I was surprised at her choice, but pleased.
Rite One is the version we normally use at our 8:00 service and which we are using this evening. As many of you know, the language of Rite One is traditional—it has thees and thous—so I think of it as less accessible, particularly to young people. That was the reason I was surprised.
Rite One is also penitential, meaning it has a lot of language about sin and repentance. I was pleased at her choice because Lent is a penitential season.
Everything started well, as best I could tell. Then we came to the “Prayer of Humble Access.” The Prayer begins, “We do not presume to come to this, thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” The next line struck me with particular force there in the hospital: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”
I have said that prayer many times, and I find it helpful. But I worried about the line about our unworthiness in that place with that young woman. I don’t know her well, but I suspect that she struggles with a keen sense of unworthiness, indeed an exaggerated and unhealthy sense of unworthiness.
Now, we all should know that we are unworthy of standing in God’s holy presence, of course. The entire season of Lent is an extended reminder of our sinfulness and our need for God’s grace and forgiveness. We should confess and repent of our sin. To pretend otherwise is to live in a delusion that can prevent us from receiving the grace and forgiveness that God offers and that we need. What I like about the Prayer of Humble Access is that it reminds us of that truth as we prepare to come to the altar to receive Holy Communion.
But, as I have often said from this pulpit, an exaggerated sense of our sin and unworthiness can also prevent us from receiving the grace and forgiveness that we so keenly need. We can get so wrapped up in our shame that we come to think of ourselves as unloved and unloveable, and so turn away from the love and forgiveness that God offers us.
The sacrament of Holy Communion is supposed to unite us to God and to each other in love. But in the hospital that day, I worried Communion might have the reverse effect. I worried it would reinforce this young woman’s sense of shame, which would further isolate her from God and from the people who love her. She needed to know she was loved. She did not need a reminder of her unworthiness.
All that came to me only as we were saying the “Prayer of Humble Access.”
Then we shared the sacrament.
Afterwards we prayed the “Post Communion Prayer.” In Rite One, that prayer begins, “Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Then comes the key part of this prayer. We thank God for assuring us, in the sacrament, “of thy favor and goodness towards us.” We thank God for assuring us “that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son.” We thank God for assuring us that we are part of “the blessed company of all faithful people.” We thank God for assuring us that we are “heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom.”
The language is formal and may seem difficult. But it contains great good news. As we share the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, we who are unworthy receive God’s assurance that, despite our unworthiness, God loves us. We receive God’s assurance that we are part of the body of Christ, that we are forgiven, that we are included in the company of saints, and that we are made heirs of God’s kingdom.
Thankfully, the young woman got that. And there in the hospital with her, thanks in part to her, I experienced with a new power the gift that is the Eucharist and the true dynamism of the sacrament.
We come to the altar in a state of sin. We have said and done things which we ought not to have done. We have failed to say and do things which we ought to have done. We have not loved God with our whole heart or our neighbors as ourselves. As we acknowledge in the Prayer of Humble Access, we are unworthy to stand before God.
But God loves us anyway. Jesus Christ offers himself up so that we might be restored to proper relationship with God.
And on the night that we commemorate this evening, Jesus instituted the sacrament of his body and blood that we might experience in an ongoing way God’s forgiveness and love, that we might experience in an ongoing way true union with him, union with God, and union with each other.
And in the sacrament we do. We do experience God’s grace and forgiveness . We do experience restored relationships.
What I felt in the hospital that day as we prayed the prayers before and after the Eucharist was the way the sacrament moves us from one state to another. In the sacrament, our unworthiness drops away and in its place comes the assurance that we can stand before God, united with Jesus Christ and thanks to his grace.
That is the gift we celebrate this evening.
Christ first gave that gift to his disciples even before his crucifixion. The crucifixion was coming in less than twenty-four hours. And, as Jesus well knew, the disciples would mostly fall away. They would prove themselves, once again, unworthy of Christ’s love.
But, at least in theory, the disciples could know, even in their darkest moments, that they were not beyond God’s grace and love.
And the promise of God’s enduring grace and love was the sacrament Christ had given them, the sacrament that assured them that God would continue to show them favor and goodness because Christ was shaping them into his body and preparing them for life among the saints in God’s kingdom.
In the Eucharist, Christ gives us the same gift he gave them. Like them, we fall away, all the time. We continue to live as if we were not God’s beloved children. And the sacrament continues to call us back, to restore our relationship with the God we know in Jesus Christ, to shape us into the people that God creates us to be.
And so on this night, I give thanks to Christ for the sacrifice he made for us and for the gift of the sacrament of his body and blood. And I pray that we may truly receive “the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.”
In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.