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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Eucharist and conversion (Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord, Year A)

More and more in recent years, I’ve been seeing liturgy in terms of conversion, mostly because I’m understanding all of Christian life as a process of “turning around” from what we’re taught is normal to what Jesus taught. Most of what Jesus taught is not really normal at all (in the sense of "business as usual," but it is actually more real. We might wistfully be glad Jesus is teaching all those bad people to be more like us, but unless we're understanding from him that his words both comforting and challenging apply to everyone and not just to those who're different from us, we're rewriting the gospel to fit how we're already living, and not really taking seriously its radical departure from the organizing strategies of the world.

We learn everything (we learn what is "normal") by imitating other humans, starting with our parents. We learn to walk, talk, eat certain foods with certain utensils, everything, all by observing and imitation. We’re taught who is good and who is bad by those around us, who we’re like and who we’re not like, who is better than we are, and who we are better than. "Normal" is learned behavior. Because of that, we all learn to want the same things, whether it’s certain toys, clothing, or cars, or whether it’s security, power, authority, or property. And often it leads to conflict, so “civilization” (the way things are, and have always been) has organized us into bands of people who define themselves by who we aren’t, who we belong to, to whom we owe allegiance, and who is an enemy. Religion often participates in this “civilizing” influence. And civilization does a pretty good job of organizing us into competitive groups and keeping something like peace, unless we happen to be in the out-group, which is where it’s dangerous to be. We might look different, believe differently, live in a different country, not have enough money, any number of things that separates us from the dominant culture. Suddenly, we can easily be identified as “the enemy” and disposed of however enemies are disposed of. And in case it doesn't occur to you right off, everyone is in several "out" groups, as well as in groups. It's not just an us vs. them world, it's more like everyone vs. everyone else.

But Jesus came to show a different way. His teaching suggested a question, something like, “How’s that whole thing with (the Roman god-man) Caesar’s civilization working out for you? How's normal for you? Happy? Let me show you a different way, a different authority. A different kind of empire, and a different kind of God.” He laid out the essentials in what we heard earlier this year, and also in the Lenten weekday readings, in the Sermon on the Mount. Call God “our Father,” because we’re all brothers and sisters, and what God wants is a family, and it’s a family that God will care for. Do unto others what you’d like them to do for you. Turn the other cheek. If you have two of something, give one away. Love your enemies. Don’t even call people names. If you want to be great, be like God, and serve everyone else.

Then the way he lived this out, with the words “Follow me,” was to eat and drink with everybody. Nice people, not-so-nice people, good people, throwaways, rich people, poor people. Everybody. This was such a “Jesus” thing that it became the way that his friends remembered him, and spread the good news he entrusted to them, after his death. In both Luke's and John's post-resurrection stories, Jesus cooking and eating with the twelve continues to be part of the story of presence and recognition. 

Eucharist reflects all of this and more. It’s a meal for a new creation. Enough for everybody, and everybody gets the same. God provides, we share God’s goodness in the gifts we’ve been given. No one is privileged above others in the community of Jesus. Leadership is service in the Eucharist. In the liturgy, "follow me" becomes "Go and announce the gospel of the Lord," or "glorify the Lord by your life." The liturgy announces itself to be a sacrament, and outward sign of a reality we are living the rest of the week, month, year, the rest of our lifetime. What happened here, the liturgy says, go make that real in the world again. Take the nourishment this gathering, God's word, and the bread of heaven has given you, and share it with everyone. Go, team God. Peacefully. See you next week. 

But for a lot of people, those who believe in the competence and expediency of normal civilization, those whose idea is that power is control, that might makes right, and that one's own "in" group has priority over all others in everything, including access to the good things of the earth, and freedom, and happiness, are not interested at all in the message of Christ. They will always push back, either by ridiculing the very idea of the gospel, or rebaptizing it in the name of their own gods, and turning it into a gospel of prosperity, or a gospel of nationalism. Those who believe otherwise are reduced to irrelevance, or worse. Persuasion and example take too long. We can sacrifice other people and their children so that our children can be safe. Better yet, we can assure ourselves that God will take care of them after they die, and feel better about ourselves. The end justifies the means. The gospel is an ideal. Muscle is real. 

“When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord, until you come.” Caesar and those in power know exactly what the new empire is all about. The Romans thought they could put a stop to it. But the early church had experienced the resurrection. They understood, with Jesus, that God is life, for whom death does not exist. There would be no death for the word of God, no death for the gospel. We who eat and drink the body and blood of Christ need to know that our future is the same as that of Jesus and the martyrs if we choose his way. But to be part of the “kingdom of God” means leaving behind the deathmaking, regret, and sorrow of “normal” civilization, and beginning here and now to live in the world of the resurrection. In the Eucharist, the Lamb who was slain by the normalcy of violence lives among us and shares the infinite life of the Spirit with those who gather to turn and follow him to live, here and now, in a different world. Blessed are those who are called to the table of the Lamb of God.