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"The Real Presence of Christ" -- Mark 14:17-26 (Fifth Sunday After Epiphany)

It’s always amazed me that – over the history of Christianity – one of the things that we seem consistently to argue about is... communion. Communion – this central sacrament that we say signifies our unity in Christ – one body gathered at one table. Over the history of Christianity, we have argued and contended and fought about communion: what it means; how we do it; who can lead and celebrate it; who can participate in and receive communion; whose bodies are included at the table, and whose are not.

These disagreements have been there from the very beginning. We can go back as far as the Apostle Paul, and see that, two thousand years ago in the church at Corinth, they were struggling over communion.[1] For them, communion was part of a larger meal. They’d gather in the evening to share that common meal – but – those who were wealthier would go ahead and eat, before those who were working could get there. By the time the working folks arrived, all the food was gone.

And the Apostle Paul writes to them and says, “This isn’t communion, this isn’t the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s own table.” “Wait for each other,” wait until everyone gets there, and then share your meal together so that everyone is fed and everyone has enough. That’s communion. And then he said, and you know, if you are so hungry that you can’t wait for the others to get there, then, for the love of God, have a snack! (1 Cor. 11:34)

And from there, from the beginning, disagreements over communion have flowed on down through the centuries. They have resulted in schisms and the splitting of churches. Wars have been fought – for complex religious and political reasons that have included disagreements over the meaning of communion.

Even in our lifetime, the controversies over ordination have at their core the issue of who can be at the table – whose body can say the words, and break the bread, and pour the cup. Who is in. Who is out. Just 70 or so years ago, women weren’t allowed to preside at the communion table. And just 10 years ago, people like me were excluded.

Perhaps one of the most well-known disagreements about communion is the one that was wrapped up in the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. Now this is an oversimplified version.[2] But in those days, what we would now call the Roman Catholic Church contended that, in communion, the substance of the bread and the wine were transformed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. They called that “transubstantiation.” Martin Luther rejected that and said, no, the bread and wine aren’t actually transformed into flesh and blood, but rather Christ is “in, with, and under the bread and wine.”

The branch of this disagreement from which we descend, the Reformed tradition through John Calvin, articulated a third understanding of communion. John Calvin said that what happens in communion – the whole of the sacrament of communion – is that we experience “the real presence of Christ.”

Now what I like about that is its openness.

Calvin pulled back from the focus on just the bread and wine – are they body and blood? – and looked at the whole of communion – the gathering at table, the breaking of bread, the pouring of a cup, the eating together, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the promise of a future feast when all things are made whole – and he said – somehow – what we experience here in all that is “the real presence of Christ.”

And he said it with some humility. Calvin said, “Now if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. To speak more plainly: I rather experience it more than I understand it.”[3]

We say that sacraments are “visible signs of an invisible grace.”[4] When we celebrate communion, we make visible – we manifest – God’s grace – “the real presence of Christ.” There is an openness and an invitation in those words that we say. They stake a claim for us – this is the real presence of Christ – and then, they invite us in. / to come and see. This is the real presence of Christ – come – taste and see how Christ’s presence is embodied in this sacrament, in this moment shared together.

And so I want to invite us to do just that, to hold these words – “the real presence of Christ” – and look and see how they are embodied in this Scripture, and in our communion together. The real presence of Christ.

This scene from Scripture couldn’t get more real. Jesus has sent two of his disciples ahead to prepare a place where they can share the Passover meal. They all arrive, and settle in, and the first thing that Jesus says is, “One of you will betray me.” Jesus has gathered them all at a table, his friends, to share a meal – including one who would betray him. And not only that, just after this, Jesus will turn to Peter and say, “and you’re going to deny me.” And. By the end of the night – as Jesus is arrested – the rest of them will all flee into the night. Everyone of them will either betray or deny or abandon Jesus. And even so, Jesus welcomes them all to the table. And there they all are.

The mess of the world is present with them at this table, too. Judas is there – a reminder of the authorities breathing down Jesus’ neck. The oppression and the violence of the world are closing in. And even so, Jesus remains present with them. There is trouble at this table. And there is grace.

They gather that night to enter into the story of Passover – as Brian Blount points out – they gather for a liberation meal.[5] They enter into the story of God’s saving action in history. “When we found ourselves in slavery, God brought us up out of Egypt and into freedom.” They break bread, and pour the cup. As they remember the past, and bring it into the present moment, Jesus points them to the future – “I will not drink again the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Jesus points them to the future, beyond death, on into Resurrection. The past, present, and future, all there in this one moment.

And then they sing a hymn, and go out together into the night.

In this Scripture, we see “the real presence of Christ”

in a welcome to the table that includes everyone;

in the persistent, abiding, abounding grace of Jesus Christ

who stands in the midst of our injustice, brokenness, and violence,

with freedom, healing, and peace.

We see “the real presence of Christ”

o looking back and telling the story of God’s saving love down through the years,

o looking forward to the day it will all be complete –

o and bringing all of that into the present moment.

They are fed, and they are nourished, and then sent out into the world. “The real presence of Christ.”

We tell this story of “the real presence of Christ” and bring it to life on Sundays like these when we celebrate communion. Now, “the real presence of Christ” may look a little different embodied in these days of Zoom. We continue to welcome everyone to the table. A year ago, we would have done that all of us embodied in one room. And though we long for the day when it shall be so again, what we do today, gives us an even bigger glimpse – communion not limited to one room – but spanning many – spanning a continent – sometimes an ocean.

It has long been so that on any given Sunday communion is celebrated fairly continuously around the globe – somewhere on the globe – as the Earth spins, and as Sabbath morning comes to time zone after time zone. It’s kind of like that satellite view of earth, where you can see the line that brings daylight moving across the Earth. Communion moves across the earth like that. We get a glimpse of that here. Communion bigger than we ever thought we would see with our human eyes. No matter who you are. No matter where you are. Everyone is welcome.

The real presence of Christ: Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, wherever you are, there is a place for you here.

And it’s not only that all of us are welcome: Every bit of each of us is welcome. Like those Twelve at that first table, each of us brings every bit of who we are – not just the parts that are presentable and ready to “celebrate” communion – but also the parts of us that are hurting and lonely. The ways we may be a bit off course. The ways we move within systems that oppress – sometimes harming others, sometimes harmed. We bring all of that, and we bring the mess of the world – pandemic, systemic racism, climate emergency, political turmoil. We bring all that, to communion, and find Jesus present in the midst of all that mess with justice and healing and peace.

The real presence of Christ: Grace abounds.

We bring all that in communion, and we gather to tell a liberation story. When we say what’s called “The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving” in our communion, we tell a specific story. It begins with God’s saving action from the very beginning: When we were in slavery, God brought us up out into freedom. When we were in exile, God found us and brought us home. The prayer goes on to tell how God’s saving action continues and is made complete in Jesus Christ.

And then we pray for the presence of the Spirit of Christ to come alive in us – that together we might be the body of Christ – and we look forward to that day when folks will gather from north and south and east and west to feast in the kin_dom of God. God’s saving love throughout history, on out into forever, present with us in this moment, right here, right now, in us.

The real presence of Christ alive now: This is the day.

And then, after we share the blessing of bread and cup today, we will share together some opportunities to serve in the world this week. We will sing a hymn, and we will go out into the world. As one writer has said, communion gives us a glimpse of “what human life by God’s grace is intended to be – a life lived together in mutual sharing and love.”[6]

The real presence of Christ in the lives we live. Together we serve.

Over the season of Epiphany, we’ve been talking about the words we say, and how they become manifest in the lives we live. And with all those words – I have just one more to say. If all those words are true, then this also is true: The real presence of Christ is not complete without you. What Christ set in motion at that table, and accomplished in Resurrection, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is present with us right here and right now – calling us, inviting us, inviting you and me and the whole world, to come and see, to come and live.

All of those words that we’ve been talking about, they are present and embodied here, in the sacrament of communion. There is a place for you here. Grace abounds. Together we serve. This is the day. Each of those words is made manifest not only in this sacrament, but in the life we live together– each of us and all of us, all of us at this table, and around the world, and across time, and on out into forever – the body of Christ – the real presence of Christ – embodied – to bless the world God loves.

© 2021 Scott Clark

[1] 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 [2] This summary is distilled from Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991 (2004 2d ed.)), pp.288-295. [3] Quoted in Migliore, p.291. [4] See Migliore, pp.279-282. [5] See Brian K. Blount, Go Preach! Mark’s Kingdom Message and the Black Church Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988 (Kindle ed.)), Kindle loc. 4487. [6] Migliore, p.293

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