We are about to celebrate the Eucharist, which in various symbolic ways is a participation in Jesus Christ. Some of these symbols are deeply mysterious. But others are fairly plain. Who is the Jesus in whom we participate? According to our Gospel this morning, Jesus was a healer, a prayer, and a preacher. When we participate in Jesus, taking in and taking on the flesh and blood of Christ, we become healers, prayers, and preachers. Let’s think about this for a bit, and I want to do so in reverse order of those ministries.
What did Jesus preach? It certainly was not himself, except on rare occasions, mentioned mainly in the Gospel of John. The Christian preaching tradition has a long history of preaching a lot about Jesus as a divine member of the holy family, come to Earth to redeem humankind from its merited consignment to the devil. But Jesus himself knew nothing about that. Rather, the usual subject of his preaching was the kingdom of God: we are in that kingdom and are usually unaware of that. If we were to become aware, we would know we were under judgment, as John the Baptist had said. We would know that the kingdom’s content is near-infinite demands of justice and mercy, served up with the force of cosmic love. Jesus’ sermons were about waking up to this fact and amending our lives in accord with the sudden discovery that the worldly values of our ordinary politics are only abstract and often misleading parts of God’s cosmic kingdom. The proper way to address all this, preached Jesus, is to become lovers of everyone, beginning with the formation of small communities of friends. The shock of his “good news” was that everyone, every kind of person, should be included in such communities, including women, who in his time were relegated to the kitchen, poor people, oppressors, gentiles, and even enemies. Jesus’ preaching amounted to proclaiming that a new and holy life is possible when we recognize that we live in God’s world, not just in the plain old world we see day to day.
Now the language of Jesus’ preachment is problematic for us. Hardly anyone lives in kingdoms any more. Even the nations with monarchs also have parliaments that usually are more powerful than kings. We do not acknowledge lords, and we do not own vassals. So when we preach the kingdom of God in Jesus’ name, we use the notion with much greater metaphoric distance than that language would have been heard to have in Jesus’ time. Post-Enlightenment culture puts a far higher premium on universal personal responsibility than did folk religion in antiquity, and we would think it a fault merely to do what some king tells you to do. Furthermore, we know the cosmos to be so vast in extent that the idea of God functioning as a king over human affairs on planet Earth is ludicrous when we think about it. So what does the central metaphor of Jesus’ preaching mean in our time, as we discern its significance as the word of God? I believe it means two things.
First it means that God has created a cosmos that has moral standards within it for creatures such as human beings who are capable of moral behavior. The content of those standards can be discerned, among other places, in the specific preaching of Jesus, in sermons such as the Sermon on the Mount and in many parables. One of the deepest and most difficult parts of being Jesus’ preachers today is discerning just how those standards apply in our current situation. In a nation that puts economic greed before justice, the enforcement of alleged national interest through military invasion before peace, the manipulation of information to support ideologies before the uncovering of truth, and self-deluded self-righteousness before love of enemies, a desperate people calls out for prophetic preaching.
Second, Jesus’ metaphor of the kingdom of God means for us that we stand under judgment for how we live in the world with moral standards. Our identity before God does not consist in our power or wealth as the world’s kingdoms measure it, but in how we affect the world for better or worse in the ways Jesus described as matters of righteousness. This part of preaching leads us to confession and repentance, and another part of Jesus’ preaching shows us God’s mercy and love that saves us from ourselves. As a preacher, Jesus pointed to how we should live in the world before God, and who we are before God. Jesus’ preaching gives us a vision of God incarnate. We need continually to update that preaching for our time.
Jesus also was a prayer. Our text says he went out before dawn to pray in a secluded place, and other texts also describe his efforts to find solitude for prayer, which were often frustrated, as here, by people wanting him to help them. Ironically, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he did want friends to pray with him, they went to sleep on him and he sweated blood in unwanted solitude. Jesus’ prayer-life was the center of his ministry, and he taught its importance and techniques to his friends. The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most remembered prayers in the world. Now I have to say that Dean Olson, our liturgist, is deeply disappointed that there are no records of Jesus leading any Jewish liturgies, except by attendance and preaching. But nearly all Christian liturgies are about Jesus, inspired by him, and organized to lead us to participate in his prayer life; the early Christians made his last supper into the liturgy that we are about to celebrate.
We have a special way of participating in Jesus’ life as a prayer. In our prayers we can imagine Jesus to be with us, to know us, to be our comfort in the dark valleys of our lives, to be our friend in life’s mountain peak experience, and to be our companion in the daily round of ordinary life. Imagining Jesus to know our own hearts fully, we can admit to them ourselves. Imagining Jesus to judge our hearts exactly, we can make confession. Imagining Jesus to love our hearts despite it all, we can love ourselves and one another, despite it all. The spiritual life of prayer leads us, layer by layer, to greater self-knowledge, judgment, and unconditional love. Our Christian traditions in thousands of ways make Jesus accessible to the imaginative power of our spirits.
Jesus, finally, was a healer. The cognates for “healing” in Greek and Latin as well as English have to do with wholeness and salvation. Jesus’ healings had to do with making people whole. Some people are not whole because they are alienated from society; so Jesus healed lepers who had been ostracized. Some people are not whole because they cannot relate to their world; so Jesus healed blind people. Some people are not whole because their own personalities war against themselves; so Jesus healed people possessed by demons, as they thought in those days. All of these conditions, and others that Jesus healed, make those who suffer them unclean and therefore unready to meet God, according to the ancient Israelite religion. So the bottom line of salvation or healing is the wholeness that consists in being at one with God, not alienated, engaged with God, not distant, centered before God, not in self-contradiction.
What does this wholeness or salvation mean in our time? The most influential philosophical tradition in the West, stemming from Aristotle, says that wholeness or salvation means completeness, achieving a kind of total fulfillment; the root meaning of “perfection” means being complete. But this cannot be what Christian wholeness or salvation means, however fortunate such total fulfillment might be. For, the condition of human existence necessarily is fragmentation and ambiguity, not completeness. Look at Jesus: he treated many but not all sick people, he had disciples who could not fully understand his teachings, he attempted vainly to purify the Judaism of his time, he never got around to having a family, and he died too young. He was executed for no crime that he committed. He was an accidental victim in the politics of an imperial power trying to keep the peace in a subjugated people with a puppet government: think of the innocents of Baghdad. Pontius Pilate knew Jesus’ death was undeserved “collateral damage.” The lives of all of us are fragmentary that way. Salvation or wholeness means living with that fragmentariness and ambiguity without losing the capacity to love ourselves, one another, and our Creator who gives us this fragmentary and ambiguous world. With such love, we can accomplish amazing things, perhaps even make our world a bit like the kingdom of God.
I invite you to come to this Eucharist to participate in this healer, prayer, and preacher, Jesus. When you consume the elements, you put a little bit of this Jesus into you with the power to heal you, to lead you to God in prayer, and to open your mind to a vision of God’s holiness. That little bit will grow into great powers. When you consume the elements, you also put yourself into Jesus in his larger identity as the heart and mind of the Church. You will take up his ministry of healing others, his practices of leading people in prayer, his preaching of the kingdom of God. That you become part of the living Christ is perhaps more important than that the healing, praying, preaching Jesus becomes part of you. For the full significance of Jesus is that he places us within the divine life, judged, but also loved and at home. Jesus makes us clean, and presents us to God. We become God’s story, then, not our own story.
If you would be healed, come to this table. If you would come to God in prayer, come to this table. If you would know the truth and speak it, come to this table. If you would love your neighbors by healing them, come to this table. If you would love your neighbors by leading them to God in prayer, come to this table. If you would enlighten them with God’s truth, even a little bit, come to this table. If you would love God with all alienation healed, come to this table. If you would love God with a spiritual union in prayer, come to this table. If you would love God in vision and truth, come to this table. It has been set for us from the beginning.