Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 6, 2016

Those of you who are winter residents have noticed a change to the seating arrangement in the worship space. I rearranged the seating and Sanctuary during the summer months. My intention was to make the Offertory and Communion Rite move a little more smoothly. The rearrangement has been very successful, and I’d like to explain some of the details to those of you who remember the previous floor plan.

Those of you seated in this central section, where the chairs are pink, will come to Communion down the center aisle. Those of you seated on the sides, where the chairs are red, will come to Communion down the aisles that terminate at the double doors to the side bays.

We’ve increased the space around the Communion ministers, and the number of Communion ministers, in order to keep traffic flowing as smoothly as possible. In case you get disoriented there are single green chairs that mark the return route to your seat.

The protocol for those of you who have a difficult time walking up to receive Holy Communion remains the same. When the Communion lines have diminished, please raise your hand, and a Communion minister will bring Holy Communion to you at your seat. If it’s too difficult to raise your hand, the person seated next to you will be happy to help. Other gestures, such as standing or looking neglected are less likely to get our attention as we will be looking for raised hands, and disregarding other things.

On the topic of gestures, I would bring your attention to the insert in this Sunday’s Bulletin; it describes the procedure for receiving Holy Communion in the dioceses in the United States. You have the option of receiving on the tongue or in the hand. To receive Holy Communion on the tongue, you have to extend your tongue sufficiently to provide a place to put the host. To receive Holy Communion on the hand, you have to do likewise: provide sufficient space to put the host.

There are detailed instructions on receiving Holy Communion in the insert in this Sunday’s Bulletin, but I would like to add one further instruction. Please do not wait until the last possible moment to extend your hand or tongue. If you make me guess about how you plan to receive Holy Communion, I will probably guess wrongly. Please extend your hand or tongue before you get to the Communion minister. The Communion minister will say to you, “The Body (Blood), of Christ.” The appropriate response is, “Amen”; points are not awarded for creativity. With all of those details behind us, I’d like to spend a few minutes reflecting on the meaning of the term “The Body of Christ.”

The parable in this Sunday’s Gospel is well-known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The title is as misleading as it is ubiquitous. Admittedly, the younger son was a true prodigal. The older brother, however, was no prize; he was painfully passive-aggressive. Neither of them compare, however, to their father. The father was completely irresponsible. He gave away half of the family’s wealth to a wastrel, ignored the son who was obedient, and at great expense welcomed back the good-for-nothing.

Instead of calling this story the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it could just as well be called the Parable of the Dysfunctional Family. To do so, however, is to miss the point of the story. Jesus told this parable to a group of religious leaders who were criticizing him for socializing with the marginalized. The three named characters in the story represent those marginalized to whom Jesus had been sent by God. The religious leaders were also represented in the story by a principal character, but that character remained unnamed.

The younger son behaved shamefully by requesting an inheritance from a father who was still living. The father behaved shamefully by acquiescing to an inappropriate request. The elder son behaved shamefully by complaining rather than intervening in his brother’s and father’s shameful behavior. But there’s more to the story. There was another “character” involved in the story’s resolution. The profligate father threw a party for the prodigal son. Everyone was invited to the party, including the passive-aggressive son and the family’s neighbors. Jesus tells us how the family members reacted to the party, but he does not tell us how the townsfolk reacted. Did they go to a party to celebrate with the dysfunctional family, or did they keep their distance? This was the question that Jesus was posing to the religious leaders. Would they join those who had heard God’s Word and repented, or would they keep their distance?

The unnamed character in the story are the group of neighbors who were invited to celebrate the return of the prodigal. When Jesus spoke this parable, the unnamed characters represented the complaining religious leaders. Today, the unnamed characters represent us. Will we join in the celebration of repentance, or will we keep our distance?

Today, when we use the term “The Body of Christ,” we use this almost exclusively as a reference to the Sacrament of the Eucharist. For most of the history of Catholicism, however, there was another reality that was the primary referent for the term “The Body of Christ.” In the Christian Scriptures, and for most of the Church’s history, the term “The Body of Christ” referred primarily to the membership of the Church: those baptized into the death of Jesus.

The “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), to which St. Paul refers is a new People of God, the Body of Christ formed from those who have been reconciled to God. In a few minutes, when you come to the Altar, the minister will say to you, “The Body of Christ.” This is a statement about those who receive faithfully just as much as it is a statement about the Sacrament they receive. We have been made One Body through Baptism, and are renewed each week as One Body in the sharing of the One Bread and the One Cup. As such, the parable in today’s Gospel reading is directed to each of us. Will we join in the celebration of repentance, or will we keep our distance?

It is much too easy to see Eucharist as something we come to church to “get.” However, if you make Sunday Mass solely about what you “get,” you’ve made yourself the most important person present this morning – more important even than God. If Eucharist is only something you “get,” and take away with you, you are receiving much less than you think.

Like the townsfolk in the parable, we are invited at this moment, to join a communal celebration of forgiveness and reconciliation. This invitation leaves us with a choice to make. Will we be satisfied with the level of forgiveness present in our lives now, or will we enter into the possibility of perfect reconciliation?

The townsfolk who joined the profligate father’s banquet had the opportunity to witness an extravagant degree of forgiveness; those who refused to enter cheated themselves out of a rare experience. Our weekly celebration of the Eucharist works in exactly this fashion. Those who enter fully experience the fullness of Divine reconciliation; those who remain on the margins go home with no more than they brought.

Just as the profligate father created community by his banquet, so God intends to do with us. Eucharist is an open invitation to prodigals, complainers, the wayward, the self-righteous and the shameless. Eucharist is not a commodity to be obtained, or even a blessing to be wrestled from God’s grip. Eucharist is a mirror of who we are. Those who enter fully into the banquet are a reflection of the reconciliation made possible by Jesus’ death; those who stand at a distance are a reflection of estrangement.

The dead have been brought to life. The lost have been found. The table of reconciliation is set. (Luke 15:24) Will you come to the feast, or will you watch from a distance?