Taste and See that the Lord is Good
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 8 August 2021 [Proper 14]:
I Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
As I mentioned last week, we are in the midst of a four-week series of gospel readings from the sixth chapter of John, with that chapter’s stunning focus on Jesus as “the bread of life”. Today’s lesson, the second of the four, continues the development of Jesus’ radical teaching that all of us should recognize – at least to some extent. I say this because you and I are part of a worshipping tradition that is centered upon this teaching; and we are intimately familiar with the images of receiving Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The question that nonetheless must pierce our familiarity is this: What is the Eucharist about? What is it that we are doing when we gather around the Sacrament of the Altar?
I ask these questions particularly considering our common experience during this pandemic time, where for a good fifteen months or more we were under a mandated Eucharistic fast. Like every other parish church, we scrambled to figure out how to worship under such pandemic limitations. In an attempt to maintain some semblance of sacramental experience, some churches experimented with what was ironically called “virtual Communion” – which in and of itself is an oxymoron. You surely recall that when we were unable to meet physically for worship, we at St. Philip’s shifted to broadcasting the Daily Office of Morning Prayer. Everyone was forced to employ some stopgap measures to maintain our essential duty of worshipping God in community. The pandemic adjustments were not easy; nor were they terribly satisfying. Something was missing. The question is what was missing exactly? What did you miss?
When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”, what does this mean to you; and how does it affect your experience of Holy Communion and how you embody being a Christian, a follower of Jesus?
In this sermon, I want to offer a response to these questions in hopes that two things might happen. One is to provide each of us with some reliable context to deepen our personal understanding and expression of the meaning and place of the Eucharist in our lives. The other is to put the membership of St. Philip’s in a clearer position to share with others outside our faith community what we have at the very center of our faith experience.
Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in [God].
“Taste and see…” The psalmist gets right to the heart of the matter. When it comes to being in relationship with God and living the God-life, there is something to “taste”; and there is something to “see”. This is to say that there is something physical, actual, something real to experience. And from this recognition, we see something that God sees, that God knows about life and us. “Behold what you are; become what you receive.”
We get a hint at what God sees and knows about life and us through the various human descriptions and titles that identify this central worshipping experience. When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, the Mass, the Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion, the mere fact that no one title or label fully captures the meaning or significance of this sacred action should immediately give us pause, if not reverent humility. And here is the major point I wish to convey. When Jesus says that he is “the bread of life”, he is not dealing in magic or metaphor; and neither are we when we participate in this sacrament of the altar.
Again, let’s look at the various titles for the way the church has recognized the meaning of Jesus’ declaration of sharing himself and his life with those of us who strive to follow him.
For Christians, the nexus of tasting and seeing, of “beholding” and “becoming” the God-life stems from the events of that Thursday in Holy week, where Jesus gathered with his twelve disciples in an upper room in what appeared to be a “farewell” dinner – save for the fact that this meal’s sharing of bread and wine occurred at the time of the Passover. As good Jews (and we must always remember that Jesus and his original followers were all Jewish: something that history has tragically shown we Christians forget at great cost to ourselves and to others) –as good Jews, Jesus dramatized the meaning of his unique life and ministry with a specific meal that perpetually speaks of deliverance – deliverance from all that enslaves us and threatens to separate us from God. In fact, that Exodus occasion and the actions Jesus took at the table are the full and pregnant expressions of what he points to in this sixth chapter of John. In the Upper Room, Jesus crystalizes what he has earlier said: “I am the bread of life” and “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The title “the Lord’s Supper” speaks to this historical connection between God’s Exodus of his people from the enslavement of Pharoah to proclaim in and through Jesus the eternal Christ of God the Holy One’s liberation of all people from the enslavement of fear and death.
In this sacred meal, which uses the outward and visible signs of God’s inward and spiritual grace, we are fed – fed with liberation and freedom, and strengthened for the way ahead. This is a gift, for which we are appropriately grateful. It is a gift that is nothing short of new life. Hence, we arrive at the label of Holy Eucharist.
“Eucharist” comes from the Greek for “thanksgiving”. This label reminds us that we come not simply for sacred food, but more fully and more importantly we come to offer “thanks” for being given the life we need and cannot provide for ourselves: the very life we see and taste in the Risen Christ.
The term “Mass” comes from the Latin word for “dismissal”. It poignantly emphasizes what our beloved deacon, Jason, vocalizes at the end of each liturgy here at St. Philip’s. “This service [in here] has ended. Now, our’s [outside] begins.” Fancy and gentle words to be sure but that nonetheless prevent us from hanging out comfortably in the “clubhouse” but to send us out into God’s world to share what we have been given. And what we have been given is Communion – Holy Communion, God’s intimate connection and presence, God’s very life and love.
So it is that the descriptor, “Real Presence”, is what the language that our tradition employs to describe the meaning and significance of Communion: Communion being the will of God; Communion as the reality that is never limited to what happens at the altar rail.
As I said earlier, this is not a matter of “magic”: that this “Real Presence” does not happen beyond us, without us and our own presence. As our Lord says: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my Name., I will be in the midst of them.” Establishing “Real Presence” is not about a priest’s “magic hands”. Nor is this “Real Presence” a mere memorialized metaphor, a way of our remembering what Christ did a long time ago.
“Real Presence” speaks to a genuine “re-presentation” of Christ’s work. The initiative is always with God, as the Holy One acts outwardly and visibly with physical elements to make divinity concretely present. How we “feel” about it all or what state of faith we find ourselves in at the time does not impact what is “real” and “present” on God’s terms.
The teachings of St. Paul corroborate the centrality of “Real Presence”. Nowhere does Paul’s description of the “Lord’s Supper” speak of a mere memorial or as a metaphor. Nor does he teach on a mythological level, a magical understanding of the Sacrament. Rather, in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30, he warns: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
Neither magic nor metaphor begin to touch the intimacy and reality of God’s presence, for (once more) God’s unfailing will is Communion. God’s presence is given, and we must be able to receive the gift. Such is the reality and mystery of relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth, the relationship the Christ died for rather than break.
One last word, since this is a mere sermon and not an instructional article.
God’s presence is, of course, everywhere; but how God is present becomes a matter of “focus” in particular beings and events. Christmas is perhaps the penultimate example of this Godly, sacramental “focus”. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; [and] we have beheld his glory and truth...” Presence and manifestation: not magic; not metaphor; not just a memory.
To the truth that “we are what we eat”, what is the significance of receiving Holy Communion? The way we answer this question sets the trajectory of our entire life of faith and our sense of spirituality, our connection with God and the God-life. I am suggesting that at the end of it all, we are called to be living sacraments of God’s intimate presence, “real” carriers of the Communion life.
In this regard, the Elizabethans were much less squeamish about the Incarnate intimacy of Communion and clearer it seems about reverently participating in the mystery of the God-life. In conclusion, listen.
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou are the same Lord who property is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him and he is us. Amen.