Year B; FB Proper 15; 8.19.2018
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we were prohibited from participating in Holy Communion. What would it be like if it was even dangerous to participate in The Eucharist? It was dangerous for the early Christians who were persecuted by the Roman Empire. The history of their hiding in the catacombs tells us that it must have been dangerous to be openly Christian; dangerous to say the prayers and dangerous to receive the Bread and the Cup of Christ.
Would we miss gathering together like this? To see one another face-to-face, publicly blessing the elements that Christ gave us in his Last Supper? What IF sharing like this was dangerous?
Five summers ago, I participated in a trip to El Salvador to learn about the group Cristosal and the work they do to train the people to advocate for themselves against corrupt local governments. During that trip we visited the little stucco house of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador. His little house was built on the grounds of the Divine Providence Hospital, a hospital for the terminally ill. The sisters who run the hospital built this modest home adjacent to their chapel after Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador. By this time, he had moved out of the bishop’s palace to be closer to the poor and suffering.
In his early days as priest and bishop, Oscar Romero was a good friend of the wealthy land-owners of San Salvador. As he rose in the ranks of the Catholic Church, the wealthy developed close friendships with him. They were thrilled when the Vatican promoted him to be Archbishop.
In El Salvador, corruption and murder were the means by which people gained and retained wealth. Poor people were oppressed, their land was stolen from them and what little money they had was also stolen from them.
Local priests spoke out against a government that allowed these abuses and seemed to back them. It was when a good friend of Oscar Romero’s and beloved priest of the peasants was murdered for speaking out on behalf of the peasants that Romero began to re-think his theology and actions.
Soon after the murder of the priest, Romero called all the people to Mass in the rural church in the town of the priest that was killed. He closed all the Catholic schools for three days to mourn his death. The gathering at the church was a very public protest against the government forces. It was the largest gathering for Catholic Mass in El Salvador’s history, and it raised the ire of not only the wealthy landowners and government, it caused the Vatican and even Romero’s colleagues to speak against him.
On the radio, Oscar Romero spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. He called on the government and the wealthy to end their persecution and murders of the poor and the priests who spoke out against the government.
That summer five years ago, after we visited Oscar Romero’s little house, we walked up the sidewalk to the chapel. It was open-air and clean with beautiful tile. Our tour guide was one of the sisters who served at the hospital. She invited us to sit in the pews and imagine that Sunday in March in 1980 when just after he preached a sermon on justice for the poor, Romero went over to stand at the altar ready for the prayers and for Communion. Just then, an army of police burst in and shot him dead.
Did he know how dangerous it was to preach the gospel? Did he know how dangerous it was to celebrate the Eucharist, openly? Was he afraid that he might be one of the martyred priests? His journal entries are prayerful and eye-opening. The answer is “yes” he knew the dangers and he expected the government-led “death squads” to come after him eventually.
But he didn’t change his preaching, and he didn’t stop encouraging the followers of Jesus, most of whom were poor peasants from gathering to receive “the Living Bread that comes down from heaven, the bread Jesus gave for the life of the world.”
This Bread Jesus gives us is a gift. Jesus’ intention was that it was his flesh given for life – the life of the world. He said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’” Each time we gather to consume the “Bread of Heaven” we touch ever so briefly God’s holy realm, God’s eternal life.
If gathering for Holy Communion became outlawed or dangerous, what holy action would give us the strength of our faith? We gather as a body to eat this bread and drink this cup because we believe it is life-giving, strength and courage-giving, pardon and renewal-giving, love and mercy-giving.
And yet, even in the passage of the gospel we heard today, Jesus’ followers didn’t understand his teaching. For some, it was too difficult to understand. They missed the point that it was Jesus’ sacrificial gift for the reconciliation of the world.
Some of his followers, “turned back and no longer went about with him.“ This kind of talk, this kind of believing was not for them, and they walked away for good.
This God…this “Jesus religion” was clearly not for everyone. Even today, as “safe” as it is for us to gather here, this “Jesus religion”, this gospel of love, and this gift of Holy Communion, is not for everyone. Some don’t trust it. Some think it’s foolish. Some have been burned by human abuse of it and they have turned away for good.
But the faithful believe that Jesus is God’s love given to the world. This love lives with us, suffers with us, dies for us. His gift of the holy meal is the reason the Apostle Paul taught his Corinthian community to continue observing the Eucharist in faith until Christ comes again.
St. Paul wrote these instructions to the believers in Corinth:
“Let me go over with you again exactly what goes on in the Lord’s Supper and why it is so centrally important…The Master, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said,
‘This is my body, broken for you. Do this to remember me.’
After supper, he did the same thing with the cup:
‘This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you. Each time you drink this cup, remember me.’
“What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns.” (The Message, I Corinthians 11:23-26)
Our fidelity in regularly sharing this meal gives us strength and courage, but it also lifts us ever so slightly, ever so momentarily out of the world. While believers are “in the world” and partake of the concrete and good things of the world, Jesus said to his followers later in John’s Gospel, “…you do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
The Eucharist reminds us that we DON’T belong to the world. We belong to God.