Sit Down and Eat Your Supper

Jesus give us the real instruments of unity...

SJF • Easter 3a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Those who welcomed the message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

Last week we heard part of Saint Peter’s first sermon, delivered on the day of Pentecost, and today we hear the conclusion, and more importantly, the results. What you have here might be described as the first “altar call” — the crowd is cut to the quick by Peter’s ardent testimony, and about three thousand of them are added to the flock in baptism.

But there is more: as the Book of Acts makes clear, this is not the end, but the beginning of the story. The text continues: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is literally a “cast of thousands” for the performance that is about to begin, which is the ongoing life of the church as a new body of the faithful. And what is important to note here is that they are not just faithful to God, but to each other. They are no longer simply a crowd of individuals, but a congregation, an assembly, a church. What holds them together, what unifies them, is their one faith in the one Lord through the one baptism. And their unity is strengthened and reinforced by the disciplines they practice as the body of Christ.

These instruments of unity are familiar to us: we use the words that summarize them at every baptism, and when we recite the Baptismal Covenant as we did two weeks ago on Easter. The members of the church not only devote themselves to God, but to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.

You all know the Christmas carol, that goes, “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day in the morning,” right? Well I’d like to point out that the earliest believers, and believers since, are united by means of three ships: leadership, fellowship, and worship.

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First of all, the believers acknowledge the apostles’ leadership. As Acts records, they turn “to Peter and to the other apostles” with an earnest question; after being told what a mess they are in, they naturally ask, “Brothers, what should we do?” And they heed their advice, their witness, their teaching, the testimony from these eyewitnesses, testimony that has been passed down through the ages. And as I said last week, that testimony is this: Christ is alive! In him we have forgiveness of sins — all our sins, whatever they may be — and we have a new life in the Spirit. That’s it, the short form of the Christian faith, as handed down from the beginning until now, and as it will be handed down until the coming of the Lord in glory, to judge both the living and the dead. Christ is alive.

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Out of this strong leadership and teaching of the apostles, there arises almost at once the second instrument of unity: fellowship. The first thing the people do — those three thousand — is to get baptized — all washed with the same baptismal water, united with Christ in a death like his, in order to live in the life which is his, the life of the church, which is his body. And this fellowship takes surprising forms: these people will go on to share their property with each other, the better-off helping those in need. They spend much more time together than they ever had before. As Peter says in the Epistle, looking back on this newly baptized community: “Now that you have purified your souls by obedience to the truth” — that is, now that you are reborn in Christ — “you have genuine mutual love.” They are a community bound in fellowship.

And then, of course, comes worship. The new community of faith is unified by the instruments of prayer and the breaking of the bread in which Christ is made known and makes himself known from Emmaus onward even to this day. These new believers discover that in giving thanks and praising God and sitting at the table together, they share in this great mystery of Christ’s presence with them, the Holy Communion of his Body and Blood, of his and their — and our — Savior.

This is how the church began, and this is how the church is called to continue, united through these three instruments, sailing the seas of this world in these three ships — the leadership and teaching of the apostles’ and their successors — which is the body of the faithful, lay and ordained; in the fellowship of that gathered community that transcends time and space; and in the worship that offers and shares the broken bread and the cup of wine, with the prayer of thanksgiving.

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These three aspects of leadership, fellowship and worship are summed up in our gospel this morning. When Jesus meets the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he takes the leadership that is his by right; he teaches them about himself, leading them into an understanding of the Scripture as they walk along, as he relates it to all that has happened. He then stays with them in fellowship, accepting their invitation as the day draws to a close and night comes on, to be with them, to stay with them a little longer; and in doing so he draws them even closer together in fellowship. And finally, as he breaks the bread — in what would ordinarily have been just an act of fellowship but which has been raised by Jesus into an act of worship — he makes himself known to them, even as he vanishes from their sight, perhaps leaving behind his knowing smile, the warmth of his presence, and the knowledge of his love.

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Would it were always so! For there are some who reject this way to unity in Christ; some who don’t book passage on these three ships but try to take another way — and insist on others taking it too! Instead of accepting the imperishable presence of God whom we meet in communion and fellowship with each other, some still want to have their own way, refusing to share in the leadership of the church because of disagreements over one thing or another, refusing the offered hand of fellowship because they don’t approve of the one who offers it, and worst of all refusing to worship together because of these divisions and dissensions.

No doubt you have heard or read of the disagreements that have gone on in the Anglican Communion over the last twenty years. Some go so far as to say that the Communion has fallen apart. Well, I say, Don’t believe everything you hear! While there are some — even a handful of folks here in our own country — angry enough to try to vote others off the island (as if they could!), there are many others, the vast majority of others, who are on record as saying they do not approve of such a movement. More importantly, in the long run, they trust — I hope we all trust — that Christ will prevail. The majority of the leaders of the Anglican Communion will heed Christ’s commandment to be one in him, not seeking unity in manmade political structures or elaborate compromises, but in the comprehensive instruments of unity that Christ himself gave us: shared leadership, committed fellowship, and communal worship.

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Some people, even at the level of a parish, refuse to share in prayer and fellowship with those with whom they disagree. What would Jesus do in a case like this? A number of things spring to mind. I can well imagine him saying, as he said long ago, “Who are you to judge your brother? Who are you to place heavy loads on others that you are not willing to bear? Who are you to bar the way to the kingdom of heaven even though you do not enter yourself?” But I can also imagine Jesus saying something that many an irrate parent has said to his or her unruly children: “Sit down and eat your supper!”

For in this case the supper is not mere earthly food. Nor is it our supper — it is his, the Lord’s Supper. This is the supper of Christ’s death, the meal which it took his death to feed us, his Body given for us, his Blood shed for us, by which we are not merely nourished, but saved. Through him we have come, as Peter wrote, to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that our faith and hope might be set on God, not on our poor efforts, but on his gift. His sacrificial leadership has led us to this table. His willing to be with us ensures his presence with us in fellowship. And his gift of himself has blessed us with the opportunity to worship. The three ships have come to this safe harbor, to this destination: here where we gather. Here at this table he makes himself known to us in the breaking of the bread. He has told us to cease our strife — to take and eat, to take and drink, together; to sit down and have our supper.

To reject each other here, my friends, is to reject him. To reject each other, to judge each other, is to dismantle the church for which he died, for which he was raised from the dead. To reject each other is to undo Easter, to rob the Last Supper of its power, to put Jesus back in the tomb, to seal it with the stone of judgment, and earn thereby our own justified condemnation.

How much better, to do as Christ commands: to take and eat, to take and drink, to love each other as he loved us, serving one another rather than judging one another.

How much better to remain united in him through the three ships whose sails, when filled with the wind of the Holy Spirit, can bear us to the safe harbor of his peace. Pray, my sisters and brothers, that we and all the faithful throughout the world, may set aside our disagreements, our judgments, our divisions, and remain united in him, who has committed to us this task of leadership, this community of fellowship, and this call to worship him, who is the savior and redeemer of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Perfect Host

In Christ we are welcomed, as we welcome him; as his Body, joined with all creation and the Father and the Spirit in the One Needful Thing!

Proper 11c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

All of our Scripture readings today point towards the subject of hospitality, and what it means to be a perfect host. Of course, it’s best to start with what it means to be any kind of host, before moving on towards perfection. Anyone who has brought up children knows that you have to crawl before you walk.

So let’s start with the beginning, with the host. At its most basic and original, a host is someone who welcomes others into his or her home — even if it is just a tent, as we see this morning in the reading from Genesis. Abraham welcomes the Lord — who appears in the form of three men — to tarry and rest with him in his tent, out of the heat of the day, to wash their feet and take a bit of food before they continue their journey.

This is hospitality at its simplest and most direct. It is also hospitality at most ancient, and universal: it is common in many cultures as a sign of welcome and invitation — “please, won’t you come in and rest a spell.” There is a lovely old Eastern European Jewish custom that every guest must be welcomed with sweetness, and so a jam-jar and spoon are kept ready at the door to give a guest a taste of summer even in the coldest winter. From as simple a gesture as a welcome mat, a smile and an open door, all the way to the lavish welcome of a red carpet being unrolled, and a brass fanfare, hospitality is almost universal as a human phenomenon. As the song says, ‘Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome’ — to the tent, to the home, or to the palace.

However, in addition to this kind of hospitality there is another sort. And the clue to this lies hidden in the word hospitality itself — notice that it begins with the word hospital. The first hospitals were not just places for the sick and injured, but resting-places for pilgrims traveling on the road, in particular those pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land. Resting places were set up along the way for pilgrims to take refreshment, and recover from any injuries they might have suffered. Most of these hospitals were operated by religious orders of monks and nuns, such as the Order of Saint John (of which both Brother James and I are members, still supporting the hospital in Jerusalem as part of our ministry).

The secular world also soon got into the business of welcoming people — although they tended to drop the letters S and P from hospital to end up with hotel — and yes indeed hotels and hospitals share a common history, as you can see from the fact that the uniform of even a twentieth-century nurse was not all that different from the uniform of a nineteenth-century chamber-maid. Both of those uniforms ultimately derive from the habits of the nuns and monks who served the original hospitals — as indeed some of the sisters and brothers in the nursing orders still do. I am old enough to remember being cared for by “God’s Geese” when I had my appendix out at the age of five — the nursing sisters gained that nickname because of the large, starched white cornettes they wore on their heads as part of their habit. These were the original flying nuns! Most nurses, by then, their headgear had shrunk down to a small starched cap — now, I’m not sure any nurses still wear even the small starched cap any more — but I remember God’s Geese: they had the whole nine yards.

The point in all this is that the hospitality is about welcoming someone in — into your home, your world, your life: whether they are guests or patients, they become the center of your concern.

For the point of welcome is to serve and comfort the one who you welcome in. There are few things worse than a poorly run hospital or hotel — and their bad examples can tell us a good deal about how not to be a perfect host. I am reminded of the comic irony in the character of Basil Fawlty, the worst hotel manager in the world, who once shouted at his guests in livid anger, “You people swan in here expecting to be waited on hand and foot — well I’m trying to run a hotel!” If anyone ever missed the point of hospitality more than Basil Fawlty, I wouldn’t want to stay in that hotel!

The perfect host is the complete and polar opposite to this — the perfect host is only interested in the guests — their needs, their comfort. One might well say, with our Lord, there is need of only one thing: to focus on the guest.

So, for the perfect host, the guest becomes the center of the host’s life. Of course, no one can do that perfectly — our own lives don’t grind to a halt simply because we have guests; in fact, if we are to serve those guests our lives can become busier. This is the side of hospitality that Martha experienced, busy with many things, resenting her sister Mary who grasped that what Jesus really wanted was to be heard — to be heard, and attended to rather than attended on. He wanted them. He wanted them to be one with him.

For in the long run Jesus is the only perfect host, the one who welcomes us, even as we welcome him. He has been there, done that, in a truly cosmic and universal way. As our reading from Colossians affirms, not only is it in Jesus that all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, all beings and powers — not only is he, in a very real sense, the host to all of creation — but in him “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” And it is because all things in heaven and on earth share in this hospitality of Jesus together with the fullness of God, in him, dwelling in Jesus, that he is able to reconcile all things, drawing them together in him, and making peace through the blood of his cross. He is the perfect host who has reconciled us with God together in him — literally in himself, in his body.

As Paul goes on to affirm — not only are we held in Christ, the perfect host, but he and his gospel enter into us. By the miracle of grace, we the members of the church are the members of his body in whom he dwells with the Spirit and in the Father. We become hosts to God — just as Abraham invited God into his tent that hot day thousands of years ago, we also, through the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations fro the foundation of the world, but has now been revealed to his saints in him: the glory of this mystery, which is “Christ in you” —the church itself, the blessed company of all faithful people, the body of Christ, in and with whom the Spirit of God dwells and abides.

This is the “one thing,” the only thing we need — not to be distracted by the many things of this world, but to open our hands and our hearts and our minds to accept our Lord and our God as our guest, as indeed he has accepted us — and in doing so we are made One in him.

I know we’re reading from the Luke’s Gospel, but the message here is similar to John’s: reminding us that we are in God as God is in us, made one in Jesus Christ the perfect mediator, the perfect host but also the perfect guest — the one who like Abraham washes his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, who feeds them not just with earthly bread such as that which Sarah baked, but with his lively Word that inspires us day by day, and with the bread from heaven that we receive in the Holy Eucharist — in that bread that is also called a host.

What more perfect host can there be than this, who invites us into his house — God’s house — this house, even with a red carpet — and gives himself to us his guests even as we invite him into our hearts. As the evangelist John quotes Jesus as saying to God the Father, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” This is the one needful thing; this is the glory and the love of God, that Christ, in whom all things exist and were created, all things in heaven and on earth, can be our guest as well as our host. Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome.+