Word and sacrament are at the heart of our worship and our life together as Christians. Today's Gospel brings these two elements together in a very bold way. Our sacramental life together is given by God out of love for us. The Word of God is given to us so that we may know God more fully.
For Episcopalians, the two primary sacraments are Baptism and the Eucharist. Jesus, who loves us so much, gives us the sacraments so that we can know his unending love for us in a very personal way. They are also given so that we may share his love with each other and see his love in each other. As baptized Christians we are disciples of Christ, destined for holiness; spiritual beings; ministers for our Lord Jesus. The Eucharist, when experienced fully, is the Lord's love offering. Evelyn Underhill, one of the early 20th century's great writers on mysticism and Christian spirituality, described it this way. She said that she had great personal difficulty in reaching an adequate understanding and, more importantly, a deep experience of the Eucharist. When she finally did experience it, she said it was so awesome, so beautiful, and so intensely personal that it was "quite undiscussible".
Today we are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. This is our mission in life. To know God in our heart by prayer; in our soul-as Mary says (Luke 1:46), our souls magnify the Lord (people see this through our deeds); and in our minds through learning. David Brown, a theologian and retired missioner, teaches that our mission in Jesus Christ is to learn the mind of Christ, to offer the prayer of Christ, and to do the deeds of Christ. In this way, we love the Lord with our whole being.
The Lord instructs us to love. Love is a verb. It requires action. To love is to do the deeds of Christ.
I heard a country music song that went something like this: A mother found under her plate at breakfast one morning a bill made out by her small son, age eight. It read: "Mommy owes Danny: for taking out the garbage, 50 cents; for helping with the dishes, 75 cents; for being good, 50 cents; for taking music lessons, 55 cents; for extras, 25 cents. Total: 2 dollars and 55 cents."
Mother smiled but made no comment. At lunch, Danny found the bill along with 2 dollars and 55 cents under his plate and another piece of paper neatly folded like the first. Opening it he read: "Danny owes Mommy: for nursing him through chicken pox, nothing; for clothes, shoes, toys, nothing; for cleaning his room and changing his bed, nothing; for cooking his meals, nothing. Total, nothing."
This story speaks to us about love. Love has nothing to do with demands. Love is free. It cannot be bought; it cannot be sold. It can only be given. It does not expect anything in return. There are no attachments added. That's how God loves and that how we are instructed to love. In 1st Corinthians chapter 13, Paul says, "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. Love never fails."
The opposite of love is criticism. To contemplate this we can also learn much about humility. To love is to attract. We are attracted to love and we can feel the love of others around us. To criticize is to repel. We can feel this, too. But criticism is not always bad and can lead to a new understanding. However, criticism without love is sinful. Teresa of Avila said that a Christian, if one in anything more than name, will spend a short time each day contemplating their sins. This is not to condemn oneself for our sins but to help draw us closer to God's love. Sin separates us from God's love. When we see our sins and confess them to God, we are brought back into right relationship with God. Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist and philosopher, wrote "Try not to hide the shameful memories of your sins in dark corners. On the contrary, keep them close to you and remember them before you judge your neighbor." It is important to remember that we are all trying to get to heaven!
The Lord also instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
It is not enough that we should love but we must show this love to others. The mystics, like Evelyn Underhill and Teresa of Avila, are great lovers of God. Underhill wrote that true mystics prefer to keep their secret communion with God unknown. They see their time with God as very personal and sacred. We must also find time to be alone with Jesus. Before we can love our neighbor, we must love ourselves. Before we can love ourselves, we must know that Jesus loves us. Having a personal relationship with Jesus is how we know that he loves us.
The Book of Divine Thoughts says, "Do not think that you are generous because you give your excess wealth to a poor person. Real generosity requires that you give this person a place in your heart." What might this mean to us? Another way we can love our neighbors is to pray for them and ask God to bless them. Scripture says to "bless and curse not (Romans 12:14)." Ole Hallesby says, "Send your good wishes up to the throne of grace and people shall receive the good things you wish for them. What opportunities to do good, my friends!" We can pray for people anywhere, anyplace, and at anytime. There are many opportunities for us. We can say a short prayer for people in the grocery store or people in cars on our way to work. It is a wonderful time spent with Jesus and becomes a real blessing for us as well. It is one way we can offer the prayer of Christ.
In the second part of the Gospel reading today, we hear Jesus asking the Pharisees, "What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?" This seems like a very simple question. Being good Jews, they answer, "The son of David." Jesus has studied scripture. At the age of 12 he was teaching and preaching in the synagogues. People were amazed at his knowledge. He gives an answer in our Gospel reading that stops these men who thought they were wise, dead in their tracks. No one could say a word. Jesus has refuted the sole claim of the Jews to the Christ.
It is our mission to learn the mind of Christ. To do this, we must study the word. How many of our churches feel it is important to have Bibles in the pews? And use them? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who lived in Germany during the Nazi regime, was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his strong opposition to the Holocaust. He couldn't understand how the German people could worship God, hear the Word, continue to call themselves Christians, and still be indifferent to Hitler's Nazi regime. He wrote, "It is my experience in the church that we keep ourselves close to the sacrament but at some distance from the Word. This is commonly seen in the small attention paid to preaching, the trivial nature of so many sermons we hear, the absence of Bible study in many congregations, and (one imagines) the infrequency of personal reading of the Bible. I believe that this is an imbalance that needs correcting." He goes on to state that he believes that we have been negatively influenced by biblical fundamentalism and that fundamentalists have poisoned the well with their literal, narrow, and unloving interpretations of Scripture.
He offers a way we can carry the Word of the Bible around with us. Bonhoeffer suggests using a single short biblical passage to focus one's daily meditation for an extended period of time. This week, we could use a short passage from one of the scripture readings today. For example we might use, "What do you think about the Messiah?" We would take that sentence and repeat it to ourselves throughout the day and week. Bonhoeffer believes that this kind of regular meditation on a single short passage helps us find in those words-over a series of days-the Word of God. He believes that by doing this, we develop a personal relationship with God and a sense of God's will.
Teresa of Avila in her book, The Way of Perfection, also advises us to practice meditation. She says that meditation is the first step toward acquiring the virtues (the primary virtue being love). She believes that our very life as Christians depends on our beginning a practice of meditation. Word and sacrament are at the heart of our worship today and our life together as Christians.
May Jesus reveal to us today in a very personal way the true meaning of the sacrament of Eucharist that we will soon receive.
May we listen in silence and meditate on God's Holy Word.
May the Lord bless us in our mission in Christ as we learn the mind of Christ, offer the prayer of Christ and do the deeds of Christ. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.