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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 12 – Year B

This past Friday night I was invited by members of Richmond’s Muslim community to join them and others at The Old Jerusalem Restaurant down on 7th Street for an Iftar dinner. During the holy month of Ramadan an Iftar is a special evening meal when Muslims break their fast. Ramadan is kind of like our Lent. It’s a time of fasting and acts of charity. During Ramadan Muslims fast from sunup to sundown, only eating at the evening meal.
It was a wonderful event. The meal was full of traditional Middle Eastern fare and the guest list included Muslims, Jews, and Christians. It was delightful for me to literally break bread with an Imam, two Rabbis and a smattering of Christian clergy from around the city. The dinner had a great spirit of hospitality and I was honored to be able to share in this unique religious and cultural tradition.
Numerous times during the evening I kept thinking that this special meal was like a Eucharist. It brought people together in the sharing of a common food. It was full of thanksgiving and joy. Many of us were quite different from one another culturally, religiously, ethnically, and yet for a few hours we were united around a common table sharing a communal meal. It was a great evening and I am very grateful to have been invited.
However, as I listen to Jesus’ words this morning it is clear that while the Iftar contained many of the elements of a Eucharist, these two religious meals are in fact very different. Taking communion Sunday after Sunday we forget how profoundly different this meal is from all others. Many diverse faiths have communal meals that celebrate something sacred, but in the Eucharist we believe that we actually feed on God. And it is this very physical, very incarnational fact of our faith that distances us from our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters. We share many ideas about ethics, about the holiness and righteousness of God. But it is the incarnation, in this talk by Jesus of flesh and blood, eating and drinking, that we part company. Islam finds the notion of God Almighty becoming our flesh, our blood a repugnant and sacrilegious idea. For a Muslim it is sacrilegious to even depict God in art much less to talk about feeding on God – bread and wine as body and blood.
And yet, this has been the central act of our worship for more than 2,000 years. In the early church, the faithful would literally gather around the dining room table for lunch or dinner and as they ate they would reenact the words and actions of Jesus at the Last Supper. Taking part in the body and blood of Christ was an essential part of the meal. Receiving communion went along with eating lamb chops and rice. As the church grew, we separated this sacred meal from the common meal and we set the table apart, formalizing the liturgy. When we did this it became easy to forget how very physical an act the Eucharist is, how visceral – bread and wine as body and blood. The more formal it became the more people tended to feel as if they were coming forward to receive some sort of medicine rather than that they were participating in the great feast of the Church. We took the loaves of bread and made them into flat wafers that were easy to dispense and made little mess. Finally, many denominations have removed even the common cup so that we need not touch anything that has been touched by another. We can have our own private meal without ever having to deal with the very physical experience of drinking from a cup others have shared.
Sometimes the kids come up to the communion rail and they say the funniest things. On more than one occasion, I have seen kids rub their hands together and say – “Oh goodie, time for snacks.” The other day as I worked my way down the aisle, I heard a little girl say to her father – “Daddy, can I have two of those cookies.” And not too long ago a boy glanced sideways at his mother with a very puzzled look on his face and said in a rather loud voice – “This thing sticks to the roof of my mouth!” I love these comments by our children. They are honest, to the point statements that reflect the truth that when kids come to the altar rail they are not necessarily there for only the spiritual – they expect to be physically fed.
Frederick Buechner once said, “One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.” We should never forget that the one thing that separates Christianity from all other religions is that we believe that God was not satisfied simply speaking to us from the top of mountains or in our dreams. No, what makes Christianity unique is that we believe God, the infinite/eternal God, became finite, physical, temporal in order to show us the extent of his love. Therefore it shouldn’t surprise us that this same God gave us a very physical act to express our most spiritual truth. The act of taking bread and wine, blessing them and sharing them among ourselves in such a way that when we do this Christ will literally be inside us and we in him. For all of us who receive Jesus in this way, his life clings to our bones and literally courses through our veins. It is not an abstract spiritual event but a concrete physical act.
Why did Jesus do it? Why did he give us this meal of himself? Well, maybe he wanted all of us to remember that for the Christian there is no real spiritual life without the physical component. There is no spiritual love of God without the physical willingness to love one’s neighbor. There is no spiritual power in prayer without our willingness to put prayer into action. There is no spiritual benefit to believing in Christ if we are not willing to physically act out in our lives what we profess with our lips. In the great mystery of the Eucharist, we are invited to literally feed on God, to take the divine into our very bodies. We do this not in order to reach some higher spiritual plane but so that we might live for God in the world. In this sense, the Eucharist is not medicine to make us well, but food to give us energy to serve our Lord. Amen.

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