“This teaching is HARD, who can accept it” – a sermon on the Eucharist

The Last Supper – made by House for All Sinners and Saints 2011

NBW Sermon 8-26-2012 <CLICK HERE to listen along.  Sermons are a spoken event!! In the last couple weeks, many of us here have been lucky enough to see a musical called The Book of Mormon.  It’s an irreverent and profoundly funny look at the culture of religion in general and the origins of a distinctly American religion in particular.  I personally thought it was hilarious and found myself snickering at what feels like some of the crazier ideas of Mormonism – things like, and I could be wrong about this, but the belief that good Mormon men get to eventually have their own planet.  But it didn’t take long for me to stop snickering and lean over to my husband Matthew and say…yeah but the thing is, we claim to eat the flesh and drink the blood of a guy who lived 2,000 years ago.  Who’s crazy now?  I mean, all religions are weird, we’re just used to ours is all.

Every 3 years the assigned readings during the Summer include 5 weeks working our way through the 6th Chapter of John and what is called the Bread of Life Discourse. And let’s just say that if Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote a musical called the Book of John they’d have plenty of material from just this chapter alone.

In the last 5 weeks we’ve gone from the feeding of the 5,000 to Jesus walking on water in the middle of a storm at sea, (by the way, Jesus walks on water during a storm at sea so often in the gospels that I’ve started thinking it was less about being miraculous and more about just getting in some cardio), anyhow, then the crowd chased him down demanding more bread and then he goes and says that he is the Bread of Life come down from heaven which angered the nice religious folks, and rather than backing off he makes it even weirder by saying whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life.  Which is where we pick up today when some of his disciples are like “Uh Jesus, That teaching is HARD…who can accept it?” And many of them leave.  And I have to say, I don’t really blame them.

This teaching IS hard. But honestly, Jesus had a lot of sayings that were HARD.  Sayings like, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, You who are without sin cast the first stone, sell all you have and give it to the poor, The first shall be last and the last shall be first and if you seek to save your life you will lose it. I totally understand the reaction of these disciples who say these teachings are hard, who can accept them.

But this week I started to wonder if maybe those disciples didn’t have to leave Jesus…I mean, when we make the accepting of hard teachings the litmus test for being a follower of Jesus I wonder if we are perhaps missing the point all together. Recently I was describing how many different types of people come to this church and was asked by a colleague what it is that unites all the people here at House for All Sinners and Saints. Is it a certain belief, they asked?  I looked at them and was like, What, in a doctrine? Of course I answered No. I mean, I have a very clear and perhaps shockingly Orthodox Lutheran theological perspective, but honestly, you guys believe all sorts of stuff.  Trust me on that. A few of you are theologically Lutheran, but the rest of you guys are everything from Agnostic to Evangelical and strangely I think some of you are both at the same time.  So while we are pretty Christocentric here, I mean, pretty into Jesus, accepting a certain doctrine is ultimately not what unites us. /// I think what unites us isn’t a doctrine, it’s a table – a table that is open to all in which we receive this Bread of Life come down form heaven.  The body and blood of Christ is what unites us and makes us a church. Hopefully not in a prideful see how inclusive we are way, but in a Lord to whom shall we Go? You have the words of eternal life way.

We are all welcomed each week with the news that we have an open table at House for All and that means that everyone without exception is invited to receive the bread and wine which for us is the body and blood of Christ. And some of us have perhaps grown so used to this that we don’t realize how radical that is given the history of Christian practice.  For as much difference there is in the Christian church…Roman Catholicism, snake-handling Pentecostalism, polite Presbyterianism, emotional Evangelicalism, Intellectual Lutheranism – for as much as we differ, the one thing most Christian traditions actually have in common is some form of communion… which makes it all the more ironic that the very thing we all seem to have in common is the thing that so often divides us.  A lot has been spilled in the history of the church over issues of who gets to take and serve communion…a lot of ink and a lot of blood.

Sadly, the way we as Christians have historically responded to the gift of the Eucharist is to make sure that we understand it, then to make sure we put boundaries around it and then to make sure we enforce both the correct understanding and the correct boundaries. But on the night Jesus was betrayed he didn’t say “this is my body broken for you…UNDERSTAND this in remembrance of me….he didn’t say ACCEPT this or DEFEND this or BOUNDARY this in remembrance of me he just said do this in remembrance of me.

It IS a hard teaching.  That God would be made human and walk among us, that this Christ would offer his own flesh for the sake of another world, that he would do this knowing what scoundrels sat around his table the night he was betrayed and that he would do it anyhow saying take and eat this is my body broken for you do this in remembrance of me.  And when we at House start to feel even slightly self-congratulatory about our inclusivity, we might do well to remember two things. One: the 12 disciples who sat around that table included Judas the Betrayer and Peter the Denier and the reason Judas and Peter makes us cringe is that there is that of the Christ betrayer and the Christ denier in all of us and it is precisely THAT part of us which Jesus seeks to make whole with his own broken body.  And 2, every time we enter this space we pass that mural of the Last Supper that we created last year and that the disciples in the mural were created out of images of people or that within ourselves that we wish were not invited to the table.

This teaching is HARD.  Who can accept it.

It is hard to accept that our enemies receive the same forgiveness and grace and redemption as we do but sometimes it’s even harder to accept not just that God welcomes all, but that God welcomes All of me, all of you. Even that within us we wish to hide: the part that cursed at our children this week, or drank alone, or has a problem with lying, or hates our body, that parts within us that suffer from depression and can’t admit it, or is too fearful to give our money away, or is riddled with shame over our sexuality or cheats on taxes …all these parts of us we wish Jesus had the good sense to not welcome to his table are invited to taste and see that the Lord is Good….all of who we are is welcomed to his table to see that the gifts of God are free and for all and for all.  This teaching is Hard…who can accept it.

As your preacher today, please hear that I am not asking you to accept it.  I’m only asking you to do it. Because here at this table, you can bring the most broken pieces of your life, here you can bring the most broken pieces of this world, here you can bring the most broken pieces of yourself, and you can receive with no payment or worthiness on your part, the equally broken body of Jesus Christ. You need not understand it or accept it.  You need not put boundaries or defenses around it.  You need only do it. So come with all of who you are and receive the living bread come down from heaven. Receive life and forgiveness and salvation with all the other broken saints and gleaming sinners for it is this that unites us in the love of a powerful God.  Amen

Maundy Thursday at House for All Sinners and Saints
Enemies, Retribution and Women Giving Birth – a Sermon on Jonah
Some Questions for Mary; an Advent Sermon
“In The Beginning”: A Sermon on the Occasion Of Paula’s Baptism
About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • Dixie

    Occam’s Razor and Dr. Seuss – the simple answer to the hard things is to me the mystery of it all–it is too hard. This is the dark glass into which we strain and peer and come away still boggled by it. Mystery and awe and faith (trust/belief)— if it were easy?

  • Brad and Alice

    We were there and thought the sermon was awesome. Their service was moving and all songs were sung without the aid of instruments. Great group of people and leader too.

  • Sandra Orrick

    If all are welcome to His table and His instruction was to “Do this in remembrance of Me”, why do we limit our remembering to His death? During His lifetime He provoked repeatedly the defenders of the status quo. He refused to recognize social barriers and taboos, persisting in eating “with publicans and sinners” who failed properly to wash their hands or to comply with ritual requirements extant in their culture. All were welcome. The Kingdom which He introduced was based on concepts, ideas and assumptions foreign to their thinking, the most pervasive of which in His life and teaching were nonviolence and the love, forgiveness and grace of God, given freely to all who ask. He hated the legalistic system of sacrifices and burnt offerings and I wonder if, in our emphasis on the apparently abusive Father who seems to require a substitutionary atonement for our sins, we might inadvertently be stressing the wrong thing. Perhaps that is what happens when we try to understand rather than to do, but I am confronting the significance of the cross and it is hard. Can we not articulate a reason better than propitiation?

  • http://jesusscribbles.wordpress.com/ Emily

    Thank you for sharing your sermons on this site. For me the Eucharist is hard not only because it invites our enemies to the table, but because it is a feast based on the symbolism of flesh and blood, violence and sacrifice. That God would choose to place such violence and terror at the heart of the memory of the Church…. this is a teaching I cannot accept, indeed. I do participate in Communion when offered in our community, but not without theological reservations and a bit of internal squeaming.

  • bls

    The 12 people gathered around Jesus at the last supper all died violently for their faith, some in really gruesome ways – with one exception: John, who died in exile. (As a friend of mine notes: “No word on what happened to the 5,000.”)

    The early Christians were persecuted for their faith, too, and many were tortured and executed. I’m not surprised at all that boundaries were erected and maintained around the Eucharist, given those facts; this seems only ethical, to me. Even today, people die for their religion; in some places it’s not at all the tame affair we have in the West (which may not be that tame for that much longer, in fact).

    I don’t think it’s at all “welcoming” to invite total strangers into such a thing, myself. Even if the death we’re called to is only “death to self” – don’t people deserve to know that ahead of time? Isn’t there a bit of a bait-and-switch going on there? It’s not supposed to be all sweetness and light, as far as I can see.

  • bls

    (Not to mention the fact that the one time the Eucharist is talked about in depth in the New Testament, it’s made very clear that “right understanding” is important. In fact, it goes so far as to say that “anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.” So again: to me it’s not at all surprising that Christians have put boundaries around this; again, it seems only ethical to do so. After all, some people do have scruples about such things; is it fair or reasonable to simply ignore this?

    It seems to me, in fact, that the way Christianity has handled this question is really the only course of action possible. Baptism-before-Communion takes care of all these issues; preparation for Baptism includes explanation about the faith and about the Sacraments. And Baptism – a welcoming Sacrament itself, and not a barrier! – gives new Christians a community that promises to support them in their faiths lives. Without it, people have none of these things.

    So I think the original understanding (i.e., Baptism then Communion) is much better in dozens of ways – and, as I said above, I don’t think Christians have any other real option.)

    • Tom

      As to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, it seems that the larger context of eating and drinking with correct understanding goes to the issue of unity verses division, using specifically of those who eat too much and get drunk, while others go hungry. So maybe the real issue here is one of hospitality.

      Baptism before communion – it also seems that the earliest history of the church is exactly the opposite. Of the twelve (or thirteen), who had been baptized? Only Jesus if we go with the thirteen.

      If Jesus didn’t turn anyone away, for any reason, why do we? Is it the boundary that causes the division? The in/ex fighting? Is it simply receiving Jesus and passing on what we have received (again, Paul, 1 Corinthians 11) too hard to accept?

  • KingGeorge

    The Lord’s table is for the Lord’s people, His Church. It is not for the athiest, agnostic, or anyone who has not put their trust in the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross to cleanse us of our sins. Only in ignorance can such a person participate in the Table. Just read the new testament, not just the gospels, and see what it says about communion. It cannot be an open table for anyone unless you are making up your own version of christianity which makes you feel good and helps to achieve your aims.

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