Sunday, August 16, 2015

Surprising Wine

The Real Presence gives a new meaning to reality...

Proper 15b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Apostle wrote to the Ephesians, Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.

We take a bit of a break this week from the Court History — now that David sleeps with his ancestors and his son Solomon is on the throne; and we’ll return to hear more about Solomon next week. But today I want to turn to Ephesians and the challenging Gospel account concerning the flesh and blood of the Son of Man.

And I do that with reference to — of all things — a Christmas movie, one of my favorites, The Bishop’s Wife. I’ve spoken of it before, so you know it is a real favorite of mine. It dates from the 1950s and I have the DVD, along with Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Alastair Sim’s version of Christmas Carol. Every year (starting with Miracle on 34th Street on Thanksgiving!) Br James and I watch the whole collection.

All of these movies tell of transformation, as so many Christmas movies do. And doesn’t that make sense, given that Christmas is all about the greatest transformation of all, when the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us? And since this hot summer weather we’re experiencing makes thoughts of Christmas and snow and cold welcome, let’s reflect for a moment on this well-beloved, snow-filled movie.

The Bishop’s Wife, as you can guess even if you’ve never seen it, is about an Episcopal bishop and his wife, their friends and acquaintances, and an angel —played by Cary Grant— who comes in answer to the bishop’s prayers, but answers them in unexpected ways. “No spoilers” in case you haven’t seen the film, but I want to mention one minor character, an old professor who lost his job teaching at a college for tangling with the board of trustees who run the place. This grumpy and curmudgeony old professor is a scholar of early Roman history. He is the kind of man who believes in the rational and the provable, and who put away his faith — and most of his joy — when he grew from childhood to the supposed maturity of adulthood. Even though he has lost his position at the college, he longs to work and exercise his mental muscles, so he has been planning to begin work on a great history of Rome — planning for nine years, but has yet to put pen to paper!

When the bishop’s wife and the angel visit one day, the old professor offers them a glass of sherry, and the angel performs a hidden miracle, and transforms the almost empty sherry bottle into a wine-merchant’s nightmare. For as with the widow’s jar of meal and cruse of oil, no matter how many glasses of sherry the old professor pours from the bottle, it never empties! But the truly miraculous thing, the surprising and wonderful thing, about this wine, as the professor later discovers — and tells the bishop when he too suspects that unearthly forces are at work— is this: “This wine never dulls the senses. However much you drink, it never inebriates; it only inspires and invigorates.” So much so that the old man finally sets to work on his history, and even recovers his long-lost faith in God.

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The Apostle writes to the Ephesians, warning them not to get drunk with wine, but to be filled with the Spirit. We all know that too much wine can deaden the senses, and strong drink can ruin ones life — and the lives of others — when taken to excess. But we also know that wine in moderation can gladden the heart and soothe the stomach. I even have a friend who suffers from essential tremor — and her doctor prescribes a large glass of red wine each evening!

And we here in the church also have been taught that a special kind of wine — the wine of which we sip or dip the tiniest amount when we come to this altar rail — wine can do far more than merely heal our ills. This wine, this communion wine, is the means by which we share in the blood shed by Christ, and it can not only lift up our hearts, but save our souls unto eternal life.

The fictional professor’s fictional sherry became more than sherry when the fictional angel touched the bottle. But the wine of our communion truly becomes more than wine in reality right here upon our altar, when the Holy Spirit descends upon these gifts and upon us, and they are transformed and we are transformed, and we experience the presence of Jesus Christ, his Body and his Blood. Through these gifts, offered here, then taken and eaten, taken and tasted, we participate in the great miracle, next to which a never-ending bottle of sherry, or jar of flour or cruse of oil, must rank as mere parlor tricks. For the bread and wine of our communion, true food and true drink, is also truly the means by which we share in the flesh and blood of the one who came down from heaven, the Word made Flesh who came down at Christmas and rose at Easter and abides with us still, and in whom we have life everlasting.

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But, speaking of reality, do we really believe that? Think for a moment what is commonly meant by saying, “I saw him, flesh and blood!” That means for real, in person! Do we really mean it when we say we partake of the flesh and blood of Jesus when we come to this altar? And if this is hard for us to understand, think about what it must have been like for those in the synagogue of Capermaum, who heard these ideas for the first time.

For there can be no escaping Jesus’ meaning. He is not talking about some kind of memorial banquet to be held in his honor. He is not planning a philosophers’ cocktail party like Plato’s Symposium, where people discuss the meaning of life over their wine goblets. He is not even talking about a pagan mystery rite in which the participants imagine that they partake of their gods’ essence as they eat a sacrificial meal. They are all, to quote another favorite Christmas film, “but shadows of the things that were.” What we encounter in the Holy Communion is not a shadow from the past, but a reality from before time and for ever.

For it is of Christ’s own body and blood, his flesh and blood, that he speaks when he says he is the living bread. He knows that before long he will go to Jerusalem, where his body will be nailed to a cross, his very real flesh torn by very real nails, his blood will be poured out, his very real blood will sweat from his brow, and flow from his pierced hands, his feet, his side. He when he speaks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, at the end of this address he says, “This is the bread that came down from heaven... whoever eats this bread will live forever” — and there can be little doubt that as he twice says “this” he points to himself, so that no mistake can be made as to his meaning. And that is why the crowd say, “How can he do that!?” And we might be tempted to say the same, except that we are fortunate enough to live after — after the crucifixion and the resurrection; to know that he is speaking of his own saving death, the real death of the real Jesus, the real man from the real town of Nazareth, the man standing there talking to them in flesh and blood, talking about his flesh and blood which is the only means to give life to the world.

This is hard to understand, but it is what Jesus said. And I believe we ought to take him at his word, as the church has done for nigh on two thousand years. What Jesus said and the church has taught, is that the bread we eat and the wine we drink— while not enough to satisfy an earthly hunger or make us even slightly tipsy — is sufficient, through the Holy Spirit, to unite us to the sacrificial and saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Our Holy Communion is no mere memory; it is not just a reminder, but participation — in which we do not simply remember but partake of our Lord’s blessed Body and precious Blood. This is, truly, echoing the proverb, wisdom’s banquet to make us wise, Christ’ssacrifice of his own Body and Blood. This is the festival meal in which God’s Holy Spirit comes to us and fills our hearts so we cannot help but sing, as we join the apostles and prophets, the blessed martyrs and confessors, the saints in glory and the saints who still walk and work among us, in giving thanks to God the Father through the Spirit, at all times and in all places, in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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