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To Know Christ and to Make Him Known

Holy Mysteries: Text: John 6:56-69

Holy Mysteries

The Rev. Dr. Ross McGowan Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2018
Text: John  6:56-69

“For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” 

In these words from our Gospel reading, we have a promise and a pledge from God. The risen Christ is present this morning in the form of bread and wine. As we participate in this service of Holy Communion, we are invited into a sacred mystery: God sits at table with us. He invites us to take our place at the table and commune with him.

The risen Christ can make himself present to us any way he chooses: in a conversation with someone who seems to know us and to convey God’s grace; through the experience of bearing a child or witnessing the birth of a child; in the purple hues of a summer sunset; through a dream in which we have a powerful sense of God’s presence; in a Mozart piano concerto or a foot-stomping, hand-clapping blue grass number. The Lord is God. He has created this world; he has created us; and God can reveal himself to us through his creation in any way that he chooses.

But there are two experiences in particular in which the risen Christ invites us to seek and to find him. The first is through Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is the living Word. When we hear his word to us through the words of Holy Scripture, the Lord Jesus draws near. The second place where Christ promises to make himself known to us is in the service of Holy Communion. He reveals his presence to us in this holy meal. Here, he draws near to us. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, Jesus the Christ communes with us. He shares his life with us in the most intimate way. The prophet Isaiah calls us to “Seek the Lord where he wills to be found. Call upon him when he draws near” (Isaiah 55:6). The Lord Jesus Christ desires to find us and to be found by us in Holy Communion.

Now before we go any further, I need to acknowledge the limitations of this sermon. Holy Communion is a mystery. What is happening here as we gather is beyond our ability to fully grasp or explain. Please remember this as we reflect on Christ’s presence in Holy Communion. It is with good reason that the Book of Common Prayer refers to the bread and wine as “holy mysteries.” It is tempting to think that there is an explanation for everything that we encounter – if we just knew enough; if we could just extend the Google search a little longer. But when we try to fathom the meaning of the Holy Eucharist, we reach the limits of human understanding.

In the mystery of Communion, God reveals himself and at the same time remains behind the veil, so to speak. God is free to draw near and at the same time to keep his distance. Think about Mary when she met the risen Christ outside of the empty tomb on Easter morning. Jesus reveals himself to her with such kindness and intimacy, calling her by name: “Mary.” She responds: “Rabbi!” But when she tries to hold on to him, the Lord says: Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” (John 20:17). We draw near to another person as we reveal who we are. The art of friendship is knowing how much of yourself to disclose to another person, and then being open to the self-disclosure of the other. And yet, it is impossible to reveal everything about ourselves to another person – in part, because we are a mystery even to ourselves. There is a part of us that remains hidden, even from ourselves. And if this is true with us, who are finite, how much more so with the living God, who created all things, knows all things, sustains all things, and fills all things.

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Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 

Christ promises to abide with us through the bread and wine of Holy Communion. What does this mean? What is he promising here? One way to explain it is to say that Christ establishes a relationship with us in this sacred meal. He makes contact with us, and deepens this relationship. Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that if you want to know what it means for Christ to live in us and for us live in him, think about a vine and the branches that radiate from the vine. He says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). In Holy Communion, God mysteriously penetrates the normal boundaries that separate us from God. His life flows into us. And our lives somehow mysteriously flow into the life of God. This relationship of mutual inhabitation is expressed beautifully in the prayer that I offer for all of us right before we come forward to receive the bread and wine:

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son, Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us and we in him. (BCP, 336)

I said a moment ago that Christ establishes a relationship with us as we come to the Lord’s Table. All human relationships depend on some concrete way of establishing contact. We are physical creatures, and so we depend on concrete, physical realities to communicate our thoughts and feelings, our selves. Different kinds of relationships call for different kinds of connections. We are connected to our stock broker by financial transactions. We are connected to our barbers and our hair dressers by physical touch and conversation. We are connected to our parents and siblings more intimately still through blood and hearth. We are connected to Jesus through faith in him and through his presence in the Holy Eucharist.

In Holy Communion, God invites  us to share in the most intimate relationship that has ever existed or will ever exist: the relationship that Jesus shares with the Father. “Our communion with Jesus is really a participation in the intimate communion that exists between Father and Son … Jesus gives us  a share in God’s own life” (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John).

* * * * *

One way to think about how Christ is present to us in Communion is to think about what happens when we connect with someone on the phone or increasingly these days through Skype. There can be a real connection on a phone or a computer – a connection which deepens our relationship. Likewise, God uses concrete objects – the water of Baptism, the bread and wine of Communion – as vehicles to convey his presence to us.

During the early years of World War II, a young English infantryman was wounded, taken out of action, and sent to London for the duration of the war. While he was convalescing, he had an unusual experience which changed the course of his life – and it centered on a telephone.

It seems that one night he was calling a friend, and the phone lines became crossed somehow and he found himself speaking to a stranger. This was in the days before automation, when the operator placed the calls. Those who understand older phone technology better I may be able to explain how this could happen. At any event, both the soldier and the stranger realized immediately what had happened. So the man called the operator and asked her to reinitiate the call. When the person picked up, he discovered to his amazement that the same thing had happened again. Only this time, he didn’t hang up. Something about the animation in the woman’s voice on the other end fascinated him. They began to talk about what they had been reading, about music, about the war. They talked for an hour. Both enjoyed it so much that they exchanged phone numbers, though not their names or addresses, and agreed to speak again. Over a period of months they got to know each other as they shared the details about their lives. For two years, they carried on this conversation, and the resulting friendship changed their lives. Eventually they met, and he asked her to marry him.

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Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

These words take on new meaning when we realize that they are backed up by action – by Christ’s sacrificial, loving sacrifice of his life for us on the cross. By his death, we are reconciled to God. By his life, we justified. And it is through the Eucharist that we are drawn into his death and life, which continues beyond this life and into glorious resurrection life with all the saints into eternity.