Monday, June 8, 2015

Life Around the Table-A Sermon for Corpus Christi

“And the angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb."  Revelation 19:9

 In the home where I grew up back in Maryland, one of the most important days of the year was the first day of deer season, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  And in our house, it always began with a feast.  My grandmother began it before I can remember, hot breakfast around the kitchen table at 5:30 in the morning: eggs and pancakes, fried potatoes and bacon and sausage.  My mother has continued it, with the rather less enthusiastic assistance of her daughters-in-law.  Fifteen or twenty men usually crowd around the table, extended with all the leaves that can be found, and a card table or two besides. 

The theory is that if you want to stay warm on a bitter November day, you need something good in your belly.  Of course, the theory doesn’t give so much help with the other big challenge of deer hunting, which is staying awake on a bitter November day, and all those cups of coffee tend to create their own problems.

But really the point of the breakfast is for all of us to be together.  There are a few scouting tips shared, and some teasing, often a few old stories as well.  We are a fairly sentimental lot, the men in my family, and if someone has died and isn’t with us that year, there will be a little speech, maybe a few tears even.  Everybody who will go out on the ridge that morning usually comes by, and sometimes a few of the old timers as well, who will probably just spend the rest of the day sitting in the truck.  Hunting has always been important in my family, more than just a matter of guns and meat and camouflage.  It ties us to the land that has been ours for several generations.  It’s something that brings us all together.  I think that maybe you have to be from a hunting family to understand just how it works.  

But that breakfast is an important part of it all.  In some ways, it’s the most important part.   It marks us out as people who belong to each other and to this common pursuit.  We don’t hunt the same way. We’re not all good shots, some of us are more alert than others, our stands are scattered at better and worse places on the mountainside.  As outdoor pursuits go, deer hunting is a pretty solitary business.  But we are together in it, and that’s what the meal is for. 

When I think about the place of the Eucharist in the Christian life, for me, it always begins with those big family meals. The Eucharist is much more than that, but I think that starting with the table’s fellowship and stories and joy certainly sets you off in the right direction.  Jesus was a man who knew how to keep company.  It’s true that there were times of silence and fellowship with God in his life, but generally, he seems to have been the life of the party.  “A glutton and a winebibber,” the Pharisees branded him, a man who knew and loved the life of the table.

He dined most days at a table for thirteen, at least, but there were others lingering about his presence.  The Gospels frequently recount times when he pulled the disciples apart for some special teaching, to explain one of his elusive parables.  Surely, those must have been gatherings around the table.  In the Book of Revelation he is almost never alone, always in the company of angels and saints, the body gathered around the head.  They are there in this morning’s Epistle Lesson, a great multitude, singing praise, and sharing together in a meal, the great marriage supper that knows no end.

And so, it would have been no surprise to anyone that knew Him well that as Jesus prepared to go to the Cross, to complete the Father’s will and to enter into His glory, He created a meal.  “Do this,” he told his disciples.  Wherever you go, break the bread, and drink from the cup.  Use these words.  Call Me into your midst.  And I will be with you.  The love that we have shared around the table, the joy in each other’s presence, and the strength and passion that comes of knowing God and doing His will, all that will be there as well. 

Of course, this is a different kind of meal than those He shared with His followers.  Because He has died for us, and because He rose again in glory, this meal has become the means of imparting the deep spiritual realities that those joyful Palestinian feasts were only hinting at.  Then Jesus was the host, but now He is host and fare.  He was the life of party, but in this meal he becomes the life of the soul as well, the source of grace, joy and peace.  As He says in our Gospel lesson, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me[1].”  True life, abundant life, comes through this meal. 

 “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood,” Jesus told his disciples, “you have no life in you[2].”  The feast we celebrate today, the Day of Thanksgiving for Christ’s Body and Blood, it goes back to the thirteenth century.  And those who designed it made a very wise choice, I think, when they put it here in the Church Calendar, just after the Day of Pentecost and the Feast of the Blessed Trinity.  After today, we are plunged into what the calendar calls “ordinary time.” The great festivals of the Church year end, and we begin a long spell of listening, week by week to Jesus’ teaching and thinking about how we can grow in our faithfulness to Him. 

To live for Him, Pentecost reminds us, we must welcome the work of His Spirit, use the gifts He has placed within us.  To really grow, Trinity Sunday reminds us, we must know the truth about God and confess it boldly.  But the Spirit and true doctrine are not enough to live for Christ.  We must also feed on His Flesh and Blood, we must participate in the sacramental life with all his beloved sons and daughters.  That’s why this feast, on this day, is so important.  It’s easy for us to think that we can receive the Spirit all on our own, and correct doctrine, too is often a solitary matter: pondering and studying our way to the truth.  But there is no such thing as a lonesome sacrament.  Jesus knew that to live for Him, we need to be together, to gather around the table with each other.  The Christian life is a deeply communal reality: that’s how Christ designed it. 

Today, I am with you because our son will make his first communion.  He has learned the good news about Jesus who came to share God’s love and to die for our sins.  He knows now that the Holy Communion is a very special meal, and that he needs to prepare himself to receive it with faith and thankfulness.  And he is very excited to share in this feast that is spread every Sunday here at Zion Saint John’s.  His mother and I pray that he will receive it faithfully, week by week for the rest of his life.

In a few years, I expect a crisp November morning will come when our son takes his place around the table in my mother’s kitchen for breakfast on the first Sunday of deer season.  He’ll need to learn to sit still first, and to be a great deal more careful with dangerous machines.  But in time, he will learn, and I will be proud to have him beside me that day.  That day, and the meal that celebrates it will mark him out as a member of his family, the Michaels, in a special way.

But to me, this meal is the one that really matters, and this family, it’s the only one that lasts forever.  Today our son takes his place, in a deeper way, within the company of all God’s faithful people: the saints who gather here on earth around the Altar, and in heaven around the victorious Lamb.  Today, he will share in Christ’s life even more deeply than he has in hearing the Word and saying his prayers.  Today, like all of us, he will be filled with grace, united with Christ, and bound together in this blessed life we share around the table.

[1] John 6:56-57
[2] John 6:53

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