[Sermon from Sunday, Aug. 19]
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships. Last weekend, Ann and the kids and I were out of town, in Springfield, to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. The party was at my folks’ parish, Christ Church, which was very appropriate, given the relationships that matter most to them. Because my family loves to sing, we began the celebration with Evensong and then continued with a reception in the parish hall – very intimate and lovely. As my parents were blessed in their wedding 60 years ago, so we invoked God’s blessing on them still, praying that Christ would empower them “to honor and keep the promises and vows they [had made]” (BCP 425). For them, for my sisters and me, and for their friends from 60 years of married life, it was a great opportunity to remember how deep my parents’ relationship runs.
Ironically, or maybe fittingly, this party took place on the 22nd wedding anniversary for Ann and me. Our celebration took a back seat to my parents’ party this time; but still, we remembered. We had cards for each other, at least – small tokens of the day when we covenanted to give each other “all that I am and all that I have” (BCP 427).
Then yesterday, a very different kind of relationship began. We took our daughter, Kathryn, to college at Truman State and moved her into her dorm. For the first time since our kids were very small, Kathryn will have to negotiate the relationship of being a roommate with someone – another person who, remarkably, may not always recognize just how often Kathryn is right about things. Now, I don’t know how Kathryn and her roommate will work out the details of their new relationship: Your things go here and mine go there; we’ll be quiet after 11 p.m., you control the TV on these days of the week, and I control the TV on those days of the week. But I could imagine something like a contract coming in pretty handy in that situation. It’s very helpful to be able to go back to the agreement and remind your wayward roommate that yes, indeed, it’s Wednesday; and that’s my day to take the remote.
Roommates and spouses have very different relationships, obviously. Roommates may have contracts, but spouses or partners share covenants. A covenant is about more than keeping certain terms; it’s about fulfilling a mutual commitment. And that deep, intimate commitment is what keeps you together through the rough times. After all, spouses or partners always end up failing in their mutual obligations; and if it were a contractual relationship, any sane person would simply note that the terms were broken and make a new contract with someone else.
But in deep relationships, the commitment trumps the specifics of the agreement. In fact, the commitment takes on a life of its own, forming you as the marriage goes on, shaping you into someone who gives yourself away rather than someone who meets obligatory terms. Ultimately, that sacramental commitment makes you into someone with the capacity to work a miracle – to live out the impossible vow to love another person with “all that I am and all that I have.” That mutual commitment empowers the couple to love each other into submission – not submission to each other’s will but submission to God’s purposes.
And an anniversary is a moment to remember all that. Whether it’s been 60 years, or 22 years, or whatever, an anniversary is a moment to remember the sacramental nature of the relationship, making it real and tangible in a way it can’t be every day. On an anniversary, we bring our covenant into active and living memory; and in doing so, we bring it to life anew.
So you may wonder what all that has to do with our readings today. Well, the kind of deep relationship people enter into in marriage – that’s the kind of relationship that Jesus is asking us to make with God. You might think of it as a divine proposal.
The Gospel reading today picks up where we left off last week, with Jesus trying to explain to the thick-headed crowd what it means for him to be the “bread of life.” He reminds them that, centuries ago, God gave the people of Israel manna to eat in the wilderness. It kept them going as they journeyed to the Promised Land, but that was as far as their deliverance went. Now, Jesus says, there’s a new promise, a new covenant of relationship between God and humanity. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51)
You can almost hear what the crowd is thinking: “OK, this rabbi’s teaching will give us spiritual nourishment.” Great. The symbolism with the bread begins to makes sense.
But then, Jesus takes the intensity up a notch and confuses the crowd again. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51). Wait – what was that? Did he really say that? Eat his flesh? Yes, and not just that: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. … Whoever eats me will live because of me.” (6:53,57). No wonder this movement didn’t catch on so well in Jesus’ day. There’s a pretty significant “yuck factor” to what Jesus has to say.
The people listening to him don’t get it because they can’t fathom the terms of God’s proposal. This “bread of life” won’t just keep us alive as we wander from one day to the next. This bread is literally God in the flesh; and through Jesus’ body and blood, God is offering us God’s own life, eternal life – right here, right now, and forever. “Just as I live because of the Father,” Jesus explains, “so whoever eats me will live because of me” (6:57). It’s so straightforward we think it must be more confusing than that. He can’t really mean what he’s saying, right? Well, yes. Eat my flesh and drink my blood – take my life into your own life – and I’ll empower you with eternal life.
OK. There’s God’s part of this covenant. What’s our part? What are the vows we’re asked to make in this incredibly intimate relationship? As the crowd asks Jesus earlier, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6:28).
The response God asks of us is both much simpler, and much more demanding, than we’d expect. Again, it’s less like a business contract and more like a marriage covenant. Our part of the commitment is to match Jesus’ commitment to us. “[B]elieve in him whom [God] has sent” (6:29). That’s it. There’s no to-do list, no contract to check for compliance. Instead, Jesus says, pay attention to what you see the Father doing through me, and commit yourself to it. Remember, and believe.
That’s easier said than done, in the midst of life that distracts us with constant input and overwhelms us with impossible expectations. When all I can see is everything I have to do, how can I remember my covenant with God and actively believe in Jesus? We humans need concrete reminders. We need signs to help us remember where we are. It’s why the crowd asks Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, that we may see it and believe you?” (John 6:30). Now, 24 hours earlier, the same crowd had watched him feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. What more of a sign do you need? But that was then; this is now. Then they were full, but now they’re hungry again. With the needs and obligations of life crashing in, how can we remember and believe?
That’s why we’re here today. That’s why we’re here every Sunday. That’s why we do basically the same thing here every week. It’s what Eucharist is all about: Remember, and believe.
Go back to what you learned in Confirmation class or Episcopal 101. What happens in Eucharist is called anamnesis in Greek, and it means living memory. It means remembering, but with flesh and bones on it. It means bringing a past reality into the present reality as a foretaste of a future reality. It means making Jesus present in your hands and on your lips, bringing you the power of divine life in the here and now. It means making eternal life real. When we remember, we believe.
And from our remembrance and our belief will come the “works of God,” in the sense we’d typically understand that. Filled with the bread of life, we become the conduits through which eternal life flows. As Jesus gives himself to bring life to us, so we give ourselves to bring life to each other and to the world. Nourished with the body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ – bread for a hungry world.
Every Sunday, we gather to celebrate the anniversary of a marriage – the marriage of heaven and earth, the marriage of Christ and his Church, the marriage of God with each one of us. So consider every celebration of Eucharist an opportunity to renew your vows. Remember, and believe. And in the power of that memory, recommit yourself as a partner with God in the project of loving the world into submission.