Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Recovering a sense of community

Mar 31, 2015

Preached at the 2015 Chrism Mass

John 17:1-11

In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have preached at Chrism Mass more than a dozen times, here in New York City and there in Detroit, and as far as I can recall, never once faced the challenge of the texts for Maundy Thursday, just proclaimed even though Maundy Thursday is the traditional day for this liturgy. They are filled with images: servant, like Jesus kneeling to wash feet; body, like the dead lamb, cooked and eaten in haste, like the crucified Christ, shared in the bread; blood that reminds God not to nail the Israelites, and like the blood Paul proclaims is the wine in the cup of the new covenant; a meal which is a kind of indicator of God’s community. And in this wondrous mix, we gather to renew our covenant with God, that which God made in water and the Word. And that which we have expanded in some sense with various vows made in various settings. There is enough, much richness here.

This is a week to immerse ourselves in that richness, in the paschal mystery, which is difficult to do if you are wondering about that missing acolyte or unprepared singer. So today, dear friends, I invite you to immerse your whole selves – mind and imagination, heart and senses. To see and listen, to touch and taste, to savor the presence of our Lord. This week a breath-taking event is taking place: we enter into the paschal mystery. Jesus Christ, hiding all that is divine in him, comes to us this week, here, and on the tongue of a Ukrainian miner and in the palm of the Salvadoran cook; on the stone altar of a cathedral in St. Petersburg and in the crude cement blocks of a Tanzanian chapel; in a hospital bed in Phoenix and in the splendor of this church today.

But, as always for us, it is much more than simply his coming to us in this meal but it is at least that. If that were all he did it would be enough. But this is the paschal meal. This is the meal that by God’s command each Jewish family celebrates each year to commemorate the exodus from Egypt, the passage through the Sea, the escape from Pharaoh. Jesus and the disciples did what faithful communities had done for centuries and still do today.

And that would be enough, but there is more. This is the meal of the new covenant, a pact not restricted to any one tribe or nation, a relationship open to all who will believe in him, a covenant of flesh and blood.

This would have been enough: the blood of God’s Son poured out for everyone. But there is more. Here is the new Paschal Lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And, by his own telling, those who eat of this flesh and drink of this blood will be raised up on the last day and live forever.

That would have been enough, but there is more. We are reminded that all humanity is called to live in this covenant, to follow as disciples. Which could have been announced by simply saying so. But no – love is never content with simple words. He adds the final touch, the last stroke: Do this in remembrance of me. Until the end of time, all over the earth, take into your quivering, trembling hands the bread and body, the cup and blood of this Lord. For as often as we do this we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. By this death Jesus gave us life, and this Jesus is our Lord.

All of this would have been enough. But there is more. A meal with friends, family, community…Passover meal…a new covenant in the blood of God’s Son…a new Lamb…a Eucharist: and more, because all this takes us from Jesus to ourselves – each of us lay and rostered alike – and our calling to share this with the world God loves.

This Meal of Christ’s love reminds us that every meal has something of the sacred about it. Witness the simple luncheon we just enjoyed. I fear we’ve lost the age-old sense of that. Over the centuries, in myriad cultures, to break bread together was a privilege. To be a guest at table was to be invited into a community. To share bread was to share love.

We do as Christ did, in remembrance of him. We eat and drink his body and blood. But we do it as a community. The new and everlasting covenant Christ created was not a private pact with individuals. Yes, each of us is embraced in this covenant, but only because we are embraced with a people, the people God has chosen.

That is why, when we come together to share this covenant meal and to remember our Lord, we do so in community. There is no such thing as a private mass. We eat and drink together even across the tiny table in the hospital room.

This new community in Christ was always true, I think, but not always obvious.

As I grew up, the stress was indeed on communion – but primarily on my individual communion with Christ, a sort of me-and-Jesus spirituality. I was surrounded, of course, by others – sometimes ten, sometimes five hundred. And at the best times I actually was aware of them, even prayed for them. But nothing, no one, was to come between Jesus and me.

But there is more, isn’t there? Today, I think we are more aware of others. This is one of the reasons it is so important for us to have conversations in our congregations about the relationship between font and table, between Baptism and Communion, if for no other reason than to talk about this faith we share, this communion of which we are a part. We come to know one another, we come to know God in the mystery itself. We try to break down barriers. But it’s not the first time Christians have been called to work on things in community; read the Corinthian correspondence and you’ll be inspired. In the early Church there is evidence of some attempt to cool off the kiss of peace which apparently some people engaged a bit too lustily. Fact is, you may, without sin, find hugging another member of the community repulsive or even contagious. But the significant thing is what the Church, the community, is trying to do: help a covenant people live the covenant, recover the sense of community. The Church is the "we" of Christians. Christ gave his body and blood at the Supper and on the Cross, to fashion one body – the Body of Christ – linked in unique love. If that love is ever to break out like the love of Christ, it should begin here, in this community and in the communities you represent, the communities you serve.

You, members of communities of faith, the baptized and in some sense the great unwashed, pastors and deacons, diaconal ministers and associates in ministry, you too are claimed, chosen, blessed, broken, given for the life of the world as Jesus was. You – we – do not belong to yourselves. You – we – are given to others for their life. God changes us into Christ again and again – the body of Christ for the life of the world.

That’s why we gather here today, near the beginning of Holy Week, a time when you could use more time at your desk, even some preparatory resting at home, gearing up, anticipating the rigors and the sorrows and the joy of the Three Days… we gather here because we need to respond again and again to God’s promises to us and our promises to God. This meal, this ministry, this community makes sense only if it is linked to a passion, to redemption – our own and others’. It will bear the fruit for which Christ was lifted up when we become really present, when we are given for the life of the world, when our lives are so filled with Christ’s life that the eyes of the desperate light up with hope, the bellies of the starving are fed with bread, the hearts of the loveless beat with love, if someone who has no reason for living discovers it in Christ through you, taken and blessed, broken and given, living the Paschal Mystery for the life of the world.

In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo


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