In the 5th Century the Bishop of Hippo was a man named Augustine. Augustine was one of the really great Christian thinkers of all time. He preached a sermon one Easter to people who had been baptized the night before at the Great Vigil. Until now they had been dismissed just before the Eucharistic Prayer. They were not allowed to even witness the Holy Meal. Now they are to partake for the very first time. The bread and wine are already placed on the altar. In this sermon he says, and I quote:
These things, my brothers, are called sacraments because there is a difference between their appearance and their true meaning. In appearance they have a physical form; in their true meaning they have a spiritual effect. If you want to understand what is meant by 'the body of Christ', you must attend to the words of the apostle: You are the body of Christ and his members [I Cor. 12:27]. So then if you are the body of Christ and his members it is the mystery of yourselves that is placed on the Lord's Table; it is the mystery of yourselves that you receive. It is to what you are that you make the response, 'Amen', and in making that response you give your personal assent. You hear 'the body of Christ' and you answer, 'Amen.' Be a member of Christ's body and make your 'Amen' true.
The mystery of the table is the mystery of what you are in Christ. It is the mystery of the Church that we celebrate when we celebrate the Eucharist. In our Gospel reading for tonight from John we see that John does not tell the story of bread and wine, of body and blood. This we get from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians. What John talks about is who we are in Christ. He first gives an object lesson: He washes the disciples' feet. Then He teaches: "If I as your rabbi have done this to you, then you should wash one another's feet." He is their Lord, but He makes Himself their servant. The nature of this new humanity that Jesus creates is one predicated on loving service, not force of will. He ends with, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." This, then, is the Church. We are not the people in whom Jesus is known because of our pure theology, or our political stance, or our connections in the community, or our moral superiority, we are a people in whom Jesus is known through the way we love one another.
The community of love is a godly community, for God is love. Jesus is about to go into that great ordeal which shows just how much He loves us. He will suffer and die the cruelest death known in His day. He will rise again and send the Holy Spirit, by whose presence He will continue with the disciples in love and power. His loving heart has one goal reflected in John 14:1-3, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." He extends us the hospitality of His own home. That home is none other than the mystery of the Trinity itself.
Being the Body of Christ gathered around His Table is to be a community predicated on that great loving hospitality of Christ.
- Being a member of the Body of Christ means Belonging: We belong at the table--there is a place for YOU. We belong to one another, we all belong.
- Being a member of the Body of Christ means Participating: We approach confidently, for this is our true home. We take our place, each of us bringing what is unique to our own selves.
- Being a member of the Body of Christ means Sharing: We share one cup and one bread with one another, the symbol of our unity, we share His love with the world around us; for that purpose we are in the world.
The Eucharist that we celebrate tonight, then, is the pattern in symbolic form for everything to come in the next weeks: Good Friday is the price God paid to welcome us at His table. Holy Saturday is the preparation time any meal takes. Easter is the beginning of the banquet. Pentecost is the strength given by the food. Come, then, and open your hearts to the presence of the God who shares Himself to make us truly ourselves.