It’s has been a long spring season as we turn the corner to the summer months. The last 90 days have been incredibly different for us as a church, and we have shifted how we practice community time and again as we have attempted to weather the Coronavirus pandemic that is gripping the world right now. We began those shifts around March 15 of this year. On Sunday, we will mark a full 90 days of worshipping by remote means, of gathering for formation via Zoom, and of finding fellowship and friendship primarily through the mediation of technology. The pandemic has challenged us to remain as nimble as possible as a church, and it has challenged us to continue seeking communion across different forms of technology.
At the beginning of our stay-at-home worship experiment, our parish used a portion of the rite for Holy Eucharist that most of us are quite familiar with. Called ante-communion, the portion of our service is one option for worship when we are not having Holy Eucharist. The other option that is available is, of course, The Daily Office. For the last 90 days, we have used this service as our primary form of worship on Sunday mornings, and until this week, we have offered daily prayer services via Facebook Live at the start and close of the day.
Towards the end of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul includes a section that is dedicated to teaching about the ways of living for Christian communities. In this part of the letter, St. Paul is anxious to encourage the churches in Rome in the ways of living out the Gospel in their lives. He begins that section with, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1 NRSV) St. Paul wants the people in the ekklesias (the Greek word for church) of Rome to understand that the call in the Christian life is to be embodiments of the faith that they profess in prayer and worship. He is encouraging them to become sacramental in their lives – to live out the grace received in the sacraments. The sacraments are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” St. Paul is urging the people in the ekklesias of Rome to be outward signs of the grace available in the sacramental life of the Church.
When we present ourselves as a living sacrifice, we are placing our whole being on the altar and presenting the self as part of what is being offered up in our prayers. In the more traditional language rites for Holy Eucharist, one of the prayers includes a paragraph that states this as part of what is being offered on the table of Holy Communion.
“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”Book of Common Prayer, p. 336
In this moment (and in every prayer of Holy Eucharist whether it is explicit or implicit), we are asking God to take us and to help us become the very thing that we consume: the body and blood of Christ. Through our brokenness and our stumbles in life, we are asking God to help us become the living sacrifice that St. Paul urges of the churches in Rome, and we are asking God to send us out into the world as that living sacrifice. Our prayers are not simply that we receive grace in the creatures of bread and wine but also that we become bearers of that same grace. Our prayer is an offering of the self on the altar in order that we can be returned to the world as bearers of God’s grace, and our prayer is that our lives are shaped by the very prayers we say on almost any given Sunday.
As we turn a corner as a parish (the 90 day mark of worshipping apart from each other), it is also a time to recognize that we are not going to be going back to in-person worship in the immediate future. It is a time for us to reconsider how we are worshipping in so far as it relates to the prayers that we are using on Sunday morning. Thus, we are going to begin offering what is called spiritual communion on Sunday mornings as our main form of worship. We will have the consecrated bread and wine on the altar, and we will present ourselves to God as part of the offering that is being made each Sunday morning. We will pray that God breaks us open to become a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” (Rom. 12:1a NRSV)
The important part of this prayer is going to come after our worship is ended. It is then that we have the opportunity to take what God has returned to us (the self) and to offer it to the world as bearers of God’s love and grace. St. Paul urges the Romans to do much the same in the next section of Romans 12.
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”Romans 12:9-18 NRSV
We, like the members of the churches in Rome, are called to allow our love to be genuine. We are called to share that love with all that we encounter – whether that it is in person or across the screens of a Zoom meeting. We are called to do the work that is necessary for us to be faithful stewards of God’s grace and to share that grace just as liberally as it is shared with us. God does not hold back an ounce of God’s grace, and we are called to mimic that behavior! The love that we share with perfect strangers and with good friends is to be the same love, and it is to be shared in the same manner that God shares God’s love with us.
In this moment of two pandemics, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry offered in remarks a few weeks ago, it can be difficult to find ways to exercise our faith and to find ways of presenting ourselves as living sacrifices that are holy and acceptable to God. Here, I would like to encourage everyone to join one of our ministry councils. The Invite Council, the Connect Council, and the Serve Council are meeting regularly and are exploring new ministries to our neighborhood, new ministries of fellowship and friendship, and new ways of creating invitation for the members of our parish. The ministry councils are actively seeking ways to create pathways for us to live out our faith, and we each have an opportunity to walk with God in and through these ministries. If you have an idea for a ministry council (and you are willing to help lead your ministry idea), please show up for the council meeting and share it with others that are working on similar ministries.
The moment of two pandemics (one of viral origin and one of racial disparity) is an incredibly difficult moment in our country, but it is not a moment for the church to recede into the background. Instead, we are being urged forward by Christ, and we are called to identify with the marginalized first and foremost. As we do that, we care for each other and for the world. We share God’s love with the world as God breaks us open to be signs of God’s grace and love out in the world.