From the vault:
Here’s a sermon on the practice of Sabbath from a sermon series on Lauren Winner’s book, Mudhouse Sabbath.
You can listen to it in the widget to the right or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’
You can listen to it in the widget to the right or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’
It’s Sabbath Day and more so than language or nationality or skin-color or songs or church structure, the one thing that binds Christians all over the world- excepting the scriptures- is the sacrament.
Bread and Wine.
Or Grape Juice.
Holy Communion. The Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Table. The Eucharist, Paul calls it, the great giving of thanks.
As much as the sacrament unites Christians it has divided them too. Con vs Trans Substantiation. Is it a grim memorial of a last supper or a joyful foretaste of a feast to come when the Kingdom does?
The word sacrament has the ring of exclusive specificity to it. It’s just a fancy word for ‘mystery.’
I think it best if all the old arguments stop there.
Here’s an old sermon (3 years now) on the Eucharist. You can listen to it in iTunes too or download the free Mobile App and listen there.
A while back I was talking with Lauren Winner and she reflected, bemusedly, about what she must have been thinking to write a memoir, Girl Meets God, at only the age of 24.
Acknowledging an inevitable psychological need to reveal parts of herself, Winner also acknowledged that she would rather err on the side of divulging too much of her life than too little.
The Church needs more authenticity she said.
I think the same can be said of the pulpit.
Preachers need more authenticity.
Cormac McCarthy, my favorite novelist, admitted to an interviewer that he has no interest in literature that doesn’t have death in it.
Matters of life and death are too important to neglect for a novel to ring true.
Likewise, Gardner Taylor, the dean of black preachers, often critiqued younger preachers for sermons that had no blood in them, meaning there was no sign in them of the preacher’s own struggle with life and faith.
While it’s certainly inappropriate for preachers to use the pulpit as their own private confessional or to coerce the congregation into playing the role of therapist, in general I think more preachers’ sermons need to have blood on them.
Too often preachers are reticent to speak of themselves and when they do it lacks any sense of grittiness.
The lack of urgency I critiqued earlier just as often stems from the flat, safe nature of the preacher’s personal witness.
What preachers offer up are innocent illustrations from their lives, tame slices of life that are no more urgent or gritty than ‘Kids Say the Darndest Things.’
The preacher, as the historic black church has understood her, is one called from among the people, as one of the people, to bring a Word on behalf of the people. This representational role of the preacher requires, I think, the preacher to give witness to the people’s own on-the-ground struggles.
For the sermon to be a Word that makes contact with the listeners, the sermon should be a testimony that emerges out of the crucible of the preacher’s own suffering and wrestling with the scripture and the faith.
Naturally, this can’t be a week-in, week-out mode of preaching nor should the preacher’s personal testimony overwhelm or contradict the meaning of the scripture text itself, but the common reluctance to preach personally betrays a kind of homiletical docetism; in that, when the preacher seems determined to appear less than real, someone who doesn’t struggle with the same issues and questions the rest of us struggle with.
The bitter fruit of such tame preaching can be the proclamation of a Messiah who also seems less than real.
We cannot authentically preach an incarnate God if our message avoids the stuff of our own fleshly lives.
After all, if ‘Israel’ itself means ‘to contend’ with God, then any faithful testimony of this God needs to bear the scars of having contended and prevailed.
The event put me in a recollecting mood. I’ve changed in many ways since my commissioning and my theology has changed too. The answers I gave back when I was first examined for ordination aren’t necessarily the same answers I would give today.
In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner, a former Jew, distinguishes Judaism and Christianity by saying Judaism is a physical, material, embodied, communal religion whereas Christianity is preoccupied with individual belief, with spiritual dogma and theological doctrine.
Probably, when you hear Christianity defined that way, you’re tempted to agree. To the extent that’s true, however, it’s true because that’s what we’ve done with the faith Jesus gave us.
It’s not that that’s the faith as Jesus gave it to us.
Perhaps nowhere is Winner’s distinction between Judaism and Christianity more starkly apparent than in the Jewish meal Jesus bequeathed to us.
A meal which today, in almost all Christian congregations, bears zero resemblance to the one at which Jesus was host and presumably intended for us to mimic.
Beginning in the Middle Ages, religious bureaucrats like me got a hold of this meal and, in my lofty estimation, messed it all up. They tried to turn over and open it up and explain how it works.
Trucking in Aristotelian philosophic concepts like ‘form’ and ‘substance’ that were foreign to the Hebrew world of scripture, theologians like Thomas Aquinas concocted pained explanations for how the bread and wine of the Eucharist can become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. Such a literal transformation- transubstantiation- of the elements was necessary within a Medieval theological system wherein human sin required the ongoing, repeated sacrifice of Christ in the Mass.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and Jean Calvin departed from the atonement theology that lay behind transubstantiation, stressing that Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross was a once-for-all, perfect, unrepeatable sacrifice for sin which we access through and by faith.
While Luther left behind the Medieval understanding of the mass as sacrifice, he retained the scholastic inclination to explain how the bread and wine of the meal become the actual body and blood of Jesus.
Luther’s reforms were only crust deep, giving the Protestant tradition ‘consubstantiation’ instead of trans. Christ’s presence, as every Lutheran knows, is ‘in, with and under’ the elements of the Eucharist rather than the elements themselves changing.
Proceeding reformers like Zwingli went further in demystifying the Medieval notion of the sacrament, stressing that the meal is merely a memorial of Christ’s Last Supper- the de facto, implicit position of almost Protestant in America. Meanwhile, my own tradition’s founder, John Wesley, espoused the historic Anglican conviction that Christ is really present in the eucharistic gathering but how that’s so is a mystery.
While I was jumping through the hoops of the United Methodist ordination process, I was prepped to plot the bread and cup along the map of John Wesley’s theology of grace. As John Wesley said- I was expected to say- the Lord’s Supper is one of God’s ‘ordinary’ (meaning primary and scripturally obvious) means of grace. It’s by receiving the elements that we grow in holiness, that we’re sanctified and ultimately perfected in Christ-like love of God and neighbor.
That’s all well and good as a second order explication of the meal Jesus gave us. Jesus might even agree with it, but I wonder if Jesus, as a Jew, would even recognize such an explanation as referring to the Jewish meal he gave us.
No matter how much they differ in theological approach and outcome, Aquinas et al all take as their starting point Jesus’ words ‘This is my body…this is my blood…’ and they all share the premise that Jesus’ words must either be literally true or spiritually true, that is, figurative.
But none of them take note that these words don’t originate with Jesus at all. None of them take note that Jesus wasn’t the only one who spoke those words that night he was betrayed.
In a sense.
None of the historic explanations (and very few of the understandings in the pew or among pastors) take note that Jesus’ words were part of the Passover script.
As the host of the Passover meal, Jesus was expected to speak of the body and the blood.
In the center of Jesus’ Passover table would have been the four ceremonial cups of wine, the brick-shaped concoction of fruits, nuts and vinegar (granola bars) representing the bricks the Hebrews made in Egypt, the bitter herbs (parsley and radishes) representing slavery in Egypt, the unleavened bread, representing their hasty departure, and the roasted lamb itself, whose blood sprinkled on the doorposts delivered the Hebrews from the angel of death.
Traditionally, the host blesses the first cup and all drink. Then come the bitter herbs, which are blessed and eaten. Then the bread, the granola and the lamb are brought in. The second cup is poured, and the story of the Israel’s exodus from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea is told.
The second cup is drunk and the bread is broken.
The host blesses the bread mixed with herbs and fruit and eats it along with some of the lamb, saying, ‘This is the body of the Passover.’ And all feast. Then they drink the third up and say some psalms before drinking the fourth and last cup which symbolizes the coming Messiah.
At least, this is what is supposed to happen. But on Holy Thursday, the host is Jesus.
After the second cup Jesus takes the bread, offers the thanksgiving, breaks it and distributes it. And instead of saying ‘This is the body of the Passover’ he says ‘This is my body broken for you.’
And then when the time comes to take the third cup Jesus says ‘This is my blood poured out for you.’
Jesus takes the traditional Passover script and he changes it. He inserts himself into it. Jesus is saying: ‘I’m the Passover now.’
The more time I spend in ministry, the more I become convinced that Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley…they’re all examples of Lauren Winner’s demarcation: Judaism is a physical, material, embodied religion whereas Christianity is preoccupied with belief, with spiritual dogma and theological doctrine.
What’s more I’ve become convinced that the distinction Winner hits upon is the result of the Church losing touch with its Jewish roots so early on its development. The nuanced, cerebral, non-Hebraic explanations for the eucharist put forth by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and even Wesley are but evidence that none of them had any Jewish friends.
What’s worse, most Christians today persist in rationalizations of the eucharist as though none of us had any Jewish friends either.
As a result, the eucharist in many congregations is a either joyless, masochistic memorial of someone who died to God’s wrath over your sin, or it’s a private transaction of grace dispensed by a special caste of people who pray the magic words to effect an Aristotelian transformation.
But the meal Jesus gave us was Passover.
The words he spoke were the words of the Passover.
And if you know you’re Old Testament, then you know that the Passover wasn’t about sacrifice for sin. It was about deliverance from captivity. It was about appeasing God’s anger; it was about God hearing the cries of his people in bondage. It wasn’t a somber ritual of atonement; it was a joyous meal of rescue and redemption.
When Jesus casts himself in the middle of the Passover script, he declares:
After a dozen years in ministry, I’m convinced that Christians need to rediscover that Christianity, like Judaism, is a physical, material, embodied, communal religion.
Hell, in a mainline culture in which very few Christians can even speak about Jesus to another human being, I think it would be a positive development just to have Christian parents celebrating the eucharist at dinner tables with their families, accompanied by an actual meal, teaching their children the redemptive story that makes this meal on this day different from all others.
Just like Passover.