Sermon by Fr. Bryan Owen on May 3, 2020. Audio available here >>
April 27, 1969 was a glorious day. I know this for a fact, even though I don't remember anything about it. After all, I wasn't quite 4 months old at the time.
So how do I know it was such a wonderful day? Well, because on that particular 4th Sunday of Eastertide, I was baptized at the United Methodist Church in Tunica, Mississippi. And so like anyone who receives baptism with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I was adopted as a child of God, united with Christ in his death and resurrection, and forever marked as part of the flock of Jesus the good shepherd and guardian of our souls.
So April 27 is my second birthday. It’s the day on which I was born again and given the promise of everlasting life in God's new creation.
That’s a promise God wants fulfilled for everybody. As we heard in today's Gospel reading, Jesus came into this world so that everyone might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). It’s a saying that echoes what we read earlier in John’s Gospel where Jesus tells us:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Born again through the waters of Holy Baptism, we receive a foretaste of eternal life by becoming a part of God’s beloved community. It’s a place where everybody belongs, everybody can know and experience God’s unconditional love, and everybody can discover the true meaning and purpose of their lives.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles underscores how critically important this new family of faith was from the very beginning of the Christian movement. We’re told: “Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). And we’re told they shared all things in common and they sold possessions to distribute the proceeds to anyone in need (Acts 2:45).
These practices bore tangible witness to the reality that the resurrection of Jesus had changed everything. For by Jesus’ victory over the grave, things which had been cast down were raised up. And things which had grown old were being made new. Through the risen Jesus, God’s new world of love, justice, and peace had already begun.
Some of the language from today’s Acts reading may sound familiar. I certainly hope so! Because it's the language we find in the Baptismal Covenant when we are asked:
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” And in response, we each say: “I will, with God’s help” (BCP, p. 304).
Apostles’ teaching and fellowship.
The breaking of bread.
From the earliest days of the Church to our own day, these have been the core practices that ground and shape the identity of those who follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. These are the foundational ways Christians down through the ages have enacted the Church’s mission of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ (cf. BCP, p. 855). And it’s what you and I promise to continue doing in our lives today. But there’s a problem.
I mean … how can we continue in apostolic fellowship when we can’t even physically gather as a community of faith?
And how can we continue in the breaking of the bread when we cannot actually receive the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist?
Let’s face it: the loss of in-person fellowship on our church campus and the inability to receive Eucharist for the past several weeks has been really difficult.
And it’s not clear what fellowship and Eucharist will look like as we move into the gradualism of a phased approach to opening up our society from a stay-at-home order. It’s simply too early to tell at this time.
Working with our Bishop’s pastoral directives, we at St. Luke’s will do our very best to maintain as much continuity with our fellowship and worship practices as we can, always erring on the side of caution when it comes to the safety and well-being of our people. And we will do our best to maintain a connection to this altar, to the Lord of this altar, and to the faithful who have gathered for generations around this altar.
In the meantime, as we continue with social and physical distancing and with live-streaming worship, I want to share with you a practice that may be helpful as we deal with the reality that it may be a while before we can once again eat the bread and drink the wine of the Eucharist. It’s a practice called “spiritual communion.”**
We won’t find the term “spiritual communion” in The Book of Common Prayer. But it is a practice reflected in the Prayer Book tradition. It has roots that go back to Church Fathers like St. Augustine. And it’s a term that’s found its way into usage through devotional books like St. Augustine’s Prayer Book.
So “spiritual communion” is not a brand new idea that was cooked up yesterday. It has deep roots within the catholic tradition.
The idea behind “spiritual communion” is that we can receive the benefits of Holy Eucharist - we can receive the gift of grace God wants to give us in consecrated bread and wine - without actually physically receiving that bread and wine.
We see this most clearly in the ministry to the sick. For instance, here’s what we find in the very first Book of Common Prayer published over 470 years ago in 1549 - and I’m slightly paraphrasing and updating the language a bit to make it more understandable:
“If any persons by reason of extreme sickness … or by any other just impediment, does not receive the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood then the priest shall instruct that if those persons truly repent of their sins and steadfastly believe that Jesus Christ suffered death on the cross and shed his blood for their redemption, and if they earnestly remember the benefits they receive from Christ’s sacrifice by giving him hearty thanks, those persons do eat and drink spiritually the Body and Blood of our savior Christ, profitably to their souls health, although they do not receive the sacrament with their mouths.” We find a more succinct statement to this effect in our current Prayer Book (cf. BCP, p. 457).
It’s true that sacraments like the Eucharist are sure and certain means for receiving God’s grace. But it’s also true that God is not limited to those means. When just impediments stand in our way, God can still give us the gift of grace.
My friends, we all long to be together to receive the Eucharist. But under current circumstances there are many impediments keeping us from doing so. Fortunately we have the reassurance of our tradition that if we repent of our sins, if we give thanks and praise to God for what he has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and if we intend to unite ourselves to Jesus in his selfless act of giving himself completely to the Father, then even though we cannot eat and drink the Eucharist at this time, God in his mercy still gives us what we need the most - himself. His very life.
When we are prevented from physically receiving the Eucharist, we can express our intention to be in communion with Christ by saying a simple prayer like this:
Lord Jesus, I believe you are present in the Blessed Sacrament. I love you above all things and I long to receive you. Since I cannot at this time receive you sacramentally, come spiritually into my heart. I embrace you and unite myself wholly to you. Never let me be separated from you. Amen.
My friends, we are still in communion with Christ and with each other. God continues giving us the grace we need for the journey that lies ahead. And as the Psalmist reminds us, the Lord revives our souls and guides us along right pathways. Even when the shadows lengthen and darkness descends, we need fear no evil, for our Good Shepherd walks with us. His goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives. And we will dwell in the safety, security, and joy of the Lord’s house forever.
** I’m drawing on thoughts shared by the Rev. Dr. Matthew S. C. Olver, Assistant Professor of Liturgics and Pastoral Theology at Nashotah House, in the YouTube video “What is Spiritual Communion?”, https://youtu.be/9uBiqbTY7oA, accessed on April 30, 2020.