Proper 14 (19), Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
August 13, 2023
1 Kings 19:9-18
Jackie and I were in Victoria at the end of May. Jackie was at a conference and I had tagged along.
I used the opportunity to connect with my friend and colleague Allan, an Anglican priest who had just moved to a parish in Victoria. We had not seen each other for a number of years and it was good to catch up.
I learned from Allan that Anglicans in southern British Columbia had had two responses to the pandemic in regards to the celebration of Holy Communion. The Diocese of New Westminster continued the celebration of Holy Communion in its streamed services. But this was not a virtual celebration. It was celebrated only by those who physically shared the same worship space. Those at home witnessed the celebration but were not asked to participate.
The Diocese of Vancouver Island entered a period of fasting from Holy Communion. Until they were able to meet again in person, churches did not celebrate Holy Communion.
This is what we did, with the exception of one single Sunday when we did the same as the Diocese of New Westminster.
As I was wrestling with the question (other clergy made different choices and our bishops did not provide guidance) I asked a friend who is a pastor in Germany how she viewed what was then called “virtual communion”. She replied, “Christoph, I live alone. The last thing I want to do is have communion alone.”
I found this to be profoundly true, for all the benefits of YouTube and Zoom, what we really craved for was each other’s presence. We worship a God who took on our flesh. Our worship is embodied. Presence is defined by physicality because we are physical beings. The late theologian Robert Jenson spoke of mass media as able to create a mass but not community.1
A few years ago I visited a Baptist church in East Vancouver. The pastor was away and lay people were leading worship, preaching, and presiding over Holy Communion. I was blessed by worshipping there. From all I could tell, it is a wonderful community. But when it came to communion I debated whether I should go forward. I debated because for Baptists the presence of Christ in the sacrament is symbolic, for Lutherans it is real. I also debated whether I should participate because Lutherans have strict rules about who can preside over sacraments and who cannot.
And then I had a revelation. I already knew that the Lord’s Supper is the Lord’s and that therefore while my understanding is important, communion is not what we make it but what God makes it. That is the grace of God’s presence.
The revelation was this: When we receive communion, we do not only receive Christ’ body but we become his body. The church father Athanasius said, “He became what we are so that we might become what he is.” And we can only become his body together, for he is the head and the church is his body.2 It is not a virtual body but a body of real people sharing their lives.
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul says to the troublesome people he was writing to, “you yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”
To be a letter requires intent and practice so that others can read our lives in a way that our lives point to God. This practice does not occur when I have my morning coffee, cruise the internet, or watch TV. This practice happens when the church gathers. Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together is the rule for the underground seminary at Finkenwalde. The community’s common worship, the reading of the scriptures and the praying of the Psalms sustained the community in their resistance to Hitler and the Nazi regime. The Bible’s narrative is a counter narrative to the narrative of the world, of individualism, consumerism, capitalism, and all the isms of this world.
I wonder if – when thinking about the interpretation of the scriptures – we can think of the scriptures like a piece of music that wants to be performed. Someone’s perfect interpretation may be correct but does not suffice. What music requires is a performance in which musicians and singers become the music, even if their performance may lack in perfection. When our faith is so lived in community that the scriptures become our song (think of Lord Jesus, you shall be the Song on My Journey), then we become the letter in the way that Paul says to the Corinthians that they are his letter. This we cannot do alone. For this we need one another.3
I love the story of the disciples on the lake and Jesus. It is one of my favourite images. Maybe because my home congregation had a stain glass window of the stilling of the storm above its altar and for years I would see it at least once a week. It was a depiction of the stilling of the storm (Matthew 8) but it too shows chaos and fear, and Jesus’ peaceful presence. It is no wonder that storm is a metaphor for the challenges we face in life.
But the strong gale and the waves that were battering the boat are not the only image the story offers. Rather, if you cannot be at a safe location on land, being together in a boat is the best place to be. A boat has long been an image for the church. We call this space nave, from the Latin navis for ship. The Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synod has a boat as its symbol (likely because Rasmus Jensen led the first Lutheran worship service in North America, as part of a Danish expedition in what today is Churchill, MB),4 my home synod has a boat as its symbol, so does the archdiocese of Vancouver, as does the World Council of Churches.
The boat is a symbol of the church. It symbolizes community, common purpose and direction, and relative safety, though not absolute safety for the church exists within the world.
That we find our place of belonging in the Body of Christ, the community of the church is contrary to the idea that everyone is on their own and that everyone writes their own story.
Rather, we join God’s story in Jesus. This story becomes our story, our music to practise and perform, and our song to sing. This is not a demand but a gift.
In the story of Jesus walking on water we may wonder what drove Peter to ask Jesus to call him to step out of the boat. His question, “Lord, if it is you …?” not only sounds a lot like the tempter’s questions to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God …”, or of the crowd at the crucifixion, “If you are the Son of God …,”5 but in this story Peter steps out of the boat and steps away from the community. What happens here is not about Jesus, nor about the community, but about Peter.
Yet it is in the boat that he is safe. It is to the boat and the community to which he is restored, which is where Jesus was headed in the first place.6
At the end of grade ten our class chartered a boat on the Zuiderzee in Holland where for ten days we lived on the same boat, had to bear with one other – not so easy in grade ten (just think of the smelly feet of teenage boys), and had to carry out the commands given to us by our Dutch skipper. My enjoyment did not derive from me, but from the community, and likely not all of it was enjoyment, but it was community, for we had a common purpose and worked and travelled together.
In the church, as on a boat, we may argue about direction or division of labours but that is part of what makes the church, for these are the conversations that shape our faith, form us in Christ’s image, make us a community, perform the music, sing the song, and become the letter.
Solitary faith is solitary. It is lonely. It may not know the agony of division but it also does not know the joy of shared faith, and the joy of finding God in community.
The things we do together are the things that remake us in Christ’s image.
Through the Holy Spirit God has placed us in the boat that is the church. It is in this boat that we practice the song that defines our lives. “And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, Truly you are the Son of God.”
1 Robert Jenson, The Church and Mass Electronic Media – The Hermeneutic Problem, in: Religious Education – The official journal of the Religious Education Association, Volume 82, 1987 – Issue 2
2 1 Corinthians 1:18
3 See Nicholas Lash, Theology on the Way to Emmaus, chapter “Performing the Scriptures”, quoted by Kyle Strobel, see also Richard B Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, New York, 1996 HarperOne, page 304ff
5 Matthew 4: 3,6 and 27:40
6 When Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (v.31) he is not referring to Peter sinking but to Peter’s question, “Lord, if it is you …”