Sunday, August 4, 2013

Communion meditation: The Medium Is the Message

The final sermon of my summer internship is done.  And it was not quite a full sermon: a "communion meditation" is probably a more accurate description.  Pathetically, I am rather sad that this will probably not happen again for a while.

Charles Freeman
4 August 2013 (Communion)
Ashland Presbyterian Church
Luke 24:13-35; John 2:1-12

Communion Meditation: The Medium Is the Message

It was in 1964 that an obscure communications theorist from Toronto, Marshall McLuhan, introduced in his book Understanding Media the phrase “the medium is the message.”  Despite its seeming simplicity, the phrase would, over the years, assume a dizzying complex of meanings, but at its core was the basic idea that such emerging and increasingly dominant media of communication such as radio, film, and television were anything but neutral conveyors of information; instead, the medium shaped, configured, and even altered the “message” its users might have intended to convey.  Nearly fifty years later one might well wonder what McLuhan, who died in 1980, might make of more recent communications media such as email, the Internet, or Twitter.
One thing about McLuhan that was not well-known at the time was that he was a devout Catholic.  He would in later years acknowledge that his theories on communication and media – including the famous idea that “the medium is the message” – were influenced by his Catholicism. 
He did not say specifically what part of his Catholicism might have influenced his thought, but I wonder if he might have been reacting to his experience of the Mass, particularly that part of the Mass known as the Eucharist, or as we Protestants would say, Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. 
It seems a very simple observance: bread is broken, juice (in our case) is poured, the bread and juice are distributed among the congregation.  But there is, particularly in the story from Luke’s gospel today, something much stronger and deeper at work.
We are of course familiar from this story at or immediately after Easter.  Two disciples, identified as “disciples” even though not among the numbered twelve, are walking from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus on Easter evening, their world shattered.  There was that strange report from the women in their group about the tomb being empty and angels being there, but no one else saw that (the angels at least).  The stranger appears and enters into conversation between the two; they tell their story, and the stranger responds with a staggering knowledge of the scripture, arguing that the events of crucifixion they described were exactly what had to happen, which they’d have known if they weren’t so foolish and slow of heart.  With day fading, the two stop and entreat the stranger to stay and be their guest, which he does.  The stranger then, surprisingly, takes the role of host: he takes the bread for the meal, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them.  Then – and only then – did they recognize that the stranger was none other than Jesus himself.  When he disappears, the two disciples rush back to Jerusalem to report to the others, and to describe how, as verse 35 puts it, “he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” 
Throughout all the gospels, and particularly in the Gospel of Luke, one of the most frequently recurring themes is one of hospitality, often signaled in the breaking of bread.  It is seen in miracles, like the feeding of the five thousand; it is seen in teaching moments, such as the incident in the home of the Pharisee, where the host’s lack of hospitality is contrasted with the overriding concern of the woman who washes Jesus’s feet; it is seen in surprising announcements such as Jesus’s shocker that he must go to the home of that sinful tax collector Zacchaeus; it is seen in a pattern of hospitality and fellowship so strong and so pronounced that the Pharisees scorn Jesus as a “fellow [who] welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)
Finally there was that event just a few days before, the Last Supper as we call it, in which Jesus breaks bread, pours a cup, and commands his disciples to do so, as often as they do it, “in remembrance of me“ (Luke 22:19).  Even here, Jesus is not throwing some new practice at the disciples; instead, he is taking a gesture, an action they have seen him perform again and again in their time with him, and commanding them to do likewise—not as some stiff memorial, but as a remembrance, a way of living that echoes and demonstrates to the world the way that Jesus lived. 
But what is fascinating about this Emmaus Road story, as well as a bit depressing for preachers, is that it is this gesture, this breaking of bread, that opens the eyes of the two disciples to see Jesus for who he is.  All of that amazing expository preaching that Jesus did?  Nope.  If you felt like reading the story tongue-in-cheek, you could even say that all it did was give the disciples heartburn.  But the act of breaking bread was one so characteristic, so typical of Jesus that their fogged and shrouded eyes could no longer conceal from them their Lord. 
The message came to these two disciples, not in a barrage of words and scriptural exegesis, but in the rather simple medium of bread.  Stuff of the earth, harvested, ground into flour, mixed and kneaded and baked into the most basic staple of the disciples’ diet.  But in that medium indeed was a message that had been witnessed and lived so many times by Jesus that it was one the disciples knew by heart; a message of welcome, of hospitality, not just to the good folks but to the worst sinners society could dredge up, even sinners like us.  And this medium of bread, being broken, still shapes and forms that message even today, whenever we come to the table. 
On that Maundy Thursday Jesus paired the breaking of bread, a token of humanity’s most basic needs, with a cup of wine poured.  If bread represented the basics of life, wine no doubt served as a token of celebration.  The reading from the Gospel of John reminds us that the very first sign Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples was one of turning ordinary water into wine, a sign that became the rescue and continuation of a wedding feast, one of the most joyous celebrations that culture knew. 
Bread broken, a cup filled.  These are still signs of welcome and celebration to us today.  They still point us to a Life of welcoming and making welcome, a Life that celebrated and rejoiced even as it grieved and mourned and got angry a time or two.  They point us to a Life that was so dedicated, so insistent on bringing us in and ministering to us, that it poured itself out in death rather than suffer any one of us not to be guests at his table for eternity. 
Perhaps the bread and cup seem a curious choice of medium, but the message that bread and cup shape for us in this sacrament is still one we need to hear, as many times as possible.  Christ calls us to come; he welcomes us to the table; he bids us be his guest.  Let us not be blinded to the message in this humble, yet exalted medium. 
The table is made ready; Jesus our host bids us come and eat.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Hymns: God is Here! (PH #461); Psalm 107 (from The Psalter: Psalms & Canticles for Singing); Be Known to Us in Breaking Bread (PH #505); Draw Us In the Spirit’s Tether (PH #504)

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