Pentecost 8 July 26, 2009

The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley, Bishop of Connecticut (ret.)

Ephesians 3:14-21

John 6:1-21

I was very taken by last week’s service, when Josh Thomas, the Diocese of New Hampshire’s missioner to college and university students, led us through a process of imagining how young people in our very secular culture can begin to connect with Christian faith. “How is God real in your life?” he asked not just them but us.

This morning I want to take you on a similar sort of journey. Imagine that you are living in about the year 100 AD. You are in a small city somewhere on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, say in Asia Minor or Greece, and you have been invited by friends to attend a religious ceremony.They have been catechumens, or learners, about the beliefs and practices of the followers of Jesus, who is called Christ. You have arrived at their place of meeting, which is the home of one of their members. You have to knock and be recognized in order to get in, because even belonging to the church might lead to persecution by the Roman authorities.

In the center of the house is a courtyard or atrium which is sparsely furnished. It is a gathering place for the members, and off it are several rooms, places for storage and classrooms for the catechists or teachers. Opening off the gathering space is the largest room, where the faithful are standing waiting for the service to begin. In the enter of this room is a small table, behind which are several seats for the elders of the congregation (The Greek word for elder is presbyter; in Latin it is priest). There is little other furniture. At the other end of the room is a platform with a reading stand, on which have been placed parchment books by the official reader of the church, who is a deacon. A few small benches have been provided for some of the older people. Everyone stands in silence, waiting for the service to begin.

I doubt that you would have trouble recognizing what is about to take place in that simple setting, because what we do here at Holy Cross – and Christians have been doing from the very beginning of the Church – follows the same pattern. The service divides into two major segments: we might call them, Feeding our minds and hearts, and Feeding our souls and bodies. I have been asked this morning to start a discussion about the first section, the feeding of our hearts and minds, that is, the place of scripture in our worship.

Return if you will to our first century church. The silence in the room is all at once broken by a shout of Alleluia or Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy. Presently, from the rear of the house a senior man enters, dressed in a white linen tunic, over which, for protection from the damp chill of the morning air, he wears a woolen cloak or chasuble, a round piece of cloth which is draped over his body down to the knees. He is either a presbyter or the bishop – episcopos is the Greek word – which translates as the overseer of the church. That’s what I did for the 175 churches in Connecticut. He greets the flock with the ancient salutation, “The Lord be with you,” to which all reply, “And with your spirit.” Then taking his seat among the presbyters, he motions to the reader to begin.

The reader goes to the lectern and announces a lesson taken from one of the Hebrew scriptures. Today here at Holy Cross, that would be a story from the Second Book of Kings, in which the prophet Elisha brings food for the people to eat. As the reading ends, another one of the deacons takes his place and begins to chant with simple cadences one of the ancient psalms. At Holy Cross, we just sang verses from Psalm 145, ending with a verse which proclaims “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” A second reading follows, after which the people sing a refrain of Alleluia at the end. Finally, there is a passage from one of the Gospels, after which the bishop, seated in his chair, addresses those present.

Let me say a word about the texts of the readings which would have been used that Sunday nineteen hundred years ago. There would not have been, and for at least two or three more centuries, anything resembling the Bible. Until the middle of the 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg produced the first printed Bible, you couldn’t assemble all the readings into a single book. So somewhere in this house church, a collection of scrolls who be stored. I already mentioned that some would be the Hebrew scriptures and the Psalms. What the early congregations began to collect were copies of letters written to the churches by one of the apostles or another. Today, the lesson we heard here was part of letter written by St. Paul to the Christians in Ephesus. It prays that listeners “might be strengthened in their inner being with power through God’s Spirit, that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith, that we might have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”

Finally, by the time the congregation we are imagining had come into being, there were circulating gospels, accounts of the life of Jesus. Four of these ultimately were included in the collection we know as The New Testament. Each of these writers thought the story we just heard important enough to include in their account, how an enormous throng of people had gone out to hear Jesus near the Lake of Galilee – five thousand – and when Jesus had fed them with his teaching, he had compassion and saw to it that their hunger too was fed. Can you imagine what the preacher to our little congregation might have said? Most likely, it was about being fed, fed in spirit, that one’s life would be strengthened to comprehend that the love of Christ is greater that human knowledge, that Jesus knows our every need, the hunger in our bones, and that he will feed his followers, no matter what.

Why read the scriptures in church? We do so for the same reason those early gathers of Christians did: to be reminded of the ways we might be fed, fed in our hungry minds and hearts, fed with the body of Christ. We do very well in that regard at Holy Cross. John our Vicar week after week carefully bases his homilies on the scriptural texts, trying to break open when they meant when written in order to apply them to our lives in a very different time and place. Let me stop there, and ask you a couple of questions: “How are you fed by reading the scriptures or having them interpreted in a sermon? And do you have problems trying to understand scripture and applying its meanings to your life?”

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