Just a Taste

(World Communion Sunday)

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
October 7, 2012 Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12


Joseph Sittler was a preeminent theologian of the last generation. A Lutheran, he taught at the University of Chicago for the majority of his career and then at the Lutheran seminary in Chicago following his formal retirement. I heard him speak and met him once; he was in his eighties. On this World Communion Sunday, hear what Sittler has to say about a deeply theological topic: “Every school day at twelve noon a white truck marked Hot Dogs, Polish Sausage, Coffee parks in front of the administration building at the University of Chicago. A line of persons—students, faculty, staff, white-coated medics, the buildings-and-grounds grew—begins to form and soon numbers twenty or thirty persons.

Some hot dogs are dispensed; the main item, however, is the Polish sausage sandwich. This particular sandwich is no ordinary product! Rich, juicy, odorous, garlic-laden, hot , and smelling with all the herb-subtlety of a thousand years of Polish sausage culture, this creation is lifted out of a steam-hot container, cradled in an oblong bun, and garnished with chopped onions, mustard, pickle relish, and topped with green peppers that have a shocking authority and pungency. They bring tears to the eyes, a clutch at the throat, and clarification to the mind!”(“Polish Sausage, St. Augustine, and the Moral Life,” in Grace Notes and Other Fragments)

It is World Communion Sunday. It is also a Sunday during our “Year of Feasting” when we begin the first of five conversations about Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or – every once in a while – Eucharist. On the first Sundays in December, February, April and June we will continue – you can mark your calendars now. We will talk about meanings and practices, about history and theology. If you have questions you’d like me to address – what or why or how or whatever – please send them to me. Some of you already have.

So on a World Communion, Year of Feasting Sunday, what I first want to say is simple: this is a meal. It started out as a meal and at heart that’s what it is now. For 2000 years we’ve theologized, ritualized, clarified, confused, debated. Church wars have been fought over its meanings and practice, about who’s in and who’s out and what it all means. Over the centuries we’ve gotten a long way from the meal we imagine Jesus sharing with his friends. But, thankfully, not all the way.

So we remember first and foremost that it was a meal.

Joe Sittler continues: “The appeal of these Polish sausages is general. Less proletarian sustenance is available in several other places about the university. But the line awaiting a sausage is no respecter of prestige, learning, delicate refined tastes, professional status, or public distinction. That little man is from the art department; his job is to research Renaissance calligraphy and arrive at probable dates for Italian manuscripts. And that fellow there is doing research in low-temperature physics. The young woman in the white coat operates the electron microscope; behind her is the hard-hatted, denim-clad man who runs the pile driver at the construction job down the street. The entire congregation is lined up before the high priest in the truck; the incense is provided by the redolent magnificence of the Polish sausage.”

It is a meal. It is a joyous meal. And all are welcome. You need to RSVP in some manner or another, but all are welcome. You need to be prepared in some manner or another, but all are welcome.

It was a meal that would be his last. I will call it a “joyful feast” in a few moments, and perhaps we Presbyterians – God’s “frozen people” – need to claim that just a little bit more. Joyful feast.

It is also a feast when we “remember.” A portion of the prayer we will say is called the “anamnesis,” Latin for remember, or memorial. We rehearse the breadth of the biblical story, from creation to Jesus and beyond. We will remember his last meal. So it is a joyful feast that will also remember his last meal, death, so it takes on a somber air. But even then there must have been laughter, tears. The sharing of stories. Work. Family. Politics. Sports, perhaps. Art. Music. The things we talk about when we gather around a table with good friends or family and a fine meal set before us. But because it would be his last, and because he was who he was and he did what he did, it took on other features.

The gospels tell the story in slightly different ways. You can read them all. John’s gospel incudes foot-washing, a reminder that humble service was always a part of it. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell similar versions – all include the words “this is my body” and “this is my blood,” words over whose meanings we have fought nearly since he uttered them. What did he mean, we’ve wondered. What does it mean?

So if you remember one thing, remember it’s a meal, a joyous, very good meal. But if you remember one thing more, remember that it’s a meal that serves as so much more than a meal.

Recall the best meals in your life and remember that they were more than the food served. We can eat in a very utilitarian way, to give fuel to the body. And our bodies certainly need fuel. But when we gather for a meal, so much more happens. Recall those best meals – the occasion, the mood, the company. We define sacraments in our tradition as signs and seals, things that confirm other things and things that point elsewhere. We will talk about what those things are – what is sealed and what is pointed to – as we continue to gather around the table.

Our Presbyterian constitution, not always known for its eloquence, is actually pretty good on this stuff. It says that at this meal we bless God, we give thanks to God, we gratefully anticipate God’s future. We are renewed and empowered, we are sustained by Christ’s promise, we are sealed in God’s covenant of grace. As we remember and give thanks, we are bound to Christ, united with all the faithful, nourished for our journey.

That makes this a meal, but so much more than just any meal. John Calvin wrote that Jesus Christ “is our food…who satisfies us to the full.” That will be a provocative notion over the course of this “Year of Feasting,” when we think about global hunger, or the local food movements, or every cooking show we see on TV including the competitive ones, or childhood obesity, or all the ways that food and culture and politics and our spiritual life interact. What does it mean for us, therefore, to say that Jesus is our food? And to say that this meal, this joyful feast, serves as the pivot point of our life of faith, drawing us together, nourishing us, sending us out?

Gregory Dix once wrote that “in the Eucharist we Christians concentrate our motive and act out our theory of human living.” If that’s true, what motivates us, and what do we think about life, and more importantly, how will we live our life, with Jesus as our food?

William Sloane Coffin, great preacher of the last generation, said that “The Eucharist quenches my thirst for hope.” (See Credo, page 140) Can hope be our motive as we gather? Hope, hope, and so much more – justice, compassion, peace, and love. Love.

Our tradition rejected some earlier teachings about what happens in this meal; we will talk about that on one of these communion Sundays. But in rejecting some traditions, we neglected to replace that with other teachings. That has led to some confusion, but more so, it has led to freedom in thinking about things. We’ve embraced the notion of mystery, mystery that avoids tying all of this together too neatly or too tightly. We’re not so sure about mystery; we want things explained.

But we can understand love, and live into its vision, and be fed by it.
And we can understand hope, and live into its vision, and be fed by it.
And on this World Communion Sunday, we can understand justice, and live into its vision, and be fed by it.

A year ago this weekend, our Kenyan friends were with us. Do you remember the joy? When we gather this morning, we gather with them in mind, with all Christians around the world, in our conflicted denomination, up and down the street, and across history.

But we also gather on behalf of a world in need, a world that hungers. The earliest rehearsals of this were meals of inclusion. All were welcome. If you had plenty, you shared. And if you did not have enough to eat, you were fed a real meal, a full meal, as an act of charity and compassion. So a “Year of Feasting” will need to think about that as well, the people God loves so much who do not have food on their tables or for the bellies of their children, depriving them of joy and hope. We remember that if faith does not lead to service, then there is a wide gap in our understanding of this meal.

Joe Sittler concludes: “I too used often to be in that line. One day, my fellow communicant at Augustana (Lutheran) Church was just in front of me. I was astonished to see him there—and said so: “Dr. Platz, what are you doing there? You are a pathologist; you know very well that you ought not to eat one of these violent things! They are, to be sure, among the most succulent of foods. Now I am only a theologian and don’t know any better. But you are a doctor—indeed a pathologist at that—and you have professionally examined the catastrophic effect upon the stomach of these explosive, corrosive, tissue-eroding sausages! Those fiery peppers, to mention but one component of this symphony, are enough to make the white cells cry out in anguish!”

Charles Platz fixed me with a cool gaze. “Yes,” he said, “you are quite right. But these things are very good, aren’t they!””

It was a meal. We can understand that. A joyous, good meal with friends. The rest is an invitation to a global, story-remembering, hope-affirming, love-embracing, justice-seeking, ever evolving journey with Jesus at both the foot and head of the table, the gracious host, the honored guest, the humble server, and people like you and me on either side, and room for plenty more.

Come now…the table is spread. Amen.

 

 

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