Monday, June 20, 2011

At the Table With the LORD. A Homily from John 6:51-58.

Homiletic Thoughts on the Gospel Reading
Homily first posted June 26, 2011, Year A
(John 6:51-58)
[for an additional homily on this text go here]


Today's Gospel reading brings to our attention one of the most intriguing sayings attributed to Jesus. How does one explain words like:

For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.
and how are we to apply them to our community in this present human condition and in this present post-christian era where we find ourselves?

Of late, I have been thinking of our connection with the Christ not so much as the basis for an individualistic understanding of GOD, but instead a fluid, communal understanding of GOD. That is, what one would normally interpret as an individual act, such as prayer, I have been asking what that act of prayer looks like within the context of the Christian community.

It seems to me that it is unavoidable that the interpretation of our present text points us in the unmistakable direction of the Eucharist, that this is what St. John has in mind, but I wish to focus on its communal nature by using a different theological word for the LORD's Table, and that word is Communion.

Here I am thinking of how the Community gathers around the table of the LORD -- the table/altar that belongs to the LORD -- and what that means to the corporate identity of the community of faith.

Four thoughts flow from this:

1) We Gather Together

2) We Gather in Faith

3) We Gather to Proclaim

4) We Gather to Remember

When the people of GOD gather around the table of the LORD, it is of primary importance that our understanding of this gathering, this coming together, be situated within the biblical idea of koinonia.

Koinonia, as a Christian reality, roughly translated means the shared-life of believers. And this shared life only becomes our shared life because we also somehow share life with the living, risen Christ. It is only his shared life with us that makes possible our shared life with each other.

Said another way, it is only in the Christ that this new life and this new way to live gives us our connection with our community of faith.

It seems to me that this life we share together with the Christ is nowhere more evident than within the communion fellowship at the LORD's Table. Here we are reminded that we are not our own; here we are reminded that to follow the Christ is to be part of a living, vital, yet flawed community, who trusts for its very existence the continuing presence of the LORD.

I believe this is the primary issue in not celebrating communion weekly. It is to forgo the most basic and memorable moment of reminder the community of faith has for its life.

Second, when the people of GOD gather around the table of the LORD, it is of primary importance that this coming together be positioned within the framework of an ongoing faith.

Of course, we know that apart from the faith of the community we will never see these symbols of communion -- the bread and the cup -- beyond their normal, earthly existence. But, what must be kept in mind is that this faith is only visible within the context of a living, breathing community and its ongoing discipleship and faith.

In faith, we gather at Christ's table; in faith we offer Christ our allegiance; in faith we surrender to Christ our future; in faith see more to the liturgy and to the work of prayer than mere inane habits.

Said differently, it is the corporate faith of the community that anchors its actions. It is the continued, daily take up-your-cross-and-follow the Christ movement of its rites and actional beliefs, done in faith, that render powerful the word and the works of the people.

What I have in mind here is what Walter Brueggemann writes about ancient Israel's relationship to GOD. He says that the visible, daily practice [utterances and gestures, rituals and rites], “constituted and undertaken humanly, implements the defining linkage between Yahweh and Israel.”

That is, what we now practice here in faith, doing song, scripture reading, prayer, preaching and finally our table fellowship, and what we do in ministry through helps and exhortation, implements a connective reality with the GOD who is there. These are the gestures of faith. 

Notice also, this weekly gathering, where we implement these gestures and movements toward GOD, actually constitute a proclamation of GOD's reality and message to the waiting world. It is a message of love and hope and comfort in the midst of hate and despair and brokenness.

This means these communal gatherings that we call church involve testimony and martyrdom. For us in the West, where literal martyrdom is not an issue, the mere practice of getting out of bed on a chosen day and participating in the fellowship around the communion table is a homiletic action.

St. Paul writes: "Each time you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the LORD's death, until he comes," which I take to mean that by being part of this fellowship today we preach a sermon to the watching world. We are saying by our practices what we believe to be the reality of the world: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

We might be tempted to think that, after all, my neighbors are asleep when I leave to congregate with the community, so if I am preaching a sermon by going to church it's being lost on the street where I live.

Your observation is no doubt true, but it misses the point. Sure, it would be good if your neighbor somehow woke from his Sunday slumber and saw your church attendance each week. And it would be wonderful if in this seeing he came under the calling and conviction of the Holy Spirit and one day asked to join you, but this is probably a little far-fetched in this post-Christian culture, and it has nothing to do with the point I am making.

Here, we turn to Brueggemann again, translating his emphasis on Israel and Yahweh, applying what he writes to GOD and the church.

He writes: “My approach assumes that speech is constitutive of reality, that words count...that Yahweh lives in, with, and under speech, and in the end depend upon Israel's testimony for access point in the world.”(!)
which translated in terms of the church:
Our approach assumes that speech, which includes our prayers, songs, sermons, scriptures and table, is constitutive of reality, that these words and gestures really count, and that GOD Almighty actually lives in, with, and under these speech/gestures, and in the end GOD depends upon this testimony for access point in the world.
Said another way, what we do here each week really matters to the world for it offers the world a reality that counters their own view of reality. It offers the world the idea that there is more to -- dare I use the word -- there is ultimate truth in the world and that this truth is more to truth than facts and figures. That the ultimate reality behind the world is the GOD who is there and who is not silent.

Finally, then, when we gather around the LORD's table, we gather as a community of memory. First, we gather to remember the LORD's love for us, remembering that even in our ugliness and selfishness, GOD sent his son for us. We remember the life and death of this first century Jew who has so profoundly impacted our lives and our families through his calling us to new life and a new way to live.

We also gather within a shared community memory. We gather at the same altar where our mate confessed Christ, where our child was baptized, where we buried our mother or father. We gather in sacred space filled with the echos of past ritual and rite, sermon and song, prayer and communion.

And finally, we gather to be reminded that even when the circumstances of our lives are dire, when the weight of the human condition has broken us and left us for dead, we still remember the promises of the Christ. 

"I am with you always, even to the end of the age."  
“He that has seen me has seen the Father." 
"There are many rooms in my Father's home, and I am going to prepare a place for you. If this were not so, I would tell you plainly."