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Holy Communion for the world
Please turn in your Bible to the book of Acts, chapter 17, and follow along as I read vs26-27.
26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,
27 so that they would search for God and perhaps feel/grope for him and find him--though indeed he is not far from each one of us.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Teilhard de Chardin was 33 years old. He was a Jesuit priest and a geologist who had already done important work in his field, but he volunteered to serve as a stretcherbearer in the French army. He was overaged and overqualified. He could have been an officer and a chaplain, but he preferred to work among ordinary soldiers as one of them. He was assigned to a Moroccan regiment. Initially the Moroccans were not thought well of by Army authorities. Perhaps Teilhard was assigned to this regiment because no one else would take the job. But this Moroccan regiment served four years in the trenches and distinguished itself. Their casualty rate was high. Teilhard evacuated the wounded and dying under fire. It was very dangerous work. He received several awards for bravery, including France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor.
While he was in the trenches, in July 1918, he did not have any way to say Mass, which is the Roman Catholic version of what we call the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or the Eucharist. So Teilhard wrote a document that he later titled “The Mass on the World.” Holy Communion was extremely important to Teilhard. He felt the need to have the presence of Christ made real to him in the elements of bread and wine as often as possible, but he also felt that all things could make that presence real to him. Just as we find Christ in the Eucharist, we can find Christ in everything around us. Teilhard found Christ in the mud and blood of the trenches.
But the story does not end there. After the war, Teilhard returned to teaching and research, but his views on science and theology so angered his superiors that they sent him to China to get rid of him. Inadvertently, they sent him to the best place on the planet for a geologist. In the 1920’s practically no geological research had been done in western China and Mongolia—for good reason, in that time, that area was split up among dozens of petty warlords who were little better than bandits. It was a dirty and dangerous place to be, but that did not deter Teilhard, he was soon on a scientific expedition to the Gobi desert. Thus, in 1923, in the desert, he again found himself with no way to partake of Holy Communion. He turned to the document he had written five years earlier in the trenches—“The Mass on the World.” He revised that document and again discovered a Holy Communion without bread and wine, a communion of sunrise and desert sand.
The opening paragraph of “The Mass on the World” reads: “Since once again Lord—though this time not in the forests of the Aisne, but in the steppes of Asia—I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world.” (The Heart of Matter, A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc. 1976, p. 119).
It was apparently Teilhard’s custom to rise early and walk in the desert. He says, “Over there, on the horizon, the sun has just touched with light the outermost fringe of the eastern sky. Once again, beneath this moving sheet of fire, the living surface of the earth wakes, and trembles, and once again begins its fearful travail.” (ibid, 119-120). Teilhard has an impression of Christ as the blazing spirit that molds every living thing. Christ is found in the heart of the world as the innermost depth of everything. Christ is in the very atmosphere that we breathe. As Acts 17:28 says, “In him we live and move and have our being.”
Teilhard thought of all the people who had been a part of his life. He says, “One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life.” (Ibid., 120). He thinks of family and colleagues, and the Mongolians who surround him. He finds Christ in them. Beyond them, he thinks of that “vast anonymous army of living humanity” whom he does not know, yet he knows that they are the material that Christ uses to bring about his purpose.
Thinking about all of humankind, he naturally thinks about where all of this is going. He says, “Once upon a time men took into your temple the first fruits of their harvests, the flower of their flocks. But the offering you really want, the offering you mysteriously need every day to appease your hunger, to slake your thirst is nothing less than the growth of the world borne ever onwards in the stream of universal becoming.” (ibid., 120-121). Teilhard sensed that the world is becoming something. I talked about this last Sabbath. The world is going toward the New Jerusalem. The whole universe is in the process of achieving its final destiny in Christ. Christ is in the world now, moving the whole world toward that destiny.
Most religious people sense something like this. They might put it in different words but they have an awareness that Christ is a living working moving presence in the cosmos, and in our individual lives.
That is what the Apostle Paul is saying in our verses today. Paul went to Athens, and he saw that the city was full of idols. Athens was a very cosmopolitan city, and they tried to avoid offending anyone. So they put up idols to everyone’s Gods, and if they happened to miss one, they also put up an altar to “the unknown God.”
Paul was distressed by all this superstition, but he saw that beneath the idol worship and the ignorance, the Athenians had real religious feelings, and he addressed those feelings. In his famous Mars Hill speech, he said, Men of Athens, I perceive from all these objects of worship that you are very religious. You even have an altar to the unknown God. Let me tell you about him, and Paul then proceeds to speak of the real God whom the Athenians were unknowingly trying to worship.
In v24, Paul says that this “God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands.” Pagans often thought their gods literally lived in the temples they built. Some people today seem to think that God is found only in church, and therefore they can do whatever they like outside of church. Paul says that is obviously nonsense. The God of heaven and earth is not bounded by churches and temples. This is same feeling Teilhard had when he sensed Christ in everything.
In v26, the apostle Paul speaks of God being in charge of everything. God is everywhere—pushing, persuading influencing events. So therefore, Paul notes in v27, God is never far from us.
Teilhard says, “… we stand in the midst of the Presence which hovers about us nameless and impalpable and is indwelling in all things.” (124). Our inmost nature desires this “Presence.” Again, Paul says in v27 that we feel or grope for God. The Greek word that is translated “feel” is yhlajaw It means basically “to touch with the hands.” That is how near God is. God is within touching distance. He is right here. Again, when we can touch things, like this pulpit or this hymnal, we know that these things are real, because we can touch them. God is just as real. God is so real we can feel him.
In the Eucharist, we can touch with our soul a real God whose presence is hidden in the bread and wine. Earlier, I was talking about the times that Teilhard de Chardin could not participate in Holy Communion. In the trenches of World War I, in the desert of Mongolia, he found Christ everywhere, he found a holy communion of the whole world in Christ. None of this should make us suppose that Teilhard was belittling the celebration of holy communion in church. On the contrary, it was because the Eucharist meant so much to him that when he could not partake of it his thoughts were still focused on it and he conceived the idea of Christ shining through the world, or of the world showing us Christ.
What does the Eucharist do? It connects us to God who is never far from us. This is the body and blood of our lord who brings us together and brings us to God. As we partake of this sacrament, we partake of Christ the son, we commune with the son, and, through him, we are united with God the Father. The whole world speaks this communion to us; therefore, let us celebrate the supper of the Lord. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/21/05