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From the Table into the World

In the United Methodist Church, the ritual of Holy Communion is a sacrifice in the form of an embodied prayer offered by the people gathered with and through the leadership of their appointed or ordained presider. In this sacrifice we offer thanksgiving for God's works of salvation in history, join the heavenly chorus always offering thanksgiving and praise, bless God for the life and ministry of Jesus, recall his institution of the sacrifice we now offer, and seek the Holy Spirit's blessing to fulfill the sacrifice -- that we and the gifts of bread and wine may be transformed into the living body of Christ.

"Be careful what you pray" is a common admonition. Usually it is offered as a warning that receiving what we're seeking may bring unexpected and perhaps unfortunate consequences. Here, I turn the admonition into an imperative . . . be careful what you pray! Take the care necessary so that what you ask becomes something you and those who offer this sacrifice with you may live up to and experience fully.

In the language of the epiclesis in the ritual of the United Methodist Church, what we pray is:

"Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood.
By your Spirit make us one with Christ,
one with each other,
and one in ministry to all the world,
until Christ comes in final victory
and we feast at his heavenly banquet."

From the "A Service of Word and Table I," The United Methodist Hymnal, Copyright 1989, The United Methodist Publishing House, p. 10. Used by permission.

Some of what we ask, only the Spirit can do. Only the Spirit can transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and only the Spirit can make that transformation effective in our lives. But part of what we seek here is something we have to do ourselves. While we gratefully seek the Spirit's empowerment to be one with Christ, ultimately it is up to us to work out how we will be "one with each other and one in ministry to all the world." And it is up to us actually to "be for the world the body of Christ."

We have not "become for the world the body of Christ" if the only thing we have done is to have asked the Holy Spirit to make it so. That would be no more than perhaps a lovely wish. To move from wish to reality requires us to establish and maintain relationships, systems, structures, and sometimes institutions whose purpose is to be, build, enable, and expand such "embodiment." Good intentions do not fulfill this sacrifice -- lots of good works do.

But what good works? What kinds of good works help us "be for the world the body of Christ?"

If we are "careful what we pray for," we might notice that the prayer we offer already tells us what Jesus himself was doing in his body. After singing the Sanctus, we bless God for Jesus' ministry in words drawn from Isaiah and Luke:

"Your Spirit anointed him
to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
and to announce that the time had come
when you would save your people.

He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners."

From the "A Service of Word and Table I," The United Methodist Hymnal, Copyright 1989, The United Methodist Publishing House, p. 9. Used by permission.

Let's tick these off, one by one, to explore what "being the body of Christ" might mean for us now.

"Preach good news to the poor."
There are at least two troublesome terms in this deceptively simple description of the practice of Jesus. The first is the word "preach." We in "church world" have often assumed that "preaching" equals "give a sermon in church," and so some of us have limited the intended activity here to folks we call "preachers" or "pastors" or "professional Christian leaders" and its timing and place to "the worship hour" on Sunday morning, or maybe to evangelistic crusades and other "extramural" evangelistic modalities (such as radio, television and the internet). But the biblical term behind this word has almost nothing to do with sermons or churches or worship for that matter. The word is "proclaim" or "announce" or "herald the message." It means "get the word out," plain and simple. It's a directive for the whole body of Christ, and primarily in its mission in and to the world.

Which brings us to the second troublesome term: "poor." In some Christian circles, this term often gets translated "lost" or "poor in spirit" (importing Matthew's version of the Sermon on the Mount into Luke's quote from Isaiah), and the whole action thus gets translated something along the lines of "proselytize people who aren't yet Christians like us."

Put the two "church world" readings together, and it looks like televangelists may have the corner on the market. But if we remember these words from their original languages and context in the ministries of Isaiah and Jesus, we get something much different and so much simpler that we all can do it. Make sure that poor people are getting good news from us. We all can do it, but let's think together about how, specifically, we might do it better as the "body of Christ."

"Make sure that poor people are getting good news from us!" What kinds of messages and realities would constitute "good news" for poor people? It's not just food and clothing pantries, or places where folks can get financial help for past due bills, although all of these are indispensable. In my experience in working with community service, the top two pieces of good news poor folks could receive would be about access and connections.

"Access" means jobs that can help them and their families get out of poverty, safe, reliable child care, medical care, and legal help that actually helps, and schools that help their kids perform well. Every single one of these is a real challenge for poor people in the United States.

"Connections" means real, personal relationships with people who are not stuck in poverty and who will stick with them as close or closer than those who are.

Programs that help provide access are a start -- although, frankly, what we need at a community level in most places are not more programs, but better resourcing for and coordination among existing ones.

But programs are not enough. It is ultimately personal connections that see people through and beyond poverty for themselves and their families. If we're serious about being sure that people are hearing good news from us, we'll find ways not only to advocate for social change and fund and improve programs, but also to be personally involved and connected reliably and over time with the lives of people who are poor.

But as we seek those personal relationships, we must be diligent not to do what so many "program solutions" do -- reinforce what those who are poor do not have or cannot do. I don't know of anyone who finds a recitation of personal limitations and deficits to be good news or empowering in any way. Yet that is exactly what so many programs require. People have to prove in writing that they're deeply lacking before any help is given at all.

We have better news -- much better news. God draws near to the poor and blesses them abundantly. We mustn't only say that to folks -- that's no better than to say, "Be warmed and filled." Instead we can come with appreciative questions that help others realize, name, and build on the abundant blessing, the deep giftedness, they have received. And we can believe in these people and their gifts because we have first believed the good news that Jesus proclaimed in the very first beatitude: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."

To proclaim release to the captives.
In the original context of this prophecy in Isaiah, the captives were the people of Judah taken from their homeland and forced into exile in Babylon. "Release to the captives" meant something palpable -- a homecoming for exiles and prisoners of war. Isaiah's prophecy was fulfilled in his day when Cyrus, the leader of the conquering Persian Empire, made it possible for many to return to their homeland. In the time of Jesus, many in Judea continued to experience their entire nation being in captivity to the Roman government, and before that to the Greeks, Seleucids and Persians. When Jesus declared that this prophecy is now fulfilled in their hearing, while some may have interpreted it broadly to mean deliverance from spiritual or other forms of captivity, others may have been looking to Jesus as the Cyrus for that day.

But the message of Jesus about deliverance from captivity was not about earthly political regime change. The signs Jesus pointed to for God's deliverance were signs of a Lebanese woman being provided for in the midst of famine, and a Syrian army commander being healed from leprosy, both through Jewish prophets. In this context, deliverance from captivity appears to be much more about intentional initiatives to love and care for enemies -- much like the prophet Jeremiah's admonition to work for the welfare of the Babylonian cities in which the exiles of Judah would find themselves. If enemies become the object of love and care, captivity loses its power.

In his book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, Bishop William Willimon describes a conversation he had with students at Duke University about what a Christian response toward the people of Libya might have been at the time that President Reagan decided to bomb Muamar al Q'adafi's palace. He wrote:

"A Christian response might be that tomorrow morning the United Methodist Church announces that it is sending a thousand missionaries to Libya. We have discovered that it is a fertile field for the gospel. We know how to send missionaries. Here is at least a traditional Christian response."

"You can't do that," said my adversary.

"Why?" I asked. "You tell me why."

"Because it's illegal to travel in Libya. President Reagan will not give you a visa to go there."

"No! That's not right," I said. "I'll admit that we can't go to Libya, but not because of President Reagan. We can't go there because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold. But we once did."

(From Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989, p. 48).

How, then, practically might we embody what we pray at Eucharist, become the body of Christ that is bold enough to proclaim release to the captives? Certainly ministries of compassion to prisoners of all sorts are in view, as Wesley rightly required of the leadership in the Methodist Societies. But even more to the point will be for us, as congregations and as Christian denominations and systems, to begin to be clear about who our enemies are and offer multiple paths for ensuring that we are extending intentional care toward them. Currently, apart from groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams, I know of few examples of this kind of thinking or practice.

And recovery of sight to the blind(ed):
In the Septuagint version of Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke, the Greek text reads "to those who are blind the ability to see again." The Hebrew refers to "opening for the bound," which has often been translated "setting prisoners free," which would be in parallel with the previous line, simply adding prisoners to captives (political, military) as those for whom God is declaring new freedom. Threading between these two traditions -- Greek and Hebrew -- an alternate reading emerges: "opening the eyes of the blinded," that is, those who were made blind through bondage.

Certainly, ministries of healing for literal blindness, a regular part of Jesus' own ministry, are part of what is intended here. But if the "threaded" reading I'm proposing is on track, another part of the embodiment of this text through the church will be that of helping the church and the world name the ways we live in blindness and the ways we have been blinded and seeking to overcome the blindness we discover. There are many forces that blind us to our calling to see the world through the lenses of God's kingdom -- materialism, racism, consumerism, the list goes on. We might consider adding a new phrase to our prayer of confession where we say "we have not heard the cry of the needy" now to read "we have not seen the plight or heard the cry of the needy."

But if we are careful what we pray, we will do more than modify our prayers. We will be intentional about keeping the situation of the needy always before us and before the world -- not the way the news media do, by "leading" with the "bleeding," which only overwhelms and numbs, but by learning and educating ourselves and those around us about their lives and what keeps them (and us!) so blind and in such bondage that we remain unaware of, ignore, prevent, or even block pathways to improving their situation. This is the necessary work of learning, consciousness raising and advocacy that augments the work of programs and personal relationships described earlier, so that the voice of the needy is no longer only one among a thousand other voices and agendas that keep their voices unheard and their situation unseen.

To set at liberty those who are oppressed.
This line, inserted from Isaiah 58, refers to persons who have been beaten down, shattered by society. People whose lives have been broken in such ways need more than an exit sign from the places of their brokenness. They need people who can help them remember or learn how to live free from the cycles of violence, trauma and pain they have experienced. Folks who work closely with victims of domestic violence indicate that the average number of stays in a shelter before finally leaving a violent home is seven. Folks who are aware of the prison system will tell you that recidivism -- a reoffense that lands people back in prison -- is more likely than not within the first year of release for people who have spent two years or more in prison. Persons returning from wars or any other extended, traumatic experience often have great difficulty learning how to live in "normal" life. What are we doing in our congregations, or as ministries of multiple congregations, to ensure that persons who are beaten down are not only free from their immediate situation of terror, but can learn to experience again what a life "in freedom" looks and feels like?

And to announce that the time had come when you would save your people.
This is a paraphrase of the biblical way of talking about the year of Jubilee -- the commandment that once every 50 years all land would revert to its former holders, all debts would be canceled, and all slaves would be set free. It was to be a "reboot" for the economic and social order. When Isaiah announced it as part of God's plan to restore the exiles to their homeland, this language made literal sense. In the day of Jesus, it may have been heard as another indication that God was about to overthrow the Roman overlordship and restore Judea to its own governance and economy.

But for the ministry of Jesus, as we find it in Luke's gospel, the "reboot" would involve a new people, his disciples, who would be trained in seeing, living, and helping others experience the signs of God's "reboot," God's kingdom, active and working in the world. Such disciples would be (and were!) convinced that in and through Jesus God was out to bring salvation in all sorts of ways to all sorts of persons in all people groups on the planet. The communal sharing or mutual aid of early Christians, practices which continued long beyond the time recorded in the book of Acts, were one important indicator of the "restart" at work. In the early churches, the economic order was no longer to be based on the individual economic or social status of each member, but was understood as a commonwealth that ensured that all persons in the community had what was needed.

Are you as a disciple committed to being part of God's "reboot?" Do you believe, and do you live on the basis that God in Jesus and through his body, the church, is out to bring salvation to all in countless ways? Is your congregation? What signs of "reboot" are alive in your congregation? in your community?

He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.
Here is a brief statement of the practices of Jesus that revealed the kingdom of God at work most practically and most profoundly. Rather than staying away from or quarantining sick folks, Jesus drew near to them, attracted them, and extended them healing. Jesus himself made sure hungry folks were getting fed, even against the complaints of his own disciples that this simply could not be done. And most scandalous of all in his day, he ate with people that no self-respecting holy person would go near -- a sign of solidarity with folks that the "righteous" would usually shun. It is no accident that Christians invented the hospital and the profession of nursing, or that so many churches invest time and effort into food pantries and other efforts to feed the hungry. Perhaps the larger challenge of these three is whether and on what terms we will embody the kingdom by "eating with sinners."

Whew! What a set of challenges we commit ourselves to when we're careful what we pray at Holy Communion! Surely, for all kinds of reasons, we cannot do all that, can we?

If we're careful what we pray, we admit we can't do it all. But we also commit to do everything we can. And in what is God's and what is ours to do, we ask the Spirit to remake us through this sacrament into the body of Christ, one with him in ministry to the whole world. It is the goodness of our Lord Jesus that in feeding us at Table, he makes us one with him, and sends us into the world with everything we need, far more than we can ask or imagine, to embody him anew wherever we are.

From the Table, to the world . . . and back again. This is the rhythm of our life, and our prayer. It is why we need constant communion. But it is also why we can do no less than offer our praise and thanksgiving at Table with faith, and love, and grateful joy.