Diocesan Synod Eucharist, 2019 —II Timothy 4:5-13, Luke 4:14-21
One of the parishes of our diocese—and I use that term “parish” both in its commonly-understood generic sense, and in the more technical sense it has recently acquired in our canons—this particular parish, which is trying to find the best way to live out the ideal of one geographic parish with multiple Eucharistic Communities—this parish has adopted as its focus of mission: outreach to the lonely. I find this a rather compelling vision because … well … loneliness is ubiquitous. It’s all around us, and there are probably people gathered in this very congregation this afternoon who are experiencing loneliness on a very profound level. We are more connected than ever, through the various social media that have evolved. Yet we are at the same time more alone than ever, more deprived of regular, meaningful, and sustained human contact than ever before. St Paul himself, the greatest evangelist, theologian, and teacher in the history of Christianity, was not immune to loneliness. When he gets down to mundane practicalities at the end of his second letter to Timothy, his tone is veritably poignant.
Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me.
Loneliness is literally deadly. It expresses itself in violence, depression, and suicide. It manifests itself in family dysfunction and domestic abuse. And all of this is rooted, of course, in our constant mortal enemy, the power of sin and death. We are each one of us for sure created in the very image and likeness of God. Yet, that image and likeness is marred, distorted, by sin, by our propensity to enthrone ourselves, to put ourselves where only God should be. We have erred and strayed from God’s ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, and, as we used to say in earlier versions of the Prayer Book, there is no health in us.
It is not part of God’s plan, though, that we should be lonely. It is not part of God’s plan that we should be depressed or suicidal or self-destructive. So the gospel story is one of redemption from these things. It’s about God’s determination to not let his creation fall victim permanently to the power of sin and death. In the words of Jesus, quoting Isaiah, in this afternoon’s gospel, it’s about release from captivity, recovery of sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor. It’s about Jesus, who is the ultimate sign and sacrament of God coming to his people and setting them free.
One of the significant ways in which Jesus comes to us and sets us free is to offer us companionship—companionship, which is, of course, the antidote to loneliness. Various Christian traditions have different expressions of piety that speak of this companionship. The song What a Friend We Have in Jesus was popular among American evangelicals for many decades, along with the ubiquitous In the Garden, where Jesus “walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own.” Blessedly, these texts have never made deep inroads among Episcopalians, though, judging from some of the requests I’ve gotten while planning funerals, they’re not completely unknown!
But, aside from expressions of piety such as these, there’s a much more profound way in which Jesus becomes our companion. A companion, literally, is one with whom we share a meal. In the middle of “companion” is pan—the Latin root for “bread.” So a companion is someone who breaks bread with us. Eating together is not the most intimate thing that people do with others, but it’s a good way down the road in that direction. You’ve surely noticed how people will do everything they can not to sit down at the same table with a stranger in a crowded cafeteria or food court environment. We like to be choosy about who we eat with. Most of us are inclined to respect other people’s privacy on those occasions, and we hope they respect ours.
But the best, and most mystically wonderful, part of all this is that Jesus doesn’t just become our companion by sitting down and eating with us. He is himself the pan in “companion.” He is the bread. He gives us himself, his own life. We call this the Eucharist—the “good gift,” literally—and it’s what we’re in the middle of at this moment.
It is precisely, then, the companionship we experience at the altar, in the celebration of the Eucharist, that resources our relief from loneliness. Here we dine on the panis angelicus, the bread of angels, the very body to which we have been joined in baptism. In Holy Communion, we experience the depth of both vertical and horizontal intimacy—vertically with God, horizontally with those who gather at the table with us. And as a result of this intimacy, we are enabled to fulfill Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill [our] ministry.” It is not for no reason that our canons now describe the congregations of this diocese as Eucharistic Communities. There are, of course, anomalies. In our present circumstances, it’s not always possible to have a priest at every altar of the diocese on every Lord’s Day, and people have an opportunity to discover that God can still be worshiped in spirit and truth without the Eucharist. The Episcopal Church in this diocese expanded as it did in the century before last because of lay readers leading Morning Prayer on Sundays. But our goal is always to be able to celebrate the Eucharist, because this is the covenanted channel of God’s grace by which we are strengthened and empowered for the mission to which God has called us. A missional community—and we all need to become missional communities—a missional community is, indeed, a eucharistic community, a community that is formed by the rhythm and the discipline of the eucharistic liturgy, and fed regularly by the Body and Blood of our companion, our Lord Jesus Christ.