Friends in Christ,
In my sermon last Sunday, I shared with you that to be a joyful, devoted follower of Christ you don’t have to dance in the street, but you can! I shared with you that one meaning of the passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians was exactly the constant expression of the inner life of the spirit expressed in everything we do, but there is also a very familial application to what Paul said.
St. Paul wrote: “Be filled with the holy spirit, as you sing Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the Name of your Lord Jesus Christ.” We take these spiritual psalms and songs with us everywhere, but we also express them with each other! Thanks to our gifted and dedicated minister of Music, Martha Purvis, we “sing and make melody” every week, frequently in varied and creative ways. I am thinking especially of the chimes choir and grateful for something new and wonderful in such a difficult time. Thank you, Martha, and Chimers!
Jesus was very direct in Sunday’s Gospel about devotion and participation in Him: “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.” Here, Jesus is talking directly to our hearts and requiring participation in his life and sacrifice through which we, as individuals, have eternal life, but Jesus also speaks within the context of the “gathered community.” When these words are translated into action, Jesus paired spiritual communion in him with physical communion with one another: “eat this bread and drink this cup.” The event of weekly worship is nothing less than the consummation of Jesus’ own words and deeds in our imitation of his sacrifice.
When I was in Jerusalem, I attended an Arminian worship service which lasted several hours! This service included a rotation of three choirs which relieved each other to stave off exhaustion! This effort was the Arminian church’s witness to the instruction in Ephesians to “sing…and making melody to the Lord…at all times.” In our denomination and through our theological understanding, we have accepted that once a week and for about an hour (ok, maybe a little longer!) our sacrifice of time and place is pleasing to the Lord. Once a week we gather as Christ’s own people; we gather together to consummate (make perfect) the words of Christ in us by holding up and leaning on each other. Those of us still begging God to show us our path, show us the (W)ay, show us a sign, and make clear God’s desires for us find that our spiritual communion with Christ is indissolubly connected (challenged) with each other.
Inspiring beautiful hymns and spirituals filled with centuries of theological dissent and strife alike reflect the lines of the Gospel truths to those of us who believe. Jesus’ body—his earthly, fleshly body—really was broken for us, and our weekly Eucharist (literally thanks-giving) is our closest approximation to what occurred in the Crucifixion: a gift of unimaginable, impossible love and unmerited grace saving your life, forever. Restoring a contract made at Creation and ruined by sin. So, when the one who gave all tells us to gather in his name and commune, I think it’s best we take that seriously! Call it my Anglican upbringing or Marine Corps background, or whatever, but at one level I have a very practical and logistical view of weekly (sacramental) worship, as the gas that fuels the car, the battery that powers the device, the food that nourishes and sustains the body. Without it, we are soon dead to the transformative power of true life (right now) through the eternal promise of Christ as we are separated from the benefits of being in regular communion, as a corporate body and an individual believer. You have life in me means something this very moment as well as for your eternal life, and that truth grows more real, more apparent, and able to be apprehended and lived out, with every Communion you make. Our time of physical separation notwithstanding, that and those times of unavoidable physical distance should empower us all the more, through the process of spiritual maturing, to anticipate and eagerly rush to the opportunity for Communion!
To be sure, our belief in the Resurrection and our valuing of the Sacrament of Eucharist is (in part) what make us Episcopalians, and Anglicans. The “living” bread is new week to week and as dynamic and life-changing as was the Crucifixion, which we relive each and every week if we are churchgoers (or, yes, church Zoomers). That’s why you might feel a little emptier or flatter, or like something is missing, in the week following an absence. Summer, especially, can be a “thin” time in the pews as folks come and go, take their vacations and trips, fall out of regular worship. In the Episcopal Church, we even have a tradition of “Welcome Back” Sunday sometime in September, welcoming back to weekly worship the members of the parish who have been scarce over the summer months. That floored me at my first parish, as I did not know God takes vacations as I do. Over the years I’ve gotten used to it as a human season, as natural as the ebb and flow of a congregation, its passions and programs, ministries and missions. Surely change is our only constant. But wait that’s not true: Our God is the only constant in a changing and unpredictable life. And communion, gathering together and gathering in, grounds and re-grounds us in that truth.
Here’s one thing we learned in Seminary: you can’t wreck Communion. The human considerations—priest, polity, policies and procedures, the weather, the administration thereof, the constitution of the elements—nothing ultimately matters or stands in the way of God’s grace reaching God’s believing, worshiping people. There are all number of theological treatises and cumbersome terminology for this simple truth. The Eucharist, instituted by Jesus Christ on the last night of His earthly life, cannot be diminished. It stands as immutable and critical as it did on that night all the way to this present day. Sounds a little like the famous Romans passage: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39). I believe that, and I believe in the power of the gathered Body to commune-icate that to each of us.
So, while the diocese works out how to safely commune in round 3 (4? 5?) of the pandemic, and our faithful congregation waxes and wanes, beset by a “to do” list bigger than we are, and no doubt suffering separately during the week, trying to carry on in a world made of sin and selfishness, know this: “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (Jn 6:56). The “hard wood of the cross” we name each Sunday in the words of the communion service …the hard wood of our altar rail (or our un-cushioned pews)…these stand as weekly reminders, weekly re-groupers and re-purposers as to the point of it all. Let us recommit to our regular weekly worship life and there find strength and courage to go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Might I be so bold, then, in the name of Jesus, to ask you if you haven’t been in a while – to come to church!
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†