In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The pandemic has not only threatened our physical health. It has taken away from us things that were essential to maintaining our mental and spiritual health. One of those things is what the Book of Common Prayer calls, “the principal act of Christian worship” (BCP p. 13), that is, Holy Communion. We have so far faced the pandemic without it. We have been fasting from Holy Communion because the very communion we experience risks spreading the virus. This fast has been a testimony of the love we have for one another. Jesus has been present with us these months in new and interesting ways.
That being said, there has been no more dramatic change in our worship life than displacing the central act of Christian worship. I know many of you miss it like you miss life sustaining food. We have been weaker without it. We have been weaker when we need to be strong. It has bothered me a lot.
Like many things though, we have discovered we can accomplish most of what we need to during this pandemic if we pull together, use our collective intelligence, skills, and imagination, to find a new way forward. Today, therefore, is our first Holy Communion service in six months. We’ve done it without changing any of our cherished norms governing the sacred. Many of you know that under normal circumstances, Holy Communion is brought from the church with great care and reverence to those who–due to illness, age, or circumstances–could not be present to receive it. It’s an ancient practice that goes back to the earliest centuries. Christians in prison awaiting martyrdom would receive Holy Communion from visitors. Churches would send the consecrated elements to others churches affirming the communion they had with each other. What we have done today is send communion out to the whole congregation because we are all in need and can’t participate in the ordinary gathering. If you have one of these bags it itself is a sign of your communion with us and God. If you don’t have one and are within driving distance of Chelmsford, look for the next sign-up and sign-up!
It is my hope that the restoration of Holy Communion to our shared life will be a source of strength and spiritual power. It always has been and will again be as we, starting today, chart a new path. Since it has been absent for half a year, it is worth spending a few minutes reminding ourselves what it is. It is the central act of Christian worship because it is charged with meaning. It has layers of meaning that are all true at the same time. We don’t always talk about all the layers. There is no way we could, but it is a profound sacred act instituted by Jesus himself to be frequently repeated by his followers to nourish their souls and guide their growth.
We talk most about the most obvious, outward, and elementary aspect of Holy Communion (as we should). That is, that it is shared around a table. Of course, outside the church we are all very different people. We disagree about many things as people do. But when we gather here at this table, those differences are overcome, as we eat the same food together. As Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). In 2020, where American divisions are so deep that we as a country are having great difficulty pulling together to defeat this virus, it is so hard for us to set aside our differences even in the face of death, the most obvious and outward meaning of Holy Communion could not be more relevant. Listen to a sentence from the earliest Eucharistic Prayer that we have that is not in the New Testament. It is likely more than 1,900 years old now and it instructs the priest to say, “As this fragment of bread was scattered upon the mountains [as grain] and was gathered to become one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom” (Didache 8:4). If a message of gathering and uniting what is otherwise scattered and divided is appealing to you, this is an act of worship for you. We need it and we need it badly.
The spiritual resources of Holy Communion, though, are way more than that. You likely have noticed that the table we gather around is also called an altar (that is the place of ritual sacrifice, eek!). And here’s where it gets really serious, but at this point in 2020 it is time to be serious. Is it a table or an altar that we gather around? It’s both at the same time. Who made the friendly meal table into an altar of sacrifice you ask? Jesus himself did. He did when he gathered with his closest disciples and took the bread in hand and said “This is my body given and offered up for you.” He took the wine and said, “This is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Tables don’t have bodies and bloodshed. Altars do. Why would Jesus transform the table into an altar?
He was thinking of a very identifiable Old Testament story. There we are told about a lamb without spot or blemish whose blood is shed so that everyone else may live (Exodus 12:1-14). Its blood was to be spread on the doorposts and then it was to be eaten by those safe inside the house. When Jesus read that story, he said, “That is me. I am the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The night before he was crucified Jesus told his followers to commemorate him with a meal with bread and wine that they understood to be his body given for them and his blood shed for them. Like that ancient Passover lamb, Jesus became the sacrificial offering. He voluntary took upon himself the guilt, pain, or suffering of all. In this way, his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins.
You might ask of both stories, of Exodus and Jesus, why does there need to be any sacrifice at all? Couldn’t God just forgive everybody? After all, if you are really omnipotent and good, it should be within your power to forgive without the shedding of blood (I told you we were getting serious!). Of course, God could just forgive everybody, give out grace on the cheap like Mardi Gras beads. If that were the case, what about the victims? What about any sense of justice? Would there be any meaningful moral order in the universe if God shredded it with pardons?
God honored and upheld the moral fabric of the universe by becoming the sacrifice himself. Without ceasing to be who he is eternally, he suffered what justice demanded for wrongs past, present, and future. The ark of the universe bends toward justice only because the Creator chose to uphold the demands of justice at unfathomable personal cost.
We return again and again to that table that becomes an altar. Any and all of us who have ever been victims, any of us who have suffered at the hands of another, see none of that as overlooked, undervalued, or set aside. The blood sacrifice is to be offered. Any and all of us who have victimized, who have wronged another, identify with those who crucified our Lord, and voluntarily relive the guilt and the crime and hear then Jesus say what he said on his own cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Grace is offered there, but requires a lifelong returning and returning again and again to the altar confessing and being forgiven. This grace is not cheap. Its precious. It is nothing less than the renewal of a moral order that loses all credibility apart from our devotion to it. I kneel before this altar seeing my incapacity (and our social incapacity), but also get to see that incapacity overcome by God for me and for us. Forgiveness is not the elimination of our responsibility for our own choices but is its elevation and healing. Thanks be to God. Those wronged and those who have wronged gather before the same altar forgiving and being forgiven, again and again. The central act of Christian worship is powerful stuff.
Peter asks Jesus in today’s Gospel, “Lord if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? Once, twice, or “as many as seven times?” Oh Peter, Peter, it is time to lift your heart, and understand mysteries exceeding your elementary counting. There is a forgiveness more powerful than you know to be offered wherever 2 or 3 will gather in the name of the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.
We welcome Holy Communion back with joy and awe! It is also called “The Great Thanksgiving” (or Eucharist in Greek) for a reason. We are thankful. There are furthers layers of its power and mystery that will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, may the God whose goodness upholds the moral fabric of the universe yet wonderfully is also the source of both justice and mercy, give us the power to forgive ourselves and other people of the wrongs we have done and the sins we have unjustly suffered, so that we might be worthy followers of Christ, who on his own cross prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him, and now lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet