Gregg Mast lectures at the 10th Underwood International Symposium
June 30, 2017
Five hundred years ago, in 1517, the Reformation began with a small group of people deeply committed to re-forming and renewing the medieval church so it could be more faithful to the vision of Christ and the early church. One of the rallying cries of the Reformers was the Latin phrase Ad Fontes which simply was a call to return to the sources and the deep springs of the church. Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, to name just a few Reformers, encouraged the church to commit itself to faithful preaching and the faithful celebration of the sacraments as an inspiring and essential source of Reformation.
On this tenth anniversary of the Horace G. Underwood Symposium, we will revisit the call to faithful preaching and the faithful celebration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a source for the renewal of the church in the 21st century. While the church is surrounded by a deeply secular world, the three lectures in this year’s symposium will point to the presence of the Risen Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit as an expression of God’s overflowing grace, as the heart of a new renewal and reformation in our time.
Lecture I- Ad Fontes: Faithful Sermons and Sacraments in the Renewal of the Church and the World
It is a great honor and a greater joy to serve as the keynote speaker for the 10th Annual Underwood Symposium. I am deeply grateful to Pastor Lee and to the Symposium Committee for the kind and gracious invitation to this year’s gathering which coincides with my retirement at the end of June as President of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. As many of you know, Horace Underwood graduated from New Brunswick in 1884, a year before his arrival in Korea in 1885. Thus, it is a particular honor to follow in Dr. Underwood’s footsteps in this the 133rd anniversary of his graduation. In addition, this year the Global Church marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This anniversary guided me to re-visit one of the core understandings of the church which inspired the Reformers, especially John Calvin. My lectures will focus on two of the essential marks of the church: the faithful preaching of the Word and the faithful celebration of the sacraments, as constituting the faithful Church of Jesus Christ. Indeed, I will suggest that these marks of a faithful church are also essential to the renewal and re-formation of the Church in the 21st century.
The Reformers were fond of exclaiming Ad Fontes, simply translated as “back to the sources”, as they sought to re-form the church of the Middle Ages to more clearly reflect the intent of Jesus in the formation of the Church as recorded in the New Testament. The Latin phrase Ad Fontes called the church to return to its foundations, to its origins, to the springs of its creation, and back to scripture, the authoritative measure of the life and practice of the church. Ad Fontes called scholars to study the original languages of scripture, Greek and Hebrew, to lead them back to the original sources instead of the less reliable magisterial teachings of the Church.
Not unlike the Reformers calling the church back to its origins in scripture, I begin our conversation with a biblical story that illustrates the essential role Sermons, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper play in the life and mission of the church.
The first story, as we consider the act of preaching, comes from the familiar narrative of Philip and his encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch on the Wilderness Road. It would have certainly been possible, perhaps preferable, to focus on a story that described Jesus or one of his disciples preaching in a religious place, such as a synagogue or the temple. But I wanted to understand the role of preaching in the world, outside the sacred places, where common folk struggle with the common problems of life. A number of scholars believe that the Eunuch, understood as a God-Fearer rather than a Jew because of his condition as a Eunuch, went to Jerusalem to worship and discovered that he could not enter the Court for Jewish men. Consequently, he was relegated to the outer court of the temple, where, as we know, money changers and those who sold animals to be sacrificed in the temple often worked.
Feeling rejected by the religious authorities of the time, the Eunuch left Jerusalem by the Wilderness Road. Philip, a disciple of Jesus, found the Eunuch on his journey reading from the prophet Isaiah. Philip approached the nameless man from Ethiopia at a moment when he –the Eunuch – felt cast out by religious culture and deeply puzzled by the words of Isaiah. Philip joined the man in his chariot and sat with him in his suffering and confusion. The Eunuch, a foreigner traveling on the margins of society, had the unexpected opportunity to connect with Scripture and the One who inspired it. Philip was ready and eager to open up to him the Word of God.
For a moment, let us listen again to what the Ethiopian Eunuch was reading from the prophet Isaiah: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before his shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him.” The Eunuch asked Philip if the prophet Isaiah was describing himself or another. Philip of course used the occasion to share the remarkable news that the Messiah, the one called Jesus from Nazareth, like a lamb, which had been led to the cross, did so without a word. Justice was indeed denied him in his humiliation. What remains unsaid in the interchange is the fact that the passage from Isaiah also described the Eunuch’s life. While we can only speculate how this man from Ethiopia became a Eunuch, by birth or otherwise, we do know it caused him pain and humiliation . He felt justice had been denied him as well. His experience in Jerusalem simply affirmed the fact that he could never become part of the chosen people. The words of the 23rd chapter of Deuteronomy clearly state that those who are emasculated, those men who are eunuchs, may not enter the assembly of the Lord.
While Scripture appeared to relegate the Eunuch to a marginalized place, Philip used the occasion to share the good news Jesus brings. One can almost hear the sermon as Philip explained to the Eunuch that just as he had felt judged and humiliated so had Jesus. “You are not alone,” exclaimed Philip, “but are embraced by the innocent one who was crucified. As you have spent a lifetime carrying a heavy cross, now the good news of the resurrection is clear; God loves you as you are and embraces you as one of his favored children!”
I suspect many would argue that the interchange between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is a strange choice to explore our understanding of preaching. In spite of the fact that there is no large congregation to hear the message, there is a hurting person on the Wilderness Road. Luke, the author of Acts, skillfully describes the sermonic moment and dramatically illustrates that preaching is not only in and to the church, but in and to the world. Sermons are always personal, but never private; sermons fill a moment in which the person of the risen Christ is recognized in our midst and thus is a sacred expression of God’s grace; and finally, sermons destroy human boundaries to extend God’s justice into the world.
Understanding the power of preaching in the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch leads us to also understand how the rediscovery of preaching is at the heart of the Reformation. The medieval priest, often with a very rudimentary education, most often read sermons written by his Bishop or other scholars, or simply did not preach at Sunday mass. Some members of monastic orders travelled the countryside mounting preaching services, which filled the deep hunger to understand the faith. Through the initiative of Reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and many others, study of the original biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew provided the means to open up the scriptures and bring them to life. With the invention of the printing press, sermons and lectures were made available to the world and no longer held only by the church.
John Calvin often looked to the book of Romans in his reflections and writings where Paul wrote: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” For Calvin and many other Reformers, the commitment and ability to read, understand and explain scripture was a way to set people free. No longer were people dependent on the ecclesiastical structures to totally form their faith.
To be sure, the Reformers highly valued the pedagogical or teaching role of the sermon given the ignorance of most congregations. Few congregants could read, and fewer yet had the ability to discern the message of a text. Before the printing press, stories tell of Bibles securely locked to the pulpit so no one could steal them away. The printing press gave common people an opportunity to read and interpret original texts for themselves. And yet, with a very low literacy rate, sermons remained the time and place where people could learn about the mysterious grace of a God who loved them with an everlasting love.
As St. Paul had suggested to the Church at Rome, the common people needed a preacher to speak the Word, to make it accessible to them, to teach the remarkable promises of the Gospel. Lives previously dominated by fear of the unknown and unexplained were opened to God’s peace. They understood that God’s love was intended not to judge and enslave, but to inspire them to live with gratitude for God’s miraculous grace.
However, I want to suggest that Calvin and other Reformers interpreted the scripture as a tool intended to not only teach the mind, but also form the soul for God’s service. In other words, those preachers who simply explained the word in its original context missed an important dimension of preaching. We understand that the same Holy Spirit, who inspired the writing of scripture, is the One who comes week after week to inspire those who stand in pulpits and those who ride in chariots on wilderness roads.
Now we have come to the heart of the matter. Sermons are those sacred moments when the Word of God becomes incarnate in the life of the listener. Imagine with me for just a moment the post-resurrection story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They are discouraged and depressed because their Lord and Master had been crucified and buried. On their Sunday afternoon walk to Emmaus, they are joined by a stranger who preaches to them as they walk. Like Philip, Jesus is in the world with a congregation of two and meets them at the point of their deepest despair. As we see at the Supper they will share in Emmaus, Luke describes how in the breaking of bread they recognize the stranger as Jesus, the risen Christ. Their world is dramatically changed – it is turned right side up and upside down. In the breaking of bread, they discover the risen Christ and they exclaim, “Were not our hearts burning within us when he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening up the scriptures to us?”
It is at these sacred and mysterious moments, on the road and at the table, that the Word of God gives new life. It was more than a teaching moment for them; it was also a “God Moment” as the word was broken open and, like the Ethiopian Eunuch, their lives were changed forever. The breaking open of the Word moved them from a place of fear and depression to a place of hope and vision. It changed their lives forever; two disciples too tired to go on were inspired to run back to Jerusalem. When they arrived, they shared the miraculous news that in the cool of Easter morning death had lost and a new world had been born in the resurrection of Jesus.
The mystery of the preaching moment is made possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Word and Spirit together make a new beginning. Just as God stood over the chaos of the universe and spoke a powerful word to create new worlds, so God walks with those in the wilderness and through a word made powerful by the same Spirit, new worlds are created for those who fall beneath crosses and are crucified by those in power.
For a moment, allow me to spend some time in the Old Testament and describe for you the difference between the empty and impotent words of human beings and the full, vital and powerful word and vision of God.
The author of Ecclesiastes writes about himself in the first chapter these words: “I, the Teacher, when king of Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to humans to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and chasing after the wind.”
The Hebrew word that the Solomonic author of Ecclesiastes uses that is often translated “vanity” is hebel. It is used thirty times in the book and scholars have suggested scores of words to try and capture the meaning for us: vapor, delusion, emptiness, futility and vanity.
I asked my colleague Dr. Beth Tanner who teaches Old Testament and Hebrew her definition of hebel. She described a graduate course she had taken decades ago at a time when both students and professors were still allowed to smoke in the classroom. She remembered that one Old Testament Professor blew a smoke ring into the air and exclaimed, “There is hebel!” as the smoke disappeared into the air.
The translation of the word vanity that particularly intrigues me is “mere breath.” Indeed one scholar interpreted hebel as the breath that never leaves your mouth. It is here that the poet in me can’t help but see some other biblical scenes. If this vanity, this vapor, this powerless breath reminds us that we have no creativity and permanence without God, then Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones comes to mind. This is a valley without hope, it is a valley where vapor and mist remind us day after day that life is dry and old and brittle.
The opposite of hebel is ruach- the Hebrew word for breath and also for Spirit. Here the breath is not shut up in God’s mouth but invades the chaos as a dynamic and creative power that brings life and hope, vigor and vitality. All that has been picked bare down to the bone is enfleshed again and made warm and vital. If Ecclesiastes is the book that reminds us that without God life is filled with hebel, Ezekiel is the book that reminds about the power of ruach to make life take on meaning and mystery. The vapor and vanity become the vim and vigor and vitality of a God-filled life.
There is another scene that comes to mind and it is a hot, starless night on a rooftop where Jesus received the scholar Nicodemus. Words are shared and a night time intimacy evolves. And then Jesus begins to describe how each of us needs to be born from above. This of course confuses Nicodemus who wonders how one can enter the womb again. Jesus shakes his head and whispers, the one who is born of the flesh is flesh, but the one who is born of the spirit, the wind, the ruach of God, is spirit. While John doesn’t tell us, I suspect that Jesus may have explained that one can follow in the footsteps of Ecclesiastes or in the footsteps of Ezekiel- one can live out a life of hebel or a life of ruach– a life in which all is vapor and vanity, or a life filled with vigor and spirit.
Do you see and understand the power of the Spirit, the ruach, of God? It is the power that makes words come alive and create new worlds. It is the power of scripture and sermons which breathe new life into old bones and make them come alive.
The Heidelberg Catechism, in question 65, asks this question: Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all of his benefits through faith only, from where does this faith come? The answer should not surprise us: The Holy Spirit works in our hearts by the preaching of the holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy Sacraments.
We have in these simple words the soul of my lectures in this 10th anniversary year. Through the power of the Holy Spirit preached words are miraculously transformed into the creative and vital Word of God. The path to a sermon for a preacher is one that I have often described in terms of the incarnation. The Word of God, the one we call Jesus of Nazareth, comes to us in dark nights smuggled into our lives under the cover of the most surprising stories, such as a child in a manger. The life of a preacher is over-shadowed like the Spirit moved across the chaos of the first days and across the life of a peasant girl named Mary. The Word is conceived quite miraculously as the divine and the human intersect. The Word grows within us like a woman with child, and is finally delivered into the arms of the church.
John Calvin was not afraid of the equation “Predicatio Verbi Dei est Verbum Dei” which is simply translated The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” The implications of Calvin’s words are enormous. It places upon the preacher the remarkable responsibility to weigh his or her words so very carefully so that human words can be used to share a divine word. It places on those who sit and listen an equally important responsibility as we seek to hear the voice of God in the voice of our pastoral preacher.
Howard Hageman, a former president of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, once wrote : “Then the sermon will be the point at which the vertical line (which comes from God) touches the horizontal line (which comes from us.) A real flash of lightening! Sunday church-going then becomes an event, something which always remains open and free. But seen this way, the congregation is just as responsible for the sermon as the pastor…”
The sermon is intended to be that incarnational moment when we suddenly see the face of God and understand our place as God’s children. It is that miraculous moment when we catch a glimpse of the face of God in the face of Jesus and are led to see ourselves as partners with God in a world hungry for hope and thirsty for grace.
As you can sense, the heart and soul of preaching is not finally found in theological propositions, but in the holy person of Christ, the incarnate Word. Participating in a preaching moment is like standing in the valley of dry bones and watching flesh and blood cover them and the spirit of God, life, put within them. It is like standing with Jonah as he is spit out of the great fish after three days in his tomb, and he finds new life. It is like riding the ark through the storm into a new creation. It is like standing with Jesus on Easter morning, death having been conquered and the Spirit of God creating a new world.
The preaching moment also offers the opportunity for the eternal Gospel found in the person and work of Christ to gain context, to take on new languages and cultures and mores each and every day and in each generation. The Gospel in New York and New Guinea, in South Korea and in South America, in Amsterdam and Albania, is the same and different. It is deeply rooted in the eternal and at the same time relevant to each of us where we live.
We know that in a very real way, the incarnation of God in a carpenter’s son in Palestine, was the first moment of contextualizing the good news of God’s eternal and gentle love for us. We see Jesus and know him born in the first century in the backwater country of Israel, a stepping stone land for the empires of the world. We know Jesus as the one born in a manger, raised among Egyptians in a foreign land, the one who preached and taught from the agricultural and fishing world in which he lived. We know him as the flesh and blood of a King named David and the child of his times. And yet, he transcended his times, and the eternal shown through this ministry and mission and the whole world has found God in his life, his death and his resurrection.
In the preaching moment, the preacher speaks about this Jesus and more importantly, he or she speaks about a relationship with this One who was born and died for others. Just as Jesus took on flesh, so our sermons need to take on the real flesh and blood of the preacher’s life and time and place.
The vision for modern preaching is to finally take our congregants by the hand, whether they are one person on a Wilderness Road, or thousands in a modern cathedral, and usher them into the very presence of God. And in so doing, we preach Easter life that empowers us to lay down heavy crosses and sings because the dawn has come.
It was JD Benoit, in a critique of modern preaching who articulated this challenge:
“This, it seems to me, is the great lack in our preaching: it does not nourish the soul. It does not take us by the hand, so to speak, and bring us to God, but always leaves us in the same situation…It does not address itself to our spiritual development. It is the pastor who must distribute the bread by which souls live and grow spiritually.”
This is the challenge addressed by Philip, who joins the Ethiopian Eunuch on the Wilderness Road. It is what we witness as two disciples are joined by a stranger on the Emmaus Road. It is what we witness in the miraculous work of charity by a nameless stranger on the Samaritan Road as he carries the one left for dead to a Healing God. In each scene, we see the Preacher, in word and deed, taking another by the hand and bringing them into the very presence of God.
Let us conclude our time reflecting on the act of preaching by returning to the words of scripture and the deep commitment of the Reformers to find new life in the Word of God. As we have discovered, preaching, at least for John Calvin, was a sacramental moment when God in the risen Christ walks with us and shares new life. It is a moment that is not only for the covenantal community but as importantly for the world. It is a moment we share each and every Sunday, but is also moment that happens between friends and neighbors and strangers outside the walls of the church in the world.
There are three understandings of the phrase “Word of God” which inform our theology and spirituality at this point. The Word first refers to the spoken words shared from the earliest days. This Word through the power of the Holy Spirit inspires and brings light into darkness, life into valleys of death, and hope to those who carry heavy crosses and wander in the wilderness. Indeed the word “inspires” is simply from the Latin words “in spiritus” in and from the Spirit. The Word shared finds its way into written form in what we call scripture, which reminds us the God we have experienced together. But the third use of the phrase “Word of God” refers to the second person of the Trinity, the one from Nazareth we call Jesus. He is the Word, or in Greek, the Logos, John describes in the first words of his Gospel.
Do you remember the words: “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” As John recalls for us the first days of creation, he also reminds us that the moment of faithful preaching is an experience of a new creation. The old passes away and the new is born. Chaos is conquered, and a new world is born. What happened in the first chapter of Genesis happens every Sunday morning and each time the Spirit returns to share with us and the world the gracious presence of the Risen Christ.
The preaching moment happens in the church and in the world, it is a moment which speaks to each of our souls and all of our souls at the same time. Faithful preaching becomes an instrument of God’s amazing grace and finally it is a moment when the justice of God tears down the barriers built by the world and reminds us that we are all children of God.
It was GK Chesterton in his book The Everlasting Man, who describes for us not only the mysterious and powerful secret of Easter morning, but also the mysterious and powerful secret when the Risen Christ returns through the power of the Holy Spirit and our worlds of sin and evil are crucified and a new world is born.
“On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the wonder: but they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in the semblance of a gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.”
To God be the glory.
Lecture II- Ad Fontes: Faithful Sermons and Sacraments in the Renewal of the Church and the World
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. “
The first lecture, which focused on the essential role of preaching for the renewal of the church in the 21st century, has provided the foundation for my second and third lectures, which will focus on the role of the sacraments in the revitalization of the church. In the Reformed tradition the act of preaching, which has been called by some a sacramental moment, is first and foremost an action of God in the life of the church and the world. The Reformed tradition does not talk about “holy food” and “holy water” but rather we talk about the “holy actions of washing and eating and drinking together.” The two sacraments instituted by our Lord, are sacred, mysterious moments when the Holy Spirit serves as the power to make Christ present among us.
It was John Calvin who wrote the following about preaching and the sacraments:
“Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us and in him the treasures of heavenly grace. But they avail and profit nothing unless received by faith. As with wine or oil or some other liquid, no matter how much you pour out, it will flow away and disappear unless the mouth of the vessel to receive it is open; moreover, the vessel will be splashed over on the outside, but will remain empty and void.”
As we discussed in the first lecture, it is the role of the Holy Spirit, coupled with the receptive faith of the congregation and individual, to share and receive common words and for them to be transformed through the power of God into the creative and powerful Word of God. So too, the Holy Spirit takes common actions such as washing, eating and drinking and transforms them into holy actions which confirm to us the grace of God. Thus, Calvin describes the role of the Spirit as the one “who brings the graces of God with him, gives a place for the sacraments among us, and makes them bear fruit.”
In addition, Calvin assists us in understanding the relationship between the Word and the Sacraments through observing:
First, the Lord teaches and instructs us by his Word. Secondly, he confirms it by the sacraments. Finally, he illumines our minds by the light of his Holy Spirit and opens our hearts for the Word and sacraments to enter in, which would otherwise only strike our ears and appear before our eyes, but not at all affect us.”
In this second lecture we will look more closely at the act of baptizing, or washing, in the life of the early church, in the theologies of the Reformers, and in our commitment to the renewal of the church. Interestingly, there is no one clear Jewish antecedent to the act of baptism. Scholars remain divided about the roots of this act first performed by John and his disciples at the Jordan River.
Scholars who have tried to identify the Jewish roots of Baptism have looked to three different historical explanations. First, the act of the conversion of someone outside of the Jewish faith into the covenant community required circumcision, a physical expression of a spiritual commitment to become part of God’s people. This painful act for adult males was followed by days and sometimes weeks of healing after which the convert or proselyte concluded his conversion with a ritual bath to cleanse him of his past and to open for him a new future. Did those who joined John and his disciples at the Jordan remember this act of proselyte washing? As they stepped into the waters and immersed themselves in the Jordan, did it symbolize the Israelites leaving Egypt to be baptized in the Red Sea, as well as those who had come from afar and endured circumcision to join the covenant community?
In this theory regarding the Jewish roots of Christian Baptism, John’s words and actions at the Jordan attempt to preach to those born Jews, as well as those born outside the covenant, to convince them to confess and convert. One can almost hear John exclaim, “Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” One can imagine John declaring that the physical ritual of circumcision as children was not all God required. As Hosea observed, God required more than burnt offerings and rituals, but a contrite heart and a commitment to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Through the washings at the Jordan, did John attempt to take the act of proselyte baptism and make it a spiritual model for all of God’s covenantal people?
The second explanation of the Jewish roots of the Christian sacrament of Baptism looks to the many occasions in Jewish faith and life which required the faithful to wash away the dust of the road and sins of the past. These washings are often identified as the act of “mikvah”, a ritual required in a number of different settings. Scripture records that those who worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem were required to be ritually clean and so giant jars for washing, for mikvah, were constructed at the entrances to the temple. Women required a ritual washing following their monthly menstrual periods. Jewish men also cleansed themselves for different purposes or occasions. As we know, at the Last Supper, a ceremonial washing of the feet preceded the meal. And so did John’s baptism in the Jordan simply remind the faithful of the many times they participated in mikvah? Was it an opportunity to remind the faithful that just as they washed before meals, so should they wash at the Jordan and commit themselves to a new model of faith and life?
Perhaps most striking is the Jewish custom to use a mikvah when a proselyte converted into the Jewish faith. The ceremonial bath, or mikvah, following circumcision, reveals the close connections between the first and second theories regarding the Jewish roots of Christian baptism. Supporting the idea of the organic and intimate connections between proselyte washing and baptism, we find that each of these actions occurred just once; each spoke eloquently about leaving the past, being washed of one’s sins and walking into a new relationship with God and God’s people.
Looking to the third scholarly theory of the Jewish roots of Christian Baptism, I suggest that John’s work at the Jordan did not appear out of nothing, but rather that he put an ancient ritual to new use for a modern purpose. The flood of people from Jerusalem to the Jordan seems to point to the fact that those who were traveling toward John had some sense of what profound action awaited them.
In 1947, archaeologists discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls next to the first century monastic community of Qumran. Not only did these scrolls, dating from around the first century, confirm many of the texts of the Old Testament, but they also confirmed for scholars that a monastic community at Qumran, called the Essenes, practiced daily ritual baths. If you travel to the ruins of Qumran today, you can see the intricate system used to gather rain water from the mountain ranges and direct it into community baths. It appears that the community bathed daily to wash away the dust and sins of the past. Daily ablutions, or washings, became an essential part of the rhythm of life at the monastic community. It focused particular attention on the advent of the “Son of Righteousness” who would come to free one and all from the political domination of Rome that robbed them of their freedom and integrity as followers of God.
It has become quite common within the scholarly community in recent decades to imagine John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness, as a convert to the Qumran community or at least a regular visitor at its Dead Sea site. Is it possible that John repeated in the Jordan the daily ablutions practiced by the first century monks at Qumran? In other words, could John have been challenging the urban folk from Jerusalem, who considered themselves to be the chosen children of Abraham, to acknowledge their sins and be washed in the Jordan? Are we witnessing at the Jordan the repetition of a monastic rite from Qumran?
While there is much that is attractive and thus compelling about the Qumran theory, the fact that baptism, in the writings of Paul and in the life of the early church, was a single ritual action while the washings at Qumran were daily, certainly gives one pause. Perhaps the second theory, which described Baptism of John as a reflection of proselyte baptism, represents the most probable Jewish root of Christian baptism.
Let us leave the realm of scholarly wonderings and follow Jesus as he walks toward his cousin John to be baptized in the Jordan. This action has puzzled the faithful since it happened at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Since our understanding of baptism has been so tied to the washing away of sin and the birth to new life, it feels strange that Jesus would go to the Jordan. We have understood Jesus as fully human, but without sin. Why did he go to the Jordan? Allow me to suggest that Jesus went to the Jordan to hear a voice, glimpse a dove, and be driven into the wilderness to strengthen his identity for his remarkable ministry. As Jesus stands in the Jordan, Matthew, Mark and Luke all record seeing a dove and hearing a voice exclaiming that Jesus is the Beloved One in whom God was well pleased.
These simple words spoken over Jesus before he commenced his public ministry are important in understanding God’s grace. Just as the writer of Genesis observed following each day of creation, that God saw what he had done and called it good, so we can see God again declaring Jesus to be good and beloved and pleasing. It appears clear that God loves us not for what we do, but for who we are as part of God’s good creation. This is difficult for humanity to understand and accept. We live in a world where people are often loved for what they do for us and for others; they are loved because they have affirmed and helped others with their words and deeds. God begins at a different place; we are loved simply for who we are. Such love is the foundation of every life of faith. God declared that Jesus was the Beloved One, the One in whom God was pleased, before he began his public ministry.
As we stand with our brother Jesus in the water of our own baptisms, our adoption into the covenantal family of God is clear and compelling. Each of us is declared to be Beloved, one in whom God is pleased. Each of us is washed and enters into a world of grace where we are accepted for who we are rather than for what we have done. This profound description of God’s love at the very beginning of our lives provides a foundation which the world cannot shake and a source of our own love for others which is not dependent on their actions but rather on God’s overflowing grace.
The picture at the Jordan is not complete without understanding that it is the Holy Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness. It is not Satan that tempts Jesus to leave the waters of new life, but rather the dove that leads Jesus to struggle with his identity as God’s beloved son and his ministry to the world. With each testing in the wilderness, the temptations of power, possessions and pride, Jesus resists all that would tempt him away from his call. We know that for Jesus and for each of us, the wilderness struggle happens not once, but again and again. Jesus faced the wilderness temptations in the darkness of a garden of Gethsemane; he felt the wilderness when he hung between heaven and earth and wondered why God had forsaken and abandoned him. Each of us face the dark nights of the soul; the wilderness struggle exists within each of us. And so the baptismal experience of God’s presence and love inspires a life-long identity as beloved children of God, which sustains us in the wildernesses of our days. Even when we echo the feelings of abandonment that Jesus felt, we, like Jesus at the end of his life, we too commend our spirits into God’s eternal and unfailing hands.
It is such foundational love, God’s grace, which reminds me of Paul’s words to the church at Rome: “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No in all of these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The mysterious action of baptism signs and seals God’s covenant on our lives. It is the outward symbol of an inward reality that we belong to the One who created us and to each other in the covenantal community. The sacraments are very personal moments for the faithful, but never private ones. The Reformed tradition, from the time of the Reformation, made clear that the sacraments are first actions of God and then belong to the covenantal community on behalf of the world. We celebrate the baptism of children and adults in the presence of the church. Only in exceptional circumstances may baptism be celebrated privately, and then, only with the approval of the Board of Elders and as an extension of the common ministry of the church.
Interestingly, since the time of Calvin, the mode of baptism has not determined the essence of the sacrament. Whether a congregation sprinkles with water or immerses the candidate for baptism does not concern the church. Indeed, in the Reformed tradition, we see a growth in immersion baptisms with the dramatic increase in adult candidates for baptism. A person immersed shares in the death and resurrection of Christ. St. Paul has written eloquently of this moment of washing. As Christ is buried in the water of baptism, so are we resurrected with him and raised up.
We see and feel death and new life through baptism. The biblical narrative provides us with stories about dying in, and rising from, the waters. We hear the theme first in the story of Noah and his family as they are saved from the mighty flood and given new life at the beginning of a new creation. We revisit the theme as the Israelites, enslaved in Egypt, are saved in their walk through the Red Sea and given new life in the wilderness as they traveled toward the Promised Land. We sense this dying and rising as the covenantal people are brought through the Jordan and given new life in the land promised by God. We catch a glimpse of this movement from death to life in the story of Naaman, the foreign general. Elisha tells Naaman, a leper, to go and bathe seven times in the Jordan. Scripture tells us that after bathing, Naaman’s skin was like the flesh of a newborn child. He had died and was raised to new life!
So as we follow Jesus to the Jordan, he travels there in the footsteps of so many who died and were born again in the water. As he enters the Jordan and hears God whisper “You are my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” his life begins anew. He leaves his role as a carpenter, and assumes a new role as the builder of bridges and new lives. He leaves behind his house and family, as he adopts a new family of service and assumes a new identity as a teacher and savior. He is driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to learn that he will be the Teaching One, the Preaching One, the Healing One, the Judging One, the Compassionate One, as well as the Tempted One. In his temptations, we learn that baptism places all of us in the world where temptation may lead to betrayal of our true identities as God’s children and God’s instruments of grace.
Following the baptismal service of the Reformed Church in America, the denomination to which I belong, the presiding minister declares: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only King and Head of the Church, this child of God is now received into the visible membership of the holy catholic Church, engaged to confess the faith of Christ, and to be God’s faithful servant until life’s end.”
In these words we can sense the heart of the sacrament for those of us in the Reformed tradition. Baptism is first and foremost the moment when God adopts one of his own, whether they are young or old; into the covenantal community we call the church. This is not the moment of salvation, but rather the moment of adoption when the Holy Spirits plants a seed for future repentance and redemption. The baptized is received not only into the membership of a local congregation, but into the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ as it is found in its many names, places and languages. Membership in such a universal family gives each of us a new and global identity. We are not first members of families or neighborhoods or nations, but we are first members of the Church of Jesus Christ. As a result, the boundaries of this world disappear as we find our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters and our mothers and fathers in every nation in the world. We march not behind a singles nation’s flag, but behind the Lamb, who has died and been raised again as our Lord and Savior.
Each and every one of us who are baptized, are called to a life-long commitment to confess the One we follow. For you see, the act of baptism not only solidifies our identity inside the community of faith, but commits us to witness to the world which God loves. There are some, perhaps many, who believe that baptism separates us from the needs and challenges of the world and inoculates us against the problems the world faces. This is not at all the case. Rather, in our baptisms, just as in the baptism of Christ, the Spirit of God drives us into the wilderness, tests and tempts us to remain faithful to our call as ambassadors of the love and grace of the God who has claimed us as his own until our life’s end.
A story first told by Alex Haley in his book entitled Roots tells of an American slave forcibly taken from Africa to work in America in the 18th century. The slave, Kunte Kinte, is regularly tempted to forget his true identity as an African. Haley shares the story of the day Kunte was commanded to drive his master to a great celebration held at a very large plantation house. Kunte Kinte, left alone in the carriage, suddenly hears music. He steps down from the carriage and follows the sound of the music to the back of the plantation house where he finds the humble huts of the slaves. He is drawn to one of the huts lit by a small fire where he discovers an old man playing a tune from his childhood on an African instrument. When he returns home later that evening he enters into his own simple home and weeps for what he had almost forgotten. But at the moment of hearing the music of his childhood, he remembered his true identity and re-engaged with his authentic mission in life.
The story of Kunte Kinte reminds us of the role of baptism in each of our lives. It calls us back to the moment of our baptism to recall who we are, to whom we belong, and the mission to which we are called. Baptism is a single act that sustains us for a lifetime. It is a once and for all act, not to be repeated, which whispers to us of God’s eternal and faithful love, which we call grace.
The sacrament of baptism, a very personal action, is a public one as well. It marks us as God’s own as it sends us into the world. St. Paul in the letter to the church in Galatia, wrote words that shook the first century world and challenges the church to this very day. In chapter 3 beginning at verse 27 Paul writes:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.
The sacramental action of baptism re-created the world. The barriers of nationality, gender and slavery were destroyed in a simple moment of washing. This simple verse deeply troubled those Christians who defended slavery in American history. This simple verse deeply troubled those who resisted the call for women to assume pastoral and priestly roles in the church These words deeply troubled those who have wanted to elevate one’s nationality into divine status and count it most important in the eyes of God and thus preeminent in the life of the world.
In a very real sense the action of baptism is not only a public action but also a political one. It views people in new ways through the eyes of God, rather than through the eyes of cultures which look to separate us from each other. In each and every society there are those who have been stigmatized and thus marginalized from the community. They are the people who we refuse to acknowledge, the ones who shame us through their very presence, and the ones who have seemingly lived beyond God’s inclusive love. Baptism reminds us, declares St. Paul that no one is beyond God’s reach and thus God’s love.
Allow me to conclude with a story about Philip the evangelist who interacted so dramatically and powerfully with the Ethiopian Eunuch which I described in the first lecture about preaching. Just before Philip met the Eunuch on the Wilderness Road, Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, describes how he visits a town in Samaria where Simon, a magician, lived. It appears that Simon was highly regarded by the residents of the town until Philip arrived with the power of God. Luke describes how many people believed and were baptized.
A careful reading of the story reveals that Simon must have felt displaced by Philip and the gospel and so he also was baptized into the new community where I suspect he believed he could learn the tricks of this new cult. When Peter and John arrived from Jerusalem and laid their hands on those who were baptized, they received the Holy Spirit and his gifts. It is at this point in the story that Simon shocks Philip by offering to buy the “magic” the Spirit produced in the lives of believers. Philip rebukes him and makes clear that the power of the Spirit is not a commodity to be bought but a gift to be received.
This story reminds us that the action of baptizing is not magic, but rather a mystery of God’s grace. There is nothing magical about the water or about the action of baptizing, but there is something mysterious and powerful about God’s overflowing grace adopting us into the covenant community and promising the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. We come to the water not to witness a magical spiritual trick that can be bought with money or church programs, but rather to witness the replication of what Jesus experienced at the Jordan- the voice of God claiming us as God’s Beloved Ones who will never be forsaken by God. No matter how dangerous the tests and temptations, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
An ancient teacher of the church by the name of Tertullian once wrote that “Christians are made not born.” Baptism is a life-long journey in which we become the people God created us to be. Like Jesus, God calls us to be teachers and healers, encouragers and helpers, those who wash the feet of our friends and carry crosses like Simon of Cyrene for those who fall beneath their weight. He also calls us to acknowledge that we are the “tempted ones”, like Jesus in the wilderness, at every turn tested as to our identity and mission. Like Jesus, we lean into God’s loving heart and remain faithful until our life’s end.
To God be the Glory.
Lecture III- Ad Fontes: Faithful Sermons and Sacraments in the Renewal of the Church and the World
When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”
The story about the two disciples on their way to Emmaus on Easter afternoon is a deeply moving one. Of course for the two disciples it was not yet Easter, but rather an extension of a dark Friday on Golgotha. With Jesus, their dreams had been crucified and their visions for a new world had been buried in a garden tomb. One can only imagine how despondent and depressed these two disciples must have been. Perhaps they had left their vocations like the fishermen at the Sea of Galilee to follow the one they suspected was the Messiah. If truth be told, everyone in first century Palestine was looking for the Messiah to liberate them from their Roman masters. Everyone yearned to throw off the heavy yoke of Roman occupation; they looked for the Messiah who would walk in the footsteps of the mighty King David and restore them to a proud and independent nation once again.
We know the story of domination: Israel fell to the Assyrians who were followed by the Greeks and then the Romans. And at each point, the people of God, the covenantal people, prayed for freedom and liberation through the hand and heart of a mighty Messiah. The disciples on the way to Emmaus had glimpsed this dream in the words and miracles of Jesus. They had wondered if he was The One as they watched him confront and confound the religious authorities in Jerusalem who had become invisible allies of the occupiers.
One can sense the darkness that shadowed these two disciples as it had become clear on Golgotha that Jesus was not the one for whom they had prayed. It is into this deep valley of despair that a stranger joins them on the road and wonders why they are so sad. They are amazed that the stranger does not know about the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth, as if the whole world should have known.
It is then that we see Jesus open and interpret for them the mysteries of the Messiah hidden in scripture just as Philip had done with the Ethiopian Eunuch on the Wilderness Road. In a sense, the disciples were walking their own Wilderness Road without any sense of purpose or direction. They were lost in the shadows and could not find their way out. The seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus was deeply in shadowed by the Friday cross.
After recognizing the Easter-risen Christ at the table in Emmaus, the disciples exclaimed to each other: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening up the scriptures to us?” The power of experiencing the risen Christ at table allowed them to also identify him as the preacher on the Emmaus road. As I have suggested in our time together, it is through the power of the Holy Spirit that the Risen Christ comes to live with us at sacramental moments of preaching, washing, eating and drinking. At each of these sacramental moments and within each of these sacramental actions, Christ is recalled into our midst and nourishes us with his very spirit and mission.
As we reviewed the Jewish antecedent to Christian Baptism in the second lecture, let us now turn to understand the Jewish roots of the Lord’s Supper. The three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the Last Supper, known to us as the Lord’s Supper, as a celebration of the Passover. You may remember that as the Israelites were fleeing from Egypt they were commanded to sprinkle the blood of a lamb on their doorposts so the angel of death, described by Moses to Pharaoh, would “pass over” their houses and not kill their first born. In addition, they were commanded to leave their Egyptian homes quickly and thus had no time to leaven their bread. Since this experience, unleavened bread, matzoh, has become a required part of the Passover meal.
Passover, the meal commemorating God’s salvation from bondage in Egypt, became an annual ritual that reminded one and all that they lived a special life of freedom given to them by God. The synoptic gospels clearly reveal that Jesus sends some of his disciples into Jerusalem to make ready the Passover feast. When Jesus and his disciples finally gather, he surprises them by taking a bowl filled with water and washing away the dust from their feet so they can recline at table together. Slaves or servants typically washed feet and so I suspect they all were embarrassed that their Master and Rabbi would stoop to serve them. Indeed, Peter attempts to stop Jesus from washing feet, an act he viewed as inappropriate for a leader. Jesus persists and those at the table learn for all time that they were called to love and serve each other. For Jesus, the act of washing feet was a holy and humble act rather than one that in anyway diminished Jesus.
A careful reading of the fourth gospel, John, reveals a narrative in which the Last Supper was not the Passover meal. John wanted his readers to understand Jesus as the Lamb of God sacrificed on our behalf when he was crucified on Friday, so the Thursday evening meal must have been another kind of gathering in preparation for the Passover. For some scholars, the meal Jesus shared with his disciples was a common meal before the Passover in which a master and his disciples ate and relaxed together. Perhaps the strongest defense of this version is that Jesus and his disciples shared a meal each Sunday, the day of the resurrection, while the Passover was an annual celebration.
Whether the Last Supper finds its roots in a specific Passover or not, all four Gospel writers wanted to place the meal in the context of the Passover. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus provides prayers over the cup and bread which remind all who participate that each time they celebrate the meal they “re-call” Jesus. At the same time, he fulfills the promise that where two or three are gathered he is in their midst. St. John’s description of the Last Supper provides a more organic connection to the Passover. It is clearly recognized in the Gospel of John, that the obvious absence of the physical lamb in the Synoptic Gospel accounts is understood in John when Jesus is seen as the Lamb ready to be sacrificed and in whose blood we are saved.
Before leaving the record of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, let us spend a few moments with the sixth chapter of the Book of Acts. Here we learn that the celebration of the Supper in the early church was connected to the daily distribution of food to widows. In the first century, there was no safety net for widows and orphans who had to depend on the care of their extended families or the charity of strangers. In other words, they became part of the begging community who found their way to the streets and gates of every town.
It appears that the early church was committed to care for widows and saw this responsibility as an extension of the Lord’s Supper which was celebrated every Sunday. In the sixth chapter of Acts we discover that the Palestinian widows were always served first and widows from other countries often ignored. For the first time in the life of the church, we can detect the issue of racism, or in other words, the favoring of one race of people over another.
The twelve disciples realized this injustice and immediately created the office of deacon, which was called to serve all of the widows, not just those from Palestine. If one studies carefully the names of the first seven deacons, we discover some of the deacons came from other countries which gave them an empathy and identification not shared by those native to the Holy Land.
In this seemingly insignificant and brief story, we begin to understand the social ramifications of the Lord’s Supper. Just as Paul observed that in our baptism there was no distinction between Jews or Greeks, free or slaves, men or women, we can discern this same deep commitment to the parity of all people in the arms of God and the church. In the church, the distinctions so important in the world became unimportant, as all were finally accepted as children of God.
This deep and abiding commitment to the parity of all believers can also be seen in an incident St. Paul describes about the church in Corinth. It appears that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated each Sunday in the context of an Agape Meal, or Love Feast. Paul observes that as the poor worked during the day, the rich would gather early for the Agape Meal and imbibe so much wine that they were literally drunk when the working members of the church finally arrived. Paul makes clear that the Lord’s Supper is a holy event where all members of the covenantal community must be considered the same in the eyes of God. In Christ, there must be neither Jew or Greek male or female, slave or free, nor rich or poor. The supper is the table where no one is counted as better or more privileged than another.
Let us now move to the time of the Reformation. Here we discover that three understandings of the Lord’s Supper, viewed through the theology of the Roman Catholic Church and the theologies of Zwingli and Calvin. These theories become a point of great discussion, debate and even the cause of mortal warfare.
St. Thomas Aquinas carefully articulated the theology of the Roman Catholic Church called “transubstantiation” in the 13th century. Thomistic theology depends a great deal on the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who suggested that all things could finally be understood as consisting of “substance” and “accidents.” If we would place a chair in the middle of the room, we would understand according to Aristotle that its “chairness” was its substance, while the size, color, design and weight of the chair would constitute its “accidents.” Based on this very simple explanation of a portion of Aristotelian thought, Aquinas understood how Christ was present in Communion. By observing that the accidents of bread and wine remained the same, the substance of “breadness” and “wineness” was changed into the “body” and “blood” of Christ. One can see that a substance is changed into another substance, or in other words, one substance of bread and wine was transformed into the body and blood of Christ. It is apparent that the objects of bread and wine take on whole other significance and substance, while the accidents of the color, texture and taste of bread and wine remain the same.
Ulrich Zwingli assumed a dramatically different understanding of the presence of Christ in the Supper because of his roots in Renaissance Humanism rather than Aristotelianism. Zwingli understood the Lord’s Supper not primarily as an action or an object but as the opportunity for a congregation to gratefully remember the work of Christ on their behalf. To remember, for Zwingli, was an activity of a devotional mind and heart.
John Calvin’s humanism however, sent him in an entirely different direction. Calvin, who lived a generation later than Zwingli, adopted the vocabulary of the Roman Catholics, but dramatically redefined it. While Calvin’s theology talks about the substance of the Supper, he understands the substance, not in an Aristotelian way, but rather as the vivifying life of Christ. And so, the faithful are fed by the life and vitality of Jesus. Through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, Christ is also present feeding our souls with his very life and love.
One can hear echoes of Calvin’s understanding of preaching. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the person of Christ is again present to feed us for the journey to come. One can sense similarities with Calvin’s theology of Baptism, when candidates are adopted in the Body of Christ and challenged to live daily in his service and mission. This is all made possible again through the power of the Spirit who makes our relationship with the living Christ real.
A number of modern Calvin scholars have described how the mystical union between Christ and the faithful is at the heart of his understanding of the church. The words “mystical union” can be seen in the grafting of a twig into a tree so as the tree grows, the twig becomes an organic part. It can be discerned in Paul’s encouragement for us to grow in Christ, knowing that as Christ grows in us we can become more authentically human because we grow more Christ-like.
It is Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper, as in the Reformed tradition, where we discern that sacraments are first and foremost an action rather than an object. It is an action of God in and for us, an action which requires faith to receive the gift of God, which is Christ himself.
For Zwingli, the Lord’s Supper is a time to remember the work of Christ on our behalf but also a time to remember that Christ is absent. Calvin wants us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, like the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, recognizing the presence of Christ in the breaking of bread and being inspired to run back to our “Jerusalems”, or homes, with the amazing news that the one who died for us now lives.
For those of us who grew up in The Reformed Church in America, my home denomination, there was a constant and troubling tension between the memorialism of Zwingli and the joyful presence promoted by Calvin. The communion prayer of the RCA describes the supper as a “joyful duty.” I know that I when I was growing up first in the Christian Reformed Church in North America and then in the Reformed Church in America, there was little joy in the duty of communion. Indeed, our communion never felt like a celebratory event, but rather we “kept” the Lord’s Supper four times a year with the somber and sober mood of a funereal meal. The Supper was first and foremost a place and time when we confessed our manifold sins and looked to the cross of Christ as the place where God forgave us and sent us forward as dutiful and obedient servants.
In 1960, Dr. Howard Hageman, a former president of New Brunswick Seminary, was invited to provide the Stone Lecture at Princeton Seminary. The premise of the lecture was that while John Calvin could be identified as the theological father of the Reformed tradition, it was Zwingli who had become the liturgical master. Zwingli imprinted Reformed Churches with a sacramental theology that was spare, indeed almost anemic, and a worship life that was exclusively focused on the preaching and hearing of the Word. While Hageman would have preferred the far richer liturgical theology and practice of Calvin, he felt it imperative that if we were to reform our worship life, we needed to know our roots before we could imagine new ways forward in a growing ecumenical age.
Thus. almost all Reformed churches followed Zwingli in his custom of appending the communion meal to the Sunday morning service. It was Hageman’s contention that Zwingli built his communion practice on the medieval liturgical service of the prone, which provided a preaching service often separate from the mass. Zwingli, who pastored in Zurich, invited his parishioners four times each year to return to the sanctuary for an afternoon Lord’s Supper service clearly separate from the Sunday morning preaching service. He had, in one fell swoop, ignored the unity of sermon and supper found in the New Testament, and understood communion to be, in Hageman’s words, the celebration of the “real absence” of Christ. Hageman acknowledged this state of affairs in his lecture, and suggested that there were a number of little known chapters in Reformed liturgical history that could inspire a more Calvinistic and thus more fulsome and creative way forward.
In 1981, Nicholas Wolterstorff, published a book entitled “Until Justice and Peace Embrace.” While the central lectures of the book focus on the challenge of poverty and nationalism in the world order, he concludes with a chapter that suggests that a renewal of the worship life of Reformed Churches could have a salutary impact on our social ethics as well. Woterstorff makes a distinction between the actions directed toward us from God which he identifies as “proclamation”, and the actions we direct toward God which he calls “worship.” In the midst of the Chapter VII, entitled “Justice and Worship: The Tragedy of Liturgy in Protestantism” he writes:
“I submit that there is a tragedy of liturgy in Protestantism, especially, but no means, exclusively, within the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition. The tragedy consists in there being so little within the tradition of the very thing that we have been discussing: worship. The tragedy consists in the fact that within this tradition there is a suppression of the central Christian actions of celebrating the memorial.”
Wolterstorff later observed:
“What also results from the worship dimension of liturgy is the seriousness, the sobriety, the absence of joy so characteristic of traditional Reformed liturgy and so contrary to divine rest and people’s liberation that we intend to mirror.”
And so how do we move forward? It appears that we need to understand more deeply our “joyful duty” to worship the Lord. In some essential way we need to move toward a more sacramental and mysterious understanding of the Lord’s Supper that provides for a sense of joy and anticipation in addition to our call to remember the sacrifice of Calvary.
In the 1966 Communion Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America, which has remained almost untouched in the last fifty years, the Communion Prayer is preceded with a pedagogical statement entitled the Meaning of the Sacrament. I have little doubt that as the worship commission completed its fifteen year quest to reimagine communion as an essential part of every Sunday morning worship, the RCA was attempting to reattach itself to the rich tradition of the Universal Church. At the same time, it was concerned that a more celebratory prayer would leave the traditional didactic nature of the Lord’s Supper behind. The Meaning of the Sacrament was included to address this concern.
Hageman, who had served on the Worship Commission since the early 1950s, often shared the story that he was the primary author of the Meaning of the Sacrament, allegedly writing it in one evening after another member of the commission declared that it was impossible to explain communion in a single page. The text of the Meaning of the Sacrament, reads:
“Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, the holy supper we are about to celebrate is a feast of remembrance, communion and of hope.
We come in remembrance that our Lord Jesus Christ was sent of the Father into the world to assume our flesh and blood and to fulfill for us all obedience to the divine law, even to the bitter and shameful death of the cross. By his death, resurrection, and ascension he established a new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation that we might be accepted by God and never be forsaken by him.
We come to have communion with this same Christ who promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world. In the breaking of the bread he makes himself known to us as the true heavenly Bread that strengthens us unto life eternal. In the cup of blessing he comes to us as the Vine, in whom we must abide if we are to bear fruit.
We come in hope, believing this bread and this cup are a pledge and foretaste of the feast of love of which we shall partake when his kingdom has fully come, when with unveiled face we shall behold him, made like unto him in his glory.
Since by this death, resurrection, and ascension Christ has obtained for us the life-giving Spirit who unites all in one body, so we are to receive this Supper, mindful of the communion of saints.
We hear the past, present and future themes of Communion as the congregation looks back with gratitude, celebrates the presence of Christ and anticipates a future filled with hope. The Worship Commission of the RCA was very intentional in borrowing heavily from the Liturgy of the French Reformed Church first published in 1950 and in its definitive edition in 1963. I believe the work of Oscar Cullman, the ecumenical and biblical scholar, influenced our view of the post resurrection meals as a source of the early church’s life as well as the tradition of the Last Supper. Cullman and FJ Leenhardt in their Essays on the Lord’s Supper, published in the 1950s, include an English translation of an essay Cullman wrote already in 1936. He begins the first chapter with these words:
“That joy which, according to Acts 2:46, filled the hearts of the first believers united for the breaking of bread could not have been elicited by the recollection of the Last Supper or by the recollection of the daily meals taken with our Lord during his lifetime. … There is only one group of meals, the recollection of which could justify this overflowing joy: those which the first Christians took together immediately after the death of Jesus, meals during which Christ suddenly appeared to them….”
Cullman and others have called us to reclaim the joyful and eschatological dimensions of the communion meal. In so doing, Cullman argues that our hearts include not only gratitude for the past, but joy in the present and a hopeful longing for that time when we join the heavenly banquet. He marks this understanding of communion by encouraging the church to join with the faithful of all ages in exclaiming “Maranatha.” I believe it is not coincidental that the Communion prayer approved by the RCA in 1966, concludes with the Greek word Maranatha which is simply translated into English as: Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
While we are profoundly moved by this faithful and gracious participation in the life of the sacrament, John Calvin reminds us again and again that the presence of the risen Christ in our midst as we eat and drink together, remains a profound mystery. He exclaims:
“Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it.”
Calvin encourages us to participate in the sacraments, experience the mystery and find inspiration in the gratitude and joy of an ethical life. For Reformed Christians, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper finds its locus in sacramental actions rather than sacramental objects. We are far more interested in what happens at the table rather than on the table. We are far more interested in a community “eating and drinking” together at the Lord’s Table, than holding and reserving the sacramental objects of bread and cup. The idea of the sacramental actions, giving direction and inspiration to ethical actions is a natural way for us to reflect about liturgy and the public life. In addition, while the sacraments may feel to many as the “property” of the covenantal community, in fact they belong to the world, to feed the world and wash it clean. The goal of the sacraments is to redeem public life through very personal, but public, rituals of justice.
It was Sara Miles; in her book Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion, who came to Christ through the communion table from a place far from the church and the presence of God. She writes:
“The first time I came to the Table at St. Gregory’s, I was a hungry stranger. Each week since then, I’ve shown up- undeserving and needy- and each week, someone’s hands have broken bread and brought me into communion.
Because of how I’ve been welcomed and fed at the Eucharist, I see starting a food pantry at church not as an act of “outreach” but one of gratitude. To feed others means acknowledging our own hunger and at the same time acknowledging the amazing abundance we’re fed with by God.”
The Genesis story declares the created, material world to be good, and so from the very first moment, we receive the material world as a gift from a gracious God. The Incarnational story declares that Christ, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, has taken on the created, material world and sanctified it with his presence and ministry. And the Pentecost story declares that children of the covenant are adopted into the Body of Christ, the Spirit formed physical community that lives out its ethical life in the world. At every juncture, the spiritual and material worlds are both expressions of God’s goodness and grace. We are then invited into the very presence of God in the person of Christ through the work and witness of the Holy Spirit.
We come together in liturgy and life to perform a “joyful duty.” It is a life inspired by gratitude, marked by joy, and hopeful for a time when the world will be washed and fed. Marantha- Even so, Come, Lord Jesus.