Simon Peter answered Jesus, “Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In these closing days of August, we come to that time of the year when first year college students around the country prepare for move-in day. I know several individuals who are making this significant life transition and in thinking of them, I began to reflect back on my own experience of move-in day. It was a hot and humid August day in southern Virginia. As I moved all of my belongings into a small room that I would share with a complete stranger, I was both excited and completely disoriented. I don’t remember much about those early days, but one thing does remain very clear in my memory. I felt a very visceral need to go to church that first Sunday. I was quite surprised by this feeling, as I had been, at best, an occasional worshiper in my teenage years. As it would turn out, my experience was the complete opposite of that belief we have that young people go to college, let loose, and stray from the religious upbringing. My church involvement, however, increased exponentially as I quickly established a practice of weekly Sunday participation in worship.
I still cannot quite put into words what brought about this shift, but I can say that in the significant change and uncertainty of that time of my life, church offered a sense of stability and peace. At the same time, however, I went to great lengths to remain as anonymous as possible. Each week I arrived a minute or two before the start of the service sat in the back row, left as soon as the service ended, quickly greeted the pastor, and went back out into life as a college student. My regular Sunday rhythm was not lost, however, on my friends, all of whom did not practice any form of religion. I think I was always a bit of an enigma to them. I was never greeted with hostility, simply curiosity. Finally, one day, a dear friend asked me, “Why do you go to church so much? I don’t think God is taking attendance.”
Though the question might sound flippant perhaps, I did not take it as such and I don’t think it was intended that way. It was a serious question emerging from a genuine curiosity. It grabbed my attention. I don’t remember my exact response because in truth, I could not articulate an answer to myself, much less to my friend. It wasn’t a sense of obligation that led me to worship each week, since that, as my friend put it, God was taking attendance and I would suffer the consequences if I didn’t show. I went not out of obligation, but out of a sense that something happened to me while I was there. Though I couldn’t put it into words, I knew that as I navigated the many and various challenges of young adulthood, figuring out who I was and what I was supposed to do with my life, going to church offered me something. I couldn’t find anywhere else.
That question, why do you go to church so much, has stayed with me years after my friend first posed it to me. It continues in many ways to be a question that is fundamental to my life as a priest, blessed with the immense joy and privilege of leading and assisting in worship and as one who supports the worship department of this cathedral, as it coordinates the extensive worship life of this glorious house of prayer. Why go to church for worship? Surely it is a question all of us here, those gathered in the nave, those worshiping online, surely it is a question that all of us have considered at some point or another. I imagine we all have our own unique responses to the question, with no doubt, certain threads that unite all of them. I want to invite you to consider this question anew with me this morning.
To do so, we must begin with a fact of fundamental importance that might seem quite self-evident, but at times becomes obscured. Worship is about God. The word worship, in fact, means to ascribe worth to something. In modern English, we use the word almost exclusively to refer to the divine. Worship is ascribing worth to God through praise and thanksgiving that characterize our communal life of prayer. Simply put, we worship because God is worthy of worship. Since the earliest days of the faith, the primary way Christians have offered worship to God is through the weekly Sunday gathering. Here, in the context of community, we are promised that God will meet us as we join in prayer, song, reading of scripture, and sharing of the sacred meal. Here in worship, we encounter God, and because of that, we are changed. When you leave today, you will not be the same as when you arrived. The change might seem so insignificant, imperceptible even, but there is change. Change brought about by coming face-to-face with the very presence of God.
We are changed by our encounter with God. And that must necessarily have an effect on the way we live our lives. The Christian faith is deeply connected to the day-in and day-out reality of living. As my colleague Canon Leonard Hamlin reminded us last week, and I quote, “When we listened to the gospel, when we open this book we know as the Bible and reflect upon the words of Jesus, we come face to face with the central concerns of life and living.”
Our experience of worship here on Sunday morning is not intended to be an activity isolated from the rest of our lives. If we have allowed ourselves to believe and act as if that is the case, we have deceived ourselves.
This experience here in community strengthens us for the challenges of living in a broken, sinful world, filled with injustice, suffering. and pain. Worship then is an encounter with God. An encounter that changes us and empowers us to go out into the world to live in light of that change. And that brings us at last to the gospel text before us today, a text in which Jesus helps crystallize and make concrete these ideas. The gospel before us this morning brings us to the conclusion of the long sixth chapter of John’s gospel and the bread of life discourse that we have encountered these past five Sundays.
This critical chapter of John begins with Jesus feeding a vast multitude of people with just a few loaves and fish, and then continues with Jesus, revealing himself to his frightened disciples on the sea in the midst of a terrifying storm. Jesus follows this sign of the great feeding with an extended discussion on this extraordinary claim – I am the bread of life. The bread he offers is not like the manna the Israelites consumed in the wilderness. This bread satisfies a hunger that nothing else can satisfy. The bread that he gives for the life of the world is his flesh, a food that gives life.
Today’s reading picks up in the middle of this discussion with Jesus’s declaration, that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him and he in them. There were many who called this teaching difficult. Some were scandalized by it and found it offensive. Perhaps you feel the same way and find this idea and this language that Jesus employees a bit strange or perhaps disturbing. This sort of language might strike you as unpalatable, but the very material bodily nature of the language conveys the depths of the profound reality that we celebrate and experience in the Eucharist. The holy communion, the Lord’s supper, a ritual known by many names and central to our communal life as Christians.
It is our belief that at every celebration of the Eucharist, we receive the body and blood of Christ, the very presence of our Lord, who thus abides in us and we in him. That is a remarkable claim. And it is one that Christians have asserted since the early followers of Jesus gathered together to offer prayers and share a meal when they believed that their Lord was present there with them. It was a natural extension of the frequent sharing of meals with his followers that Jesus did during his time here on earth. But in time, this meal became particularly associated with that last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he died, as told in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. At that final meal with his friends, Jesus took bread and called it his body given, and he took wine and called it his blood poured out.
Of course, we hear those words every time we celebrate the Eucharist, along with that divine injunction to do this in remembrance of me. Now, that familiar story is not found, however, in John’s gospel, which offers us instead Jesus’s discussion in the sixth chapter as a further reflection on this theme. This sacred meal has been celebrated week after week for nearly 2000 years. Across the centuries, there have been disagreements, sometimes bitter ones, over the nature of the Eucharist and the ways it is understood. The Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition more broadly, has generally been less interested in explaining exactly what happens and how, and instead has trusted that in doing what Christ asked us to do, He will indeed be present with us. To acknowledge and to marvel at a great mystery, one that we will never fully understand or grasp, that seems better than searching for a tidy explanation.
And so, week after week, Christ makes himself known to us in the breaking of the bread, offering himself his very flesh and blood, abiding in us so that we might find in him life and life abundant. The Eucharist then helps us answer that question I’ve put before us this morning. We come to worship to be fed by God. Each Sunday, we are called to gather around this table, the table where Jesus offers himself. He offers himself to us in a meal of abundance that gives us a taste of the coming kingdom of God. But we don’t stop there. Because, when we taste of that kingdom, we then yearn for it all the more. Meeting Christ here propels us out into the world to meet him also in the sick, the hungry, the prisoner, the lonely. But we come back to worship. We do so because we know we are weak and the world is broken and we trust, however imperfectly, that God alone can satisfy our deepest needs. We come not because we are righteous, but because we are needy. We come not to display our piety and the strength of our faith, but to recognize that we are sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We come not because God forces us to, but because God invites us to come and feast to taste and see that the Lord is good.
We come because with Peter, we know that Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Amen.