Sunday, September 4, 2011

Christ, the Reconciler

No new ideas here, but I fear the ideas I am passing along are too rarely acknowledged.

Exodus 12:1-14
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

Romans 13:8-14
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Matthew 18:15-20
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that some of the most contentious, most divisive arguments in all of Christian history center around the common event which is designed to bring us all together. The Lord’s Table. Communion. Eucharist. The Lord’s Supper.

The gist of the disagreement over the millennia is what, precisely, the meaning and content of the Lord’s Supper really is. We’ve discussed this before: there are, generally speaking, four broad areas of theology and doctrine concerning Communion, and they center around the phrase or idea of “The Real Presence;” that is, if and how Jesus Christ is present within the activities or elements of the Lord’s Supper.

The theology we Presbyterians are most familiar with is what’s called “Pneumatic Presence,” which most simply put is the understanding that the Spirit of Christ is present, through the Holy Spirit, not in the elements of the Eucharist, but in the communal act of Eucharist. When we participate corporately in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus Christ is present, providing nourishment to those who believe, strengthening us in our faith journey.

At one side of the Pneumatic Presence is Memorialism, which is practiced by the Baptist Church, as well as most related evangelical denominations. The understanding here is that the bread and wine are not changed at all when consecrated, and, further, since Christ is physically present in Heaven, his presence in any form in the Lord’s Supper would be impossible. Congregations that practice Memorialism, in general, do not hold Communion as sacramental; rather, it is considered to be an act of remembrance of Christ's atonement, and a time of renewal of personal commitment.

On the other side of Pneumatic Presence is the theology held by Lutherans and others called “consubstantiation.” In the doctrine of consubstantiation, the physical reality of the elements is unchanged – they are still bread and wine – but the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ are "truly and substantially present in, with and under the forms" of consecrated bread and wine. Those who participate in the sacrament eat and drink both the elements and the true Body and Blood of Christ Himself.

Now, I understand that the phrasing there is clunky, but it has to be like that in order to differentiate consubstantiation from transubstantiation, which is the theology held by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, among others. The belief here is that, from the time Jesus first uttered the words of the Institution until today, when the bread and the cup are consecrated, they become, quite literally, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The outward appearance of the bread and the wine are not altered – it still looks and feels and tastes like bread and wine – but what is called the “inner reality” is changed. The Real Presence is a physical reality in transubstantiation, the person participating in the Eucharist quite literally ingests the real, physical body and blood of Jesus. Christ as a whole is present in the elements – body and blood, soul and divinity.

We could go round and round all morning about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the differing theological understandings, but the point is that all of them try to understand where, and how, and when, and under which precise circumstances, is the Real Presence of Christ, well, present?

I wish that I could say that the question has been the subject of discussion and respectful debate for the last two millennia. It has, in fact, been the subject of fights, splits, schism, hate, condemnation, and even bloodshed.

It is, then, ironic that all of this disagreement over the Real Presence of Christ misses completely the place that Jesus himself said the Real presence would be – the time and place and circumstances in which he promised that he would always be truly present.

Oh, it’s easy to miss, I suppose, because our Gospel passage has all too often been misused as a way to protect the status quo, to keep people from speaking truth to power, to make the vulnerable even more vulnerable… Like far, far too many passages of Scripture, this has been a hammer to beat people down, rather than a beacon to bring them home, wings to lift them up.

The challenge of the Gospel reading is to hear what Jesus is really saying. If a brother or a sister does something that offends, hurts, or harms you, or if he or she is committing a sin – and yes, it is entirely accurate to include all of this in the Greek word “hamartia” which is taken from archery and means “missing the mark” – then find a space where you are both alone, and point out the problem. If there’s no meeting of the minds, no resolution, go back with a couple of witnesses. If that doesn’t work things out, take it to church, and if that doesn’t fix it, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Is this a justification for excluding from fellowship anyone who hurts our feelings or does something we don’t like? Is Jesus simply giving us justification for shutting others out, or is there something deeper at work here?

To be sure, if all Jesus is doing is offering us the mechanics of church discipline, the church as a whole does a really lousy job of carrying this discipline out. And, in any case, doesn’t the passage speak more to personal discipline within the body of believers? If a brother or sister sins against you – you go… you take one or two others with you… you go to the church…

That’s hard, isn’t it? And we are wired so differently than that. It’s easier, almost more natural that, rather than face the person we have a problem with, in private, one-on-one, we tell someone else about the offense, who tells someone else, and on and on and on. It’s the easier, more face-saving option, sure, because all that gets out as far as we are concerned is our side of the issue… but all too often we see churches split, fellowships broken, or families destroyed, when a simple conversation would have set the whole matter straight in moments. But confrontation in love, speaking softly, with humility, with an eye toward working things out is hard, hard work.

But the Gospel is about relationship.

In our Old Testament reading, God is in the process of making a mighty nation from a gaggle of slaves, working mighty and terrible miracles in the dark and horrible night to bring about their release. The blood of the lamb is the symbol by which the children of Israel are not only set free from the Egyptian oppression, but a continuing reminder that, in being set free, they have become one family, one people, one nation.

It is no mistake that, on the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took the elements of the meal – a meal which memorialized the night the Hebrew slaves became a nation – and began a new tradition, one which reminds all who partake it that we may have been slaves to sin, butthrough the blood of the Lamb of God we have been set free; we may have done everything we could to alienate ourselves from our creator, but God has called us by name; we may have been adrift and alone, but through Jesus Christ we are members of a singular body and a singular Kingdom of God.

The Gospel is about reconciliation. In Christ, we are reconciled to God. Jesus Christ is all about reconciliation, and the good news is that even here, even in this Gospel reading, the focus of what Jesus is saying is not exclusion or excommunication – not how to keep people out – but reconciliation and restoration – how to keep people in!

That first step Jesus talks about has a wonderful focus to it! “If [he or she] listens to you, you have regained that one.” Reconciliation!

That second step – having one or two others who can hear both sides, and help work things out! Reconciliation!

And what about that last, seemingly harsh pronouncement: “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector?” Think about it – the one who is speaking is the same Jesus who made it a point to specifically reach out to, eat with, care for, heal and feed the Gentile? Who not only ate and spent time with tax collectors, but even called one, Matthew, to be his disciple?

Knowing this, it makes sense that Eugene Peterson, in “The Message” paraphrase, interprets the “Gentile and tax collector” verse to say something shocking, something profound: “If [the sinning fellow believer] still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.”

Again, reconciliation.

And where is Jesus in all of this? Right there! “…I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus’ presence is found in the hard work of reconciliation!

In our reading from the book of Exodus, the congregation of Israel is told to eat the Passover with their traveling clothes on, their walking stick in hand, and to eat it in a hurry, a quick bite before they hit the road. Fuel for the journey ahead.

Have you ever thought about how we here at Fairfield Highlands Presbyterian Church participate in the Lord’s Supper? It’s really kind of unique among Presbyterian churches. With rare exceptions, most Presbyterian congregations remain in their pews to receive the elements. But here, we all stand around the Table. And you’ve probably never noticed it, but when we stand around the table, our backs are straight, no one’s arms are crossed, everyone’s hands are at the ready to receive, and pass on, the elements of the Lord’s Supper. I’ve struggled for an apt metaphor, and I have to say that it looks a whole lot like a group of soldiers standing ready to receive their orders. We could just as easily turn and go back to our seats and finish the worship service, or turn as one and march out the door, and start the journey which brings all of God’s people to the reconciliation of the Kingdom of God!

What a perfect picture! The people of God equipped and ready! Eager to do the hard work of reconciliation, the hard work of restoration… and never, ever do we do it alone.

We have a guarantee, a wonderful promise – Jesus is present with us in the breaking of bread. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is present with us in each moment of our lives – and Jesus, the Reconciler, is with us when we work to repair relationships between one another, and when we restore everyone in this broken world to wholeness through reconciliation with a loving Creator!

Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us! All of us! Reconciled, as one! Therefore let us keep the feast!

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