Communion, community and coming off the mountain...

NOTE: Once again I am posting my notes for this Sunday - our marking of the Feast of the Transfiguration - and what they suggest about a Reformed perspective on Holy Communion. If you happen to be in town at 10:30 am on Sunday, please join us.

Trapped in the trappings – religion for real or for show – that’s what we’re going to talk about today. For you see, this the Feast of the Transfiguration, the last Sunday before Lent begins, and it offers us a unique opportunity to discern whether we’re on the right track with Jesus as he heads into Jerusalem, or, whether we’re off on one of our own distracting and often self-absorbed ventures.

As Sr. Joan Chittister likes to say: the story of Jesus and his disciples on the mountain helps us determine whether our religion is essentially a private affair or a matter of the public good. “Do we see faith as a private refuge or a public presence… do we seek a spirituality to protect us from the world, or, change the way we live in that world?” A story from the rabbis gets to the heart of this challenge:

It seems that there was once an old Jew who used all of his spare time planting fig trees at the edge of his village. People would ask, “Why are you planting fig trees? You are going to die before you can eat any of the fruit or even glimpse their beauty?” To which he said, “I have spent many, many hours sitting under my own vine and fig tree eating from their bounty – and those trees were planted by others. So why shouldn’t I make certain that the ones yet to come might know some of the joy and blessings that I have known?”

So let’s see what this sacred story of Christ’s mountain top experience might have to say to us about the heart and soul of our celebration of Holy Communion. You may recall that throughout February we’ve been reflecting on a host of insights about worship:

+ we’ve spoken about music and how it can both help or hurt community building

+ we’ve looked at the importance of being grounded in scripture without being fundamentalist

+ we’ve talked about the importance of being connected to God’s beauty, majesty, mystery and holiness

+ and now we’re going to consider how we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion

Because whether we’re talking about high church or low – traditional, contemporary or experimental liturgies – there is unanimity among Christians that how we celebrate holy communion communicates what we believe about our faith to the world – particularly those who are not yet insiders. Eucharist, you see, makes something of our deepest truths flesh in ways that matter. So, let’s do a little of creative thinking together.

First, let’s put this story of Jesus on the mountain top into some kind of context: do you recall what the symbol of a mountain means is our spiritual literature?

+ For Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists as well as many American Indians, mountains are those places where humans can touch heaven.
The holy and the human can embrace on a mountain top. Think of the story of the 10 Commandments and Moses on a mountain top; or Elijah confronting the agents of idolatry; or even Dr. King on the eve of his assassination: “I’ve been to the mountain top… and I’ve seen the other side. I may not get there with you but I’ve seen the Promised Land.”

+ Jesus gave us the core of his message in that collection we call the Sermon on the Mount. So mountain tops are important in our spiritual geography; they tell us that some important and grace-filled encounter between God and humankind is going to happen.

And that’s what our story says, too. Jesus took his three closest disciples, scaled Mt. Tabor and was transfigured during a mystical conversation with Moses and Elijah. Transfigured means he was filled with light and consumed in beauty – a beauty and light that gave shape and form to God’s love – and when the study and prayer with the ones of tradition was over there was a voice from heaven saying: “This is my beloved – listen to him.”

Now pay careful attention to two insights from this mountain top experience: Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah – and – after all is said and done Jesus takes his troops back down the mountain into what some have called his confrontation with the valley of the shadow of death.

Moses and Elijah: why these two saints? Well, it could have something to do with the fact that these are the prophets of liberation and freedom. Scholars are quick to point out that Jesus was not in consultation with “Aaron the priest who was the chief interpreter of the Law nor was he talking with King David the defender of the state.”(Chittister http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/chittister_3508.m)

+ Tell me about Moses – he is at the heart of the Exodus – the one who hears God’s broken heart over the oppression of the slaves and uses his life to upset the status quo by bringing the children of Israel into the Promised Land.

+ And Elijah – what do you know about this brother? Besides Moses he is perhaps the essence of a prophet who not only scolded and warned King Ahab to quit serving false idols but took on Jezebel and her priests on Mt. Horeb to prove that the Lord our God was superior to the false idols of Baal.

What’s more, tradition has it – and the Passover Meal reinforces it – that before the Messiah returns to usher in the reign of God’s peace, justice and judgment, Elijah shall return. That’s why the Passover Table always includes a setting for Elijah – with a full cup of wine – and the children run to the door to see if the prophet has returned. Elijah is understood to be the sign of the Messiah’s arrival. So it is not accidental – mystically or theologically – for Jesus to be in prayer and conversation with Moses and Elijah, ok?

And we know this to be true because rather than remain on the mountain in spiritual ecstasy – as an alternative to cultivating a spirituality of personal and private piety – Jesus takes his action back down to the valley and the streets. Peter and the disciples want to stay blind from the implications of Christ’s way – they want to stay put on the beauty of that mountain top – but Jesus leads them down into the valley of the shadow of death to spread compassion, healing and justice.

So let the record be clear: immediately after Jesus departs from the mountain of mysticism and ecstasy he takes his followers directly to heal a boy possessed by demons. They don’t go to jail. They don’t go to temple, or church or a mosque. They do not pass go or collect $200 dollars: they return into the belly of the beast where wounded people live and unjust systems oppress. Real religion” it would seem, “is not about building temples and keeping shrines. Real religion is about healing hurts, speaking for and being with the poor, the helpless, the voiceless and the forgotten who are at the silent bottom of every pinnacle, every hierarchy and every system in both church and state.” (Chittister)

Now I can hear somebody thinking, “What in God’s name does all this justice ranting about the mountain and the valley have to do with Holy Communion?” Well… I’m glad you asked because at the heart of the way we celebrate communion is the word community. This isn’t true for every Christian tradition – although Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox all agree that it plays a part in the feast – but it is primary for you and me and let me explain.

+ Our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends believe that Eucharist is essentially a reliving of Christ’s sacrifice. They believe that when a duly ordained priest speaks the words of consecration, the bread and wine become Christ’s true flesh and blood. This is the doctrine of transubstantiation where bread and wine are actually transformed by God’s love in prayer so that we take into ourselves the very essence of our Lord’s forgiveness. There is an element of community building in this Eucharist - and in some of the modern expressions of Eucharist it is boldly communal - but traditionally communion has been a deeply personal ritual act performed by the priest on behalf of the people. In fact, the people are not even necessary some times for Roman Catholic communion: just a priest offering the sacrifice on another's behalf.

+ Our Lutheran and other high church Protestants move a little closer towards the community of God with God’s people in their celebration of Holy Communion. They were the first to conduct worship in the everyday language of ordinary people – rather than Latin – and they practice what is called the priesthood of all believers. Everyone has a mission, not just an ordained priest, and that mission has to do with making Christ real in our midst. But their understanding of the bread and wine is still different from ours for they teach the doctrine of consubstantiation: here the bread and wine equally share the full nature of bread and wine while also taking on the full presence of Christ’s body and blood. It is simultaneously bread and body, wine and blood.


Not so with our tradition – not that we deny the full presence of Christ at the supper – but we really don’t place a lot of emphasis on the elements. No, what is important in our way of celebrating communion is that when we gather – and pray – we trust that Christ spiritually lifts us all into his sacred presence. Do you grasp the difference here?

+ We accept that it is a mystery how this happens, we acknowledge that breaking bread and sharing wine help us have our eyes opened to the presence of Jesus within and among us but we don’t spend a lot of time worrying, arguing and debating how this occurs.

+ Rather, we seek to re-member Jesus by recalling how he first lived and brought healing and hope to the people – and how he continues to do that in our lives now – when we gather in community.

Writer Donald Miller, I think, says it better than most: How odd would it seem to have been one of the members of the early church, shepherded by Paul or Peter, and to come forward a thousand years to see people standing in line or sitting quietly in a large building that looked like a schoolroom or movie theater, to take Communion. How different it would seem from the way they did it, sitting around somebody’s living room table, grabbing a hunk of bread and holding their own glass of wine, exchanging stories about Christ, perhaps laughing, perhaps crying, consoling each other, telling one another that the Person who had exploded into their hearts was indeed the Son of God, their Bridegroom, come to tell them who they were, come to mend the broken relationships, come to marry them in a spiritual union more beautiful, more intimate than anything they could know on earth

Are you with me? We are not judging other traditions – they all have beauty and integrity – but they are different from ours. Our celebration of Holy Communion is about re-membering Jesus – reclaiming his presence in time and history and our lives – and drawing strength from his love within and among us in community.

That is why we welcome everyone to the Lord’s Supper – friend and foe, member and guest, insider and out – together Christ’s spirit actually transforms us and the community is changed from the inside out.

Sometimes I think we can get trapped in the trappings, spend lots of time in arcane theological debates and rule-making about who is in and who is out rather than pay attention to the Christ who comes down off the mountain top. This is a our perspective. Not better, not worse, just different – I have come to think of our way of celebrating Holy Communion like this old story from Africa:

Once El Bulto – the bundle man – told me the story of “one stick – two stick.” There was an old woman dying so she calls to her side her loved ones. She gives a short, sturdy stick to each of her children and grand children and says, “Break that stick.” And with some effort they do, they all snap their sticks in half. “This is how it is when a soul is alone without anyone. They can easily be broken.”

Then she gave out another stick to all who had gathered by her bedside. “This is how I would like you live after I pass. Put your sticks together in bundles of twos and threes. Now, try to break these bundles in half.” And, of course, no one could break the bundles so she said, “We are strong when we stand together with other souls. When we are truly together, we cannot be broken. Go and do likewise.”


This is the good news for those with ears to hear: Lord, may it be so within and among us all.

Comments

adhunt said…
We need more pastors like you my friend.
RJ said…
You are so very kind... thanks.
Luke said…
goodness! i loved it! Transfiguration is one of my fave. stories and i can't read enough sermons about it... but most sermons i judge inadequate, but not yours amigo!

i LOVED the “Real religion” it would seem, “is not about building temples and keeping shrines.... quote. freak'n brilliant.

my fave. reaction is Peter in this story... he sees the two prophets and his best bud glowing and in his shock and awe, he still offers what he knows. many pastors rip him a new one... but he offers what kindness and hospitality he could and i think that reaction shows Peter's good character. i think that's the quality Jesus saw when he called ol' Simon Pete.

great stuff dawg, RAWK!

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