For a reflection dedicated entirely to the Eucharist, see the essay entitled “On the Bread of Life.”
Today is the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, so I thought I’d be writing about the Eucharist, my most precious mystery. Or about the Last Supper, the story we tell of the historical source of the ritual Eucharist, the night Jesus handed down the bread and the wine to his disciples and hinted at the mystery and boggled their minds. I thought I might talk about the spilling of Christ’s blood on the cross or the body that perished and the Body imperishable – all the mystical and theological currents that swirl in my mind every minute of every day, tossed this way and that by the swells of the liturgical year. And then, I went to church this morning, and the thing happened that often happens: as I listened to the readings and to the homily, my thoughts stumbled and turned in another direction, filled with a meaning less obvious in the feast but no less relevant.
It happens. You know the old saying about God’s laughter and our plans. And so, I planned to talk about His cross, but I’m thinking today about taking up my own cross. Because the last reading today was about the time that a crowd of five thousand people sat hungry before Jesus and his disciples at the end of a day of teaching, and they had only five loaves of bread and two fishes to share, but sharing the little they had caused everyone to be filled and satisfied and twelve baskets of leftovers to be gathered. For decades now the favorite meaning of this story in the Church has had nothing to do with the laws of nature. Nothing to do with multiplying of breads. We tell this as a miracle of the heart. Seeing Jesus and his company give away the last of their food, those in the crowd who had brought their own were moved to open their hearts, to sacrifice, to act on what they’d just heard preached – to share. And when all share, there’s always more than enough.
I know this story so well… I teach it in every one of my courses, exactly as Deacon Doug presented it – to admit, I was listening to him with only one ear because the first sentence of his homily grabbed me and held me, and for the rest of the time I was turning it in my head, running away with it to where I am now. Of all the things spoken today in church, this is what I needed to hear: “Christianity,” Doug said, “is not a spectator sport.”
Naturally. Ask any Christian, and he will say the same. Yet, that the instituting of bread as His Body is not the only story we hear on the feast of the Body and Blood was a small revelation to me. There’s also the story of sharing bread. Participation in the miracle. It makes sense: the Eucharist, after all, is the sharing of bread that is the Body of Christ. It is participation in the mystery. But this story is about active compassion, and the first thing Deacon Doug said was, “Christianity is not a spectator sport.”
So this is what I’ve been thinking since morning, and it’s not a new thought:
From a certain point of view, it’s really that simple. At the root base of what it means to be a Christian, you need no theory and no theology – you need not know how to spell them – in order to answer the call that springs from the center of your heart: to follow Him who is Christ. People have done it for two thousand years, most of them never having read the Bible. Including the apostles of Jesus himself.
My writing is full of analytical minutiae and of grand cosmological theories, but I am an academic. That’s how I think. You don’t need that – I don’t need that – to feel, and in the heart of hearts of my own conversion experience it was not theory but the touch of Love and the call to discipleship that finally tuned my mad, dissonant string to the chord of boundary-transcending pan-reality. That is to say, to Christ.
Sometimes, it has to be simple. To be a Christian is to follow Him. To keep asking the one important question: What would Jesus do? And then to do it. At any cost.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (16:24-25 ESV). This is a famous verse, and it’s one of those calls that are hard to answer but easy to understand. It means, right is not usually safe, but good is more important than easy. It means, anything worth looking for is difficult to find, especially if the treasure you’re seeking is the meaning of life. It means, there are things worse than death, a life wasted in cowardice, evil, or indifference prominently among them. It means, the good we do is never in vain, even if we don’t get to know it in this life. And it means, we have a path to walk and a cross to carry, and it’s worth it every step of the way.
And people have. Lived and died doing it, and we sing some of their names.
The problem is, nothing is ever simple. Nothing ever stays simple.
Because, as full of resolve and as ready to follow as we may be, every day we must decide – and decide for ourselves – WHERE to follow. What does it mean, to follow Him? Today? Tomorrow? For me? Because there are days aplenty when I don’t actually know what Jesus would do. More importantly, I don’t know what he would have ME do.
A passage in the Gospel of Luke is sometimes titled by editors “the Cost of Following Jesus.” This is what happens in the narrative while Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem:
“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God’” (9:57-62 NIV).
I’ve heard this gospel proclaimed from the ambo many times and preached on both passionately and apologetically, and yet it’s always bothered me. Because it sounds…cruel. It doesn’t fit our image – my image – that he, my heart’s treasure and the human face of Love, would dismiss a son’s loss as a walk through a corpse field, that he would deny discipleship to someone just for wanting to say good-bye.
On the other hand, why should it be so surprising? The Jesus of the Gospels wasn’t an all-cuddly fellow. If we read his image literally from the face of the Gospel narratives, judging by the fates of an innocent fig tree and the money-changers’ tables, not to mention his own disciples’ dodging colorful epithets like “satan,” he was occasionally prone to hissy fits, quick enough to anger, and subject to at least some of the prejudices of his time. He kept calling “faithless” the very people who stuck by him through thick and thin, turned away from the Kingdom a perfectly good young man whose only fault was wealth while apparently having at least one rich and secret disciple himself, and, in the course of preaching universal compassion, he consented to help a foreigner only after intense and humiliating persuasion, likening her to a dog. He could be curt, this Betrothed of mine – worse, he could be rude. He was a human being, after all, trying to deliver a message of such enormity through a means so inadequate that I am amazed the frustration of it drove him no further than blowing up at interlocutors and some inconsistent behavior and rhetoric.
Also, let’s remember that Jesus of Nazareth was a human being…period. Maybe it was hot.
But then, I’ve never been much for reading the Bible literally. There’s always more to it than that. Re-read, if you must, the passages that recount the calling of the first apostles: Peter, James, Andrew, Matthew… There is a common feature to those stories: When Jesus says, “Come with me,” people drop everything and come. They leave nets full of fish. They throw money on the road. And they come as they are, in the middle of the day. In the middle, as it were, of an unfinished sentence. Luke 9 is a contrast to this response, a request for postponement, and Jesus’ reaction is immediate and negative. It just won’t do.
I’ve always wondered if the stories of the calling of the apostles were historically true and to what degree. We don’t really know. It doesn’t matter in principle, but it makes me think about…well, what I would say. Would I come in the middle of a sentence or would I need to attend to my old life before I start my new? And would that do?
And is that what I’m doing now?
Whatever factual basis those first stories have, I wonder also if Luke 9 is not the evangelist’s way of underscoring the nature and cost of discipleship in contrast to those. This passage, in three different ways, is about the old life keeping us back from living the new once we have seen the way, and if so, it will not do indeed. Once you have seen the way, you can’t look back from the plow. You certainly can’t leave it rusting in the field. This – now read not literally as a denial of a good-bye but as a metaphor – does fit very well with what Jesus preached throughout his time on Earth. This Jesus of Luke can be saying that the call to discipleship is not something that can wait for a convenient time. That a righteous life cannot be postponed until loose ends have been tied up. That we can’t condition our salvation, our goodness, or our following upon doing the culturally appropriate thing or upon getting somebody’s permission. That bread must be shared today, when a hungry neighbor is staring at your piece, and not tomorrow, when you have extra.
I think that’s what he is saying. In fact, his saying it has helped me early on in my Christian journey to endure through loneliness, through family resistance, through lack of support in the Church or at home, through misunderstanding. The Jesus of Luke seems to be saying that those who need help must be helped now and those who refuse to be helped must be left behind with an open invitation. What I don’t see him advocating is indiscriminate abandonment of our loved ones who depend on us to feed or to bury them. Love and care for neighbor was the very message he was preaching, and who is a closer neighbor than family? The ministry into which we are born? I can’t see the wandering rabbi Yeshua who threatened exclusion from the Kingdom to anyone who’d break the least of the commandments of the Mosaic law advocating disrespect for our parents. Because that’s not just a commandment. It’s not even just one of the Ten. It’s the first one among the Ten that governs social relationships – the most important guideline where people are concerned.
So what do we do? How do we decide? How do we know when we must go forward and leave behind those who won’t come and when we must stay to bring some happiness to those who can’t help themselves? When all around us is need, whom do we help? How do we recognize the plow and resolve not to look back? Who is by our side and who is behind us? What is the path of discipleship and what is the grave for the dead past? How do we know?
They say, the heart knows. The heart will tell. But my heart is such a human thing. It’s full of God and full of people that crowd its many rooms, and it should be. It must be. My heart is a maze, and a light is shining upon it, but voices echo from every wall, and I don’t always know what Jesus would do, and what he would have me do.
The words from a 2,000-year-old culture aren’t always of specific help for specific decisions that I must make, but his Spirit is here with me, and his message is here. God is with me, and if there is one guiding light on the path along which I carry my cross – the light that shines upon the maze of my heart, too – it has to be Love. So I suppose, I must every time make a decision most full of love. After all, he did say that denying myself would be a sort of prerequisite. How it happens we don’t know in advance. That’s the mystery. That’s the adventure. No plans. Just hopes.