The Other Side of Agape

August 07, 2011

by Rev. Henry A. Schoenfield

I’ve waited for this for just over four years! The last time that I was the presider for a service that included communion, well Eucharist to be exact was in early June 2007 in the chapel of Plymouth Congregational Church in Downtown Seattle. I would begin a leave of absence from the priesthood in a few short weeks, though I was the only person in the chapel that day that knew that to be the case. I gathered with the community there—a community mostly comprised of businesswomen and men on their lunch hour and celebrated a ritual that had come to mean much to me, seemingly for the last time. When I first visited Judson, not too many months after that, I experienced Agape, Judson style. To say that it was Low Church in comparison to the Roman tradition that I was trained in, or even the Anglican tradition in which I was raised would be the biggest understatement ever. But it captured me, from that very first time. There was then and there remains today an authenticity to what we do in this space, when we gather on the first Sunday of each month—each bringing gifts to these tables—gifts of bread and wine, yes. Also gifts of cheese, fruit, coffee and even more, we bring the gifts of our selves—of our lives, sometimes broken, tattered, and fractured, sometimes in joy and celebration. And as a community of faith, we gather around these tables.

I’m going to pause here and share something that I have come to know and love about both Judson and the UCC—that is, in embracing this place and this tradition, I did not have to leave my past behind. Rather, I was encouraged to bring it forward with me. Part of what this has meant is that even though I have found new meaning in Low Church liturgy, my Sacramental understanding remains as developed and nuanced as it ever was in the Roman Catholic tradition.

So here’s how it connects——there is a common understanding within the Roman Catholic tradition that the Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship. It even goes further than that. The Eucharist, it is said, is the source and summit of the Christian faith. Bold claim. And I’ll be honest, when I was in the seminary, I could spout out these lines like they were the most obvious truths to ever occur to humanity, but I don’t know that I really believed them to be true. That’s not to say that I thought them to be false—I just don’t know that I thought them to be true. And honestly, it wasn’t until I came to this space that I could reframe communion in such a way that I can now affirm that communion is, in fact, the central act of worship in the Christian faith…even for those of us, okay, even for me, one of the most reluctant people in this room to own the appellation of Christian.

But I want to challenge us all…Christian, non-Christian, Questioning and everything in between about what this means—what it means that this meal together is the central act of worship of our faith and even what it means to be people of faith.

Faith is one of those slippery terms—it can mean just about anything for anybody and can be manipulated to mean everything or nothing at all. Recently I was re-reading Paul Tillich’s text Dynamics of Faith. Tillich defines faith simply, but powerfully as ultimate concern. Ultimate concern: what is striking about faith as ultimate concern is that it really does not require religious assent. Faith is not primarily in a creed, in a confession, or a religious identity. Faith is not an act of piety; it is not a mental construct. Faith doesn’t keep me safe from the uncertainty of life and death. Faith is what I care about the most—what a community cares about the most. Faith is what draws us into this place—into the here and now of our Agape meal—to feed, to nourish each other. In that sense, Agape—love that builds up, that nourishes is the central act of faith—not only of worship, even beyond the specifically Christian context. But wait, there’s more. Tillich says that faith and love are so intertwined that one cannot exist without the other, and that even love is richer than we often recognize. We are here, but how did we get here and what impact do we have once we leave? Thereis another side to Agape…and that is Eros. Before we can enter into this act of ritual and worship, we have to get here.

I will admit a certain amount of chagrin that the text that found me for the Ancient Testimony this morning is from the Fourth Gospel, for I often encounter this gospel narrative as the one that is most burdened with a latent (and sometimes not so latent) anti-Semitism. Even still, the Johannine vision of Jesus has moments of powerful potency. “What I command you is to love one another.” This is not nice, feel-good, puppy love. This is love that gets into our skin and our bones. This is love that compels us to each other, that seeks an unbreakable bond that can never be entirely quenched.

Many of us have experienced falling in love, right? I invite you, for a moment to think about a person who really knocked your socks off. Let your mind wander…Think about his hair, the smell of her body, the electricity of his touch, the sense of being held, captivated by her gaze. Stay there for a moment longer. Breathe it in. Know that feeling. I submit that this is the love that Jesus invites to with each other.

When we allow ourselves to enter into communion with each other on this level, change happens. As individuals, we are changed by each other and by the congregation as a whole. And the effect that we have on each other does not end when we walk out of this Meeting Room. As John Polkinghorne reminds us in the Modern Testimony this morning, we could be separated from each other with any amount of distance, yet we would still affect each other. And through this kind of efficacious relationship with each other, I dare say that our world is changed.

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, there is a precept that every member of the congregation is responsible for the spiritual well being of every other member of the congregation. Everybody is accountable—not only for her or his own spiritual path, but also for that of each other. I think this as such beautiful resonance here at Judson, for this is a community of such theological and philosophical diversity. And yet our call here is so very similar to our UU sisters and brothers—we are accountable in this room, to ourselves and to each other.

What we do in this room is ultimately who we are. This is the part that the radical post-modern Christian in me loves—that by embodying a community faith, by coming together one a month to share this meal, to gaze upon each other, to breath in the presence of one another, we participate in the very core of the spiritual practice that Jesus invited his band of misfit followers to believe in and practice so many years ago. And even more, in a few moments, when we ritualize sharing the common elements of food and drink—of the staples of life, we not only remember what Jesus did for us then, but we also enter into that moment of celebration and sacrifice that is always in the here and now.

What is most important in this moment? How can you and I feed each other and the world around us? How can we pine for each other’s flesh and bones so as to embrace each other radically and build each other up? Or to put it another way, how are we called, in this very moment to affect each other, this community, and the world around us? Amen.

Modern Testimony

From Quarks Chaos & Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion by John Polkinghorne

“Once two electrons…have interacted with each other they [forever] posses a power to influence each other, however widely they subsequently separate. If one electron stays around the laboratory and the other goes “beyond the Moon” (as we say), then anything I do to the electron here will have an immediate effect on its distant brother . . .There’s an intrinsic togetherness [in the subatomic world] that cannot be broken.”

Ancient Testimony

John 15, 14-17

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