Given at Trinity Church/Iglesia de la Trinidad, Los Angeles, September 28, 2003
In our series on the Baptismal promises, today's topic is "Will you continue in the Apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers." We thought that rather than just talking about it in a sermon, it might be better just to go ahead and do it, interspersing our celebration with some commentary that some, at least, might find helpful. I won't have the use of the microphone for most of this, so people in the back might want to come up closer, just for today.
In the year 304 a congregation of 49 Christians were arrested for doing pretty much what we are about to do this morning. We have their testimony in the Acts of the Martyrs:
"Did you, contrary to the orders of the emperor, arrange for these persons to hold an assembly?"
"Certainly, we celebrated the Eucharist," was the answer.
"Because the Eucharist cannot be abandoned . . . "Don't you know that a Christian is constituted by the Eucharist and the Eucharist by a Christian? Neither avails without the other. We celebrated our assembly right gloriously."
For these martyrs, what made one a Christian was not that they all had the same opinions about everything under the sun, but that they continued steadfast in the apostles' teaching and communion -- the Greek word is stronger than what we think of as "fellowship" -- in the breaking of bread and the prayers.
And that, too, was what bothered the authorities. Their very koinonia -- the way they came together into a loving and sharing community -- was seen as a threat to the established order, and no doubt it was. They practiced a whole new way of living together in the world.
Listen, for instance, to what St. John Chrysostom says of the opening hymn, during which our priest and other ministers take their place among us:
"As soon as the singing begins, all the voices are united and gathered into a harmonious canticle. Young and old, rich and poor, men and women, slaves and free, will sing the same melody . . . together we form one choir. There are no longer slaves, free, rich, poor, master, nor servant. The inequality which exists in the world has been pushed aside, forming a single choir with equal voices, earth imitating heaven."
The Celebrant, or more accurately, the Bishop or Priest who presides -- we are all of us "celebrants" -- calls the assembly together as we sing the Opening Acclamation. Singing, by the way, is not something "extra" we add to the liturgy -- it's part of our worship itself. "The one who sings prays twice," Saint Augustine says, and our forebears called a mass without music a "missa privata" -- a deprived mass. The liturgy must be beautiful -- as beautiful as we can make it -- not to entertain or delight us, but because God is beautiful, God's creation is beautiful, and God's Kingdom is beautiful. Join heartily in the singing and the responses; you're God's people and you're beautiful, too.
[COLLECT FOR PURITY]
The entrance rite concludes with the Collect of the Day, a prayer sung or spoken by the Presider. It "collects" or "sums up" the preparatory prayers of the whole assembly. Here, as throughout the celebration, the Priest is not praying instead of us, but rather with us, acting as spokesperson for the whole congregation.
[COLLECT OF THE DAY]
The readings we are about to hear are old family stories, retold to refresh our sense of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Their purpose is not so much education as it is community building, reinforcing the ties that bind us together and reminding us of our peculiar calling. In them we look not for bits of information, still less for rules with which to beat up on each other, but for the loving presence of God who has called, and continues to call, our family into being.
The psalm that follows the first reading is an integral part of the liturgy, a meditation on the reading we have just heard. Listen to the verses and join in in the antiphon. It helps the reading "sink in" to our minds and hearts.
Since at least as early as the third century, the singing of "Alleluia" has preceded the reading of the Gospel. It is, some think, a survival of spontaneous shouts of "Alleluia" that greeted the appearance of the Gospel Book in the earliest liturgies. It is a song of expectation, a shout of praise that swells up from the whole assembly, heightening our joyful anticipation. May Christ be in our minds, lips, and heart, as we proclaim the Good News to the poor.
Normally, the Gospel proclamation continues in a sermon. In the ancient Church the sermons (and there might be several) were primarily a means of stirring up the devotion of the congregation, enhancing and encouraging their participation in the liturgy itself. But we're trying to do that in a different way this morning, so you're spared.
Our community's response to the Gospel Proclamation and to the whole Liturgy of the Word is The Nicene Creed or "Nicene Symbol". Note that the Creed does not say. "It is my opinion that . . ." "We believe" here carries the deeper meaning "We put our trust in one God", and, as people cannot put their trust in vague abstractions -- or at least I can't --, we go on to name the triune God to whom the Christian community has always looked for strength in their struggles. Take courage; this God has overcome the world.
In the Prayers of the People the Christian assembly makes intercession before God for the needs of the whole world. We do not pray to give God instructions -- God knows our needs before we ask -- nor, as John Chrysostom reminds us, do we ask God for frivolous things, like "kingdoms, and glory, and to get the better of enemies, and abundance of wealth." Rather we simply lift up the church and the world to God, entrusting them to God's gracious mercy. This is a priestly ministry which belongs to all of us by Baptism, and so these prayers are sometimes called "The Prayers of the Faithful", of the Baptized. The leader, be it noted, merely asks our prayers for various objects. We do the praying.
[PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE]
The Didache, sometimes called "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles", is a document from the first half of the second century. It instructs Christians as follows:
"On the Lord's Day assemble together and break bread and give thanks . . . if anyone has a quarrel with a friend, let them not join your assembly until they are reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled. For this is the sacrifice spoken of by the Lord: 'In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice.'"
Today we act this out through a general confession, absolution, and the exchange of the peace. For most of the Church's history, however, there was no general confession and absolution at the Eucharist. Howard Galley notes that in ancient liturgies "The sign of reconciliation with God and one's brothers and sisters was . . . the exchange of the peace . . . an unwillingness to exchange with any of the faithful assembled was considered to disqualify one from participation in the eucharistic sacrifice and from receiving communion. . . All of this was understood as a part of the people's priestly ministry of reconciliation, focused in the liturgy and lived out day by day."
Our reconciliation, if it is to be genuine, will go beyond merely wishing each other well. It will be lived out day by day in concrete ways and it will include taking a hard look at all our relationships with other human beings, including those not-always-obvious relationships we have by virtue of our participation in the political and economic arrangements that prevail outside these walls. Are they just? Are they loving? Do they make for peace?
As early as the Second Century the Offertory Procession -- the carrying up to the altar of the people's gifts of bread and wine -- was a regular part of the Eucharist. It was particularly impressive (and lengthy) in the city of Rome. There the entire congregation would line up to bring to the altar the fruits of their life and labor in the world. From these gifts, the deacons would select the loaves of bread and jugs of wine to be used at the Eucharist. The rest would be distributed among the city's poor.
Why? "Everything belongs to God," St. Ambrose says, "It is God, therefore, who gives all things, and God who orders them to be shared with those who need them."
God gives. We give back. This, too, is the meaning of our own gifts of bread and wine, which will be returned to God in the Great Thanksgiving that follows. As our representatives carry them to the altar, they are, in a sense, carrying us along with them. We are giving ourselves back to God -- all that we have, all that we have done, all that we are. "There you are on the table. There you are in the chalice." (St Augustine)
The Eucharist is at once a remembrance of Christ's life and death, a participation here and now in his Resurrection, and a foretaste of the Kingdom or Divine Commonwealth yet to come. Be conscious of these three themes as we pray together over the bread and the cup.
We do pray together over the gifts. Even though most of the Eucharistic Prayer is said by the presiding priest alone, it is said in the name of, and as the prayer of, the whole assembly. We are all active participants, concelebrants, of the one Sacrifice of Christ.
[THE GREAT THANKSGIVING]
We have sung with one voice the Great Amen, ratifying and making our own the words spoken by our Priest. Now we prepare to share the gifts over which we have given thanks. We do not receive these gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink, but as "the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the New Covenant," the Bread that gives life and the Wine that gladdens our hearts. "We beg you", prays an ancient Eucharistic Prayer, "make us truly alive."
[THE GIFTS OF GOD]
Listen to St. John Chrysostom: "Week by week you come to the Lord's table to receive bread and wine. What do these things mean to you? . . . At the Lord's table we offer our labor to God, dedicating ourselves anew to his service. Then the bread and the wine are distributed equally to every member of the congregation; the poor receive the same amount as the rich. . . [The Eucharist] is also a meal at which everyone has an equal place at the table."
The dismissal that ends our Eucharist is an urgent, insistent sending forth, a summons to continue the liturgy's work of transformation in the world around us. This is why it is always the last thing sung or said. The love of Christ urges us on until the all the earth shall be filled with the goodness, grace, and beauty of God we have glimpsed in our celebration, and all of human life a festive banquet at which everyone has a place at the table.
-- Ted Mellor