1 July 2012
5th Sunday After Pentecost
I was tempted to toss my sermon plan and preach on the Samuel passage. I offer a brief reflection on verses twelve to fourteen of the Corinthians passage which deals with Paul’s theology of giving, giving from his Gentile churches to the poverty of the Jewish community in Jerusalem, before turning to the primary focus of my sermon. Here are verses twelve to fourteen in my U. S. language version based on the Revised New English Bible.
If we give eagerly according to our means that is acceptable to God. God doesn’t ask us to give what we don’t have. You don’t need to relieve others at a cost of hardship to yourselves. It is a question of equality. At the moment your surplus meets their need. One day your need may be met from their surplus. The aim is equality.
My point of view is that equality matters and that equality is not a sufficient guide for giving. Neither is giving with an eye to being supported when one is in need. I think the guidance of Jesus is more about giving out of thankfulness for life, world, and each other. Such thankfulness is echoed in the sharing of bread and cup in Communion, a shared meal that feeds our deepest hungers and gathers us into community.
This is a weak transition to the primary focus of my sermon. I want to consider with you why Seekers takes Communion on the first Sunday of every month.
We celebrate adult baptism, birthdays, marriages, lives at the moment of death and community loss. We have the ribbon ceremony to mark turnings in our outward journeys. I think of Seekers as a post-Protestant and post-Free Church congregation. We carry forward the tradition of celebrating Communion as the only sacrament that is a regular part of our church calender.
If all we are doing is carrying tradition forward, then Communion becomes an idol. So I’m going to share my understanding of why Communion matters so much to me, why I think it deserves to be honored with the word sacrament. Some Christian traditions put a big emphasis on sacramental theology. I don’t and this is a bit of an unusual sermon for me to preach.
My definition of a sacrament is that it is a symbol that really, really, matters. It didn’t matter much to me in my early years as a Christian because I didn’t like the magical spin that wrapped up the presentation of Communion in First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee, Florida. I had to grow in my Christian experience before Communion mattered to me.
The core biblical narrative on which our ceremony of Communion is based is found in the Fourteenth Chapter of Mark. Matthew and Luke follow Mark with only minor tweaks. Paul presents the words of institution in Corinthians and that tells us that the oral tradition around communion was widely known before Mark wrote it down.
What did Communion mean for Mark? That is a challenging question since what Mark presents in the Fourteenth Chapter is a story of the disciples celebrating Passover with Jesus just before Jesus is betrayed, tried, and crucified. The last supper of Jesus is about a Jewish ceremony not a new Christian ceremony called Eucharist or Communion. Mark writes the death story of Jesus with repeated reference to what many consider the most important Jewish holiday. If we want to understand Mark’s narrative we better think for a moment about Passover.
Passover marks a climax point in the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Moses pleaded to Pharaoh to free the Jews. Pharaoh resisted. God sent plagues. Pharaoh resisted. God sent the worst kind of plague possible, the killing of eldest sons. God passed over the eldest sons of Jews because the Jews sacrificed lambs and marked their door posts with lamb blood. Pharaoh relented. The Jews escaped, taking some plunder with them. Yahweh wins. Pharaoh loses.
Fast forward a thousand years or so and you have Jews in Jerusalem living in a tenuous deal with the Romans resulting from centuries of rebellious warfare and negotiations. In the time of Jesus, Passover was still a ceremony of rebellion and liberation.
Mark precedes the celebration of Passover story with a Thirteenth Chapter that is full of apocalypse and last days and presents Jesus as the Messiah who would somehow free Israel. This is a dramatic claim since Mark well knew, from a vantage point decades after the death of Jesus, that Jesus had not freed the Jews from Rome. At the time Mark was being written, yet another rebellion of Jews was gathering in Jerusalem. The rebellion led to Rome committing genocide against the Jews, including Jewish followers of Jesus, and destroying the Temple. This ended the deal with the Herods, and Rome destroyed Jerusalem as a powerful fortified city that could cause Rome problems.
Mark presents a story holding onto an understanding of Jesus as Messiah in the context of rebellion, fear, and impending disaster. For me, the Gospel of Mark is a story of early Christians discovering the importance of Jesus even though he was shamefully executed, even though he was rejected by the overwhelming majority of Jews.
Mark is not writing for the rebels in Jerusalem. He is writing for a Christian community made up of Gentiles and probably some Hellenized Jews, probably in Rome. His narrative presents a great picture of Jesus and an unflattering picture of the disciples. The story of Judas going to the priests to plan the betrayal of Jesus just before the Passover meal is an example of this theme. Mark wrote for a community that was turning the Last Supper into Communion. It references the grounding of Christianity in Judaism and points the emergence of Christianity as a distinct religion.
There are three parts of the brief Mark story. The first is the secret, clandestine, nature of setting up the meal, a part of the story that would resonate with a community that probably was clandestine itself, that used the secret sign of the fish to mark its meeting places. Then the supper begins and Jesus tells twelve disciples that one of them will betray him. Jesus is presented as claiming the title Son of Man which has messianic implications. Then Jesus presents the bread and wine, they sing the Passover Hymn, and leave. The words of institution Jesus uses for the bread are simply “This is my body.” The words of institution he uses for the wine cup are “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, shed for many.” Then Jesus says, “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine again until I drink it in the realm of Heaven.”
What covenant? For the early Christians this doesn’t have to do with the Mosaic covenant of obedience to the law of the priests in exchange for liberation or God’s continuing favor. Even though there is a messianic setting for this story, with shadows of apocalypse and fear, covenants are about the here and now reality of being in relationship with God.
What covenant? We are looking at it. It is what binds Christians together in community. It is a covenant written on our hearts with the experience of the Holy Spirit, the direct experience of the God of Jesus, God with Jesus, God with us. It is not about God with us but not with all the thems. It merely focuses on us. It celebrates our finding each other along the Christian Way. This is not about belief in doctrine as a path to salvation. This is about directly experiencing what matters, what matters most, in our lives. This is about finding a community in which we embrace each other as we live into understanding, appreciation, embodying, embracing, the good gifts of God; as we engage the guidance of Jesus, as we experience the Divine Presence.
This covenant of our hearts, before we understand it with our minds, opens paths to caring, vulnerability, trust, accountability, hope, caring, responsibility, and generosity. We learn more with fresh guidance from our reflection and prayers. We learn more as we teach each other, and model for each other, what salvation looks like. In Seekers we are clear about inviting everyone to join our circle of forgiving, loving, and caring. Join our circle if you want at least a momentary experience of Christian community, at least a momentary experience of being acceptable to God, of being accepted by each other. Communion is for celebrating the joy part of salvation. We certainly have plenty of opportunity for helping each other through what is hard in our lives, for facing into what is hard in the world. Communion celebrates the covenant that arises with doing our parts, learning as we go, forgiving and repenting, wailing and collapsing as needed. Communion celebrates opening our hearts to each other.
I’m preaching a love song with you and I look forward to singing Alleluia with you in a few minutes as we gather in our circle. Mark’s community was working it out with the concepts they had. They were practicing communion before they got all the words right and so can we.
I don’t give a hoot about transubstantiation or consubstantiation. I do care about sharing a symbolic meal with you, about sharing a meal as an image of salvation.
People were starving in the time of Jesus and people are underfed now. Kenny Shaw and Vincent Shepherd work each week to feed those who are hungry in our communities, not just in some exotic or far away places. We put cans of food in the care packs we pass out. Hunger is real and sharing food matters. Those of us who seldom miss a meal still find a lot of pleasure in sharing meals in Seekers. Our mission group eats together every Wednesday evening. Glen calls us out to lunches after worship in Bethesda. We eat in each others homes. We eat in silence at Dayspring. We eat before our School of Christian Living meals. We have celebratory meals at Christmas and Easter, and after foot washing on Maunday Thursdays. We eat together at Stewards meetings. Koinonia just organized a birthday lunch after church for everyone. One of the things I love about Communion is that it encourages us to find the deeper meanings of all our eating together: feeding ourselves and each other. We need food. We need each other, We need communion that makes the bread more than calories because it celebrates the loving and caring that makes us more than individuals, that makes real the language of living in the realm of God.
I love communion in Seekers because it reminds me that I love you: love you before I know you well in some cases, love you because you inspire me, love you because you have taken me in with all my limitations, love you because you invite me to be the best I can be, love you as we work things out – even the hard and irritating things. I love what we focus on doing together and all the things we care about that go way beyond our shared efforts. I love the traditions, guidelines, and processes we have established and all the vitality that spills over and changes our understandings and agreements. I love the way Celebration Circle keeps working with Communion to keep it both grounded and fresh. And I love Jesus who pulled off the miracles of sharing that turned revival meetings into pot luck suppers.
I love who we are and who we are becoming together.