On Sunday I stood at the lectern and read from James, before the taking of the tithe: “ Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
The tithe is a moment we ‘do what the Word says,’ right in the middle of the worship service. But more than this, it is a way of prodding us to remember the importance of putting the Word into practice outside of the sanctuary doors. It is symbolic of a life that should be fashioned after responding to the presence of Christ in worship. It trains us to do likewise elsewhere.
I often find myself returning to the idea of worship as a training ground. Or, as our teacher.
In worship and liturgy we rehearse various movements:
Stand in reverence.
Kneel in prayer,
Give of your bounty
Welcome your neighbor.
These motions develop habits for our journey outside of the sanctuary. Our worship becomes our actions in life, our ethics. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The rites. . . educate to a conscious, active and fruitful participation.”
Traditionally a liturgy or a mass ends with a blessing and a ‘sending forth’: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” We are sent out to continue practicing the habits we learn in the liturgy, and continue imitating them in the world.
In Eastern Orthodox worship, the liturgy is meant to lead the Church in imitation of the life of heaven. The Orthodox sanctuary is understood as a point where heaven and earth meet. In this sacred space, and in the sacred moments of liturgy, the Church is molded by the practices of heaven. The Church is formed into members of the heavenly community. And as the Church dismisses from the liturgy, she is a practitioner of the life of heaven throughout her earthly presence – in the home, in the workplace, along the road. Heaven and earth continue to brush up against one another, in the Church’s imitation of heaven’s life in the world.
What does the Eucharist teach us?
A few different articles came out this past week about the Eucharist, which spurred my thinking along these lines.In particular I was drawn to Christena Cleveland’s excellent post on the relationship between social justice and the Eucharist. She writes:
“according to Paul, communion and injustice must be negatively correlated; where there is one, the other should not and cannot exist. Paul seems to think that any practice of communion that ignores or perpetuates inequality is a defiled communion.”
The Eucharist is a table of reconciliation. It is a table of justice and reunion. It is where Christ broke bread with His neighbors and His enemies – with me. It is where He symbolized and fully summarized His life of being broken and poured out for the outcast, the sinner, the enemy. And He invites us to join Him at the table, receiving from Him and doing likewise for one another. It is where I break bread for my neighbor, and my enemy. It is where I come as an equal with those I love and those I hate, to give and receive, as Christ has.
The night of the Last Supper, Christ invited His disciples to share His cup and His bread. It was the cup of full identification with his life. It was the cup of suffering on behalf of others; of being humiliated in order to reconcile with the enemy. It was the cup of abasement in utter love for even the most wicked of human beings. It was the cup, the table, that Christ Himself wished He could reject. It was the table that the disciples chided when they dispersed and abandoned. They could not follow the path of reconciliation.
But it is the cup we are called back to over and over again, no manner how many times we run away.
The Eucharist is not just something we do for Christ. It is something we do with Him. He gives Himself to us, and we give ourselves to Him; and to one another. It is a true communion. It is a marriage feast, a consummation. It is a true reconciliation. It is the place of peace, it is the table of communion laid before mine enemies (Psalm 23).
It is the table where I am among the Christ who is with and for and in my friend, with and for and in my enemy.
Rachel Held Evans wrote something along similar lines this week in a wonderful post called “The Table,” in which she cites a beautiful excerpt from Richard Beck’s Unclean. This is just a piece of the excerpt from Beck:
“people who would never have associated with each other in the larger society sit as equals around the Table of the Lord…The sacrament brings real people—divided in the larger world—into a sweaty, intimate, flesh-and-blood embrace where ‘there shall be no difference between them and the rest.”
Like the rest of worship, the Eucharist is a practice, it is a place of training. It is a place of formation. It is a place where we are brought into the life of heaven and prepared to bring the life of heaven to the world.
That fiery 4th-century preacher, John Chrysostom, scolded his congregation for honoring the liturgical Eucharist but ignoring the poor. He writes:
“Do you wish to honor the body of the Saviour? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside you are leaving it numb with cold and naked. He who said, “This is my body”, and made it so by his word, is the same that said, “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.”
If we are truly being formed by the Eucharist, we will recognize the Eucharistic moments around us everyday. We will see moments where Christ’s body is laid in the street broken before us: in our neighbor, in our enemy, in the downtrodden, in the souls of those who seem ‘blessed’ on the outside. His broken body compels us back again and again to the table. We will break and pour ourselves out with them, and for them. We will set the table in the streets, in the slums, in our homes, in our schools, in wars, in peace. We will seek communion, reconciliation. We will not pass by those who are hungry and thirsty.
That’s an interesting moniker, though. The ‘hungry and the thirsty.’ Christ physically fed the hungry stomachs, and physically quenched thirsty throats. But He also revealed the deeper need – the hunger and thirst for God, the Three-in-One, the eternal communion. As eternal love, the ache revealed alongside the desire for God, is the hunger and thirst for one another. The hungry and thirsty are not just those who hunger and thirst in organ (but certainly includes them), but are also those who are hungry and thirsty out of loneliness and estrangement – the yearning for fellow broken human beings, the life-blood of others. We are hungry and thirsty for all that we reserve from one another. We deny each other out of our independence and our obsession with self-preservation. But there is this hunger for you and me.
In and through Christ and His table, our loneliness for one another, and for God, is fulfilled. This is one of the reasons for the incarnation, I suppose. Our estrangement is not just as individuals estranged from God, but as people estranged from one another, needing to be united again through God coming as one of us.
Reconciliation requires the vulnerability and intimacy of both offering and receiving. This table offers that elusive missing link for real reconciliation – true mutuality: Giving and receiving as a partner.
I often feel the temptation to cover over my fear of the ‘other,’ and of true relationship. This fear hatches a desire to treat a suffering population, or a group who is different than myself, as a set of problems to fix, as people who need my ‘help,’ or as people I need to ‘reach out to’ and ’embrace.’ They are entities I need to act upon, ultimately just to satisfy my conscience. Instead, I must attempt to live out the Eucharistic habits I’ve learned. I need to break and bleed alongside. I need to receive from others, as a partner at the table, as one Christ is with and for (whether they know it or not). I need to carry their pain, and offer my own – as a partner, a friend, a brother. I need to stand around the table with them as Mary at Lazarus’ house, not presume I’m the savior who needs to set the table for them, like Martha. Not even our God, who had all the right to be, was so condescending and so disconnected. He ate with us.
As I type out these final lines, Israel is sending an army into Gaza. The hope for reconciliation in this land becomes ever ephemeral. It is wasting away under the shadow of the perennial cycle of injury and retaliation. In such a moment, can we not see how vital, how timely, how absolutely necessary it is for the world to be filled with women and men who have learned the movements of heaven; who have practiced the movements of the table of Christ?
Would we not wait up with Christ for a little while? His heart is very heavy with missiles and checkpoints, and segregated cities and children of gang wars, and denominational splits and vindictive theology tweets, of family feuds and very souls torn asunder.
This is reconciliation. This is Eucharist.
The Eucharist is our teacher – where we learn to be broken and poured out, for and with neighbor, and enemy.
Now go and do likewise.
(photo credit Eric Kilby on Flickr)