Easter III, Year C; April 19, 2015 The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
The Real Presence of Christ The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction: The Real Presence. Anglican tradition emphasizes the “real presence of Jesus Christ” in the Eucharist. Through the Eucharistic Prayer, we invoke Christ’s presence in the bread and wine. We are not just remembering; in the Eucharistic meal, we are re-experiencing together Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. In this re-experiencing, Christ is present, really present. When we come to this rail today, we will be meeting the real Christ who is alive in this world just as fully as he was with his disciples shortly after his Resurrection.
II. First, The Real Presence of Jesus in Palestine. As many of you know, Peg and I returned late Friday night from a ten-day trip to Palestine. We were guests of the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine, a group of American Palestinians who have family connections with Ramallah, one of the major Palestian cities on the West Bank. These American Palestinians include several members of our parish. The purpose of this trip was to provide Christian clergy from the US an opportunity to hear and to see first hand what daily life is like for the people of Palestine. Time and time again, I encountered the real presence of Christ as we visited the cities and small towns of the West Bank. We visited two refugee camps. In one, we met with the mother of a young man had who had become what is considered a “martyr” six months ago.. There we were, listening to the reality of people’s suffering and having the opportunity to ask questions as we sought to understand. And in the middle of these conversations, my friends, the real Jesus Christ was present with us.
“How could we tell that Jesus was present?” I could tell through the opening of my heart and mind to comprehending the losses and the resilience of the people with whom we met; through the emotions that both we and they experienced as they shared their stories; through their hospitality and openness; and through their willingness and desire that their stories be told to you, the people of our home congregations. You see, I believe from the bottom of my heart that the real presence of Christ is communicated through authentic human connection. In setting after setting, the real Christ was into our midst.
III. Stories. While we visited Ramallah, all the Christian churches celebrated Easter. So this year, thanks be to God, Peg and I celebrated two Easters. We walked with several hundred others in a parade to the city center where the light of Christ was brought from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and distributed to Christian churches in Ramallah and the surrounding towns. And at the invitation of Fr. Fadi at the Episcopal Church of St. Andrews, I stood with him at the altar to help celebrate on Easter morning. This priest, now a friend, knows well our own Bishop and Kammy Young from their work together. In fact he spoke recently at St. Paul’s in Chattanooga. Easter morning, I shared your greetings and particularly the greetings of the Ascension pilgrims to the Holy Land who several years ago attempted in vain to travel from Jerusalem to Ramallah to visit St. Andrews. As the Easter service ended and the final hymn began, Fr. Fadi turned to me and said, “This is the people’s favorite hymn.” It was “Up From the Grave He Arose.” There we were, half a world away, singing the hymn we had sung on Easter morning with you. No co-incidences, just an awareness of Christ’s presence, an awareness that continued throughout the days that followed.
There is one experience that I would like to briefly describe. We visited a small village where the connecting road made it possible to travel to the nearest town in five minutes. Several years ago, the Israeli army closed this road. Following its closure, people were required to take an hour-long detour. Each Friday, villagers meet where the road is blocked to peacefully demonstrate. On numerous occasions they have been fired upon and physically assaulted by nearby settlers; five of the young people who met us showed us their injuries. As we talked, a drone from the nearby settlement repeatedly circled us, pausing often to take our pictures. The next day we learned that three of those with whom we met had been briefly arrested by the Israeli army for questioning. There is more to that story -- and there are many more stories – but this is what I want to emphasize this morning. I, your priest, felt many things that day, but chief among them, was that Christ was there with us and that Christ loves those villagers even as he loved the marginalized and the oppressed people he met as he journeyed from village to village in Palestine, the land of his birth. I reflected upon how Christ had borne the agony of death on the cross so that he could come again as the Resurrected Christ. As we talked with the people of that village, Sister Cheryl, one of our group and a member of the Dominican Order of the Roman Catholic Church, said this: “The word Resurrection means ‘to stand up again.’” That is how the real presence of Christ transforms us, by helping us to stand up again and again and again.
One of the reasons Christ was killed was the desire of those in power to stay in power. His loving fellowship with those on the margins threatened their power base. I was also reminded how Christ told the truth again and again: “let any one among you who has not sinned cast the first stone;” and “you have made my father’s house into a den of thieves.” Jesus’ real presence is always communicated through truth telling, risk-taking, and loving.
IV. The Real Presence of Christ in Our Story at Ascension. How beautifully and fully Christ has been present in our journey together these last eight years! We have been more blessed and more cared for than we would have. We began these eight years as a sad and partly broken church, and we are concluding our years of shared ministry as a strong and joy-filled parish. It is only through the real presence of Christ that this could have taken place. And now, as we move through many transitions, God continues to bless us. We have a strong new spiritual leader whom God has called to this parish. Such a smooth transition is rare, and in fact unlikely, if left solely in human hands.
But there are two requests -- no two expectations -- that the Risen Christ brings with him when is he present. Luke is clear about this. First, when the resurrected Christ became present with his apostles, he said “Peace be with you.” This was much more than a friendly greeting. This peace is built upon our humility and our willingness to love and care for one another as Christ loves and cares for us, no matter what the similarities and/or differences there might be among us. Please, my sisters and brothers, let the peace among us continue. In this peace we experience the real presence of Christ.
Secondly, the Risen Christ asks us to be witnesses to his love, as demonstrated in his life, death, and Resurrection. In doing so, we may be called to witness the suffering of others and to respond to this suffering with the love of Christ. This love requires seeing and acting. I pray that the walls of this place never separate us from the world, but rather that Ascension continues to be a launching pad to propel us wherever we are called to go. As witnesses we will face challenges, but let us remember no drone devised in this world is a match for the real presence of Jesus Christ. Amen.