For this liturgy marking the 10th anniversary of the formal establishment of saint benedict’s table as a congregation of the Anglican Diocese of Rupert’s Land, I have selected two stories to get us thinking about meals and tables and the sharing of bread and wine in communion. Strictly speaking, there is not a table in sight in either of these stories, nor is there any mention of wine. In the story from the Gospel according to John, it is bread and fish shared around a little charcoal fire on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. In the story from the Acts of the Apostles, it is bread that Paul takes, blesses, breaks, and eats, and he does it in the presence of his captors, on a ship caught in the midst of a fierce storm.
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But make no mistake: both stories resonate with notes first sounded when Jesus sat with his disciples on the night of his arrest to share with them a Passover meal, calling the bread his body and the wine his blood, and telling them to “do this in memory of me.”
The story from John has about it an almost homey poignancy, with its picture of this little group of disciples looking up from their fishing boat to see this figure on the beach who calls out to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” No, no fish at all, and it is already daybreak. “He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some,’” and yes, they certainly do… more fish than they can manage. “It is the Lord!” And with that recognition, there’s Simon Peter leaping into the water to swim to the beach, leaving the others to row the boat to shore, hauling their net full of fish behind them.
Sitting by his charcoal fire, Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” I love that. The resurrected Christ and the one of whom Paul will write, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), quietly cooking breakfast for friends who only weeks before had fled in fear at his hour of greatest need. “And Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.” Not bread and wine, but bread and fish. Not shared in the context of a ritual Passover meal, but on a beach around a fire. But just as two other disciples had sat down for a meal with a stranger they’d met on the road to Emmaus and suddenly realized that Jesus “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread,” (Luke 24:35) here in being served this breakfast “they knew it was the Lord.”
And then there’s this story from Acts. As Luke narrates things, Paul is a prisoner of the Roman authorities, and is being transported to Rome to stand trial. The ship has set out from the island of Crete, but has been caught in a serious Mediterranean storm. Two weeks that storm has raged, leaving the sailors in a state of desperate exhaustion. Two weeks of fighting the storm, and some of them are ready to abandon ship, and try to row to shore in the small boat they had on board. Two weeks.
Just before daybreak, Paul urged all of them to take some food, saying, ‘Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and remaining without food, having eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.’ After he had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves.
The force of Luke’s careful description would not have been lost on his original audience, and with a bit of reflection neither is it lost on us. The sequence of Paul taking bread, blessing, breaking, and eating more or less directly echoes the description of what Jesus does at the Last Supper. Here the prisoner Paul stands in the midst of his captors and offers them hope and courage in this action of taking, blessing, breaking, and eating bread. Did he share some of that bread with those closest to him? I find it a bit difficult to imagine Paul not offering pieces of his own bread to those around him, particularly when it is clearly intended to be for them a sign not simply of courage but also of their ultimate safety in the presence of the One in whose name the bread is blessed. One way or the other, Luke tells us, “all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves.”
Again, there is no mention of wine here, and it is anything but a formal ritual meal. Aside from Luke who is traveling with Paul, none of the others on board would have named themselves as Christian. And yet in this action, they are all of them calmed and strengthened. Though only Paul and Luke could name it, the living Jesus was present with all of them in the breaking of the bread.
I believe that such stories are meant to enlarge our imaginations, and to speak to us of the boundless nature of the table that Christ has set before the world. For two thousand years the church has enacted that sacramentally in the Eucharist—from the house church gatherings of the early church through the highly formalized practices of established churches, to the array of expressions found in our own day, to this table, which we will again set with bread and wine tonight. It is good and right to do this again and again and again, but we must do it with imaginations that send us out in search of all the other ways—all the other tables, so to speak—in which Christ continues to make himself known.
Ten years. On the first Sunday of October 2004, there were fifty-five of us here, and tonight we are over 200. We’ve celebrated twenty-nine baptisms—over half of them of adults—and born witness as fifteen others laid hold of their faith through the rite of confirmation or in a reaffirmation of an earlier baptism. We’ve celebrated thirty-five weddings, with three more on the near horizon. We’ve marked five funerals together, four of them tragic deaths of people who died far too young. Yet these numbers are not the important thing.
We’ve released five CDs, and with tonight’s release of Become What You Receive, we’ve now published five books. We were commissioned by the Anglican Church of Canada to produce a series of six podcasts for the season of Advent, which were heard across Canada and around the Anglican communion. Yet all of those recordings and publications are not the most important thing.
We’ve raised up four people to ordained ministry within the Anglican Church of Canada—Helen Kennedy, Vincent Solomon, Allison Chubb, and Helen Holbrook—and Andrew Colman is now well into his first term of theological studies at Trinity College in Toronto, exploring and testing a vocation to the priesthood. Many, many others in our community are living out their faith and exercising ministry in all kinds of other contexts; in the worlds of chaplaincy, education, health care, and social work, but also in food and social justice, or on the front-lines of work with the poor and disenfranchised. And then there are those who have worked in the worlds of law, finance, media, music, and business; in the hospitality and service industries, or in the trades, and who and have done that work with integrity… Yet remarkable as this all is, it too is not the most important thing.
I don’t how many musicians have sat in that circle over the years, but I suspect it numbers close to fifty. And some of those musicians have written new music for worship, and some of that music has migrated into other congregations across the country. We’ve enjoyed the gifts of other artists—the seasonal liturgy cards, the pottery vessels, the prints of the Stations of the Cross we use in Lent, the mosaic pieces, and all of the wonderful drawings and paintings and photographs that form a part of our various books and which illuminate our website. Yet all of that music and creativity and beauty is not the most important thing.
Every year we have tens of thousands of hits on our website, and our podcasts are picked up from all over the continent. I once received a message from a Lutheran pastor from the States, saying that though he’d burned out in his last parish and become quite disillusioned with ministry, his regular visits to our website were helping him to lift his head again, and to return to the church. Yet even that is not the most important thing.
Here’s the important thing; the thing that stands at our core. Week in and week out, we break bread and share the cup, and open ourselves to the presence of the living Christ. Accompanied by the proclamation of the Word and the offering of song and prayer, that’s what we’ve done. Everything else has flowed from that one faithful act, repeated again and again, Sunday after Sunday. Everything has flowed from that, and everything else we do flows back to that central thing. We’re marking ten years this evening, but for a year and a half before we were formally established there was a circle of people who did that together; a very small circle of just nine of us the very first time. Nine of us in a vacated little church building on Valour Road, breaking bread and sharing the cup, knowing it as the action that would set us on our way together.
My God always bless us with imaginations to see in this central action our true identity and our deepest calling. “Behold what you are”—the body of Christ; his disciples and friends and followers—“become (even more deeply) what you receive”—a people shaped at his table, and readied to extend his radically gracious hospitality wherever he might lead us.
I can think of no better way to bring this sermon to a completion than to have us sing a song that Jenny Moore left with us when she moved to the U.K. back in 2007. It is such an extraordinary reminder of the power of what it means to “pass the cup around.”
Pass the cup around
I can hardly speak a word,
And I am lost;
Pass the bread around
I cannot contain my self,
The night is growing longer;
Every time I come back to this table
Every time I come back to this table
I might believe…
We might believe…
We long to feast…