by Whitney Stofflet // August 9th, 2016
Many of you know it has been my privilege to teach/coach a group of Roman Catholics in Poland for the last year and a half. The last of four sessions comes this November.
My first visit was in February 2015. I arrived in Krakow, and was driven to the retreat center in Stryzywa- an hour outside the city, in the hills. It’s a beautiful, quiet place.
The event began with a communion service, and, as it happened, it was Ash Wednesday. There were some 12 or more priests gathering to lead the service, at which Bishop Gregorgz Riecz, an auxiliary Bishop of Krakow, with responsibility for Evangelism in all of Poland was both preaching and presiding.
He greeted me warmly. And, almost by whim, I asked him if it would be alright for me to share in Communion. He stared at me, then looked away, surprised- he knew I was a Lutheran- and for long seconds, said nothing. I was about to say, “Forgive me. It’s OK, I know I’m a guest from outside your tradition.”
But instead, the Bishop looked me in the eye, and asked, “What does your conscience tell you about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist?”
We begin a new sermon series this morning: for the next four Sundays, we will be walking through 1 John, and we’re calling it “It gets real…” And we’re hoping to remind you, or to show you that our faith is concrete- based in history; based on a real human being who was God become human, Jesus Christ…
It is, one could argue, a conversation that would invite those who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious…”
And we have a wonderful witness in the author of this short sermon- it really is more of a statement of faith than a letter, in the classic sense. It is easy to see the connection between the fourth Gospel- the Gospel of John, and this (and the other two) sermons from John.
The language is very similar- and, commentators even share the similarities in the structure- particularly of the opening words in John 1 and 1st John, chapter 1. So it is easy for us to claim that the author- and the community from which both the Gospel and the Letter comes are the same…
In both, there are eyewitness claims- the only ones in the New Testament when it comes to having seen Jesus, in the flesh, during his earthly ministry. We never get that from Matthew or Mark, and Luke flat out tells us that he wasn’t present for these things…
But in John and 1 John, the author claims to have been present. In John 21 we read “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things…” In our reading today, he writes “what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at, and touched with our hands…” (A reference to the story of Doubting Thomas- Thomas may have been the one who insisted on seeing and touching, but you know they all wanted to… and likely did…)
While he never says, “I, John,” the historical traditions are pretty powerful (I have learned over the years to trust the “folk process…” If a tradition is strong enough, it is more than likely to have a historic truth behind it…)
And one of the traditions about John is that he was the only one of the twelve who didn’t die a martyr’s death- that he died of old age in Ephesus. And given that both the Gospel and 1st John come from the around the end of the first century, both traditions- authorship and life story confirm each other…
In the Gospel, John begins with the wonderful hymn to the Word- “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…” John is stressing just who this Jesus was and is- God Incarnate- God become a human being; God’s presence in our midst…
He is really pushing the divinity of Christ- making sure his readers- you and I- get that from the very beginning of his work
But the letter, while mirroring the structure of John 1 (We declare to you what was from the beginning…) has a very different emphasis: instead of the divinity of Christ, John wants to make sure his community- and again, you and I- get that Jesus, while divine, was also fully human! Jesus wasn’t a ghost- even after his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus could be looked at and touched!
So, the context has changed. And this reminds us that God’s word comes to God’s people at particular places, particular situations and particular times- even when it is the same author!
In the years between Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, some strange and mistaken beliefs about Jesus had surfaced- not all that different, in some ways, of those about Jesus today…
There were those who were teaching that Jesus could not possibly have been human AND God. And their reasoning echoed the duality that we talked about in Ephesians a few weeks ago: flesh, bad, icky, un-spiritual, and spirit- good, pure, wonderful… No way could God become a real person with a human’s fallible body…
And so Jesus either wasn’t God, or God’s Spirit had occupied his body for a time, but left before Jesus died… So the incarnation and resurrection could only be understood in spiritual terms…
But John is here to tell us that Jesus was real- a real person- that God honored God’s creation by becoming one of us. And moreover, all the things we claim about God- that God is present in our joy and in our suffering- that God experiences our deaths when Jesus dies on the cross are true- because Jesus did experience all that human life brings, life and death both, and only could, if he were fully human; he wasn’t a shade, a spirit…
What’s more, Jesus’ presence continues to be with us- wherever followers of Jesus gather in his name! We share fellowship, John says, with the Community- the church, and, he says “truly our fellowship is with God and with his son, Jesus Christ!
My friend, Rick Warren, has said some things over the years that have been hurtful and wrong (So did Martin Luther, by the way). But he’s spot on when he talks about fellowship. He argues the word “fellowship” is often misunderstood. It’s often misused.
Today the word “fellowship” is often reduced to cookies and coffee in the Fellowship Hall which is often the worst place in the church. Utilitarian chairs and bare walls – everything to kill fellowship. Today when we say, “Stay around for fellowship,” we either mean coffee or casual conversation.
Fellowship is life together. Most people know John 3:16 but most Christians don’t know 1 John 3:16 which says “We ought to lay down our lives for the brothers and sisters.”
That’s the kind of commitment we’re talking about. Koinonia – real fellowship is being as committed to each other as we are to Jesus Christ. “Behold how they love one another.”.
And one of the marks of real fellowship is authenticity. Fellowship happens – real fellowship, genuine fellowship happens when people stop pretending. When they drop their mask, when they get real and they get honest with each other.
Fellowship is sharing life together, authentically: Dropping our masks and getting real.
I have seen this repeatedly in my years here at Bethlehem: people sharing their lives together, sharing joys, sharing sorrows- being the presence of Christ to each other, living out the promise of Jesus that wherever two or three are gathered, there he is in the midst of them- of us- of you. I so long for that for everyone who is a part of our community!
If you want to connect with us; if you want to be a part of our fellowship, mark your communion card, call or email me or anyone of the staff, and we will see that it happens!
And this fellowship- this community of faith that gathers in Jesus’ Name sees the presence of Jesus each time we gather around his table, in the sacrament of Holy Communion. In fact, our community celebrates the joy that comes from knowing Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine that is his body and blood! We didn’t just decide to hang out together on Sunday mornings. It is Jesus that gathers us together, and makes us one family- one fellowship- in this gift of himself!
John writes “we declare what we have seen and heard that you also may have fellowship with us…”
Paul said something very similar in 1st Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you,” and then he continues with the earliest version we have of the Words of Institution- words that we shall soon hear once again, “that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you…’ Do this is remembrance of me. In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant of my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me…’”
And the Church, while perhaps arguing about HOW Jesus is present, has, for the most part, always believed that Jesus is present in the bread and the wine in a way that he is normally not…
We Lutherans call this “the real presence of Christ in the bread and the wine.” Just how is a mystery; but that Jesus is physically present, strengthening us, forgiving us, gathering us into his community is beyond question!
So, on that Ash Wednesday a year ago in Stryzawa, when Bishop Riecz asked me “what did my conscience tell me about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” it was, to use a baseball image, a “hanging curve ball…” Without hesitation, I answered, “my conscience is perfectly clear on this matter; I believe it absolutely…”
The good bishop put his hand on my neck, pulled my head down and kissed the top of my head. Then he made the sign of the cross on my forehead, and said simply, “please, come…” And so that night, when communion was served, I became a communing member of that community…
And don’t underestimate what he had done: by allowing me to become a part of the community, I was immediately able to share as one in Christ with them- a full brother in the Galilea Community! There was an immediate bond between us all that would never have happened without the fellowship we shared in Holy Communion.
That bond crosses the world, and binds Bethlehem as family to Galilea- Lutherans and Catholics sharing the Lord’s Table once again after nearly five hundred years. When Pope Francis travels to Sweden this fall, and likely shares in the mass with the Lutherans there, Gregorz and I will smile and say, “we were there first!”
And we’ll hear the echoes of the Apostle John, saying “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete!”
That joy- that fellowship- that real presence is offered to you. Receive it- that is, receive Jesus, and know that in him, you have real family- the people of God who are gathered all around you, now and forever.
Take him- and take us with you into the world, knowing that you are never alone; that we share this journey of life together, joys and sorrows- everything! And know we will share with each other and our Lord in his real presence throughout our lives- and in the life to come! In Jesus’ Name, Amen!