By Daniel B. Martins
Many of you know that one of my routine chores as a parish priest was to keep records of the number attending all services, and there’s a big red book on the sacristy counter for precisely that purpose. I’ve been known to refer to that volume as my “self-image book,” for reasons I won’t go into, but which should be fairly obvious. Those who study statistics and keep track of church growth trends tell us that Average Sunday Attendance — or ASA, as it is commonly abbreviated — is the single most important sign of a congregation’s overall health. It’s not the only sign of life, of course, and there are always exceptions to the rule, but it’s an extremely important indicator. And this is why parish clergy can be pretty worked up about the subject of Sunday attendance. It’s not really for the sake of our egos; that’s just a side effect. It’s because we’re concerned about the spiritual health of the people who are committed to our pastoral charge.
Of course, I may be preaching to the choir on this, because all of you are here and not somewhere else on this particular Sunday. But I still want to talk to you today about why it’s vitally important for every Christian to be fanatical about coming to church on the Lord’s Day, and I want to do it with cold, hard, logic. When I was a senior in high school, there was a unit in our social studies course that dealt with logic. We learned about a mental exercise called a syllogism, which is the basic process of logical reasoning reduced to the bare essentials. The classical illustration of a syllogism goes like this: “Socrates is a man.” That’s called the major premise. “All men are mortal.” That’s our minor premise. “Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” That’s our conclusion, and if both premises are indeed true, we can be sure that the conclusion is true. You and I go through this process of logical reasoning every waking hour of the day; we’re just not generally aware that we’re doing so, which is probably a good thing.
So, today I want to take you through a grand syllogism that will make you never want to miss church on Sunday again for the rest of your life! It will be the only logical conclusion that you’ll be able to come to.
First, my major premise: You need to share in the life of God. I need to share in the life of God. Every man, woman, and child needs to share in the life of God. I’m afraid this is one of those rare occasions when we need a Greek lesson during the sermon. In the language of the New Testament, there are two words that can be translated in English as life. One of these words is bios, from which we derive biology. Bios connotes physical life—proteins and amino acids and cells and bones and muscles and joints and skin and hair and teeth. Bios is a wonderful thing, and none of us would be here right now, doing what we’re doing, without it. But we know that bios operates on a temporary-use permit, and that — with the exception of our teeth and hair, perhaps — everything else on that list will someday soon become … well … dust. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The other biblical word for life is zoe (from which, incidentally, we derive zoology). Zoe is a kind of life that isn’t dependent on the laws of physics and chemistry and biology. It’s God’s kind of life, and it’s what distinguishes us from silverback gorillas and border collies and humpback whales and the plankton that humpback whales feed on. When we say that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, we are saying that we share God’s zoe. Whenever Jesus talks about “eternal life,” it’s eternal zoe he means, not eternal bios.
Yet we have a problem. And I’ll illustrate our problem, in the dog days of August, by asking you to picture an air conditioning unit—an air conditioning unit that is continually leaking freon (or whatever they use nowadays instead of freon). The nuts and bolts and sheet metal and electricity are like the bios of the air conditioner. All of that works fine; you flip the switch and it turns on and sounds like it’s running. It just isn’t blowing cold air. For that, it needs coolant. The coolant is the zoe of the air conditioner. We are like air conditioners with no coolant. In theological terms, that freon leak is called sin. Sin is what keeps us from accessing zoe, the life of God. It seems like we’re functioning, but we’re just not effective in that functioning. Something essential is missing. We need zoe. We need the life of God. That’s the major premise in our syllogism.
And now it’s time for our minor premise, which is this: Participation in the Eucharist is our God-given means of sharing in his life. Participation in the Eucharist gives us back our freon. What do we do when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist? First, we come together as the Church. We respond to a call, a call to come out from the world and form a distinct community, a distinct culture within the larger culture of the world. I won’t bore you with all the details, but that’s what the word church means — “those who have been called out.”
And what do we do when we have come together? We read or sing four different passages of Scripture, from both the Old and New Testaments. Then someone — someone gutsy enough and foolish enough to presume to say something about the Word of God — someone gets up and … says something about the Word of God. Then we pray together. We exercise the communal priesthood of the Church by interceding with God for the needs of the world.
Then we have a meal. We take bread and wine and money—all of which represent our life and our labor—and we bring them to the altar. We pray over those gifts, with the specific intention of identifying what we’re doing with what Jesus did with his disciples on the night he was handed over the suffering and death. We break the bread. This reminds us of Jesus taking and blessing and breaking bread in order to feed the crowds who were hungry because they had followed him into the countryside to hear him teach. It also reminds us of Jesus’ body, broken on the cross for our salvation.
Finally, we eat and drink. We eat the bread, which is no longer just bread, but the very body of the crucified and risen Christ. We drink from the cup, which no longer contains mere wine, but the true blood of him whose hands and feet were pierced by Roman nails and from whose side blood flowed when it was pierced by a Roman spear. This is really the good part. Jesus said, “As the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.” Jesus also said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal … zoe.” Those who eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man in the sacrament of Holy Communion share the very life, the eternal zoe, of God Himself. In this sacrament, the air conditioner gets a fresh charge of freon. It is enabled to blow cold air, to do what an air conditioner does.
So we come now to the conclusion of our Grand Syllogism. But first, let’s review our premises. The major premise: We all need to share in the life of God. The minor premise: Participation in the Eucharist is our God-given means of sharing in his life. Therefore, we should participate frequently and fully in celebration of the Eucharist. Let me be more specific, and give you three bullet points about what this “logical conclusion” implies for us:
- Coming to church is like brushing your teeth. You hope it’s an enjoyable experience. But even if it’s not, you still do it, because it’s good for you.
- When you come to the liturgy, you’re a member of the cast, not the audience. The production has an audience of One. The rest of us are part of the show. So take part. Engage it fully. Learn the details. Know what we’re doing and why. Bring both your mind and your heart through the door of the church with your body.
- When you come up for communion, stop and think about what you’re doing. You are feeding on the body and blood of Christ. You are sharing in the very life of God. It’s an activity that deserves your full attention.
“My friends, this is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as our ancestors ate and died; those who eats this bread will live for ever.” Let’s keep the freon flowing. It’s only logical. Amen.