Sit Down and Eat Your Supper

Jesus give us the real instruments of unity...

SJF • Easter 3a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Those who welcomed the message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

Last week we heard part of Saint Peter’s first sermon, delivered on the day of Pentecost, and today we hear the conclusion, and more importantly, the results. What you have here might be described as the first “altar call” — the crowd is cut to the quick by Peter’s ardent testimony, and about three thousand of them are added to the flock in baptism.

But there is more: as the Book of Acts makes clear, this is not the end, but the beginning of the story. The text continues: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This is literally a “cast of thousands” for the performance that is about to begin, which is the ongoing life of the church as a new body of the faithful. And what is important to note here is that they are not just faithful to God, but to each other. They are no longer simply a crowd of individuals, but a congregation, an assembly, a church. What holds them together, what unifies them, is their one faith in the one Lord through the one baptism. And their unity is strengthened and reinforced by the disciplines they practice as the body of Christ.

These instruments of unity are familiar to us: we use the words that summarize them at every baptism, and when we recite the Baptismal Covenant as we did two weeks ago on Easter. The members of the church not only devote themselves to God, but to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.

You all know the Christmas carol, that goes, “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day in the morning,” right? Well I’d like to point out that the earliest believers, and believers since, are united by means of three ships: leadership, fellowship, and worship.

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First of all, the believers acknowledge the apostles’ leadership. As Acts records, they turn “to Peter and to the other apostles” with an earnest question; after being told what a mess they are in, they naturally ask, “Brothers, what should we do?” And they heed their advice, their witness, their teaching, the testimony from these eyewitnesses, testimony that has been passed down through the ages. And as I said last week, that testimony is this: Christ is alive! In him we have forgiveness of sins — all our sins, whatever they may be — and we have a new life in the Spirit. That’s it, the short form of the Christian faith, as handed down from the beginning until now, and as it will be handed down until the coming of the Lord in glory, to judge both the living and the dead. Christ is alive.

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Out of this strong leadership and teaching of the apostles, there arises almost at once the second instrument of unity: fellowship. The first thing the people do — those three thousand — is to get baptized — all washed with the same baptismal water, united with Christ in a death like his, in order to live in the life which is his, the life of the church, which is his body. And this fellowship takes surprising forms: these people will go on to share their property with each other, the better-off helping those in need. They spend much more time together than they ever had before. As Peter says in the Epistle, looking back on this newly baptized community: “Now that you have purified your souls by obedience to the truth” — that is, now that you are reborn in Christ — “you have genuine mutual love.” They are a community bound in fellowship.

And then, of course, comes worship. The new community of faith is unified by the instruments of prayer and the breaking of the bread in which Christ is made known and makes himself known from Emmaus onward even to this day. These new believers discover that in giving thanks and praising God and sitting at the table together, they share in this great mystery of Christ’s presence with them, the Holy Communion of his Body and Blood, of his and their — and our — Savior.

This is how the church began, and this is how the church is called to continue, united through these three instruments, sailing the seas of this world in these three ships — the leadership and teaching of the apostles’ and their successors — which is the body of the faithful, lay and ordained; in the fellowship of that gathered community that transcends time and space; and in the worship that offers and shares the broken bread and the cup of wine, with the prayer of thanksgiving.

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These three aspects of leadership, fellowship and worship are summed up in our gospel this morning. When Jesus meets the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he takes the leadership that is his by right; he teaches them about himself, leading them into an understanding of the Scripture as they walk along, as he relates it to all that has happened. He then stays with them in fellowship, accepting their invitation as the day draws to a close and night comes on, to be with them, to stay with them a little longer; and in doing so he draws them even closer together in fellowship. And finally, as he breaks the bread — in what would ordinarily have been just an act of fellowship but which has been raised by Jesus into an act of worship — he makes himself known to them, even as he vanishes from their sight, perhaps leaving behind his knowing smile, the warmth of his presence, and the knowledge of his love.

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Would it were always so! For there are some who reject this way to unity in Christ; some who don’t book passage on these three ships but try to take another way — and insist on others taking it too! Instead of accepting the imperishable presence of God whom we meet in communion and fellowship with each other, some still want to have their own way, refusing to share in the leadership of the church because of disagreements over one thing or another, refusing the offered hand of fellowship because they don’t approve of the one who offers it, and worst of all refusing to worship together because of these divisions and dissensions.

No doubt you have heard or read of the disagreements that have gone on in the Anglican Communion over the last twenty years. Some go so far as to say that the Communion has fallen apart. Well, I say, Don’t believe everything you hear! While there are some — even a handful of folks here in our own country — angry enough to try to vote others off the island (as if they could!), there are many others, the vast majority of others, who are on record as saying they do not approve of such a movement. More importantly, in the long run, they trust — I hope we all trust — that Christ will prevail. The majority of the leaders of the Anglican Communion will heed Christ’s commandment to be one in him, not seeking unity in manmade political structures or elaborate compromises, but in the comprehensive instruments of unity that Christ himself gave us: shared leadership, committed fellowship, and communal worship.

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Some people, even at the level of a parish, refuse to share in prayer and fellowship with those with whom they disagree. What would Jesus do in a case like this? A number of things spring to mind. I can well imagine him saying, as he said long ago, “Who are you to judge your brother? Who are you to place heavy loads on others that you are not willing to bear? Who are you to bar the way to the kingdom of heaven even though you do not enter yourself?” But I can also imagine Jesus saying something that many an irrate parent has said to his or her unruly children: “Sit down and eat your supper!”

For in this case the supper is not mere earthly food. Nor is it our supper — it is his, the Lord’s Supper. This is the supper of Christ’s death, the meal which it took his death to feed us, his Body given for us, his Blood shed for us, by which we are not merely nourished, but saved. Through him we have come, as Peter wrote, to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that our faith and hope might be set on God, not on our poor efforts, but on his gift. His sacrificial leadership has led us to this table. His willing to be with us ensures his presence with us in fellowship. And his gift of himself has blessed us with the opportunity to worship. The three ships have come to this safe harbor, to this destination: here where we gather. Here at this table he makes himself known to us in the breaking of the bread. He has told us to cease our strife — to take and eat, to take and drink, together; to sit down and have our supper.

To reject each other here, my friends, is to reject him. To reject each other, to judge each other, is to dismantle the church for which he died, for which he was raised from the dead. To reject each other is to undo Easter, to rob the Last Supper of its power, to put Jesus back in the tomb, to seal it with the stone of judgment, and earn thereby our own justified condemnation.

How much better, to do as Christ commands: to take and eat, to take and drink, to love each other as he loved us, serving one another rather than judging one another.

How much better to remain united in him through the three ships whose sails, when filled with the wind of the Holy Spirit, can bear us to the safe harbor of his peace. Pray, my sisters and brothers, that we and all the faithful throughout the world, may set aside our disagreements, our judgments, our divisions, and remain united in him, who has committed to us this task of leadership, this community of fellowship, and this call to worship him, who is the savior and redeemer of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Look to the Skies

On the nature of covenants... from the first one whose sign was set in the clouds. A sermon for Lent 1b.

SJF • Lent 1b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord said, This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you... I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

We come now to the first Sunday in Lent, and through the coming four weeks our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures will focus on the concept of covenant. On each Sunday the Scriptures will refer to one of the various covenants that God made with humanity, and with the chosen people — including, next week, the covenant which was marked in flesh and blood.

But today we go back to primeval history, to the covenant made between God and every living thing on earth. This covenant is marked with the sign of the rainbow set in the clouds after the flood. God promises that he will never again cause it to rain so much as to wash away all living things; and that the rainbow will remind God himself not to get carried away and destroy all living things by a flood. When God sees it, God will remember — as if God could forget!

This first and model covenant goes far to tell us what a covenant is — what is the nature of a covenant. It shows us that the covenant has two parts: an agreement or promise, and a sign or testimony to that agreement or promise. Think for a moment about the agreements or promises that you make yourselves in your own lives. Even the most basic and simplest agreement is marked at least with a nod or a handshake, isn’t it? That outward sign is what tells you that the other party has agreed; if they just stared at you blankly, how would you know if they have agreed or not? We need at least a wink or a nod if we are not to have serious misunderstandings. And the graver and more important the agreement, the more likely we are to demand more than a wink or a nod, or even a handshake. We are likely to want it in writing — some kind of testimonial stating exactly what it was that was agreed to, and the terms of the agreement; something towhich we can refer back, later down the road, if it appears the agreement isn’t being kept. We want something we can hold up and say, “But you agreed — here it is in black and white.”

Of course, the agreement God made with humanity in this earliest covenant wasn’t in black and white. It was in the colors of the rainbow, set in the clouds to remind all — even God himself — of his promise not to flood the world again.

How many of you recall that grade-school memory device for remembering the seven colors of the rainbow, Mr. Roy G. Biv? Anyone remember that? It seems that although we think of the rainbow as having seven colors, at least some of the ancients did not perceive so many gradations of color. One of the ancient Greeks refers to the rainbow as “three-colored” and it has been suggested that the Hebrews saw it as having four distinct colors. And that these four colors spelled out the sacred name of God himself, to which I referred some weeks back. So they may have understood the rainbow literally as God’s “signature” in the heavens!

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There is another unusual feature to this covenant, and that is its essentially one-sided nature: if the rainbow is God’s signature, his is the only one on the agreement. Usually, and in all the later covenants we’ll talk about, a covenant marks out an agreement in which both parties have a responsibility to do something. But in this case, God does not look for or ask for anything specific from Noah. It’s true that in a portion of the story not included in our reading, God does demand that Noah and his descendants — which is to say, everybody, all of humanity — are not to eat meat with blood still in it. Adam and Eve, as you recall from Genesis, were allowed to eat of the fruit of the earth — no meat — but God gives Noah and his family the right to eat meat, on the condition they not consume any blood. But this permission to eat meat and the commandment not to eat blood do not seem to be at all linked with the covenant about the flood itself or the promise not to flood the earth again, or with the sign of the covenant set in the clouds. This appears to be a completely one-sided covenant, a promise that God is making to himself as much as to Noah, and the rainbow is there to serve as an aide-memoire for God himself, like a string you might tie on a finger to remind yourself of some task, or a memo you might jot on a sticky-note, attached to the side of your computer monitor.

Still, this is precisely why covenants have such an external sign: the sign is the testimony that a promise has been made, the reminder and proof that the covenant exists. And whether it serves to remind one or both parties, it does its work most effectively when the covenant itself specifies the sign as part of the agreement — in black and white, or in the colors of a rainbow.

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As you may know, the various churches that make up the Anglican Communion are exploring whether or not we should adopt a covenant that has been proposed for all of the member churches to adopt. This would make more formal what up to now has been a relatively informal arrangement. The discussion is whether we should move from the realm of handshakes, winks and nods, to a written constitution of sorts. There is also discussion as to whether the draft document proposed meets the test of being something that we all can agree to. There seems to be some interest in having some kind of agreement, but no clear agreement as to what that agreement should be. I will be alluding to this proposed Anglican Covenant over the next weeks, but I do not plan to make it the focus of my reflections.

For today I will only say that it seems the proposed Anglican Covenant is a bit short on specifics and long on good intentions; that is, the things everyone is supposed to agree to seem fairly agreeable, but they seemed that way already — so some are asking, Why do we need such an agreement when a handshake will do. As one English bishop put it: if we can agree to it, we do not need it, and if we can’t agree to it, it won’t accomplish anything. And even in England, out of the dioceses that have voted on it, they are ten-to-seven against it.

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But as I say, this proposed bit of Anglican diplomacy will not form the substance of my sermons this Lent. (Thanks be to God!) My primary interest is in exploring the historic covenants of the people of God, and that will form the content of our Scripture readings over the next few weeks, and my reflections on them.

And to return to today’s Rainbow Covenant, let us remember its most striking characteristic: it is God’s covenant with the earth, a reminder to God to keep his promise not to destroy the earth with a flood. It asks nothing of the earth, or of the people who dwell on it. It is the sign of a promise made by God, signed in the colors of the rainbow, and set in the clouds for all to see. As I said in a sermon a few weeks ago, this is a real, “I’m God and you aren’t” kind of message; God is saying, in effect, “By myself I have sworn.”

What promise could be more faithful, what words more comforting, than a covenant from God, a promise that God sealed with a sign of God’s own making. When we look to the skies and see the sign of the rainbow, let us remember that this is a sign from God and of God, a reminder that God is faithful and never-failing, and will stand fast by his Word. Let it be a sign to us of God’s unchanging compassion, unfailing love, and great faithfulness unto me, and to you, and to every descendant of Noah who dwells on God’s good earth.+