One of my favorite theologians, Dorothee Soelle, wrote this passage in her book Stations of the Cross: A Latin American Pilgrimage. “In Rio a group of Christians was working with street children, of whom there are twenty-five million in Brazil. Every day, boys from the street got together at one spot to chat, to discuss their problems and to share their fears and anger with one another. Many came regularly. The church people consisted of a Roman Catholic Priest, a Methodist, a priest from the Umbanda religion, a Presbyterian and a young Lutheran pastor. One day one of the boys said; ‘I would like to be baptized.’ ‘In which church then’, asked the Roman Catholic? ‘Which church’? Said the boy, ‘in ours here, of course’. ‘ But to which church building would you like to go’? Asked the priest. ‘Building? No, to our church here on the street. I want to be baptized here among us’.
The Methodist said he couldn’t issue a certificate. The Roman Catholic thought it wouldn’t be possible to perform jointly with the man from the Umbanda religion. The boy stuck by his wish. Finally the Pastor organized the necessary things: he laid a board over two crates and filled an old boot with water for flowers, which the other children had provided. The priest brought along a candle. The baptism took place on the street, in the name of Jesus Christ”.
When I got to the end of typing out that passage from Soelle’s book, I very seriously considered saying to you, ‘Well that quote is the sermon today and for the next ten minutes we will just sit and think about it’. And I am not completely convinced that wouldn’t be the right course of action. However, lest some might imagine me on Kits Beach in these dwindling days of summer reading a book and thinking of ways to shirk my clerical responsibilities, I have indeed put pen to paper and so for the next few minutes will present some of my thoughts. Then, I’ll go read a book on Kits Beach.
I start though with a question, and I think a very serious one at that. Was that little boy, that street child in Rio, truly Baptized? I guess what I am asking is was that makeshift church a true church? Was that altar of crates and scrap board a real altar? Was that boot with the flowers gathered by other street kids an appropriate decoration to the sacrament at hand? Was God present? Was Jesus Christ’s name invoked in vain? As far as I am concerned and from deep within my heart and my mind and my soul and with all that I am I say yes, he was baptized. If truth were told my reaction is almost to scream out, ‘yes this boy is baptized’! He was baptized in a holy church at a holy altar with religious ornamentation more powerful than the Sistine Chapel. I would not be surprised at all if the hand of God Herself came down and washed that child with the Holy Spirit. And Jesus Christ was there. Why do I say this with such certainty? Because that baptism by my account was a robust example of St Augustine’s definition of a sacrament: it was the outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace. And if I might be bold to add to the definition, it was bathed in human and holy love.
Today in the Gospel we hear Jesus say, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever”. At the sacrament of the Eucharist we also engage ourselves in an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace. The outward and visible signs are obvious enough. We celebrate at the table, the altar and consecrate the meal. We then distribute the food and drink to all who are present and wish to partake. But what is the inward and spiritual divine grace here that St Augustine articulated. How do we know it is there in our Eucharist? What does it do to us? Why is the Eucharist the central sacrament of the Christian faith? Am I as certain that the Holy Spirit will be as present and as lively as He was with that little boy at his baptism on the streets of Rio? When we participate in the Eucharist, do we indeed abide in Christ forever? In answer to questions like these Michael Ramsey, the one-hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury, said, “The supreme question is not what we make of the Eucharist, but what the Eucharist is making of us”.
As many of you know I am an adult convert and in the course of that conversion and my call to ministry, church liturgy and sacramental practice have all become increasingly meaningful, authentic and embodied for me in the Eucharist. For me the Lord’s Supper has come to have a significance in my life that goes well beyond the corporeal act of the communal sharing of bread and wine. It has come to symbolize the inexpressible and fathomless and life altering connection between God and God’s people. The ways in which the Eucharist affects me are very real. I often find myself being brought close to tears. As the Eucharistic liturgy starts the niggling concerns I brought into the church with me seem to disappear. I feel literally closer in a physical sense to the people there with me and with God. I think in part what is going on here is that the symbolic is stimulating my mind and body. I have also come to understand that it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in action. What I believe to be happening is the intermixture of things that I had in the past been inclined to deem separate: the real and the symbol, the physical and the spiritual, the human and the divine, heaven and earth.
I do not know exactly what was going on between Jesus and His followers during the last supper. I do not know exactly what the new covenant entails for me and for many. I do not know with any certainty what Christ’s death and resurrection means for me in this life or the next. I can obviously conjecture, as I do and as have a multitude before me, but I can never really know. This is because these are the mysteries of God for the people of God. By that I mean through these stories we get the words and symbols that make up the Eucharist and this sacrament is, for Christians, one of the significant means by which we all get to experience communion with God. For a moment the mystery, the spiritual divine grace becomes a real presence. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever”. Therefore the bread and the wine are symbols of God working in our lives and to this extent these symbols have a meaning that transcend their mere reality. Indeed I do believe that symbols themselves can be as powerful a force as any one can find in human nature. For example, the small woven cedar collation basket made over one hundred years ago by an aboriginal woman for our original church, and that magically made its way back to our modern church has such symbolic significance to me that I cannot find words to express this particular divine grace.
The words, bread and wine of the Eucharist symbolize for me the mystery of God and the mystery of God touches me internally and powerfully in this sacred and spiritual union. Communion, among many other things, can be described as the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts or ideas. That little boy in the streets of Rio had so many things right about the significance of sacrament and what it can do for all of us. God had touched this child and the boy wanted to acknowledge this new relationship in his life. The boy instinctively knew that some sort of sacrament, some sort of celebration was in order. He knew that it had to be in a special place, and that gathering point for the street children was that place, it was his church. He knew that it didn’t have to be fancy; he was just getting water poured over his head after all. But most importantly, he knew that he wanted it to be done in community, in his community, in the community of homeless, helpless, hungry street children. He wanted it in this community because the new relationship with God he was celebrating was real to him, it was changing him, and he wanted his friends to be a part of it. God had touched this little boy and they were now in communion, sharing and exchanging intimate thoughts and ideas.
Communion with God does change us – perhaps incrementally, perhaps in a massive and sudden cascade of illumination – but it does change us. I have mentioned here before that I quite like the American Christian writer Philip Yancey. He has an honest, down to earth style of writing and I think is an admirable storyteller. In one book he recounts the time when he was a minister of a church in Chicago that would be in the area of that city equivalent to Vancouver’s downtown eastside. However his congregation, because the church had been around for many years, came from all areas of Chicago and was therefore a very broad mix of people. In a very touching end to this book, which as I recall was about God’s grace, he imagines himself distributing the wine and the bread at the Eucharist to his congregants. He by then had been at the church for many years and knew them pastorally and personally quite well. He imagines himself at Communion and saying the words of distribution and then in his mind he thinks the following for each person. This is not an exact quote, only a general paraphrase and of course I am using pseudonyms.
He says, ‘Brian the body of Christ broken for you’ and then thinks in his mind, ‘Brian who has been broken himself by three failed marriages, God loves you’. ‘Lisa, the blood of Christ shed for you’, “Lisa, whose son is addicted to crack cocaine and prostitutes himself to feed his habit, God walks with you. ‘Graham the body of Christ broken for you’, ‘Graham who can’t stop cheating on his wife and still loves her desperately, God abides with you. Anna, The blood of Christ shed for you. Anna, who is such a perfectionist she drives everybody crazy, God holds you dearly. Greg, the body of Christ broken for you. Greg, who steals from his workplace and feels incredibly lonely in this city of millions, God loves you to.
Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever”. In this simple sacrament we find the real presence of the love of God. At St John’s we are blessed with some of the best liturgical music anywhere. We are privileged to be surrounded by a beautiful sanctuary that is full of light. But that is not why God is here amongst us now. God’s love is a real presence here amongst us now because God lives where people need God and call God, at this altar or on the streets of Rio. We give thanks for this love as a community and we, as Christians, open wide our arms to God and embrace His grace with bread and wine. And we are changed, in our church, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney