"Thank you" is always a good way to begin. This morning, we continue our closer look at the feast we share. And as we do so, we look at one of the terms we use to describe this feast: The Eucharist.
We have already talked about several of the other identifiers we use. Next week, we will talk about it as the Last Supper and what that means for us. We also speak of this as communion, a simple reminder that we are together around this table. We refer to it as the Lord’s Supper, remembering that it was Jesus who gathered the disciples together, set an example for them in the simple sharing of bread and cup, and commanded them to do likewise. Incidentally, it is this command, combined with the physical elements, which makes this one of our two sacraments as Presbyterians, the other being Baptism.
Today, we talk about the Eucharist. It’s an old term, one that comes from the early centuries of Christianity, when the bulk of the community spoke Greek as their common language. The word itself is Greek in origin. The two-letter prefix “eu” is the same that we find in words like eulogy. It is also there in evangelism, where it becomes “ev”; and it simply means “good”.
“Charis” means grace. Put them together, add a Greek ending, and you get the word ευχαριστία (eucharistía), which means “thanksgiving”. The Eucharist is, then, the thanksgiving feast. You can see some of this retained in the fuller liturgy we use, the call and response referred to as the Great Thanksgiving:
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
Communion, then, is an opportunity for us to thank God for blessings received and for the chance to gather around this table. In fact, if you change a couple of letters at the end of the Greek word, and you get ευχαριστώ (eucharistó), the modern Greek for “thank you”.
Elizabeth and I once had the chance to travel to the Greek side of Cyprus. I remember flying over on Cyprus Airways with its multilingual signs all around the plane. We sat in the emergency exit – or, as it was written in Greek, έξοδος (exodus). The word for seat belt included ζώνη (zonay), which is also the name for the special liturgical belt that Greek Orthodox priests wear. And when the flight attendants thanked us, they said “eucharist”. I had no idea we were in for an experience that was so sacred!
I joke, of course; and yet, I wonder: could we live our lives in such a way that we, too, can see the sacred all around us, even in the most ordinary of things? Could we give thanks to God, not just when things are going the way we would like, but at all times and in all cases?
There is a tension in doing so. Our Scripture this morning from the Proverbs attributed to King Solomon reminds us of this fact. In them, we are told that “wisdom begins in the fear of the Lord.” And again, we are commanded to “fear the Lord” as we turn away from evil. How on earth are we supposed to give thanks to that of which we are supposed to be afraid?
The Hebrew word behind this phrase, the fear of the Lord, has many meanings. It means to be in awe, to stand in wonder. These are meanings we can swallow a little easier, I’m sure. The hard truth, though, is that it also means fear. For many of us, that might conjure up images of a vengeful God, one who stands ready to condemn us at a moment’s notice. And yet…if God really is God the way we describe and believe, then is it just possible that fear is the right response?
God created worlds with just a word. I can build a mean Lego house, if it includes the instructions…God has bottomless patience, calling for a people, sending prophets, and even came in the person of Jesus. I…I get angry when someone enters the Express Lane with sixteen items. And as Christ, God was willing to suffer and die on a cross. I, on the other hand, need a band-aid for a blister…
When faced with the creative, patient, and sacrificial power of God, could it be that we really should stand in fearful awe and wonder? The vastness of God and the smallness of humanity – that is a fearful gulf to be bridged…and yet, God does it again and again and again.
It may not be a comfortable place to be, between fear and gratitude, but it is a far more interesting place to be. And I believe that, somewhere in the creative tension that arises, we can find our faithfulness to what it is that God desires of us.
That, I trust, is the intent of gathering around this Eucharistic table. It is, among other things, a moment to remind us and reconnect us with the sacred so that we might find sacredness wherever we go. And yet, that is an increasingly counter-cultural idea. Our American culture is becoming one in which more and more people find transcendence in places other than in religious community. Faith is no less ardent; it is just as individualistic, too. What is new is that it is less and less connected to any recognizable tradition.
I suspect that many of us here resonate with that description, though. We find holiness, Sabbath, rest, refreshment in the mountains, or by the shore, or with friends and family, or in sleep and naps. I don’t think any of that is wrong. I personally find transcendence in conversations, in moments that challenge my thinking and assumptions, in serving others. I find it in music, in live performance, in laughter. I find it in many, many places far away from our gathered feasts, well beyond the four walls of a Sanctuary, away from the property footprint of a congregation. And yet…here’s the missing key:
It is the gathering of the faith community that gives context to the holiest of experiences. When we are here, when we listen to Scripture read, when we lift up prayers for and with one another, when we hear the call to selfless service, when we are fed and nourished in body and in Spirit, then the rest of the moments where we sense the divine come into focus. The grandeur of the mountains points to the God who crafted and crafts them. The relationships with others who lift us up, challenge, us, and stretch us remind us that we are not alone, and that God isn’t finished with us yet. The creative arts connect us with God’s creating and re-creating act. And all of it is focused in the light of Christ, reminding us that living in God’s desires isn’t just something we do in our hearts and minds. It is a fully-embodied activity, an incarnational truth that is at stake.
It is this perspective, I fear, that is missing for so many. You see: without the anchor of faith, without the joy and challenge of living in community, we are prone to craft our own beliefs, to create God in our image instead of the other way around, so that God, miraculously, agrees with us at every turn. We are never judged or convicted. And so we are never forgiven or receive mercy. Which means we don’t know how to share it with others.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a defender of religious institutions at all costs; far from it. I see the shortcomings and wrongdoings. I know how far we are capable of straying from what we are actually called to do. I believe that even a congregation as gifted as Oglethorpe Presbyterian has a long way to go to reflect the image of God within us.
And yet, with that said, I know that I am a better person when I am in community than when I am alone. It is only in community that I can grow more and more into the person that God has created me to be. It is because I don’t have it all figured out that I am forced to realize how grateful I ought to be. The very fact that others are willing to put up with me is the gift. When others reflect God’s grace and mercy to me, that’s what teaches me to pass it on – to live into the deepest, holiest “thank you” of the Eucharist.
So, come: let us gather around this table. Let us gather as God’s people, invited here not by me, not by the leadership of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, but by the awe-inspiring holiness of God’s very self.
In each other’s faces, may we recognize the beauty of God’s creation. In each other’s voices, may we heard the holiness of God speaking through in words of wisdom, of comfort, of challenge. In each other’s presence, may we know that we are not alone in this world, but that God is with us every step of the way, giving us the cause and the faith to say “eucharistó”, thank you, at every turn.