Today’s readings are all about symbols—holy symbols, church symbols! Let’s look at these symbols, learn more about them, and see what they mean to our Christian faith.
The first symbol is really easy, from our reading from 1 Kings -- King Solomon dedicating the newly-completed holy temple of God. He called upon God to be faithful to his promises to the people of Israel, but asked "Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”
Solomon wanted the people to believe that God was present in the temple as a symbol of the power and authority protecting the people of Israel, as long as they were faithful to God. The problem for the Israelites was the temple became too much for them the symbol of God’s presence. Four hundred years later, when the temple was destroyed, the Israelites were devastated--that God had somehow left them.
This can occur today, too, when things happen to a church’s building—say it’s no longer there due to an tragic accident, intentional destruction, or maybe taken away in a dispute over church administration, policy, internal strife, or misconduct. And for some things, mostly memorials, given to the church—when they are no longer used or useful, people can get upset. Our mindset should be that our church building and its contents were given faithfully by those before us, and by us too, and should be respected for that reason. But, our church building and its “holy” contents are only symbols of the presence of God and his faithful people; they are not to be confused with their purpose as tools to worship God and for doing his ministry.
In our 2nd reading from Ephesians--symbols everywhere! Symbols for the faithful Christian to put on, and to go out into the world to bring the message of Jesus Christ to all. “The whole armor of God--the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes to stand and proclaim the Gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.”
At first look, these symbols all have a military theme, like the Christian is going into battle, with the forces of darkness and evil—non-believers, or the devil himself. Paul himself compared the Ephesian Christian’s armor to the armor of their conquerors, the Romans. And we know how this passage and others like it have been misused as an excuse to do all kinds of awful things in the name of Christ all over the world.
There is a beautiful, powerful, and very long and complicated Christian hymn called St. Patrick’s Breastplate (or “The Deer Cry” or The Lorica). (Handout of the Hymn/Poem) This hymn comes from lyrics originally written as a prayer, and is attributed to St. Patrick, the founder of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, way back in the 5th century. Its words are based on or at least inspired by this Ephesians reading, and it is written in the style of a Druid incantation for protection on a journey. (A “lorica”, by the way, was a mystical garment that was supposed to protect the wearer from danger and illness, and guarantee entry into Heaven.) This prayer was converted into the great hymn it is in the late 19th century, again, in Ireland. This hymn is usually sung on St. Patrick’s Day or on Trinity Sunday.
I like this hymn’s characterization of protection and hope, as well as these symbols described in Ephesians, much better than the idea of preparing for a holy war. Some Christians believe that the battle of good and evil, between God and the Devil, is so real that as Christians we have to deal with this each day in who we encounter and how we live—for them it is Christians AGAINST the world! I would rather think of all Christians living their daily lives in a much more loving, caring way WITH the world around us. These symbols we together in Christian community equip ourselves with--through worship, prayer, study, and the support of other Christians--we can rely on to help us witness and administer to those who need our message of hope and love.
Our Gospel reading from John today is a very confusing one, for the symbols it describes and what they mean to us. We have Jesus speaking symbolically right away: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (We have heard words like this for the past few weeks from John, and our preachers have tackled them faithfully each time. I’m going to try yet another time.)
In the rest of this reading you get an idea what the disciples thought about these words: …“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you?” … Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
This tells us we are not the only ones who have trouble understanding what Jesus said to that larger group of disciples who had been following him around in his ministry. Many grumbled, complained and even left Jesus because they could not understand what Jesus meant or what they were supposed to be doing. It was only a smaller group, led by Simon Peter, who kept going with Jesus and even though they doubted too, were there to the end, and also the beginning of the resurrected life of Jesus Christ.
So, to the tricky part—eating the Flesh and Blood of Christ! In our Holy Communion service, the presider says: “Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after the supper Jesus took the cup of wine, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you."
What do you think people attending our church who are new to the Christian faith think when they hear such things in our worship service? What do you think?
At the least, the bread and wine are symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ. Bread symbolizes life; it is the nourishment that sustains life. Wine (or grape juice) represents God's covenant in blood, poured out in payment for the sins of the world.
There are at least three main Christian views regarding the bread and the wine (or grape juice) used in Holy Communion:
· Transubstantiation—the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. (Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, very traditional Anglicans)
· Real Presence--the bread and wine are unchanged elements, but Christ's presence by faith is made spiritually real in and through them (a range of views within this belief). (Lutherans, most Anglicans/Episcopal, Methodists, Presbyterians, most United churches, reformed/Calvinists)
· Symbolic only--the bread and wine are unchanged elements, representing Christ's body and blood, in remembrance of his enduring sacrifice. (Baptists, Evangelicals)
From our own Book of Common Prayer it states: “The outward and visible sign in Holy Communion is the bread and wine, given and received according to Christ’s command; the inward and spiritual grace is the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people, and received by faith. The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life. When we come to receive communion it is required that we should examine our lives (we listen to the Readings and the Sermon and reflect on them!), repent of our sins (we say the Confession together!), and be in love and charity with all people (we pass the Peace with each other!).”
This whole process of celebrating Communion with the symbols of Bread and Wine is sometimes called “Celebrating the Holy Mysteries”. For us Christians at St. Mark’s, this is a regular part of our spiritual journeys. For most of us, it happens many times in our lives. We are faced with a choice: do we just accept doing this each Sunday - or do we need to continue to grow into its meaning? Just as Simon Peter and the other disciples did, let us continue to follow Jesus and learn more about these Holy Mysteries together!