Dining with Divine Mercy

Community United Church of Christ (St. Paul Park, Minnesota)

Scripture: Mark 14: 17-42

“Was ever another command so obeyed?”, Dom Gregory Dix asks about “Do this in remembrance of me”. He goes on, “For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, from every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of the fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.  [People] have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church…while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; …tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp…; gorgeously, for the canonization of S. Joan of Arc – one could fill many pages with the reasons why [people] have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them.”[1] The universality of communion—it’s one of the things I love most about this tradition.

This is part of the mystery that I almost invariably share when having communion in homes or hospital rooms with our members. Communion links us through the centuries with everyone who has ever shared it: with those who have gathered in this sanctuary going back for decades, with deceased spouses and long-gone grandparents, and—God willing—with those who will come a hundred or a thousand years after us. When you eat at this sacred meal of loaf and cup, you commune with me on a grassy hillside the day I became a Christian, with Javen and I on our wedding day, with Mike Corrigan’s family at his funeral here six years ago, with our youth at church camp every summer, with countless others in hospital rooms or rehab centers, and of course with Jesus and the first twelve who gathered around a table with him. This ritual collapses time and space, mystically uniting us throughout the universe. It connects us like blood flowing to every spiritual cell of the body of Christ.

When I share this with our homebound members, I intend it as a comfort. But until this week, I hadn’t considered that it can be a dreadful thing also. Because when we eat bread and drink from the cup here tonight, we commune also with suicide bombers in Northern Ireland, with Crusaders going off to kill every man, woman and child in Palestine, with pedophile priests and the bishops who protect them, with Christians who failed to protect their Jewish neighbors in Nazi Germany, and with slaveholders in the American South. This sacrament is truthfully also a scandal, because while we’re connected to all the righteous who have gone before, we are connected to terrible evil as well.

Jesus knew this, of course. Betrayal and desertion were there right from the very beginning! Both Judas and Peter are at the Passover table. All the other disciples are there too, each saying, “Surely, not I”. Yet this very night, all of them will desert, fall asleep, betray or run away. But Jesus—our brother and Savior—serves them still. For you, Judas the betrayer, “Take, this is my body.” For you, Simon the sleepy, “This is my blood of the covenant.”

That is the Good News of this night, if we are able to hear it. Though each of the disciples is faithless, Christ is faithful. Judas, Peter, James, John, and every follower throughout history has fallen short. I’m sure nobody here has committed history-making sins, but we have smaller transgressions. I won’t pretend to know yours, but I know mine. I have failed to follow through on promises made, taken too lightly the work of ministry, put my own contentment before service to others, been unreasonably harsh with innocent animals, and taken what is not really mine. That’s just in the past week, and I’m a minister for God’s sake!

Each of us here is a similar mix of saint and sinner, but Jesus welcomes all that we are to this table of sacrifice and victory. He does not demand perfection before calling us into communion with him. It would be far easier for God to just destroy those who fall short, yet divine mercy sets us down and serves us still. This scandalous sacrament, like Jesus himself, meets us as we are and transforms us from the inside out. Maybe it will stick, maybe not—that’s what the discipleship journey is about. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to be like Peter, failing forward into faith, most often despite ourselves. Yet for all that, Jesus remains true to the bewildering, senseless grace of the one he called “Abba, Father” in the garden of Gethsemane. And in Jesus’ faithfulness, all the evil of the world finds its match.

There’s no way this was easy for Jesus—the agony of the garden shows otherwise. In a few minutes we’ll hear just what it cost Jesus to show such grace to fallen humanity. Yet, according to another writer, Jesus’ steadfastness “reflects a God who holds to [a] saving purpose despite all that humankind does to the contrary. Although we, through sin, do all we can to flee the divine grace, in Jesus, God moves with determination toward our salvation. …The good news of Gethsemane is the faithfulness of God.”[2]

That, finally, is why we are here tonight. Because we have decided to respond back to God’s approach, showing gratitude for this place at the table. Accepting the fact of our acceptance, despite feeling entirely unacceptable, is how theologian Paul Tillich described the Christian faith. But George Herbert leaves us with a more poetic picture of the divine invitation:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat. [3]

Let us pray: God of mercy, thank you for giving us today our daily bread. Lead us to share often in this feast of Jesus’ sacrifice and victory of love. Reconcile all the broken world to you with this meal and what it means, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] Dom Gregory Dix, from The Shape of the Liturgy, as quoted in Literary Companion to the Lectionary: Readings throughout the Year, compiled and edited by Mark Pryce (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 49.

[2] Lamar Williamson, Jr. Mark, in the Interpretation Bible commentary series (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 263.

[3] George Herbert, “Love Bade Me Welcome”, from The Temple. Available online at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/poem/173632.

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