The Unknown God
SLIDE 3: PAUL’S SECOND MISSIONARY TOUR
Paul was resting in Athens as a kind of tourist. He was actually on his second missionary journey traveling with Silas and Timothy to Macedonia in Greece. The first City on their itinerary had been Philippi, where Paul had successfully mentored the wealthy widow Lydia as a follower of the way of Jesus. Lydia was a merchant who knew the secret of dying and exporting purple cloth. Lydia’s whole household, children, slaves, workers in her factory and their families were all baptized and became the nucleus of the church in Philippi. The mission was going well until Paul healed a mentally ill slave girl who had been used by her owners as a fortune teller. When the girl was healed she was no longer sought after as a soothsayer and her owners stirred up crowds of people to attack Paul and Silas as dangerous foreigners, and they were driven out of Philippi.
SLIDE 4: PAUL WAITING IN ATHENS
Leaving behind an infant but thriving new church start, Paul, Silas and Timothy moved on to the City of Thessalonica. There they began preaching in the Synagogue and convinced a few Jews and a goodly portion of the “God Fearers,” non-Jews who attended and supported the Synagogue to join them in becoming followers of the way. But members of the Synagogue indignant over what they considered to be sheep stealing soon stirred up local opposition to Paul, Silas and Timothy, and the three of them were sent packing. Next they came to the small City of Berea on the Northern slopes of Mt. Olympus. Initially they enjoyed some success in planting a church, but soon Jews from Thessalonica showed up and began stirring up people against Paul in particular. After a couple of riots it was decided that Paul should get out of town, while Silas and Timothy stayed behind to nurture the fledgling congregation. Paul was to go on to Athens and wait for his colleagues and stay out of trouble – hard job for Paul.
SLIDE 5: PAUL INVITED TO SPEAK AT THE AREOPAGUS
Rome was the political Capitol of the Mediterranean world, but Athens was the cultural center of the ancient world. Alexander the Great had spread Greek culture all the way to India and Rome had people speaking Greek all the way to Spain and across Northern Africa. Athens had been the home of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Epicurus, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides. Paul had been schooled in Greek philosophy as well as Hebrew theology, and I can imagine him truly enjoying his visit to Athens. I can picture him looking through the shops of the Agora, sitting in on the different schools of philosophy. And Paul being Paul began to discuss and debate. The sages of Athens found him amusing, even interesting and so they invited Paul to address them from the Areopagus. The Areopagus was a hill located on the south side of the Agora at the base of the steep incline that led up to the Acropolis home of the Parthenon.
SLIDE 6: ALTAR TO THE UNKNOWN GOD
Paul tried to engage his audience by referring to their altar to the Unknown God. He claimed that the source of our being had been revealed in the Hebrew scriptures and finally most perfectly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some of his listeners, probably the skeptics and cynics mocked him. Other listeners invited him back to speak again. Two people Dionysius and Damaris became the nucleus of a fledgling congregation in Athens.
SLIDE 7: SKEPTICISM — MATERIALISM
I am fascinated by Paul’s experience in Greece and especially in Athens, because I believe there are important parallels to our modern context. He was trying to take the message of Jesus into a hostile and skeptical environment. The Greeks were weary of what seemed like an endless array of religions and philosophies vying for adherents in the ancient world. There were the classical Greek gods no one believed in any more. There were a multitude of mystery cults pouring in from Persia, Scythia, Egypt, Palestine, Nabatea. And then there were the Gnostics who claimed secret knowledge from a variety of sources that granted eternal life. Finally, there were the schools of philosophy especially the Skeptics and the Cynics who asserted that all claims to absolute truth must be rejected and all religions were humbug – and everyone was chasing a buck – materialism — consumerism. Sound familiar?
SLIDE 8: OUR MISSION IS TO TRANSFORM THE WORLD
Like Paul, if we are going to connect with the culture we are called upon to transform, we have to be able to get the attention and speak the language of the people we want to attract to the way of Jesus. Remember our mission is not to get to heaven. We are already assured of God’s eternal love for us. And our mission is not to build a bigger better Jesus club. Our mission is to transform the world by calling people to follow the way of Jesus showing forth love and kindness to all people welcoming everyone to the Sharing Table of Jesus.
SLIDE 9: GO OUT AND MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE
So how do we invite people to come to the Sharing Table? Did Paul, Silas and Timothy arrive in Philippi build a church building and wait for people to come saying, “Let’s be the best kept secret in Philippi? No! They went out into the market place and met people where they were. At the very least we have to advertise in the market place. Don’t be invisible. We have to have a presence on the internet and in social media. Today, before anyone visits a church they check out the congregation’s website. A better sign in front of our church that stands out rather than blending in with the possibility of posting information that can be changed once a week is another promising idea. Taking our programming outside of the church. Discussion and fellowship groups that meet in restaurants, coffee shops or pubs. Making up church “T” shirts that can be worn, when our volunteers are out doing good in the world. Letting people know who we are and what we do!
SLIDE 10: GOD LOVES YOU
This past Monday Malcolm Clark made a presentation to the Re-visioning Committee about how churches can better present themselves outside their walls. One suggestion he made from the Church of the Highlands in Birmingham is to print up cards that on one side say: “God loves you.” On the other side of the card is the church’s name, address and contact information. Then ask members of the congregation, whenever they are performing a kindness, mowing someone’s lawn, giving a nice tip to a server, offering a neighbor flowers for their window box, paying for the person behind you in the drive through, give them the card. A simple gesture of kindness out in the world can help someone take a new look at following the way of Jesus.
SLIDE 11: MUSIC IS A LANGUAGE PEOPLE UNDERSTAND
Another way of speaking the language of people in our culture is learning to communicate the gospel message in ways they can understand and to which they can relate. Music is desperately important. If the music we use in worship is foreign to their ears, they won’t be able to hear it. Fortunately Brian Berry has given the church a grant to help try to provide live music for our alternative worship. We don’t know yet what that will look like. We may leave the early service as it is and explore something on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening. Again if we are going to connect with people we have to be willing to be flexible to go where they are, rather than expecting them to conform to us. Our message is too important! No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome is too important to allow it to die, because we are too lazy to reach out, or we are too afraid to extend God’s love to others, or we are too inflexible to change in order to communicate the gospel in a way that others can hear.
SLIDE 12: CHALLENGE OF A MORE CONVERSATIONAL STYLE
One of the challenges I will face as we try to reorient our alternative worship is to learn a more conversational style. The millennial generation is looking for dialogue, and opportunity to engage and converse and not just to be talked at. I know a young pastor who preaches with his cell phone sitting on the pulpit, so he can respond to texted questions from the congregation. In those churches rather than admonishing members of the congregation to turn off their cell phones, they come with at least one sometimes two electronic devices, so they can text each other as well as the preacher and check the sermon references at the same time – talk about dialogue. I’m not sure I can do that, I have a hard enough time following a train of thought as it is, so yes it will be a challenge to develop a more conversational style.
SLIDE 13: CALLED TO SERVE RATHER THAN BE SERVED
But if we are clear that we have been called into the Body of Christ to serve rather than to be served, then our mission is to connect with people where they are. We are called upon to adapt our methods, the language of our message, and our life together as a faith community in order to mentor other people into following the way of Jesus.
SLIDE 14: GOD IS A MYSTERY
There is one other lesson I want to draw from Paul’s address at the Areopagus. The God in whom we live and move and have our being is ultimately a mystery. “I am what I am,” what does that mean? We share the message that in Jesus Christ God is revealed as love, but God is still a mystery beyond all our understanding. And that is why with profound humility we never seek to judge another person’s experience or understanding of God. We can only share with them our limited glimpse of the divine we have been allowed and invite them to share in a community of faith where everyone is welcome and we pray with and for each other. The world needs the message we have been given – so share the faith.
A Come to Jesus Moment
SLIDE 3: COME TO JESUS MOMENT
Usually when we talk about a “come to Jesus moment,” we are referring to a dramatic confrontation sort of like Jesus confronting Paul on the Road to Damascus. Sometimes we need God to pick us up by the scruff of the neck and give us a good shake. But the New Testament scriptures are also full of other kinds of come to Jesus moments: the Risen Christ inviting Thomas to place his finger in the nail holes in his hands, Jesus informing Peter, that he would deny Jesus three times on the night of his arrest, Jesus reaching out and healing the leper, or the blind man, or the woman with the hemorrhage (your faith has made you whole), Jesus asking Nicodemas, if he could be born again, or the tender moment when the Risen Christ called out Mary’s name, and she recognized him. These were all come to Jesus moments.
SLIDE 4: SEE LIFE IN A NEW WAY
Today I would like to suggest that many of us, if we reflect for a while, we will remember, “come to Jesus moments,” we have experienced – times when we saw life in a new way – God moments. When the diagnosis was cancer, or when we woke up one morning and realized we had been healed. When we finally found a job, or when the factory closed. When our child said, they loved us in spite of all of our questionable parenting, or when we met someone whose need touched our heart. Sometimes life can pick us up and give us a good shake or even a gentle nudge.
SLIDE 5: CHRIST OFTEN TRAVELS IN DISGUISE
And if you are having trouble recalling a time when Jesus may have appeared to you, remember Christ often travels in disguise like when he appeared to two disciples on the Road to Emmaus and they did not recognize him until the breaking of the bread. Jesus may appear to us in the guise of a stranger, a single mother trying to feed her children, a mentally ill veteran in a homeless camp, an abused child struggling to stay awake in school, a lonely elderly pensioner abandoned by her family. These are only some of the disguises Christ uses to confront us.
SLIDE 6: St. Francis and the Leper
St. Francis of Assisi was a compassionate minister to the poor, but he was deathly afraid of leprosy, and he avoided making contact with people who showed symptoms of the disease. One day as he was walking between towns he noticed a poor leper sitting and begging beside the road. He wanted to pass by on the other side, but mustering up his courage he went up to the leper gave the man the few coins he was carrying, overcame his fear and gave the man a hug. As St. Francis started again on his way he turned to say goodbye, and the leper was gone. Francis realized the man had been Jesus in disguise. He had experienced a come to Jesus moment.
SLIDE 7: HELP ME! HELP ME!
When I was a Junior in college I had a similar experience. I was walking along the lower end of Madison Ave. in New York City. It was still early in the evening by New York standards, November and starting to get cold. I was approached by a man staggering toward me imploring, “Help me. Help me.” I didn’t know what to do and the man reached out and took my hands and then started to collapse on the side walk. I helped him to lay down and promised I would try to get him some help.
SLIDE 8: A WORLD BEFORE CELL PHONES
Some younger people might be surprised but this was a world before cell phones and I saw a pay phone across the street. This was even a world before 911, so I dialed the operator and gave her the location and asked for an ambulance. Going back across the street I knelt beside the man, held his hand and assured him help was coming.
SLIDE 9: CYCLE OF DRUNKS ON THE BOWERY
This poor drunk thanked me over and over again. Before an ambulance arrived a police car pulled up and two uniformed officers got out and came over and started talking to the man. They were familiar with the life cycle of drunks on the bowery and ascertained that he was a merchant seaman who had gone through all his money and would go to Bellevue Hospital, where he would dry out and then ship out on another cargo vessel. While at sea the crew would keep him away from alcohol. When he arrived in port again with a big wad of cash he would go through the bowery handing out five dollar bills to all his friends on skid row. The policemen were understanding and compassionate.
SLIDE 10: YOUNG COP FROM OMAHA
The ambulance arrived. The drunk was taken off to the hospital and I visited with the police officers for a while longer and discovered that one of them was from Omaha. What was the chance of a kid from Omaha meeting a New York City cop who had only left Omaha five years before? You can explain it away as a coincidence but I don’t think so.
SLIDE 11: BEYOND THE DISGUISES CHRIST IS PRESENT
As the police car pulled away I realized this had been a come to Jesus moment. The old wino, the young cop from Omaha, had taught me to look beyond the disguises to see the people and in appreciating their humanity to see the Christ who was present.
I suspect in her visits to the homeless camps Alix has experienced some come to Jesus moments. By the way anyone who would like to give Alix some bottled water to take to the homeless camps can leave it here at church and she will gratefully pick it up and share it. Many times Sue Duthie has encountered Jesus in her work with Foodline, and I think Scott Ford has found Jesus hanging out at Habitat.
SLIDE 12: WE NEED TO CHANGE
Another kind of “Come to Jesus Moment” is when we realize with startling insight we need to change. God reveals some truth about our lives, often unpleasant, that motivates us to make changes. The marriage isn’t going to get better by saying: “Oh, well what can you do.” Our car with the engine light on isn’t going to heal itself. The forty pounds I need to lose won’t come off by sitting on the sofa. Change is difficult whether it is diet, exercise, beginning to meditate or pray, starting an educational program, a treatment program, changing habits and attitudes, it is all hard. Even finally making the resolution to visit the doctor or a counselor requires effort to overcome our inertia.
SLIDE 13: YOU KNOW HOW YOU ARE LIKE GOD?
I have had sort of a come to Jesus moment this spring. For years my family has complained about my snoring. My children claim they can hear me down the hall, when they are trying to sleep. I didn’t think too much about it. And then I had to start getting up in the night to go to the bathroom, and again I didn’t think too much about it after all I am getting older. Of course I really knew I was getting older when Robert, my grandson was visiting and he said, “Poppie you know how you are like God?”
I started to imagine the superlatives he might use in comparing his grandfather to God.
Then Robert said, “You’re both real old.”
SLIDE 14: MOTIVATED ENOUGH TO DO SOMETHING
About a year and a half ago Bill Tucker, who is not as old as I am, started walking with me in the mornings, and he has sleep apnea. He described his symptoms, and how much he was helped by the breathing mask at night, and I began to wonder, if maybe I have sleep apnea. But then inertia took over. Oh that seems like too much of a bother. Maybe sometime I will look into it. My getting up at night became more frequent and sometimes I would wake up tired. And then my last visit to the doctor my blood pressure was up. That got my attention, got me motivated enough to call and make an appointment. I’m surprised how long it takes to get the sleep study done, but now I am actually looking forward to the prospect of getting a good night’s sleep rather than putting it off or resisting doing anything.
SLIDE 15: HEY IT’S TIME FOR A CHANGE!
What motivation do we need to change? Do we have to wait for a life threatening illness, divorce papers, a runaway kid, a pink slip? Are we waiting for Jesus to walk through the door in robe and sandals and say, “Hey it’s time for a change!”
SLIDE 16: GOD’S TOTAL QUALITY MANAGEMENT QUESTIONAIRE
Now I realize some people may feel like God has not paid sufficient attention to their needs, and if you will just take the time to turn in your bulletin and fill out your “God’s Total Quality Management Questionnaire,” God will seek to better serve you – or not.
GOD’S TOTAL QUALITY MANAGEMENT QUESTIONNAIRE
God would like to thank you for your belief and patronage. In order to better serve your needs, He asks that you take a few moments to answer the following questions. Please keep in mind that your responses will be kept completely confidential, and that you need not disclose your name or address unless you prefer a direct response to comments or suggestions.
1. How did you find out about God?
__Newspaper __Other Book __Television __Divine Inspiration __Word of mouth __Near Death Experience __Bible __Torah __Other
2. Are you currently using any other source of inspiration in addition to God? Please check all that apply.
__Tarot __Lottery __Horoscope __Television __Fortune cookies __Ann Landers __Self-help books __Sex __Biorythms __Alcohol or drugs __Insurance policies __Mantras __None __Other: _____________________
3. God employs a limited degree of Divine Intervention to preserve the balanced level of felt presence and blind faith. Which would you prefer (circle one)?
a. More Divine Intervention
b. Less Divine Intervention
c. Current level of Divine Intervention is just right
d. Don’t know
4. God also attempts to maintain a balanced level of disasters and miracles. Please rate on a scale of 1-5 the divine handling of the following (1=unsatisfactory, 5=excellent):
a. Disasters (flood, famine, earthquake, war) 1 2 3 4 5
b. Miracles (rescues, spontaneous remission of disease, sports upsets) 1 2 3 4 5
5. Do you have any additional comments or suggestions for improving the quality of God’s services? (Attach an additional sheet if necessary):
SLIDE 17: BECOME THE CHANGE WE WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD
The truth is according to Mahatma Gandhi, we must become the change we wish to see in the world. That is the miracle of incarnation. If we are waiting for God to change, or the world to change, or our neighbor to change, our children to change, or our partner to change, we’re probably in for a long wait. But if we open our eyes and ears, listen carefully with our hearts we will find our come to Jesus moment and the courage we need to change.
The Lord Is My Shepherd
SLIDE 5: JEWS SURROUNDED BY FERTILITY CULTS
Our Judeo-Christian tradition has been accused, not without cause, of contributing to the culture of patriarchy. Our translations of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures overwhelmingly have used male images and pronouns to refer to the divine. The Jews found themselves surrounded by fertility cults that engaged in ritual prostitution and even human sacrifice. When we read about Josiah’s reform of the Temple as late as 630 BCE the King was ordering the destruction of the ritual houses of male and female prostitution that were part of the Temple itself. He also ordered the destruction of the altars to the god Chemosh in the Hinnom Valley just southwest the Jerusalem City wall, where King Ahaz Josiah’s great great grandfather had set up altars of fire and there sacrificed two of his infant sons. It wasn’t until the time of Josiah that Israel finally embraced monotheism and even then the notion of one God had a fairly tenuous hold. So Judaism from the time of Josiah until well after the Babylonian exile maintained a deep suspicion of feminine images of God.
SLIDE 6: FEMININE IMAGES OF THE DIVINE
Still even in the Scriptures we find feminine and androgynous references to the divine. For instance, in the first chapter of Genesis God says to the heavenly court: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. So God created humankind in the divine image, male and female God created them.” The prophet Isaiah compared God to a mother comforting her child (Isaiah 66:13) and as a new mother nursing her child (Isaiah 49:15). Jesus compared God to a mother hen protecting her chicks, a woman searching for a lost coin, and a woman working yeast into dough to make bread. The first letter of Peter compares the nurture of new disciples to a mother giving the milk of mercy to her children.
SLIDE 7: CHURCH OF PETER’S DENIAL
In Jerusalem there is a beautiful new church that claims to have been built over the remains of the house of Caiaphas the High Priest, where Jesus was tried and Peter denied knowing Jesus. When they excavated the site to find the remains of the House of Caiaphas, they also uncovered the ruins of a Byzantine Church that had been built in the 400’s.
SLIDE 8: MOSAIC OF GAIA
While digging, one of the artifacts they found was a mosaic floor featuring Gaia the goddess of mother earth. Again a feminine image of the divine.
SLIDE 9: INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE
In more recent history feminist theologians have championed the use of inclusive language that honors the feminine as well as the masculine attributes of God, and embraces all of God’s creation male and female as precious children of our creator. And so today on Mother’s Day we not only honor the love and care of our Mothers, but we are also bold to celebrate the feminine attributes of God.
SLIDE 10: 23RD PSALM MOST MEMORIZED SCRIPTURE
The 23rd Psalm is the most memorized passage from scripture. It is beautiful, lyrical and has powerful images. Scriptures like the 23rd Psalm we memorize in our youth can survive the ravages of brain damage from stroke and dementia. As a very young pastor I was called to the bedside of an older member of the church, who had suffered a massive stroke and appeared to be comatose. Unsure of what I should do, I started reciting the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” And then suddenly Ethel Capitola’s lips began moving and she responded, “I shall not want.” Those were the last words I ever heard her utter. But I believe the Psalm she had memorized as a child was there to comfort her in her dying.
SLIDE 11: BOBBY MCFERRIN’S 23RD PSALM
Today is Mother’s Day, and Bobby McFerrin has written a version of the 23rd Psalm, appropriate for celebrating our mothers and the divine mother. I want to thank Judy Cameron for introducing this version of the 23rd Psalm to me several years ago.
The 23rd Psalm
The Lord is my Shepard, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows,
Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.
Even though I walk, through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me,
I’m in her hand.
She sets a table before me, in the presence of my foes,
She anoints my head with oil,
And my cup overflows.
Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me,
All the days of my life,
And I will live in her house,
Forever, forever and ever.
Glory be to our Mother, and Daughter,
And to the Holy of Holies,
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
World, without end. Amen
SLIDE 12: MOTHER’S LOVE IS SPECIAL
A mother’s love is special – unconditional. Some of the hormonal changes that come with pregnancy and child birth contribute to the bonding between a mother and her child.
SLIDE 13: MOTHER’S MILK FOR INFANTS
Mary Luti in a Still Speaking devotional this week lifts up a mother’s love for her new born as a model for the grace we experience in our relationship with God. First Peter 2:2 “Like newborn infants, long for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.”
SLIDE 14: SALVATION IS IT REALLY A GIFT?
“When I was little,” Mary Luti writes, “I was taught to achieve salvation by building up a bank account of merit until I’d acquired enough to please God. Later, I was taught to work out my salvation in fear and trembling. There’d be consequences if I didn’t do it just right. Then I heard that salvation is a gift, which should’ve been a relief, but wasn’t. If something is really a gift, a giver can withhold it just as easily as bestow it. That worried me.”
SLIDE 15: SALVATION – WEASEL WORD
“I was confused. No one ever said what they meant by that weasel word, “salvation,” and everybody had conflicting ideas about how you get whatever it is. Then I read First Peter 2:2. Instead of anxious effort; instead of an iffy gift; instead of the exhausting spiritual aerobics we confess in church every Sunday — falling down, getting up, trying again — this made organic sense to me:
SLIDE 16: WE’RE INFANTS AT GOD’S BREASTS
We’re infants at God’s breasts, helpless at the start. As we’re fed the milk of mercy, we grow. As we’re held in the arms of the family of disciples, cooed to with songs of faith, read to with stories of Jesus, we grow. As we toddle along the Way and speak our first Word of faith, we grow.
SLIDE 17: MYSTERY OF GROWTH
Maturation is not without its pains. And it takes effort—everyone’s, since it really does take a village to raise a child. But there comes a day when we stand back and admire, wondering how this graceful thing happened, knowing that we did not make the splendid grown-up, the mature disciple, standing before us, even though in a way we surely did. And for this mystery of growth, we give God the glory.
Mary Luti offers this Prayer:
SLIDE 18: PRAYERS FOR OUR MOTHERS AND OUR MEMORIES OF THEM
Nurse us, Mother God. Set us growing until the day we stand before you in the splendid maturity you nurtured us into, you and the church that forms us in your name. Receive this day our prayers for our mothers and our memories of them, and accept our thanks for all the nurture and care they have given to us and that we have gratuitously received. Amen.
Known in the Breaking of the Bread
SLIDE 3: ROAD TO EMMAUS
Bible scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan both believe that the story of two disciples meeting the Risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus is the most authentic of all the resurrection stories. The empty tomb they argue was probably created to try to silence the critics who alleged that Jesus’ followers had stolen the body, or that what the disciples claimed to have experienced Jesus alive among them was inauthentic and unreliable. But what believers down through the ages have proclaimed is that Jesus is alive and among us in the breaking of the bread, eating at the sharing table. When hungry people are fed, and when hierarchies are abandoned, and people gather at the table to eat together regardless of age, ethnicity, family structure, gender identity and expression, mental and physical ability, nationality, political ideology, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and spiritual belief, Jesus is alive and well among us.
SLIDE 4: WOMEN LEADERS IN THE EARLY CHURCH
<a Another important detail of the story was only one of the disciples who was walking on the Road to Emmaus was named. How come? How did one of the first people to experience the risen Christ become lost to history? John Dominic Crossan provides an answer. The unnamed disciple was a woman. Jesus welcomed women as followers. He invited them to join the teaching circle and eat at the Sharing Table. The early church continued Jesus’ practice of allowing women opportunities for leadership and ministry. The prominence of women in the entourage of Jesus was one more reason traditional Judaism was scandalized by the followers of the way. In one of the genuine letters of Paul, the Letter to the Romans, women were described as apostles and deacons – Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, Julia, Olympas. Lydia was the founder, benefactress and leader of the church in Philippi. Not until the second century almost eighty years after the time of Jesus did the male leaders of the church begin to put women in their place. They sold out Jesus’ acceptance of gender equality in order to gain wider acceptance within the patriarchal Roman Empire. And then finally in the third and fourth centuries in an attempt to court the favor of the Empire, the church became more hierarchical in its leadership. We begin to see Bishops as rulers instead of servants.
SLIDE 5: RADICALLY EGALITARIAN
The community of followers Jesus left behind was radically egalitarian for the First Century. Women were recognized as teachers and ministers. The picture here is a restored fresco from the early church showing women presiding at the eucharist. Wealth was shared. Decisions were made by discussion and consensus. They also left room for disagreement and diversity – Jews should continue to keep the kosher dietary regulations, gentiles were free to follow their own conscience. When the Jerusalem Church chose a person to replace Judas, who had committed suicide, they nominated two people who had followed Jesus around Galilee. Then lots were drawn to make the final selection. They believed that drawing lots opened the process to the Holy Spirit, and prevented electioneering and the politicizing of their community.
SLIDE 6: CHOOSING LEADERS BY LOT
Many Mennonite churches still select their leaders by lot. When a congregation needs to choose a new leader, they collect nominations from the people. Individuals who receive seven or more nominations are then asked if they would serve if they were chosen. The nomination process usually narrows the field of candidates to four or five people. The Mennonite Bishop then visits the congregation and leads the people in a prayer service. The Bishop then places four or five copies of the Bible on the communion table. Inside one of the Bibles a book mark has been hidden. While the congregation sings a hymn the candidates are invited to come forward to pick up one of the Bibles. The person who finds the book mark inside his/her Bible has been chosen as the new leader. Leaving a selection process open to the movement of the Holy Spirit by drawing lots seems like a novel concept to us. But drawing lots can insure a rotation of leadership, and a community can avoid the divisiveness that can accompany contested elections.
SLIDE 7: RADICAL INCLUSION
Jesus intended for his followers to practice radical inclusion forming an egalitarian community of faith. The poor were invited to eat with the rich. Women exercised authority with men and shared in the ministry of the community. The central act of worship of the followers of Jesus became the community meal, for in the symbolism of egalitarian table fellowship they recognized the Christ alive and well among them.
SLIDE 8: EMPTY RITUAL?
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, people rushed to join the Church, because in order to hold a government job or receive a government contract, you had to be a member of the church. Large basilicas had to be built to hold all the people attending worship. During this period it was no longer practical to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a communal meal. Instead, the Eucharist became a ceremony – often an empty ritual. Fewer and fewer people came to know the Christ in the breaking of the bread, because the Lord’s Supper had been taken out of its original context as a communal meal.
SLIDE 9: THAT’S THE DEVIL COMING OUT
I’m reminded of one fellow minister who shared the experience of his second communion. He was sitting in front of a couple of older members of the church as the elements were passed. After the drinking of the wine, you could hear several people coughing as the wine sort of stuck in their throats – wasn’t a very good vintage. And the young man over heard one of the elders say to the other, “That’s the devil coming out.”
SLIDE 10: CHILDREN IN WORSHIP
When the sense of community is lost in the breaking of the bread we often miss the presence of the Christ. I find this is particularly true for children in worship. A four-year-old was in church when the wine and communion wafers were passed out. He was very interested in this, and started to help himself as the elements were passed. His mother leaned over and told him that he was not old enough to partake in the Communion.
Later, when the collection plate came by, he ignored it. His mother again leaned over and tried to coax the nickel out of him. He steadfastly refused, stating, “If I can’t eat, I’m not paying.”
To make sure children don’t believe they are being excluded, I have offered them the choice between the wine and the wafer or a cookie. If a child chooses the wine and wafer rather than the cookie, then they are ready to join in the Lord’s Supper. If a child chooses the cookie they still get to eat with everyone else – inclusion is the key.
SLIDE 11: CIRCLE OF COMMUNION
If we are going to take seriously egalitarian inclusion, and a communal context for the breaking of the bread, I think forming a circle for communion when we share the Lord’s Supper in the sanctuary is helpful. Also providing gluten free crackers or Rice Chex is an important gesture of inclusiveness. Holding hands looking into one another’s eyes rather than the backs of people’s heads can help us to discern the presence of the Body of Christ in the sharing of the bread and the cup.
SLIDE 12: FOOD EVERYONE CAN EAT
Another experiment we have tried on Thursday nights has been putting communion back into the context of a communal meal at the Sharing Table. We try to make sure there is food everyone can eat, gluten free, vegetarian – something for everyone. Anyone who shows up is fed. We pray with and for each other, and we share communion. I think a mid-week meal including the Lord’s Supper is more appropriate than trying to hold a potluck supper every Sunday with communion.
SLIDE 13: WELCOMING VISITORS
Sunday morning is public worship, when we welcome visitors. Malcolm Clark was sharing on the retreat that in the church he and Mannay had attended in Birmingham the members were reminded that Sunday morning was not about them, it was for the purpose of introducing guests to the gospel. I know that concept may sound alien to some of us, but this is not our church. This is God’s church – the church of Jesus Christ and our purpose is to help others who presently do not have a connection with the divine to find a spiritual community of faith. Our acceptance, our diversity at United Church are strengths we can offer as we seek to share the fellowship of Christ with others. Yes, each of us can seek to be fed by the community of faith, but we have been called not to sit in the shade of the congregation’s love and nurture we have been called in order to be sent out to others as ambassadors of Christ. We have been saved from trivial life, because God has important work for us to do.
SLIDE 14: TOGETHER WE WILL CHANGE THE WORLD
Jesus didn’t say to his disciples, “Come follow me and I will take care of you.” He said, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Come follow me and I will give you tasks worthy of a life purpose. Come follow me and together we will change the world. Come follow me, and you will know me in the breaking of the bread.