25 April 2007

Monday Eucharist, Third Week of Easter

Acts 6:8-15, Psalm 27:10-18 (BCP), John 6:22-29

When are we hungry for the food of eternal life? And when is our hunger – while no less real or necessary – for temporary comfort?

Jesus’ words are demanding; his words require us to recognize the difference between the two, to discern, so that we will not mistake one for the other. He calls us to make a conscious choice of the food that is eternal.

Underneath all of this, underlying the discernment and choice that Jesus is calling us to – is our belief. This seems almost too simple. What does Jesus mean, that the work of God is belief in the One who is sent? I’ve got this idea of what work is – and it’s a lot more busy and complicated and multitasking than just believing. Work is a collection of tasks, aimed at certain goals. Work begins at 9 and ends at 5. (Or, if you’re in seminary, work requires all of your waking hours and some of the sleeping ones too.) The kind of work that I imagine for myself – and perhaps this is true for you also – is not the work that Jesus describes. And as painful as it might be to recognize, my accomplishments, my completed tasks, and even my goals are not, cannot and should not be the center. Jesus rightly calls us to remember that our central purpose is to believe. Not – despite all indications to the contrary and with apologies to the faculty and Commission on Ministry types out there – to excel at all theological enterprises, enter the competition for Most Valuable Priest, or even to please those around us. Our work is to believe.

It is a constant struggle to hold back the rushing and busy-ness that seem to infect modern life. For me, this becomes a distraction from the most essential work that Jesus calls each and every one of us to: belief in the One whom God has sent.

And when we gather, as we have now, to do the work of the people – liturgy – we affirm our belief not as individuals, but as a community. Before we break bread together, we affirm our faith in creeds and prayers. The two are bound together; indeed, the whole act of eucharist is a symbol, not because it is any less real, but because it points beyond itself, beyond this moment and this particular gathering to a reality that is deeper, greater … eternal.

This is why the eucharist – which has its root in chara, the greek word for joy – is so central in my own life: it gathers my community and links us together through listening to the Word, sharing our faith, and creating sacred space for our fellowship at the table of God.

But the story of our life together in Christ does not end with affirmations and fellowship. This is one movement of a greater symphony – in which each part contributes to the whole. If we were to celebrate the Eucharist alone, our faith would be diminished. Our life would be diminished. We would be diminished.

Our life in Christ requires of us risk-taking, pursuit, and perseverance. Even with misguided intentions, the crowd pursued Jesus across the sea. As John recounts it, finding neither Jesus not the disciples where they expected them to be, they themselves got into boats and pursued him. Passivity has no place in our life together in Christ. How might we be called to follow after Christ, to pursue a relationship and connection?

Likewise, Stephen, “full of grace and power,” spoke and argued, all the while proclaiming Christ with great vigor. And when this put him in peril, he did not retreat. He did not back down or relent. He did not become quiet and timid. He was steadfast in his faith, and it shone through his whole being, so that even the council could not avoid seeing it. Fear, too, has no place in our life together in Christ. How might we be called to act with courage, to persist in speaking the good news of justice, compassion and reconciliation?

For the grace and power that filled Stephen and gave him the strength to face hatred and anger and condemnation are not the stuff of two millennia past, but the gifts of God to the people of God – to us. We can see these at work in people that we know. Each of us has probably met one person whose faith in Christ Jesus vibrates through their whole being, someone who is so alive, vibrantly alive in Christ that we long to know their secret. We long to be so sure, so confident, so courageous – pick your adjective.

I’ll be the first to admit to this little bit of jealousy, although I’m not exactly proud of it. I want to be like that priestly person over there – the one who always seems to have a smile on and never seems fazed by the craziness of this church. Her faith in God seems so deep that nothing can undermine it. And she has a great sense of style too! It’s just not fair.

But the thing of it is, the gifts of grace and power that I see radiating from certain people are not given to them to the exclusion of everyone else. (Although perhaps the sense of style is not so widely available.) Even as I long to be just like that person over there, God longs for me – as for each one of us – to find my own unique gifts. And when I find my voice, my calling, my sense of self and of pastoral identity, I will find the gift of grace and power that have been there all along, waiting for me to live out my belief more fully and more truly, not according to some ideal, but according to God’s deepest desire for me.

It is not perishable food that will sustain this kind of life, but the eternal and spiritual food that comes from God. Sometimes I wonder if I mistake the comfort and support of Christian fellowship for that which comes from God. Both are good, and both are necessary for our life in Christ, but they are not the same. Fellowship waxes and wanes. Friends, spiritual ones included, come and go. Our graduating friends have laid plans for new lives, and we are beginning to say good-bye and to make plans to stay in touch. But as some remain and others disperse to new communities, jobs and relationships, the friendships we’ve made here will change. Our friends will leave soon, and in September we will welcome new colleagues, and perhaps soon to be friends.

But the love of God abides, and the comfort and support that come from God abide; and these remain present to us in the breaking of the bread. “The Lord will sustain,’ in the words of the Psalmist. You. Me. Each and every one of us, our whole community, near and far. Without ceasing.

In our lives and in the Eucharist we share, God is present, nourishing and sustaining. Waiting for us to come and be fed, not by perishable food, but by spiritual food, the bread and wine, the body and blood, which strengthen each one of us to go forth to proclaim the good news that we have come to believe in the days after Easter: Christ is our risen saviour! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen!