One Bread, One Body
Pentecost XVIII (O. T. 25); September 23, 2018
Two different but related ideas are pulling on us today and I'll simply riff on both of them for a few minutes. Both are captured in that moment when Jesus takes the bread and blesses it before distributing it to the people seated on the grass.
He blesses the bread. Have you ever thought about this idea of blessing something or someone? I hadn't much; I mostly just took it for granted. Think about blessings in the Bible and in our common life. Isaac blessed Jacob, thinking that he was blessing Esau. Old Jacob blessed Pharaoh. Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers…" In a Jewish home the Sabbath meal begins when the mother lights the Sabbath candles and pronounces the blessing: Baruch atah Adonai, eloheynu melekh ha'olam… (Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe…). The pastor raises a hand at the end of the service and dismisses the people with a blessing. And this notion of "blessing" is not limited to Jews and Christians; many years ago I had many pagan friends, and they would greet one another with, "Blessed be."
Can you think of other offerings of blessing?
A blessing is just words; what's the big deal? If you want me to be blessed, make it in 20s and 50s, not words; right? I have a couple of thoughts about that; you can probably supply more. One of those thoughts is that a blessing is a prayer; to pronounce a blessing is another form of praying. If you bless God, then you are giving praise to God: Baruch atah Adonai… Or in the gorgeous words of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: "We praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we glorify thee, we give thanks to thee for thy great glory…" To bless God is to praise God. If I bless an object, then I am praying for it to do people some good. One of the fun experiences I used to have was to be the Prelate for the annual Bockfest in downtown Cincinnati; every Spring at the beginning of the Festival I got to bless the beer and the sausage. And to bless people is to pray for them. When your pastor says, "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord be kind and gracious to you…" then the pastor is praying that God will do these things for you.
It may be just words, but people of faith believe that words have power, the power to do good and the power to do harm. And so we move through life with a blessing on our lips, not a curse.
And another thought about these words has a lot to do with attitude. If you bless someone else, then no matter how you actually feel, you are expressing an attitude of care and concern for that person. You don't have to like someone to bless that person, but when you bless someone then you show that you respect that person's humanity, you are choosing to treat someone well. The word that the New Testament usually has translated as "to bless" means literally "to speak well of" or "speak well to" (εὐλογέω – eulogeo). What does it say about your attitude toward others if you choose to speak well of them? What does it do for their sense of self? What good do you do if you choose to speak well – to bless – rather than to curse?
The other idea tugging at me is the power the words of blessing have in our celebration of the Lord's Supper. The third part of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving is the prayer for the Holy Spirit, and it has two ideas in it, one of which I'll talk about right now and the other of which is for next week. In the Great Thanksgiving, the minister prays for the Holy Spirit to make the bread and the wine be for us the body and blood of Christ. When the minister blesses the bread and the wine, it is actually a prayer for the Holy Spirit to use the bread and wine to nourish the spirits of God's people, to feed us with the Body and Blood of Christ.
For those who like a little theology with your religion, this is a key difference between Reformed Christians and Roman Catholic Christians. We all believe that communion is a real experience of the body and blood of Christ. But is there a key moment in the service for that to become so? Yes, there is. Among Roman Catholics, it is when the priest says, "This is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you." Catholics teach that whatever else the priest does, the priest has to say those words, and then God makes the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Among Reformed Christians as well as among the Eastern Orthodox, the key moment is when the minister prays for the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine be for us the body and blood of Christ (called the "Epiclesis"). For us, just repeating the right words at the right time is not key; what is key is the work of the Holy Spirit, and so we pray for the Holy Spirit to make that happen: we bless the bread and the wine.
So, there's your sacramental theology for today. And by our sharing at the Table today may you be blessed.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 From the Gloria in excelsis, Morning Prayer Rite 1.