Chaplain Mel Baars
August 19, 2012
“Our Fountain of Youth”
Amidst the hundreds of boxes that flooded the chaplain’s offices this past Christmas was a package from my mother. Inside of this box were a few neatly wrapped presents along with a plastic Este Lauder bag. For you guys out there who don’t know. Este Lauder is a cosmetic brand. It is very important to Jesus that you know this. Taped to the outside of the plastic in my mother’s handwriting were these instructions: Use immediately. My curiosity sufficiently peaked, I tore into the bag. Even though I knew it was probably some kind of “combat-ready” make up, I was still hoping for something edible. No such luck. Instead, what I found was an assortment of anti-aging creams. From advanced night eye repair to daily moisturizing lotion with anti-oxidantial powers, these magical creams promised to stave off the evidence of the passage of time and keep me young, at least that’s what the back of the bottles claimed.
My first thoughts were shock and then horror. Was I really old enough to begin waging the war against wrinkles? Didn’t I have a few more years left in me before I had to worry about strategizing my defense against the age? Yet, I could hear my mother’s voice reverberating in my head, reminding me that one is never too premature in matters such as this.
We humans have a lengthy history with both combating aging and attempting to skirt the inevitability of death. A quick google search of the “Fountain of Youth” yields almost ten million hits, from historical data points to ritzy plastic surgery centers where one can get everything done from Botox to a face lift and all in a handful of hours. Having been born and raised in the great state of Florida, I was particularly interested in one legend of the fountain of youth which claims that the Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de León, was on a search for the Fountain of Youth when he stumbled across what is now Florida sometime in the early 1500s. Thanks for that, Juan. But supposedly, when consumed, these mythical waters would allow a person to remain young forever.
One of my favorite childhood cartoons, Duck Tales, features a story line about the discovery of a fountain of youth, yet at least in this tale, Donald duck’s nephews realize that the waters only make, in this case, a duck seem younger on the surface. The aging process is not actually stopped. And, of course, there is the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow’s search for the mythical fountain in the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. I didn’t see the movie, so I am not sure if he ever found it. From Peter Pan’s Never Never Land to the lyrical melodies of the hit song “Forever Young,” we have always been a little obsessed with youth, and subsequently, with evading death.
As Marine Sergeant Major "Dan" Daly, a double recipient of the medal of honor during World War I, famously said as he was leading his company in a charge against the Germans, "For Christ's sake men—come on! Do you want to live forever?" If we are honest, at least for some of us, the answer may be, “Yes.” Of course, we don’t want to be feeble or ill—I guess I am saying we don’t want to be old. Instead, we would like to be our best self-- strong, capable, and ready to enjoy the good life. The alternative to living forever is dying. Most of us are not ready to embrace this other possibility, as if it were ever our choice. Yet, reading our gospel this morning, it seems that Jesus begs to differ. He says, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” And then again at the very end of the passage, “Whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But, the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
In the face of these past few weeks, what has amounted to our deadliest month in Afghanistan this year, Jesus’ words are a glimmer of hope in the darkness. As families reel from news of their fallen, and as most of us, even if it is only for a brief moment, take stock ourselves, Jesus’ offer of life, despite death, could not have come at a better time. This is the news we need to hear, even though for some the whole idea of eating Jesus, in what some might call a cannibalistic ritual, is not entirely palatable. Eating flesh and drinking blood sounds more like a movie spinoff starring Hannibal Lector rather than Jesus’ words plucked straight from the Bible. Yet, this flesh and blood is at the heart of who we are-- as followers of Jesus and as a community of faith in every time and place. Every week, when we gather around God’s table to break bread and share one cup, saying our prayers together just as our Lord Jesus has taught us to pray, we are reminded that we are called with Christ from death into life—a life that is everlasting. All of our other efforts to find true life pale in comparison with this. This meal, this act of remembrance, is the way we live forever.
When my unit arrived here last October, I was assigned to do the “traditional,” liturgical service. These descriptors can be interpreted in many different ways, and I wondered myself what exactly our worship might entail. I had never been the head honcho minister before. I wasn’t really sure what to do. But as I thought and prayed that first week, I realized that no matter what we did in worship, what songs we sang, what prayers we prayed, what scripture we read or what kind of sermons I crafted, the most important part of the service would always be Holy Communion. Perhaps it is my Episcopalian roots or the comfort factor of knowing that no matter how boring my sermon may be any given week, there will always be communion to save the service. No matter how things evolved or who decided to show up, Eucharist would always be our focus.
But isn’t this how it should be? Every time we gather to pray and praise, we do just as Jesus taught us. We break bread and we share the cup, remembering his saving love until he comes again. Whenever we celebrate this holy meal, we are reminded of God’s gift of life, abundant life, which has been given to us in Christ. Jesus’ body and blood, shared for us, weaves us into a timeless continuum of life, one that has no end. We are one with those that have passed away as well as with those who are still to come. Through Christ we are a part of forever.
Though we celebrate God’s promise to us every time we come into this place for worship, wrapping our minds around the idea of forever is not an easy task. When we consider what is happening, in our church alone, the infighting and the division which seems to only spread further and deeper these days, we begin to wonder if forever is a true possibility. We worry that in the face of modernity, the future of the church may hang in the balance, too. We attempt to take action in order to safeguard what we know and love. In the process, we sometimes forget that our God is God—I am who I am. We forget that God’s promises are vastly different from ours. We forget that God’s faithfulness endures when ours falters. Our humanness prevents us from grasping what God’s forever really means. This doesn’t mean we don’t continue to pray without ceasing-- for peace, for unity, for the coming of God’s heavenly kingdom. But, we pray with the knowledge that ultimately, all of us, every last one of us, are held in God’s hands.
Part of our communion liturgy is called the Memorial Acclamation. It is a proclamation of the mysteries of faith. It is our opportunity to acknowledge the great significance of our faith. But because it is mystery, there is also room for our doubt. While we endeavor to believe that God’s forever is sure, we will always glimpse the divine mysteries through a dimly lit glass. Even still, every time we come to this table, we witness these truths:
Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
From the very beginning, when our budding church was struggling to survive and its members were forbidden to celebrate the Eucharistic meal, some version of these words in countless different languages has been said. In the twists and turns of our collective faith history, in times of peril as well in times of triumph, these have been our watchwords.
We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection, until you come again.
No matter where we are going or how the body of Christ is transforming, we trust, further into the divine image, these are still our words. From our children to our children’s children and in every generation beyond them, in every time and place, past, present and to come, these words will continue to be at the core of who we are and what we believe.
We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.
Jesus says, “The one who eats this bread will live forever.” This is our fountain of youth. This is God’s promise. This much we know is true. Amen.