Sermon for April 25th, 2021

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1 Corinthians 10:16-17

16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Sacred Promises: Bread & Wine, Part I

Several centuries ago, the pope decreed that all the Jewish people in Italy had to convert to Christianity or else leave the country. There was an outcry from the Jewish community, so the pope offered a deal: He would have a religious debate with the leader of the Jewish community. If the Jews won, they could stay in Italy. If the pope won, they would have to convert or leave.

The Jewish people picked a wise, aged rabbi to represent them in the debate. However, since the rabbi did not speak Italian, and the pope did not speak Hebrew, they agreed that it would be a 'silent' debate.

On the chosen day the pope and rabbi sat opposite each other. The pope began the debate by raising three fingers. The rabbi looked back and raised one finger. Next, the pope waved his finger around his head. The rabbi pointed to the ground where he sat. The pope brought out the communion bread and a chalice of wine. The rabbi pulled out an apple. With that the pope sighed, stood up and declared that he was beaten. The rabbi was just too clever. The Jews could stay in Italy.

Later on, the cardinals met with the pope and asked him what had happened. The pope said, "First I held up three fingers to represent the Holy Trinity, God in three persons. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me God is still one. Then, I waved my finger around my head to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground to show that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and bread, to show that through the sacrament of Holy Communion, God absolves us of all our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me that original sin still persists. He had beaten me at every move and I could not continue."

Meanwhile, the Jewish community gathered to ask the rabbi how he had won. "I have no idea," said the rabbi. "First, he said to me that we had three days to get out of Italy, so I gave him the finger. Then he tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews and I said to him that we were staying right here."

"And then what?" asked a woman. "Who knows?" said the Rabbi. "He took out his lunch, so I took out mine."

Today we are talking about the sacrament of Holy Communion, or as one of our church little ones referred to it (much to his mother's dismay), "snack." That's actually a beautiful way for a child to think of it--for them, snack is an unquestionably good thing, an exciting thing, something to look forward to. It's not a complete understanding of communion, but it's a great start.

Last week and the week before, we learned that Baptism (the other sacrament recognized by the Presbyterian Church) has its roots and origins in the Jewish faith and the scriptures of the Old Testament. In the same way, Communion, or the "Lord's Supper" is a continuation and a re-purposing of an important Jewish ritual: The feast of Passover, where Jewish people remember how God delivered them from slavery in the land of Egypt.

In fact, when Jesus sat down with his disciples for their last meal together, when he broke bread and poured out wine for them, and urged them to do these things in remembrance of him--it was on the occasion of Passover.

Next week, I think Craig Field is going to talk a little more about that last supper and the theology of communion, but today I want to share with you the story of how this sacrament became important to me. Because it wasn't always that way. I grew up in the church, taking communion once a month, and not really thinking much about it. Actually, if I thought about it at all, I thought it was a bit silly: A shot glass full of grape juice and a tiny piece of something that may or not actually resemble bread didn't seem like much of a "supper."

And then there were the theological arguments, which also seemed silly to me. On one hand, the Roman Catholics I knew said that when the priest rang the little bells, the bread and wine actually became the literal body and blood of Jesus, which seems, well, kind of gross. And... hard to swallow.

On the other hand, the Baptists I knew said that it's not really a sacrament, not something "sacred" but really just a memorial, a way to "remember" Jesus, and nothing more. That seemed quaint, but pointless. Why not remember Jesus by actually having a "real" meal with people, like he did? Or better yet, why not remember him by doing the things he did--caring for poor people and outcasts, or challenging meaningless rituals (instead of creating a new one)?

And so, for a long time, communion was pretty meaningless for me. Until one day, the Presbyterian Church told me that I could not participate in it.

Some background to that statement: In 2010, when I was a graduate student at Princeton Theological seminary, along with several other forward thinking, technologically savvy people across the globe, I started an online church in a virtual world. We called it the 1st Presbyterian Church of Second Life. For those who don't remember Second Life, it was one of the first "virtual reality" applications for the internet, and it allowed people to meet and gather together not just online, but in a video-game-like graphic environment that replicated or simulated the real world. There were no rules, no objectives, just space to build and create things, and communities, and experiences. So why not build a Presbyterian Church?

Well, as it turns out, Presbyterians have some pretty long-standing beliefs about what it means to be a "real" church. According to the Scots Confession, which is one of our earliest Presbyterian creeds, the three criteria are:

  1. The true preaching of the Word of God.
  2. The right administration of the Sacraments.
  3. The administration of church discipline.

Preaching the word of God is pretty easy in virtual reality. You can preach, and people can hear you. Church discipline is pretty easy too--when someone shows up for the purpose of disrupting or heckling your online worship service, you click a button and eject them from the room. But the sacraments--and for Presbyterians, there are only two sacraments: Baptism and Communion--how do you do those things in a virtual world?

For those of us who have lived through the year 2020, that seems pretty easy and pretty obvious--just about EVERY church in the world did "online communion" last year because of Covid19. But just ten years ago, in 2010, if you had asked the most prominent theologians in the world (in any Christian denomination) if that was even possible, the answer would have been, "No. It's not real if you don't eat real bread and drink real wine (or grape juice) together in the same Jesus did." And so our online, virtual reality church was told over and over again, "You're not a REAL Presbyterian Church."

And that's the exact moment when Communion, the Lord's Supper, became critically important to me. I knew, instinctively, that these people I gathered with each week, around the world, were real. The fellowship was real. The Spirit of God in our midst was real. The way we loved each other and helped each other and encouraged each other was real. But we weren't a real church because we couldn't do communion together.

So we did a lot of research. We had a lot of conversations about the theology of communion. I wrote and published an article in the Princeton Theological Review making a case for "online communion." I spoke at conferences, and publicly debated with other theologians over the issue. Our virtual "church" was featured in the magazine "Presbyterians Today" and we brought our case all the way to the Office of Theology and Worship for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Eventually, and somewhat begrudgingly, those in the highest offices of our national denomination decided that, under an obscure clause in our Presbyterian constitution, if we could find an actual, recognized brick-and-mortar Presbyterian church to "authorize" its pastor to officiate at communion in an online service...we were good to go.

By that time, I had graduated from seminary and had been ordained and installed as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of El Paso, Texas. In 2013, the elders of this church authorized me to do exactly that, and I became the first Presbyterian pastor to administer the sacrament of communion to an online worshipping community. It seems almost silly now...but you can't even imagine how deeply meaningful and moving that first communion was for us, and for me, when it finally happened. All of the theological arguments faded into obscurity, and we were simply a group of faithful Christians, spread across the world, but somehow one in body and spirit, doing what Jesus told us to do, and what Christians have done for two thousand years, in the best way we knew how.

I'm still a part of that community--it's my "other" church. We meet every Sunday night, and we take communion on a quarterly basis, thanks to the consent and cooperation of this congregation.

Last year, when the world turned upside down and churches couldn't meet in person, it was cathartic and maybe a little bittersweet for those of us in the 1st Presbyterian Church of Second Life to watch just how quickly the Christian denominations of the world decided that online communion was not only acceptable, but also a pretty good idea. Ironically for me (and maybe this is evidence that I'm a contrarian at heart) as someone who had been doing online communion for almost a decade, during the pandemic I actually came to appreciate, and miss, and long for the actual in-person, offline style of communion in a way I couldn't have imagined when I was making the case for the opposite.

So maybe I've come around full circle. Or maybe God has just led me to a fuller, and more complete understanding of all the amazing and unexpected ways in which he can move, and work, and operate through this sacrament.

For those watching from the outside, maybe it's just lunch.

For children, maybe it's a snack.

For some it's a remembrance and for others it's the literal body and blood of Christ.

For Presbyterians, it's still a defining aspect of what it means to be a church.

For me, it's not something silly anymore.

It's something hard fought for, and something that keeps evolving in my spiritual understanding.

It's bread, and it's wine, but it's a mystery and a sacred promise.

It's a gathering (in whatever way that looks like these days) of people who share a common heritage and a common purpose.

And somewhere in the midst of all these things, Jesus himself is present, saying "Come to my table. For whatever reason you came, you are welcome here."