Every celebration of the Eucharist is a commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the means by which we enter into this mystery and are caught up in his risen life. To say it another way, our celebration communicates to us God’s love shown in Jesus Christ, and the reality of new life that we have through him. Every time we gather for the breaking of the bread, as we do today, Jesus (who is alive and not dead) is present in his Body and Blood, and in the assembled community which is the Body of Christ.
This is a general truth about the Eucharist; but the church has from early times celebrated this sacrament by the graveside, in connection with individuals in particular. There is a general truth that we receive in a particular context, like our celebration today for our friend and colleague the Rev’d Peter Whalen. We have in mind the great truths of the Christian faith, the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection that means new life for us, but we bring them to bear today on our particular grief at his loss.
Peter Whalen was a priest and pastor in the Diocese of Tennessee for over thirty years. He was part of the “stitching” of the diocese, one of those people who was holding us together. He loved being with other clergy and with the People of God. Thank you Barbara, Chris, and Christy, for sharing him with us. He had endless energy and time to spend on being a pastor! He, like his Master, delighted in doing the will of him who sent him. In return, people loved him and gave thanks for his ministry in their midst.
Fr. Peter loved being with his fellow priests. One of my favorite memories of him is one time at St. Mary’s when the clergy gathered together after several years when there had been controversy in the church and it had been difficult to gather as a Clericus. If one side showed up the other wouldn’t: you know the sort of thing.
On this occasion, Peter and some others were so glad to be together again that they stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, no doubt telling funny stories, some of them (maybe) based on actual events. I hope we all know what that’s like. In this way, community was deepened and faith affirmed. Peter would love our gathering today. I am so grateful to him for his ministry, at St. Philip’s Church, at Church of the Redeemer, and many other congregations in our diocese that he served at one time or another.
Our gospel, from the sixth chapter of John, is well-placed for its purpose today. It’s part of Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life, a profound meditation on the Eucharist that is a hallmark of St. John’s Gospel. The vocation of any priest is linked to the administration of the sacraments, and the celebration of the Eucharist is central to the pastoral charge. Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, the context of our Gospel, is explicitly eucharistic: the gathering of the company, the giving of thanks to God, the meal shared in the wilderness. John makes clear in his telling what’s up with this feeding.
As if to underscore all of this, Jesus’ discourse itself highlights the theme of the Eucharist. “’Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness… it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life.’” (Jo. 6:31-35).
When we come to the altar to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation, we receive the fullness of Jesus himself. His immortal life, raised from the dead, lives in us, and we live because of him. God’s will is to restore all things through Jesus Christ, and the sacrament is the foretaste, the promise of that renewal. “Because I live, you also will live” (Jo. 14:19), Jesus says later in John’s Gospel. Christ is just the first fruits, as St. Paul says, of a great harvest of life at Christ’s coming (1 Cor. 15:23).
Our Gospel is set within this context. The Eucharist that we celebrate today is a sign of the life of Christ that lives within us. “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (Jo. 6:38-40). The Eucharist is the token, the pledge and sign that we belong to Christ. No power, including the power of death, can separate us from him, or ourselves from one another in him.
It was Peter Whalen’s particular ministry, and his joy, to share the sacraments with others, to be a priest and pastor. As we celebrate this Eucharist today, we remember his ministry with thanksgiving, and receive the sacrament in faith, trusting that the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead will raise us also with him. Thanks be to God!