The Eucharist: Spirit and Life

It is, without a doubt, the church dedication service to end all church dedication services, a festival for celebrating a new worship building like none other. For generations the ark of God has gone about in a tabernacle, in a tent that moved with the people of God, the people of Israel. And now, Solomon, king of Israel, stands before his people at the altar of a new house for God, one that will not move. The image of God as a pilgrim with a journeying people that the ark and the tabernacle presented is being replaced by a new vision: of God resting with God’s people and of those people journeying in pilgrimage to the place God dwells.

Solomon has accomplished what no one before him could do. David tried to build God a house, but his plans were foiled by no less than the Lord himself. Now there is peace in the land, and God has given Solomon permission to do what was forbidden to King David. Solomon responds with plans for a temple that takes seven years to build, and when the building is complete, he dedicates the new house with seven days full of prayers and countless sacrifices and joy among the Israelites. How lovely, indeed, is your dwelling place, o Lord of hosts!

This great prayer of dedication Solomon offers in 1 Kings 8 is the capstone of the festivities. It is a tremendous prayer, long and bold and hitting all the right notes. You have to think that this prayer marked one of the greatest temptations of Solomon’s young life. He has accomplished so much, he is wise beyond his years, and he has built a beautiful temple for the Lord God. Does he now control this God? Can Solomon speak the right words at the right time and expect that God will just do what he wants? Has Solomon become Solomon the Wise, the great magician who can summon the great and powerful Lord God?

The same temptation faces us each week when we celebrate Eucharist. We pray the Great Thanksgiving, a prayer to match Solomon’s in its boldness, if not its length, and at the height of that prayer we implore God, “Pour out your Holy Spirit on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.” These words are powerful, and their request is daring. And the temptation to believe we have got something on God, that these right words at the right time in the right place can summon God at our will, is very strong. The temptation is to believe that Eucharist involves some great magic, that we are Christ’s magicians, and that as your pastor I am the wizard-in-chief of our little gathering.

We would never say it like that, of course. We live in a rational world these days, supposedly, and the only thing more publicly embarrassing than having faith is believing in magic. But words are like that. Words are mysterious and can do so much, for good or ill. We may not call it magic, but we all go around thinking, “I just need to say the right words, and everything will change, or everything will be okay, or I’ll finally be able to escape this unbearable situation.” Words of passion, of love, of persuasion. We are magicians with our words. Say the right thing to your crush, and he’ll fall in love with you. Get in a good word with your boss, and that promotion will come through, or you’ll finally see that raise you need. Tell your mom and dad how much this new opportunity means to you, and they’ll see things your way for the first time.

Of course, the truth is, our words fail more often than they succeed. We spend days or even weeks figuring out just how to say what we want to say, and before we can even get the words out of our mouths, they already sound all wrong. Our impassioned pleas sound hollow, even to our own ears. We say one thing, but the person we’re talking to hears something completely different. Or worse still, we use the power of our words to manipulate others rather than to connect to them authentically. If we are word wizards, we certainly are not ace students at Hogwarts.

Whatever power our words may have over others, and however well or poorly we use that power, we fool ourselves to no end if we think our words have power over God. Solomon prays, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” Simon Peter says to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life.” There is no other place to turn, and there is no chance of containing the Living God in anything we build, not even the powerful structures of our most important words.

The line between faithful prayers that believe God will listen and respond and magical prayers that demand God act our way is thinner than the finest thread. And I think many of us toe that line far more often than we would care to admit. Words like “spirit” and “come” and “heal” and “do” and “make” can trick us into thinking that we are directing some kind of force or power toward accomplishing our desired goals. We might even find ourselves thinking that something we really want hasn’t happened because we haven’t yet said “the magic words” or because we haven’t scrounged up just enough faith to make our words powerful and effective. And the difference between weak and powerful words, effective and ineffective words, can be the difference between life and death.

Which is why it can be quite scary to confront the reality that our words have no power over God. If our words are powerless before God, then what assurances do we have? What certainties can we possibly hold on to? Are we really at the mercy of the whims of an Almighty God?

Yes, we really are. And if the ways of God were really anything like our human ways, that would be the same thing as saying that our lives are ruled by chance and disinterested fate. One day God might loving and kind, the next harsh and cruel. One day God might deign to listen to our cries, and the next God might ignore them out of pure spite. After all, that’s what we human beings to each other do all the time.

But, thanks be to God, God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. And the whims of the True and Living God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are more steadfast than the surest promises and the strongest oaths of the most faithful creatures. God’s Word is so certain, so unchanging, so eternal, that God’s Word can become flesh, changing, fading, deteriorating, aging, dying human flesh and still be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And God’s Spirit can blow where the Spirit will blow and still be the ever-faithful, ever-Holy Spirit.

Which brings us back to the Eucharist. When we pray, “Pour out your Holy Spirit on these gifts of bread and wine,” we are not wielding unspeakable power, or directing divine energy toward a loaf of bread and a cup of juice. We are instead saying, “Nothing we can say or do, God, can make this meal anything more than a symbol, and a symbol of our own foolishness, at that, unless you act. Unless your Holy Spirit shows up here, today, in this place, nothing will happen, we will not be fed with the spiritual food we desperately need, and nobody will be transformed.” With this prayer, we submit our powerless words to God, and we submit ourselves to the whims of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And it is precisely for that reason that we can be sure beyond all doubt that God will answer our prayers. God will make this bread the body of Christ for us; God will make this cup the blood of Christ for us; and God will make us into the body of Christ, redeemed by Christ’s blood. Do not be like those disciples who heard Christ’s teaching and fled its difficulty. Learn instead to say with Peter, “Alleluia, Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia! Alleuia!”

And this table, where our impoverished words yield to the powerful Word of God and our broken spirits submit to the Holy Spirit of God, this table is the beginning of eternal life, life that is lived by the power of God over which we have no power, and not by the power of our efforts or energies or persistence. Eternal life is not just some far-off gift waiting for us when we die. It begins now, here, in this life, as the path of discipleship Jesus calls us to follow. Life, Word, discipleship, Spirit, weakness, power: all these things and more come together in the Eucharist. Thanks be to God!

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