one of the foundational experiences that really got me to consider if I was being called to stay at Epiphany as their Rector—because here were all these guys who—I’m sure—would never have even dreamed that their beloved church could be led by a woman when they were bound by time and place; but here they were, unbound by time and place, united through the sacrament, and those prejudices and particularities had fallen away so that they could stand with their hands on my shoulders.
The sacrament can cut though those prejudices and particularities. I remember being at a Roman Catholic funeral a few years ago for my Deacon’s partner. I hemmed and hawed over whether to wear a collar—because I knew if I did, I wouldn’t be able to take communion. But if I didn’t, I felt like I wouldn’t fully be supporting my deacon as his priest. So I wore it. When it came time for the invitation to communion, the Catholic priest got up and said that he knew that Joe really belonged to two churches, and that there were Episcopalians in the congregation that day, and he wanted to tell us all that we were invited to the table. I leaned over to my rector—who was wearing a tie—and said, “Did I just get invited to communion?” “Yes,” he said. “then I guess I’d better go,” I finished. Time and space and human rules fall away in the blessedness of the sacrament. A sentiment beautifully captured in Madeline L’Engle’s poem, At Communion:
Whether I kneel or stand or sit in prayer
I am not caught in time nor held in space,
But, thrust beyond this posture, I am where
Time and eternity are face to face.
Where crossbar and upright hold the One
In agony and in all Loves embrace
The power in helplessness which was begun
When all the brilliance of the flaming sun
Contained itself in the small confines of a child
Now comes to me in this strange action done
In mystery. Break time, break space, O wild
And lovely power. Break me: thus am I dead,
Am resurrected now in wine and bread.