The opening lines of the Collect for the third Sunday of Easter, “Oh God whose blessed Son made himself known to his Disciples in the breaking of bread, open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold Him in all his redeeming works.”
Perhaps it was a cold spring night, quite appropriate for this morning, a cold that people lit fires and stayed indoors. Maybe there hung stillness over the empty streets of that ancient city. Suddenly footsteps were heard in an alleyway. Eleven men moved with swift purpose. They mounted a stone staircase, and at a pre-arranged sign a door opened, a shaft of light fell across their faces, tense and strained. The door is closed. The street is silent say for the occasion of the whining of some distant dog.
What were they doing there? The eleven men? And the two that waited to receive them? Why were they so intense? Why were they so furtive? They were listening to their Master telling how his life was all but over. That night would see the end. And in the days to come they would gather there, and his place would be empty. And down through the ages men and women would assemble in his name, and his place would remain empty. But they would pray, “Almighty God, your Son has opened for us a new and living way into your presence.” And so he took a piece of bread, that night, and he broke it. He took wine and he poured it out. And in the days to come someone would do the same among his Christian fellows saying, “This is what he did on that night. Don’t you remember?” And their hearts would stand quite still. They would feel that Christ was in the room again saying softly the words once more, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Innumerable gallons of ink have been used in an attempt to plunge the depths of meaning locked up in those simple actions and unusual words. “Do this in remembrance of me,” has been reenacted in vast cathedrals with all the pomp and ceremony that the church can muster. At the bedside of the dying, in the battlefield, and in the plainness of a country church in the early morning. The simplicity of broken bread and wine outpoured, the complexity, the breath-taking complexity of the body and blood of Christ. And we find ourselves, this day, at the center of the mystery of the Eucharist.
And yet, when I got down the long line of Christian history with the church so often failing as a custodian of a gospel of reconciliation, I want to run to that ancient city. I want to run along that alley, and I want to go up that staircase and bang on that door and cry, “Why, O Lord, did you do it? Why did you ever initiate this service? Don’t you see, Lord, that on account of this one sacrament we torn in two, in spite of the advances made in ecumenism, the Eucharist is still not the universal focus of unity among Christian churches. Catholic will not knell down with Protestant, Anglican with non-conformist, and even in our own blessed Church of England distrust exists between high and low. Tensions between traditionalists and modernists in the presentation of liturgy. And there’s also a growing world dislocation over ordination into the three-fold ministry of the church. And there is the discordance in the debate of matters of morality and sexual behavior, particularly in the love that dare not speak its name.
On account of all this, Christians do not always love one another but look askance at all who differ. There is suspicion. There is distrust. I wonder, “Why, Lord, did you instituted this sacrament? Can it really be a sacrament of unity we are involved in this day? A creative focus for humankind?
And as I turn this over in my mind, an answer begins to formulate. I think it must be because Jesus knew we needed it. We are men and women of flesh and blood. We spend our days handling things that can be seen and touched and felt. The other world where Christ belongs and which he said is real seems to us so very far off. And this is our trouble. We are half spiritual and half material. We are half angel and we are half animal. One moment we think we grasp the soul’s realities, and the next we only sense the earthly. We like the bridge of the sacrament, the here and now and eternity, as we recite, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts; heaven and earth is full of thy glory; Glory be to you, O Lord Most High.”
All this, Jesus knew. And so to help, he gave a sign. He broke bread and he poured out wine. “This is my body, and this is my blood.” And they saw it. They felt it. They tasted it.
And in our weariness and anxieties, in our fears and in our frustrations, we remember that he is not here in any form that can be touched and seen and felt. And sometimes that is the very need for which we all cry out. Just like Thomas. You remember Thomas? Human Thomas. “Show me. Reassure me. Show me yourself. God, give me a sign so that I might believe.” Help me in my weakness and unbelief. Help me in my dislocated relationships. Unite me with those with whom I profoundly disagree. And he did.
He gave a sign, only a little thing, only a simple act. And yet a solid thing to grasp when all is abstract. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
And as we do it once again in this Eucharist, we feel that he is indeed in this holy place. He gives us that supreme assurance of his presence, as close as breathing, a real presence. And the process of healing begins. Through the window of the Sacrament we begin to see each other differently.
But time passes. And once again I feel like hammering on that door and crying out, “Lord, why did you do it?” There isn’t any logic to this thing. This is bread you have given us and wine that you have given us. They don’t speak. They don’t stimulate the mind. They can’t convince the agnostic. They can sway the doubter. They make things worse. All this gives dangerous play to the imagination. Flesh and blood. Bread and wine.”
And yet again, I come away rebuked, for true Christianity is not rooted in the mind, but is in the heart. You can’t argue. You may argue. You may instruct. You may appeal to reason. And you may end up by convincing someone intellectually. But if his heart or her heart is not moved, they are no Christian.
Jesus is well aware of this. And so to help, to help us, he gave a sign. Break broken. Wine poured out. And in that upper room the disciples’ hearts were close to the breaking point. They couldn’t tell why. They couldn’t offer theological argument. Yet, they loved their Master, and they were never so Christian as in that moment when all their emotions were so deeply stirred.
And when we tire, as we do sometimes, when we tire of the intellectual side of Christianity. When we feel mystified by all the subtleties there seem to be that make it all so difficult, he does not despise us as we wrestle with these great truths. For he gave this act of divine worship, this Holy Communion, for all who feel like that. There is no argument here this morning, no reasoning, only a central spiritual ritual. The bread and the wine to touch and to taste, both to receive. And he is truly present.
Some might say dismissively, partly emotion, but none is more Christian than the time when his heart is burning within him for Christ. And then he is sure that Christ is with him standing in his place again, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he says. His gaze, his penetrating, exciting, encouraging, warm and loving and all embracing. And that is for us this very day.
But once again I fear I find myself in imagination mounting those steps for that upper room full of deep misgivings, “Lord, why did you do it? It seemed to dissipate our charity. It seems to make us worse, more critical, more suspicious. By means of it, the best seem to be mistrusted.
And then I’m reminded that like the Lord himself, this service is our testing. Every spiritual opportunity is a time of spiritual testing. We may be worse for coming today. We may be better. It all depends on how we’ve come. If we’ve come critically–and there’s nothing like a pile of clergy like that watching everybody else’s liturgy–if we’ve come critically, if we’ve come patronizingly, if we’ve come suspiciously, then the Lord will send us away empty handed. But if we’ve come humbly. And especially those of us who are constantly handling holy things, to come humbly to him. If we come expectantly. Even if we come because we are weary and argument has left us cold, we will indeed find assurance here. Something we can grasp with firmness, something through which our souls will be fed.
Now I count it a privilege to be invited to this church. And I, for one, am made the way that revels in every kind of lovely thing, to me evil is ugly and goodness is beautiful. But in the last resort, it is not the majesty of the altarpiece that makes the sacrament. It is the promise of Christ where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there. I am with you in the middle of you, standing side by side with you.”
And so in imagination, I go up these stairs once again, up to that upper room, not critical this time, not argumentative this time–and that makes a change for me–I go up thankfully. I know more now than I used to know. I know that Christianity is not argument. I know it isn’t logic, although it may be logical. I now know that Christianity is being incorporated into Christ, and the sacrament is the way by which this comes about, if we come humbly, with faith and in trust. And as we kneel in humility in the company of his friends with empty hands outstretched to receive him into our hearts, then we are fed. Then we are strengthened. And we can go again on our way as Christians in whom Christ dwells, as we continue our pilgrimage of the community of the resurrection. Because we have done this in remembrance of him, we have once again obeyed his command; and God, through his Son has opened for us a new and a living way into his presence.
And so, as you eat this bread, as you drink this cup, as you receive this blessing, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes in all his glory. Alleluia. Amen.