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Hermeneutics, Sacrament, and Other Relatable Experiences

A sermon on Luke 24:36b-48.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Octavian Rosca on Unsplash.]

I think most of you know that I was away last week doing college tours with my oldest son.

The trip naturally brought up college memories for Tyler and I, and at one point we got to talking about the advanced education courses that had made the biggest impact on our lives.

My answer was easy: Cultural Hermeneutics.

Now, I know… that sounds like a super academic, esoteric course with absolutely no relevance to real life. But actually, what I learned in that class has been relevant every single day of my life since.

Hermeneutics is just a fancy word for interpretation: it describes how we give meaning to the words and experience we encounter.

So, the study of cultural hermeneutics means exploring all the various conceptual and experiential frameworks that we each bring to the innumerable tasks of interpretation that confront us each day.

You might not have ever thought of it this way, but we are constantly making interpretations:

We interpret the facial expressions of people we talk to, and the validity and impact of news items we read or hear, and the relevance of posted speed limits for our driving habits, and the importance of our doctor’s advice about what we should eat…

AND whenever any of us read a verse of scripture, or sing a hymn, or listen to a sermon, we are doing “hermeneutics” then too. We are interacting with the truth claims we encounter, and our lenses influence what we see, and hear, and feel. It’s unavoidable.

Because regardless of what ideals we might have been taught about objectivity…we can never put aside our subjectivity.

As human beings, we always bring all of ourselves to the tasks of interpreting meaning, and that means that our values, and our assumptions, and our past experiences will always shape what we understand.

If we try to be objective, we are just lying to ourselves. The best we can do is become aware of our interpretive frameworks.

This is a truth that applies to every area of life, but I took the course in seminary, so much of the discussion was around our interpretation of scripture and religious practices.

Early in the semester, in an effort to explain the role of self-understanding in the practice of conscious interpretation, the instructors shared a reflection from a student in a prior class.

The student in question had written a paper about her experience of the sacrament of communion as a person with an eating disorder.

She shared how eating was always a fraught endeavor for her, in ways that were much more complicated than an oversimplified focus on weight or calorie counting.

Mental health professionals confirm that disordered patterns of eating are an entirely different reality than diet culture.

They can be about the need to control one’s body when other things in life are out of control.

Or about anxiety reactions to foods one’s brain labels as “unsafe.”

Or about sensory factors, or ritual compulsions, or a huge variety of other sources of distress.

This particular student shared how the instruction that she was eating Christ’s body and drinking Christ’s blood made it impossible for her to partake. Her brain could not get past that imagery. And so, she could not take communion. Her brain and body rebelled.

It did not matter that she knew through science that the molecular structure of the bread and wine are not magically transformed.

It did not matter that she understood the theological foundations of the teaching about Christ being present in the sacrament.

The meaning-making that is and has been so powerful and grace-filled for so many people down through the centuries was a barrier for her.

And her self-awareness about this interpretive experience was important. It was empowering for her to understand why she felt the way she did.

The point of studying cultural hermeneutics is to understand how we all have our specific experiences and contexts that shape our meaning-making… even, or perhaps especially, when it comes to faith.

Faith is not a one size fits all proposition.

Not only is God too infinite to be shrunk down to the size that any of us could understand God’s totality.

It’s also true that God understands our particularity, our subjectivity.

God understands that each of us bring our own complex of worldviews, and personality needs, and cultural lenses that shape what we can understand and how that understanding, in turn, shapes our souls.  

And this isn’t a problem. It isn’t a surprise to God. God made us and knows how our minds work.

This particularity is how faith is supposed to work.

That was all a really long introduction to set up my explanation of our bulletin cover this week. (I know that sounds random, but stay with me, it will tie back together.)

You may have noticed that today’s bulletin cover features a picture of communion elements.

Probably not that surprising – it’s the kind of image that feels appropriate to Sunday morning worship…

Unless you also happened to notice that none of our readings for this week mention communion, or describe the last supper, or really seem to have anything to do with the sacrament at all.

I noticed that second fact on Thursday afternoon… after Erin had already printed the bulletins for worship.

Now, this is not Erin’s fault. I am the one who picked the cover art this week. And (in my jet-jagged, fuzzy brain early in the week) I did so based on the “words for reflection” at the beginning of the bulletin, which come from our Lutheran liturgy resource:

According to Sundays & Seasons, “The gospel for the third Sunday of Easter is always one in which the risen Christ shares food with the disciples, meals that are the Easter template for the meal we share each Sunday.”[1]

You can see how I got communion from that, right?!

But I had a bit of a crisis when I started to study the texts for my sermon, because the gospel wasn’t what I was expecting based on that intro.

I wondered what the liturgy guide could mean about this story serving as a “template for the meal we share each Sunday.”

What meal do we find in this story?! It’s just Jesus eating a piece of fish to demonstrate that he was a real, physical person and not a ghost.

How does that serve as a template for communion?

At first it was a rhetorical question… but then it became an honest wondering.

How does this demonstration of Jesus’ physical, embodied presence with his friends serve as a template for what we do in worship thousands of years later?

I have always heard the words of institution before the sacrament as a call-back to Jesus’ death.

But if his death had been the final word, what would there be to celebrate?

We could remember it as Jesus instructed, but that memory would be a grief-filled one.

It’s his resurrection: the evidence in his renewed life that he can make good on his promise for wholeness and hope in our lives that makes communion a means of grace.

And if that’s true, then there can be a profound meaning for the sacrament of communion in Jesus eating a bit of food with the disciples after his resurrection.

It’s an assurance of his presence that isn’t about trusting the theological proposition that Christ’s body and blood is somehow, mysteriously “in, with and under” the bread and wine.

It’s an assurance, in story form, that Jesus understands our need to know that he’s really with us… that he’s not just a memory, or a shared delusion, or a ghost.

That his life with us is as real and pragmatic as taking a bite of broiled fish.

And I can’t help but wonder…

if that student who shared her struggle with communion… if she were to be offered a piece of fish and told “this is the food that our risen Lord ate as evidence of his resurrection. Do this in remembrance of him”…

I wonder if that could be a means of grace for her.

A few minutes ago, I made the claim that particularity is how faith is supposed to work.

I think this is a truth reflected in today’s gospel.  

As the prelude to Jesus’s request for something to eat, Luke writes about the disciples who have just touched his resurrected body, “while in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering...”

Luke, at least, is aware of the disciples’ subjectivity… the complex of different expectations and frameworks that shaped their interpretation of what they were experiencing with the Risen Jesus.

Various mixtures of joy, and also disbelief, and also wondering.

The scrambled experience of trying to interpret something they weren’t primed to slot into a neat mental category.

And I think that’s a good thing. In fact, I think it was probably easier for Jesus to “open their minds to understand the scriptures” precisely because they had just been confronted with the limits of their understanding.

They’d just had their own mini-lesson in cultural hermeneutics, drawing their awareness to the kind of evidence that they found persuasive.

Evidence that the Jesus in front of them shared their embodied reality… that he was a real as the food they could put in their mouth, just like he did.

Maybe the physicality of communion is what helps you as well. Or maybe it’s the spiritual mystery, of Christ somehow present in the elements. Or maybe it’s the community experience of sharing this ancient ritual together. Or maybe it’s something I haven’t even thought of… particularity is how faith is supposed to work.

But whatever makes meaning for you, it is my belief that Jesus will meet you in this meal, according to your framework for meaning-making, and however you understand his presence with you, you are invited to the table.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Sundays & Seasons, Year B 2024. © 2023 Augsburg Fortress. Permission for use under Lic. #14239-LIT.


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