Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
3 May 2020
1 Peter 2:19-25
We have paused our celebration of Holy Communion while we wait out the pandemic. We do so because the sacrament of the altar is the celebration of the assembly.
While there are many ways in which we remain connected, streaming our worship, meeting on zoom, staying in touch through telephone and e-mail, – and we are thankful for all of these! – it is not the same as gathering together, greeting one another in person, feeling each other’s touch, laughing and crying, singing and praying together, celebrating small events and big events, breaking the bread, and sharing meals. This time of pandemic calls us to the disciplines of trust, waiting, vigilance, hope, and the abiding desire to be united in community.
I miss Holy Communion but not only Holy Communion but also gathering together with God’s people. A few years ago I visited a Baptist church I had wanted to visit for may years. It was summer and it turned out that their pastor wasn’t there and lay people were leading worship and presiding over the Eucharist.
And so I thought about whether I should participate. After all, they were doing many things differently than we do. And their understanding of the meal is that of a memorial, not of the real presence of Christ. But then I thought, what mattered was that the body of Christ was gathered, was present, right there in the gathered community. And I decided to receive the sacrament.
A couple of weeks ago I spoke with a friend who is a Methodist pastor in Seattle. He said, on Easter they had practiced “virtual communion.” And he said, “Christoph, let me tell you, it was not the same. It was not the same.”
So, if you miss gathering at the table for the celebration of Holy Communion, you are not alone.
But the fact that we have not celebrated communion since the 22nd of March does not mean that God cannot commune with us. The angel says to Mary that nothing is impossible for God. (Luke 1:37) God comes to us in many ways, in prayer, in the scriptures, in proclamation and teaching, singing, and in new ways of bearing each other’s burdens and living the Good News of Jesus. “God’s (…) promise works through many means within the fabric of history, through the communion of saints, in hidden and surprising ways known only to the Spirit.”1
Given the fact that we are not currently celebrating Holy Communion, it may seem peculiar to now talk about who we permit to commune. But the question is raised in our Gospel reading, or at least in it’s application through the centuries. In John 10 Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd but also the gate to the sheep. In verse three there is reference to a gatekeeper, and often the church has understood itself as gatekeeper. We have spent much energy on deciding who to allow in and who to keep out.
In my home congregation we allowed everyone to commune, sort of, except couples who lived together, or people who were homosexual.
After my parents had divorced, my father excluded himself from the Lord’s table for many years. Not surprisingly, his understanding had been formed in the same congregation.
And then there was and remains the question of ecumenical hospitality. Which denomination is welcome at which table?
You will see that I believe that we must err on the side of inclusion and generosity. Yet, I would not say that there aren’t questions worth asking, since the sacrament is sacred and it matters how we treat it and how we treat each other.
The reason the question about who is in and who is out matters because in verse 9 of our Gospel reading Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” This is not completely unlike what Jesus says to Thomas a few chapters later, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Some of us memorized this verse in Sunday School or confirmation class.
Often we read both of these verses as being about who to keep out, as an exclusive statement, as a word about condemnation instead of blessing, when the words are meant to be inclusive. In John 10 the gate does not function to keep sheep out but to protect the sheep from thieves, bandits, and predators. In John 14 Jesus prepares the disciples for his departure and Thomas asks how they shall find him when he has left them. What Jesus says are instructions on how to find him, essentially an invitation.
It says a lot about the church that we have tended to interpret both of these verses in a way that would exclude, which is not unlike the experience of exclusion the man born blind and his family experienced and feared in chapter 9.
But if it is God’s desire to include, rather than exclude, then Jesus’ meal with sinners in Luke 15 may be the model for how we celebrate Holy Communion. Jesus ate with sinners. He ate with his disciples and with Judas who were also sinners. Jesus said that those who are well have no need of a physician.
And so it turns out that chapter 10 of John’s Gospel isn’t only about Jesus taking care of his own, but inviting all people into his fold. And such invitation is not only about a meal but about a way of life that welcomes as God welcomes.
I wonder whether in these times we experience our community as larger than before, even as our physical radius has shrunk. But even though we cannot get together with people we used to get together with, could it be that we find that we have much in common with others, others with whom we previously may not have thought to have much in common with, that we experience the same suffering and rejoice at human contact and kindness in the same way as they do?
I was talking to a friend recently and learned that her church does not stream or pre-record their worship but joins the services of other communities, of their own denomination and of others, and follows worship with meeting on zoom, where they spend time together and share how God has spoken to them.
All this does not mean that we are all the same or that we all believe the same, only that we remember that Jesus always invited.
And if we believe this to be true, then we may see that this is also in line with the belief that the creator of all is also the saviour of all, without fail.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1 See Digital Worship and Sacramental Life in a Time of Pandemic by Dirk G. Lange, 24 March 2020: https://www.lutheranworld.org/blog/digital-worship-and-sacramental-life-time-pandemic