Burying Bread: Why My Missional Vision Springs From the Table
For some of us in the Telos Collective, sacramental missiology is a new term. However, it has many practical implications for Anglican leaders who ponder, ‘How does what we do on Sunday affect the world?’ We asked the Rev. Shawn McCain of Resurrection South Austin to share his view on how the Eucharist and other sacraments, imbued with the presence of God, compel us to reach others with the love of Christ.
by the Rev. Shawn McCain
“Go bury these breadcrumbs outside.” I think this was my first real introduction to the Anglican tradition, and it changed my life. I hadn’t been attending this new Anglican church plant in Southern California very long when I was recruited to help clean up the altar. The rector asked me to dispose of the leftover bread, and those were the instructions he gave. I think he knew what he was doing, giving me an experience with the strangeness of our sacramental faith. Without much thought, I went behind the building, found a patch of dirt, and began burying the host in the ground. How strange. It wasn’t until the last few sweeps at the paten that it hit me: “They actually believe this bread is sacred.” Squatting behind the building around a small hand-dug grave, I rested my arms on my knees and wondered, “What if it’s true? What if Jesus is really present in the bread? That’s crazy.”
Ever since that day I’ve been wondering how it is that the invisible God took on flesh and blood in the first place; not as a theological idea, but as a historical fact in Jesus Christ. If we believe that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, then all of reality is tilted toward a new set of possibilities. God is not somewhere else, too busy for us. God is not simply “in our hearts,” or hidden in a church. He isn’t conjured up during our quiet times or in especially heartfelt prayer. God is present because He has promised to be, that’s who He is—even to the end of the age. If this is true, then things are changed. I am changed.
I’m the rector of a growing church plant in Texas named Resurrection South Austin. My wife and I moved with our 4 kids, at the time (now soon to be 6!), from Santa Cruz, California where we helped plant Redeemer Anglican Church. We never intended to become a church planting family, let alone Anglicans, but God called us and here we are. For us, becoming Anglican had a lot to do with our desire to “practice the presence of God,” as Brother Lawrence has written. The wealth of our Anglican tradition is a gift in this sense. For example, the daily office, the liturgy, the Sacraments, its beauty and prayers—all of it is a wealth to the Christian because of its ability to make the Gospel present, visible, and enacted in their life. Apart from this, our beautiful tradition becomes a lifeless relic that sits on a shelf, only to be dusted off twice a year.
When we began planting in Austin, we wanted to practice the presence of God as a community, for the sake of our neighborhood. We had a really dangerous thought: what if in the celebration of Holy Eucharist, Jesus was made really present in our neighborhood? What if when we exclaim “Let us keep the feast!”, we intended to keep that feast as we were sent out into the world? Around God’s table, we are being formed into Christ’s Body, then sent into public every week as the ambassadors of God’s presence and of His saving work.
Our launch team was intrigued by this incredible possibility. If God is made present to us, and we are made present to Him through His Son, then His saving works are also present by the power of the Holy Spirit and we are invited to participate. You could say this was to become our missional “strategy,” which sprang out from the Table, though we didn’t think of it like a technique but a reality. It was the same heart that compelled us to reach out to each other with the love of Christ, but now empowered by the promise of God’s presence and everything that came with it.
When I hear people talk of God’s presence, often times they’re referring to His presence in their heart, or His voice to them in prayer. Less often do I hear, or even realize myself, how when God is present, His saving activity is also present. But that’s who He is: the God who saves. We may know the story of how Israel was delivered through the Red Sea, or about the bread from heaven that nourished them in the wilderness—but if God is present (and He is), how much more are these realities of His saving work also made present?
So when we walk the processional cross down the aisle on Sunday morning at our church, the waters of the Red Sea are somehow made present. When we open our hands for communion, we mysteriously find ourselves in the wilderness. Just as the words of Jesus are made present at the absolution, and His Body and Blood given in the sacrament, the rest of God’s acts of deliverance are made present to the worshipping church.
This subtle but powerful truth of God’s saving presence is announced with “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and affirmed when the people respond “And blessed be His Kingdom, now and forever, amen.” We’re not invoking the presence of God; there’s no need. He’s already made good on His promise to be there. That opening exchange is for our sake, like the splash of cold baptismal water on our face, awakening us to the reality that we’re standing in the presence of the God who saves. The God who appeared in the burning bush, who spoke everything into existence, who raised Christ from the dead, who raises us from the dead, and who continues to establish His kingdom in our neighborhood.
This is how the liturgy and sacraments have shaped us as a church plant. Every week, they confront us with the presence of God and His saving works. But it’s one thing to know it, quite another to believe and practice this kind of presence. One of our first purchases at Resurrection was a chalice. We didn’t have money to make mistakes with; our budget was tight and our strategy had to be even tighter. Early on in the planting process in somebody’s living room, our launch team gathered and prayed for God’s leading as we began to take our first steps. One thing that was made clear among us was the need to walk by faith. We had the strategic smarts to pull off events, and the volunteer muscle to conduct worship services and build up great ministries, but we weren’t interested in any of that. We wanted nothing less than the presence of God in our own lives, and in the lives of our neighbors. As an act of faith (and in defiance of the temptation of a faithless pragmatism), we decided to make our first major purchase a chalice—and it wasn’t cheap.
For our team, a chalice signaled our most important starting principle: God has promised to be present, and so are His acts of salvation—most importantly, the self-emptying work of His son upon the cross for the sake of others. Our team prayed that the love that Christ demonstrated on the cross would so shape us that it would benefit others. We saw the grace of God at the Table pouring out into the streets of our neighborhood. Now when our church holds up that chalice, we remember all that God has done in our lives, and what He continues to do. Our congregation is loaded to the brim with these kinds of visual stories or cues that help us see with the eyes of faith the strange reality of God’s presence.
What if God is really present? This question can get us into a lot of really good trouble. What if His Holy Spirit is given to His church? What if the revelation of His saving works is really made known in scripture? If we paused to consider these possibilities more carefully, we might find our lives beginning to change, our desires altered, our priorities reordered. You might find yourself doing strange things like burying bread, bowing at the cross, marking your face with water, or caught in the act of worship, wondering to yourself, “Maybe God really is present.”
- What does the truth of God’s saving presence change for you?
- How does the celebration of the Holy Eucharist inform your understanding of mission?
- Do you live with an awareness of God’s saving power at work in your neighborhood?
Shawn McCain is the founding rector of Resurrection South Austin. Upon completing an M.Div at Fuller Theological Seminary, he was ordained to the Deaconate in 2011, and the Priesthood in 2012. He and his wife Michelle have been married for over 13 years and are parents of five kids (with one on the way): Mateo, Maddison, Aubri, Braelyn, and Emery. Shawn is currently studying for a D.Min. at Nashotah House Theological Seminary on sacramental missiology.
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