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The Totality of Jesus

Good morning, Grace. This past Monday, Robin and I were able to be in upstate New York, in the path of totality for the solar eclipse. It wasn’t our first time in an eclipse’s totality. We were in Nashville in 2017 for that eclipse, and so you could say we were experienced, we had done it before. We understood what was about to happen. We were with Robin’s family, who hadn’t been in a path of totality before, so we were the veterans, the elders if you will. We set up camp the night before, made S'mores for our nieces, and had a pretty bad night’s sleep, to be honest.

 

The next day, Robin made a huge breakfast, we played with our nieces at the nearby pond, and waited. There was one big extenuating circumstance, something we couldn’t control, and that was the cloud cover overhead. Even though we should have known better from our experience in Nashville, we were worried that not having a perfectly clear sky might have diminished the power of the eclipse, maybe even make the nine-hour round trip drive not worth it. We shouldn’t have been worried.

 

What happens when you’re in the path of totality actually isn’t so much the phenomenon of seeing the moon covering the sun, but how the totality changes everything in the world around you. It literally becomes as dark as night in just a few moments. The crickets and nocturnal birds start going crazy. They believe it’s nighttime, so they start acting accordingly. It’s wonderful, and strange, and honestly, a little scary. You feel it in your body; your heart races, so strange is this moment. And the only thing louder than the crickets and the nocturnal birds are the voices of people gazing up into the sky, and shouting and exclaiming, and what they exclaim more than anything is: Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.

 

And then, it was over. As soon as it had become night, it became day once again. The crickets and birds grew silent. We sat and looked at each other and spoke in very simple words about what had happened, the feelings of fear and wonder mixed together. That was amazing, that was scary, that was unbelievable. We didn’t speak of our scientific understanding, but of our experience. The part we rationally understood was a given. What we mysteriously experienced is what we would remember. We would certainly call it bigger than ourselves; we might even call it divine. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.

 

And that’s where we find ourselves in the Gospel of Luke today, this place between understanding and experiencing. Jesus takes his apostles from merely understanding his resurrection to experiencing his resurrection. We should say also that one of the points of this passage originally was to make it clear that Jesus’s resurrection was a physical resurrection, that he wasn’t appearing as a ghost or spirit, which was actually a pretty big argument in the early days of the Christian churches. Many of the Gnostics—you may have heard of the Gnostic gospels—thought Jesus was actually a spirit disguised as a human. This, by the way, is one reason the Gnostic gospels were not accepted into our canon: they denied the full humanity of Jesus.

 

Luke, though, goes to great pains to show us otherwise. Now, some of this Gospel reminds us of last week’s Gospel from John, in which John similarly shows us Jesus presenting himself to the apostles, greeting them with “Peace be with you.” Last week, I suggested that this greeting was more than a holy “what’s up.” It was a sign of Jesus’s ultimate reconciliation, in which he instantly forgave those disciples who betrayed him in his last hours. Luke slows down a little more and tells us that Jesus shows his disciples his hands and feet, flesh and bones, and asks “Have you anything here to eat?” Just like we rationally understand the eclipse through the tool of astronomy, Jesus is having the disciples rationally understand he’s actually there through the tool of physiology. Still, he’s doing something more than just showing them that he’s not a ghost. Jesus is showing them just how human he is—yes, but he’s also allowing them to see themselves in him, to see that they are as holy as he is human. Jesus is satisfying their need to rationally understand his resurrection by showing them how they are the same. 

 

And yet, even this body of Jesus that’s so rationally understood is also mysteriously experienced. In today’s Gospel, Jesus suddenly appears out of nowhere in front of the disciples; on the road to Emmaus, which comes just before today’s reading, he appears to Cleopas and his companion before vanishing. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus apparently passed through walls and locked doors. As Michael Marsh puts it, “On the one hand, Jesus has a real body. On the other hand, it is not subject to the natural laws of time and space. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. It is a new and different reality.” What is rationally understood is also mysteriously experienced. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.

 

Jesus does not explain who he is, or where he’s been since he was crucified and resurrected. He does not explain, he reveals. Beyond understanding is revelation, and that revelation is his reminding his disciples not only that he is like them in their bodies, but that he is in everyday, commonplace relationship with them and us in our everyday lives. And just like before Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, that everyday, commonplace relationship with his disciples meant eating with them, taking meals with them, as well as with tax collectors, sinners, immigrants, and all the marginalized people of his time. In today’s reading, that holy meal is bread and fish, which will ultimately, in the early church, become the bread and wine.

 

The way Jesus taught his disciples to experience him—even after they understood the facts of his resurrection—was in the breaking of the bread together, that meal that would eventually become the Eucharist. I said last week that offering each other reconciliation, when saying “Peace be with you” to each other, might be the most important reason we come together each week. The more times I come to the Eucharist with you, together, the more I believe that sharing in this revelation of Jesus through the bread and wine is a very close second.

 

I said earlier that the way we understand the eclipse is through the tool of astronomy, and the way the disciples understood Jesus’s resurrection was through the tool of physiology. We have something similar in the church, a tool for rationally understanding our faith, and that is called theology. It is the way we try to make intellectual sense of the things we believe and the things we do in church. And the theology of what actually happens here at communion, the Eucharist, has been fought over for centuries. It has caused Christians to split from each other, form new denominations, and it's been used to exclude many people from taking Communion.

 

This morning, instead of trying to describe how I rationally understand what happens here at the communion table, I’m going to tell you about the first time I experienced it mysteriously. I was in my early 40s, and had visited an Episcopal church several times, but hadn’t fully trusted myself to experience Jesus revealed through the Eucharist. But on this one day, I had come to church going through a very difficult time, a time of struggle, a time I couldn’t think myself out of, or go to therapy of it. And on that morning, kneeling at the communion rail, I had the mysterious experience of Jesus revealing himself to me. The communion wafer hit my tongue, and I felt his presence, not just a remembrance of him, which is what some theologies will say is happening. I entered the totality of Jesus, and it changed everything in the world around me.

 

The other mysterious experience I had that morning was of feeling an unseen and intense connection with everyone else in that church, a binding together through the Holy Spirit that I hadn’t felt since I was a child. It was at that communion that I didn’t just understand but experienced Jesus. And that experience brought me back into the church, where I discerned this call to ordained ministry, and where I went to school to learn the theology that would try to rationally explain this mysterious experience. And yet, even now, when I come to communion, it’s not any words of theology that are running through my mind, it’s Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.

 

Ah, Rev. Jay, some of you might be thinking. I hope you’re not getting anti-intellectual on us. You may be thinking “I came to the Episcopal Church because I was told I didn’t have to leave my brains at the door.” Fear not. I spend many hours reading and thinking about theology every week. I talk about it with my fellow priests whenever I get the chance. But, Grace, you and I never enter the totality of Jesus by thinking about Jesus. It is the mysterious experience of Jesus coming into our lives, at this table, and through each other, that takes us from understanding to revelation. It’s what transforms “Peace be with you” from a holy “what’s up” into a moment of profound reconciliation. It’s what takes us from hearing the Gospel to living the Gospel. You and I will never think our way into taking meals with tax collectors, sinners, immigrants, and all the marginalized people of our time. We don’t offer grace and mercy to others because we think it’s the right thing to do, we offer grace and mercy to others because God offered grace and mercy to us though Jesus. Though Jesus we live in a new and different reality. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.

 

Let us pray.

 

Oh our God, oh our God, oh our God. We thank you for tools that help us rationally understand eclipses, and resurrection, and even the Eucharist. We thank you for the direct experience of Jesus among us, even and especially when we have feelings of fear and wonder mixed together. When things are amazing, scary, and unbelievable. This morning, we present ourselves to the totality of Jesus, who’s mysterious presence is found in the Eucharist. Let the bread and the wine of our communion be that holy meal through which the Holy Spirit binds us to you and to each other. All these things we ask in the name of your revealed son Jesus, Amen.

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