Face to Face

Scripture can be found here...

Has anyone out there ever written a love letter?


There’s something powerful in the heady, early days of a relationship, about committing your feelings to paper (or to Gmail). It’s bold. It’s daring. It’s risky—you don’t know whether your ardor will be returned. And there’s something liberating about it. Finally, it’s out there, you’ve said it. Written it, or typed it. I love you. I want to be with you. I’m longing to see you.


And… it’s possible to have that intense longing for someone you have never even met. Just ask all the folks who do the commercials for eHarmony and Match-dot-com… A few well-chosen words plus, of course, the well-chosen profile picture, and… you may begin to suspect you’ve found The One.


We’re reading a love letter today, and throughout this month of May (with one notable detour into the Acts of the Apostles on Pentecost Sunday). We’re reading a different kind of love letter from Paul to the Christian community in Rome, a community he has never met, but whom he greets with these words:


… God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God's will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.  ~Romans 1:9-12


I am longing to see you, Paul says. You can fall in love by text or by reputation or by parchment scroll—but there is nothing like a face-to-face encounter. There is nothing like incarnation, the experience of one another’s physical presence.


There is nothing like communion.


Paul wants to see the good people of the First Church of Rome because he believes he has something good to share with them—good news! And he does, throughout this longest of his letters, share what he believes to be the essentials of what it means to be followers of Jesus. His letter opens with the Easter proclamation all over again: God raised this Jesus from the dead, and by that victory over sin and death, we know Jesus to be the presence of God with us—the incarnation—the face-to-face encounter with God we have been longing for.  But it’s more than that. Paul doesn’t just want to teach a long-distance Sunday School class—valuable and necessary as that is. Paul wants to share encouragement—and he does not presume that it’s a one-way street. Paul wants to shore up the people of the Roman church, and he wants them to shore him up too. Let’s be mutually encouraged by one another’s faith, yours and mine, he says.


He is longing for communion.


It is no accident that Jesus left us some love letters of his own, more commonly called “sacraments.” One of them is the sacrament of the table, the one we share today. The Lord’s Supper. Holy Communion.


The word “communion” means, at its most basic level, coming together as one. It is all about the human encounter, being fully present, hearts open to one another. And it is no accident that it so often happens around a table.


We know that some of the most beautiful things happen around tables. The vegetables are harvested from the garden (or from the produce section at Price Chopper). The bread is baked (maybe in your own kitchen, maybe at Freihofer’s). As the meal is cooked, the aromas send out the invitation: something good is coming, something that will bring us all running, from our different places, to this one place, around this table, where we can share this meal, face to face.


Someone brings the food to the table, and we bring ourselves to the meal. As we take in the food prepared and given to nurture us, we give ourselves to those around us. Sometimes we’re exhausted from a tough day, and don’t feel like talking. Sometimes we can’t wait to tell the details of our day, and it all spills out. In either case, we are there. We are present. We are connected—especially if we can bear to put our phones away, just for a bit.


We bring ourselves to the table, the fullness of who we are.


Sometimes the conversation becomes difficult. There is bad news. Or there is a disagreement. But we are still at that table, in one another’s presence—not anonymously pushing a note under a door, or posting an opinion to a social media site, removed in our own little man- and woman-caves. We bring ourselves to that table, which means, we are still in relationship, in both the pain and the joy.


Communion as we experience it at church is not all that different—and there is all the difference in the world, too. For one thing, it is not our table—the table is set by, the meal is prepared on behalf of, Jesus, the host, who invites us, and makes room for us. And just as we bring the fullness of who we are to the table, so does he. We are accustomed to thinking of Holy Communion as a memorial meal, harkening back to the events around Jesus’ death, that last supper. And it is true—we say his words, each and every time. But Jesus ate many meals that are recorded in scripture. Jesus went to the homes of tax collectors and Pharisees, as well as the homes of his closest friends, Simon Peter, and Martha and Mary. And Jesus took a few loaves and fish and managed to feed multitudes, thousands of people. The meal we share isn’t only about Jesus’ death: it’s about his life. He brings the fullness of himself to the table. Which means, his life and his death. And also, the life of the One who gives life, the very life of God.


And at the table, as we take in the meal that has been prepared, we share our lives, all of us together. And we all are made one.


And in that oneness is… Encouragement. Also, Joy. Welcome. Acceptance. Hope. Strength, to do the work of disciples—I can’t help coming back to that event, the feeding of the multitudes. I know it’s not a numbers game, but it’s a story so important in the life of Jesus that it is told six times in four gospels. In that oneness we are empowered and inspired to feed others, to bring God’s compassion and care to a hurting world. And we are empowered to do that other work of disciples: to give witness, to God’s vision for justice and truth. We are empowered to protest those aspects of society that violate the image of God in God’s children, like racism, like sexism, like the idea that any particular group of people are less than human. And finally, in that oneness, in that meal, we are given the tiniest foretaste of a banquet the likes of which we can’t even begin to imagine, to which all are welcome, and to which it is our job to invite, and invite, and invite, absolutely everyone we can.  


Paul begins his long letter by sharing his longing to see the people he loves (but has never met) face to face. He is longing to share encouragement with them. He is longing for communion, and so are we. So is everyone. All God’s people. Day after day they cross our paths, and we cross theirs. At the heart of the human experience is the longing to know we are not alone, that we are welcome around a table, where we can find courage, and strength, and nourishment, and love. Our longing for God is matched, and exceeded, only by God’s longing for us, and delight to welcome us to this table, and this meal. Thanks be to God. Amen.