Two Jewish boys were trying to outdo each other on how far back they could trace their family lineage. The first said, “My family can trace our ancestry back almost two thousand years to the great Rabbi Akiva. So how far back does your family go,” he asked the second.
Without missing a beat, the second boy says, “I don’t know. My father told me that all of our records were lost in the flood.”
Family trees. Family reunions. Family photos. Families that are happy, dysfunctional, dysfunctionally happy, extended, small and so much more. No matter what type of family you have—good, bad, or indifferent—you did not become a member by choice and you’re stuck with the one you’ve got.
The word “family” describes our biological family, but is also good to describe a group of individuals who have a common thread, so it is often used as a way of describing the Church. You are my Church family and the comedian Les Dawson describes you well: “Families are like fudge – mostly sweet, with a few nuts.” And you know who you are.
Not only family, the Church is also described as the Body of Christ, describing our unity and how we need one another. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” And a little further on, “There may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We do not exist for ourselves, we exist for the Body. Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, was quite emphatic on this: “Individualism therefore has no place in Christianity, and Christianity verily means its extinction. The individual Christian exists only because the body exists already. In the body the self is found, and within the individual experience the body is present.” This unity is the fulfillment of Jesus’ great priestly prayer recorded in John’s Gospel: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
We have this unity, but it is a unity that can exist at different levels, that is why when Paul speaks of the Body of Christ, he speaks of the body of all believers, but also about the Body of Christ as the local church; so we can say that contained within this church of St. Matthew’s, we are the Body of Christ, while still being a part of a greater body. As that body of St. Matthew’s, we gather as any family gathers, but in this family, there is a true dependence on one another, which means this body of St. Matthew’s has all that it needs to be the church in this place, but it cannot be that church without you. We have a dependence on one another, therefore we have a responsibility to one another. As St. Paul teaches, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
However, in order for this body to be real, something more than just nice words, then we must have a common thread running through us all, and we do, Jesus. We have him, not just in our profession of faith, but as we said last week, we have his real presence in his body and blood that we receive in the Eucharist, and it is this Eucharist that provides a real and tangible common thread, binding us together.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We abide in him and he abides in us, therefore, we abide in one another. St. Francis de Sales preached, “We are all nourished by the same bread, that heavenly bread of the divine Eucharist, the reception which is called communion, and which symbolizes that unity that we should have one with another, without which we could not be called children of God.” This has been the belief of the Church since the very beginning. The Didache is a first century liturgical book and at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, while holding the bread, the priest would say, “As this piece of bread was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom.” God’s Kingdom in heaven and God’s Kingdom here on earth.
Have you ever been to a wedding where, toward the end of the ceremony, the couple lights a unity candle? They’ve got a large candle in the middle and smaller ones on each side. The two smaller ones are burning and the bride and groom each take one the smaller ones and together they light the candle in the center. The interesting bit is what comes next: do they place the smaller candles back in their stands still burning or do they blow them out first. Did they light a flame together, but maintain their own separate flames, or do they extinguish their individual flames and truly only exist as one. (I once heard that the couple left the smaller ones burning, but after moment, the bride leaned over and blew out the grooms. To that, someone said, “During the marriage ceremony two become one — on the honeymoon they discover which one.”) Seriously, in the end, there should only be one flame and the same is true for us as the family and body of Christ, made one through Jesus who gave himself for us all.
Today, as you come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ, remember that we are the family of God, the Body of Christ, and recognize that we truly need one another. Without you, each of you, we are diminished. With you… with you we become a flame that can set the world on fire with the love of God.
Let us pray: Lord God, you have built in heaven and on earth a single Church of truth and love and Holy Spirit; one family and communion, whose temple is the Lamb, One body indivisible, here and beyond: the body of Your dear Son. The unity of holy Church, its might, its Gospel, proceeding from Your unalterable will, is truth and love and Holy Spirit. Its ministries stream from your heart. We pray Lord that we might become this Church in this place: a beacon to the lost, a salve for the wounded, and a family for all. Jesus, in your name. Amen.