August 16, 2015

Saint Cecilia Catholic Community

Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch

Proverbs 9:1-6 Psalm 34:2-7 Ephesians 5:15-20 John 6:51-58

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

       Receiving communion has always been the most important thing I do.  Throughout my life, I have almost never missed Mass. I have often gone to great lengths to get to Mass. When I was a boy, I often stayed home from family outings and rode the bus to church. I’ve always organized my vacation plans to be sure I was near an appropriate church after scoping them out on the Internet before leaving, and of course, I’ve always arranged for communion to be brought to me when I’m ill. Why do I take the Eucharist so seriously? It is bread from heaven, the deepest kind of sustenance humans can receive, the food that nourishes God’s life within me.

       Last week, we talked about incredible statements, the kind of stuff that sounds too good to be true. Within the past two weeks, Pope Francis uttered a truly incredible statement: that divorced and remarried persons are not excommunicated from the Roman Church, and that they should be welcomed into their communities.  That statement is incredible, because it’s too good to be true. What Francis did not say, is that divorced and remarried people are welcome to receive Holy Communion. The fact is, they are not, at least officially. Nor is anyone who is not either Roman or Orthodox Catholic. Now, this prohibition is widely disregarded. I am divorced and remarried as is my wife, Beeper. We have gone to Mass in Roman Churches for weddings and funerals, and we march up to the Altar and receive with everyone else.  While for it’s enough for us to know that the Altar belongs to Jesus, and not to any church organization, nonetheless, we are in a situation where the leadership of that community does not honestly and fully welcome us as fellow Christians, something I find profoundly disturbing, so we therefore refuse to go along with that exclusionary program. And, Rome does its best to prevent its people from receiving communion in churches of other denominations. According to an encyclical called “Ecclesia de Eucharistia”, written by Pope John Paul the second in 2003, Roman Catholics should not receive communion in churches Rome believes do not have valid Holy Orders. Again, this idea is widely disregarded. My maternal grandparents were devout Polish Roman Catholics, attending weekday as well as Sunday Mass, but they were also the model of ecumenism. My mother left the Roman church over its intolerant attitudes towards other churches, and raised myself, my brother and my sister in the high Anglo-Catholic end of the Episcopal Church. In those days, that was the only option for those of us who are catholic but not Roman. My mother taught us that God loved everyone, and we put that into practice. When we visited my grandparents’ Roman church, we walked up to receive communion with them, and when my grandparents visited the Episcopal Church, they received communion with us.  

     And there’s more. Rome also practices selective communion refusals, which have included individuals married to same-sex spouses ,and politicians who publicly disagree with Roman Church policies on subjects like abortion. Imagine yourself if you were gay, and your same-sex spouse accompanied you to your mother’s funeral Mass, and the priest refused communion to both of you. It’s happened, believe me. Although there may later have been some apologies, the emotional trauma inflicted at the time of the act was substantial. Is that a good way to run a church? I think not.

      Today’s Gospel explains why the closed communion policies of Rome and others is simply wrong in just a few words. Jesus gave Himself for the life of the World. “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world,” He said. Not the Roman Church world, the world. The whole world, no exceptions.  And Jesus said, “whoever  eats this bread will live forever.” Again, no no exceptions. Just “whoever eats this bread.” This is one of those cases where ecclesiastical laws and traditions directly confront the commands of Jesus Himself. In those cases, Jesus must win. Jesus is our King. Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Jesus rules our lives, not some collection of old celibate men who’ve never lived in the real world.   Rome has demonstrated a decided lack of wisdom as shown by the millions of people who’ve departed from it, often to churches who do not even attempt to be catholic, and more and more often, to no church at all.  Today’s reading from Proverbs reinforces the message of how wrong Rome is on access to communion: “Let whoever is simple turn in here; to the one who lacks understanding, she says, Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!” Those are words of welcome, not exclusion! Is this not an Old Testament prefigurement of the open table that Jesus wants? Of course it is! Jesus dined with tax collectors and other sinners, and in fact, some of them were His disciples. Whether or not someone is “worthy” to receive communion is not something for any person to judge. I’ll leave judgment up to God, thank you.

     Fortunately, the Roman brand of Catholicism is not the only game in town.  In much of the independent catholic movement, which for the most part has Holy Orders that even Rome will admit are valid, open communion is the rule. The independent catholic movement emphasizes taking care of people, not enforcing institutional norms, which is really the bottom line on all ministry everywhere. One of the hallmarks of the Independent Catholic Movement is its inclusivity. Following the example of Jesus, we welcome outcasts and sinners of all kinds. We bring them into the church and attempt to provide an environment in which God’s grace can touch them, heal them, and save them. Part of our “inclusivity” is generosity with the sacraments. But this can be misinterpreted as condoning sin. It is not. Jesus never condoned sin; yet He never turned away a sinner.

      In 2013, my wife and I began attending St. Matthews Ecumenical Catholic Church in Orange, California.  What I recall most about my first visit, was the invitation to communion, when the presider announced explicitly that everyone, absolutely everyone, were welcome to receive communion, regardless of denominational affiliation. I can recall the presider saying that Jesus is the host of the Eucharist, and that Holy Communion is not a reward for good behavior. My reaction was, of course, why should it ever be otherwise?

      Unfortunately, the Body of Jesus in the Eucharist has always been a subject of controversy, not only about who can or should receive communion. Here in today’s Gospel, we have the Jews murmuring and grumbling in rebellion against Christ’s teaching, “The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh”. The Jews challenged him, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” John 6, particularly the verses for today, is the most powerful statement in the entire Bible of the actual, physical and Real Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Thomas Aquinas explained it like this: in the Prayer of Consecration,  the bread and wine offered undergoes a change of substance. The bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.  The appearances of bread and wine remain, but the substance is Christ, whole and entire.  The words of Jesus are unmistakably clear: Jesus is the Bread of Life; His flesh is true food and His blood is true drink; those who eat His flesh and drink His blood will live forever. The incredibleness of that notion was, and is, a mystery, then and now. “How can that be,” the people who were listening to Jesus quarreled among themselves. They could not understand how a human person could be food.  Jesus did not respond superficially. He reiterated that his mission was to nourish them, to give his entire life to them, so that they, too, could share in life from God.

     Regrettably, the Eucharist remains a source of quarrels and divisions, a tool for manipulation, and an excuse to exclude. What should be a gathering of loving persons filled with hymns and spiritual songs, has become a source of contention. In all of this, Holy Communion has become most unholy.

      Holy Communion is not a tool for one group of humans to judge other people. Rather, Holy Communion is just that: Holy. It is a gift, freely given by Jesus to humanity, to nourish and sanctify us and make us one with Jesus. The liturgy we use recognizes this by providing for a Prayer Over the Gifts before they are consecrated, and refers to the setting of the table at the Offertory as “the preparation of the gifts.”  Some liturgies invite the congregation to the table with the phrase, “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” Nothing could be more true than that. The Bread of Heaven incarnate in the person of Jesus is the gift of finest wheat that gives us life itself to eat.  Everything we possess ultimately comes from God: our material possessions, our bodies, our health and our skills. We offer them back to God in recognition that they come from God. The spirituality of the Eucharist challenges us to ‘gift’ ourselves to God.  In the Eucharist, Jesus gives us an everlasting gift: life as the people of God, which we become by growing in holiness and faith. Vatican two rightly called the Eucharist, “the source and summit of Christian life.” The Eucharist contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth: Christ Himself, our Passover and living bread, the Word made flesh, dwelling among us.
     In reality, the entire Christian church has always been one church, over which no one other than Jesus reigns as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, forever and ever, hallelujah. The division of the Christendom exists only on the human level.  Jesus sees us as one church. In what’s called the High Priestly Prayer in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “that they all may be one, as I and the Father are one.” Denominations are a purely human invention. In its Decree on Ecumenism, Vatican two proclaimed,  ”Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only.” Thus, the great divergence in the Christ’s Kingdom in the sixteenth century was a deep wound, a wound to be healed by the message of Jesus to love one another as He loved us, not by a legalistic, law enforcement mentality. Christ instituted the Eucharist, not to express a perfect communion or unity among Christians, but to lead to greater perfection of what already exists: our bonding to one another through the one baptism that we acknowledge in the Nicene Creed. The Eucharist exists to deepen unity. It is not only legitimate to use the Eucharist as a means to bring about the unity of a divided Christendom: It is imperative, it is the will of Christ to do so.   
     Rome must change to win our respect. Rome must forsake foolishness, and advance in the ways of understanding.  What do I mean by “understanding?” The Book of Job tells us that the fear of the Lord is “understanding”. It’s not fear in the sense of being afraid that God might harm us, but sensing the presence of God and acting under the shadow of God’s glory and power. For Christians, that glory and power is God’s love, freely offered to all of us, regardless of what our denominational preferences are, or are not. Ultimately, denominations don’t matter.  What does matter is Jesus, given by God as life to the world, broken and shared with everyone.  AMEN