Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
At the center of Christian worship is, and always has been, a meal – the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the times coalesce: at the moment of communion, salvation history and future hope meet in the holy now. Those who take this meal, who eat this flesh and drink this blood, take in a meal at once like and unlike the meals of their ancestors. It is bread, it is wine, yet it is somehow so much more, for as Christ himself says, it is also eternal life. At the center of Christian worship is this meal, and this meal is the future hope of eternal life.
Yet at the center of common human experience is not now, nor has it ever been, anything remotely like eternal life. For much of the world, human life is short and brutish, ugly and bleak. In a worldwide family fractured over religious, political, economic, and racial lines, humankind’s ecumenism is rooted in our shared experience of death, of suffering, of pain. These are our common heritage, our familiar burden.
And this presents a problem for any who would eat and drink – and truly believe in – this holy meal. For in this meal, a dissonance of what is hoped for is juxtaposed most discordantly with what is. At that moment of unbearable juxtaposition, a question is leveled by our gospel reading: “Do you also wish to go away?” Perhaps – for this teaching is difficult; who can accept it? When the question is asked, the temptation to answer with a heartbroken “Yes,” can at times be quite great.
Allow me to pause for a moment of honesty, catharsis, and explanation. The words of our Lord, that his flesh and blood constitute a holy meal and eternal life, strike me as absurd. The hope within them and my own experience before them, in this moment, are at odds.
You see, my wife has cancer. Her treatments seem to be going well, and she may well end this journey with a cure. Our story is not unique, and I do not delude myself by believing that our lot is the worst of all plights, even in a five mile radius of others around me. But in the mess of these past months, in the ugliness of cancer and chemotherapy, and in the barrenness of faith that I have felt, I’ve sometimes found the temptation to leave to be both unbearable and appealing. Sometimes the yoke is not easy and the burden is not light. The hope of eternal life, of a God who is on my side, is at times elusive, and the absence of such hope these leaves a hollow place within.
And yet, in the midst of trouble, suffering, and tragedy, we are quietly reminded that Christians are never promised certainty, let alone absolute salvation from pain and difficulty. God may hem us in, behind and before, but the stitches are loose and the fabric is permeable. Even the faithful are subject to the suffering that comes with living in a broken world; such is the cost of existence. The difficult challenge is to hold fast to hope despite the brokenness, despite the fear and hurt.
It is telling, then, that the Eucharist exists at this hollow place, the nexus of faithful hope and painful experience. After all, to eat a man’s flesh and to drink his blood, that man first must suffer and die. Of theologies of atonement there is no end, but at bottom is this: set before the bleakness of the world, the brutality of the powers, and the tragedy of unjust suffering, Jesus was faithful unto death, even death on a cross. Through that suffering, painful death, and in this meal of its remembrance, we find the hope of eternal life – even in the midst of tragedy. Especially in the midst of tragedy.
So I circle back to the question Jesus levels at his disciple: “Do you also wish to go away?” If it were asked of me, I’d find myself at first struck silent. Do I also wish to go away? In which direction, and to what ends? I have no life outside of this holy mess called Christianity and the Church; no true friends, no true family, no true light with which to navigate and mitigate the darkness. And so with Peter, I’d be left to answer, “Lord, to whom can I go?” There is no one else to be found at the crossroads of suffering and hope. Alone in the hollow place between the eternal and the painful, one may find Christ and his body, the Church.
In imitation of the image of God’s love for the world, the hope of Christian theology and the shape of Christian ministry is always and forevermore “in touch with, in touch with, in touch with” that which the object of that hope will one day overcome: the suffering, pain, and uncertainty of human experience. At Eucharist, future hope and present pain are juxtaposed, and through courageous faith against all odds, hope remains in the eternal life that is coming, that somehow, through the Spirit and in the Church, has already begun.
My wife has cancer, children are starving in Africa, humans are destroying humans in wars fought ‘round this groaning globe, and your heart may be aching in the emptiness of your own hollow place. Tragedy abounds, and at one time or another, we are all faced by the question, the unbearable temptation: “Do you also wish to go away?”
But to whom can we go? In the hollow place, the nexus of suffering and hope, the only one to be found is the Holy One of God, whose eyes are on the righteous, whose ears are open to their cry.