Saturday, July 22, 2006

Gospel, Repentance, Eucharist

I’ve recently been reading an insightful book entitled, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death, by John Behr, an Orthodox priest and theologian. He makes a point about the original proclamation of the Gospel that we would do well to ponder. He says, first of all, that it is not enough, using tools such as the historical-critical method, to discover what the Scriptures meant in their original context (though there is some value to this). We need to know what the Scriptures mean. By this he does not reduce them to modern subjective interpretations, but he wants us to see the meaning of the words of Scripture not merely as the meaning of the text. Rather, we must meet the Word of God Himself therein—He who is with us always, and who is also the Coming One, for whom the Church must constantly watch and wait.

The original preaching of the Gospel, expressed in St. Peter’s post-Pentecost discourses, was not a mere imparting of information, about which scientific research might satisfy our curiosity. Nor was his audience neutral or even innocent. For this preaching was about “Jesus, whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Now here’s an important reason why we should not just want to know what the Scriptures meant, but what they mean. This preaching is directed to us, too, here and now. “‘We are, insistently and relentlessly, in Jerusalem, confronted therefore with a victim who is our victim.’ What is embodied and enacted in Christ, though occurring at a specific historical moment and in a particular context, is nevertheless God’s own work and, as such, eternal or timeless. The preaching of his crucifixion and resurrection is not restricted to the first century… Rather, now that Christ is with God, and all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him, there is no place or time where he cannot be or cannot work: he is present, even now, to those who turn to him, as the victim of their own sins and, as such, the one who is able to forgive and bring them into the life of God.” [emphasis added]

The preaching of the Gospel tells us that we have crucified and killed the Son of God, by our own sins. To Him we must turn for forgiveness, for He is the one we have offended and hurt (and don’t forget, whatever we do to his brethren, we do to Him). The first hearers of that news were “cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them: ‘Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37-38). The same Gospel message is for us: repentance and baptism, unto forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We may already be baptized, but repentance and growth in the grace of the Holy Spirit must be ongoing. To encounter Christ in the proclamation of his Gospel is first to repent of what we did to Him (and, from our perspective, still do, as it is played out in time). We have crucified Christ and must now make a decision to enter into his forgiveness and fellowship.

St. Peter had to learn his own lesson before he preached the Gospel to others. He knew that he had also crucified Christ by his betrayal. He denied Him three times, and so a three-fold profession of love was required from him after Jesus’ resurrection. The evangelist John carefully sets the scene. When Peter betrayed Jesus, he was standing by a charcoal fire (John 18:18, 25-27). When Peter and the other disciples came in from the sea to meet the risen Lord, “they saw a charcoal fire there” (21:9), and momentarily Jesus asked Peter to renounce, through love, what he had done at the previous charcoal fire.

This immersion in the Gospel proclamation through the encounter with Christ in repentance is richer still. The charcoal fire was there at the seashore to prepare a meal that they would share, fish and bread. That meal of reconciliation and communion was prepared over the fire of betrayal-transformed-by-repentance-into-love. Their story is our story. For Christians today, “as with the disciples after the Resurrection, the primary locus for this encounter is a meal. The Eucharistic celebration is not simply a fellowship meal or a commemoration of a past meal, but one which begins ‘in the same night in which he was given up’: ‘We do not eucharistically remember a distant meal in Jerusalem, nor even a distant death: we are…people complicit in the betrayal and death of Jesus and yet still called and accepted, still companions of Christ in the strict sense—those who break bread with him’” (a “com-panion” is literally one who shares bread with another).

As the heart of the Gospel message, repentance and Eucharist are symbolically brought together by another burning charcoal: the one that the angel brought with a pair of tongs to purify the lips of Isaiah as he confessed his unworthiness of his vision of God and of standing in his presence (Is. 6:1-8). He came to God first in repentance and was purified by a flaming coal from angelic hands. It is no coincidence, then, that in the Byzantine tradition, the Holy Eucharist, the “live coal of divinity” (Matthew the Poor, Communion of Love) is given with a spoon, as though with tongs, and after Communion the priest says to all the people, just like Isaiah’s angel: “Behold, this has touched your lips; it has taken away your iniquities and cleansed you of your sins.”

Gospel, repentance, Eucharist: this is what the Scripture means; this is the word of God alive and active today. We have to hear it afresh and to meet the Lord Jesus in Spirit and in truth. After receiving the proclamation of the Gospel, and forgiveness through repentance and Holy Communion, we are to become preachers of the Gospel ourselves. As soon as Isaiah was purified, the Lord said: “Whom shall I send?” And Isaiah cried out: “Here am I. Send me!”