The Beloved Community
Pour our your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be the body and blood of Jesus 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.
These words, taken from the last part of the Eucharistic prayer, were heard by millions, if not more than a billion, people, yesterday, as churches across the globe celebrated World Communion Sunday. These words from part of the prayer called the epiclesis. The epiclesis is that portion of the prayer where the Holy Spirit is invited down upon the elements. This mixing repeats a regular movement of faith where the Divine and the material meet to produce something new, something transformed and transformative.
In the creation stories of the Hebrew scriptures, God is said to have knelt down and breathed into—literally, inspiring—mud by a river bank, making “man a living soul” as the King James Version so poetically describes it. In the beginning of the gospel accounts, the Holy Spirit is said to be “visited upon Mary,” again, merging divine with material to incarnate the Second Person of the Trinity. At Pentecost, in an encore of the creation and incarnation stories, the disciples gather in an upper room, locking the world out, only to be intruded upon by the Holy Spirit, freeing them as the re-constituted body of Christ. On each occasion, God’s Spirit plus created substance unite to become God’s body, God’s presence on earth.
In the Eucharistic prayer, there is much debate over “real” presence. For centuries, intra-Christian disputes have raged as to the substantive or symbolic nature of God’s presence found in the bread and wine. (By the way, the United Methodist position is that Christ’s presence is real but understood to be so “mysteriously” not transubstantively or consubstantively or symbolically.) While such debates are interesting as theological exercise, they may distract us from a second and equally “real” incarnation of Christ’s presence understood manifest because of the epicletic prayer.
Note the words from the first part of the prayer: “Pour our your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be the body and blood of Jesus Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ . . . .” In this prayer, not only are there assertions made concerning the “real” presence of Christ found in the elements of bread and wine but, also, in the elements of flesh and blood of our bodies that are understood to constitute Christ’s body. The stuff of the divine, i.e., Holy Spirit, co-mingles with the stuff of the earth, i.e., us, to reprise Christ’s role as body for the whole world.
The social and practical consequences to this claim are significant. As the body of Christ, the people of God called church are not just in the presence of Christ but become Christ for the world. Moreover, this united existence reminds us that we exist as something greater, more complex than simply as individuals. As the old hymn imagines, this incarnation as the community of Christ is but a “foretaste of glory divine.”
As a foretaste, the body incarnated in the Eucharistic prayer is not meant to be descriptive of some heavenly, exclusively future banquet removed from this realm of existence. Such an understanding diminishes the present potency of Christ’s epicletic incarnation. Such a distancing forces the transformative impact of the good news of the Christian story to some distant shore, impotent to affect the present needs of a world ravaged by the inexorable, often violent touch of individualism and personal gain. How would such a delay of God’s impact ever be a faithful interpretation of the good news to the poor and the setting at liberty those who are oppressed that the gospels presume?
On the contrary, the banquet that we are tasting in the Eucharist involves an invited intrusion of the Divine into our present reality, beginning the future immediately, expecting present results that emerge from a people united for God’s liberating, redeeming work. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently embraces this idea of our mutuality as a redemptive, socially transformative act. In that work (responding in part to recalcitrant Methodist clergy . . . mea culpa), King states:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
This single garment of human destiny King calls the Beloved Community. That Beloved Community is a real, achievable society where the needs of persons outweigh needs for more things. That Beloved Community is a community where love for neighbor outweighs the love of self-gain. That Beloved Community is the very same body constituted in the Eucharist as Christ’s body. This body is a community where Christ’s body is not just symbolically hoped for but actively experienced and seen in a public, compassionate people. That Eucharistic body is the “foretaste,” a precursor to what all our communities might become.
This week, a group of students from Young Harris is leaving for a fall break mission trip. The purpose of this trip is to assess the intersection of race and faith and discover how our suppositions about both and the assumed appropriate delay in action by communities of faith had and has dire consequences for our communities and our witness as the body of Christ. We will travel to Asheville, North Carolina to learn about the consequences of presumed “appropriate” delay in active reconciliation and participate in programs seeking to overcome decades of neglect in active reconciliation and the persisting consequences of that neglect. We will strive to make the body a present reality both for a community of the disenfranchised and for us, transforming both in the process. Through God’s inspirational presence, we just might become the living embodiments of God’s good news to the poor (i.e., overcoming our own impoverished understandings of the lingering power and presence of racism) and liberation to the oppressed (i.e., freeing us from our apathetic complacency and reticence to action). May this be, for us, the start of a completely new world. May this new world become the incarnation of a new world communion.
May God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven.
Keep us in your thoughts and prayers. Have a great fall break.