29 November 2011

An Advent Series: The Way Toward Birth - I. The First Step

Isaiah 2: 1-8 & John 1:1-5

First Sunday of Advent/ 27th November 2011

Come with me, dear Christian, to the place of birth and rebirth.
Come, beloved of God, to the place of renewal and new beginnings.
Come, Holy ones, to the place of your resurrection, to the place of life.
Come with me down a narrow path that leads to the broad fields of salvation.

Many say they wish to take this path.  Many say they’re looking for it with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, but most never leave home, most never muster the courage to step out upon the way, many have good intentions and hope to one day; others have read-up about the way, studied its terrain, memorized stories about the journey –the stories of others who have travelled there, but have never ventured very far from the known on their own. 

            Every journey of the human spirit recounted in ancient mythologies and religions, every journey of faith requires leaving home.  The journey of the hero, the journey toward wisdom and enlightenment, the way toward salvation, requires that one sets forth down a new way, a new path, the road less travelled that makes all the difference.[1]  Dorothy Gale was wrong when she said, “if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard.”[2]  I like Dorothy, but she’s wrong here, all that we desire cannot be found in the corner of our own backyards, it will be not be offered at home.  We are called out toward a new place.  We are summoned to leave home and go where the Spirit leads.  We are invited to leave the old way behind and step out toward the yet unrealized future. 

            Abraham was called to leave home in order to meet his future.  Moses had to leave home in order to find the way toward liberation.  Mary and Joseph had to leave Nazareth in order to go to Bethlehem.  The magi had to leave home to meet the Christ child.  The Apostle Paul had to leave home to find salvation.  There’s something about the journey, the traveling, the adventure that shapes and forms who we are, which forces us to question our faith and rediscover a deeper one.  It’s only on the journey that we discover who we really are and discern what God is calling us to be and to do.  Jesus had to leave home, go off on his journey, in order to show us the way that leads toward God.

            When Isaiah says, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD” (Is 2:5), we’re given a liturgical summons, a call, an invitation to step out on the journey toward God, to walk down a different path, to follow a different way, led by the light of God.  Isaiah offers an invitation.  It’s really more like an urgent plea:  For God’s sake, please, walk in God’s way, in this path, and not in the other path.  The prophet Isaiah is desperately warning Judah to change its ways, to turn away from its idols and obsessions and return to God. Isaiah relentlessly calls the people to give account for their wayward lives, for their falling away from the worship and service of Yahweh toward idols and the worship of “things.” He warns.  Man, does he warn. 

            The people have turned away from relying upon God toward relying upon themselves for their well-being.  He’s fed up because the people are fed up to the full – full of themselves, full of their things, full of silver and gold, full of horses and chariots, full of idols.  They have turned away from the things that matter most. They have ignored the needs of the most vulnerable among them, the needs of the orphan, and the widow.  They have focused so much upon themselves that they have rejected the needs of their neighbors.  And he warns. 

            Full of silver and gold, full of horses, full of idols – it all sounds so foreign to us, so exotic, the sins of an earlier time, cut-off and removed from us.  But they’re not. They’re actually remarkably similar to our own “sins” – we too are full of wealth; we too are full of silver and gold.  We too have our silver and gold and stock and bonds and other securities. 

            We too are full of horses, it’s called the military industrial complex, it’s called military expenditures. 1 trillion dollars full of horses for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now there are rumors of more horses needed for Iran and Pakistan. 

            And we are full of idols.  This can be summed up with two words:  Black Friday.  While we might not have ventured into a mall on Friday or withheld from online shopping, we are all complicit in a society that is full of idols, we are tempted and seduced by idols, we worship idols, we’re fascinated with things, mesmerized by all the bling.  Idols are anything that compete with our reliance and trust upon God.  Idols are our projections of self-achievement, self-congratulation, and self-security.  Idols are -isms, every –ism we encounter today are usually idols.  They are the things, people, beliefs we carry around with us, trust, never question.  Most of these idols are also our own creation. We’ve invested them with authority and power.  God has not invested them with authority and power.

            When Isaiah says, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord,” he’s calling them – and us – to come away from our obsessions with gold and horses and idols.  Come away from the road that leads to all those things.  Come away and take a detour – repent – and go down a different road, the road that leads to God.  It’s a calling away from economic and religious accommodation to the culture as a whole, to a different way.  The implication here is that in order to travel on this road we need light, because the road we’re currently on is full of darkness – or leads to darkness.  To live full of gold, full of horses, full of idols is to live in a kind of darkness – and not even know it.

            The light of God is offered as an alternative way.  It’s the way away from one form of being and the way toward a new way of being, of renewed obedience to God, of a new relationship with God.  So, yes, Isaiah warns. And he warns. And yet, the voice of the prophet never gives up his confidence and trust in Yahweh to save, to redeem, to restore, to rebuild.   Over and over again Isaiah calls us to “Walk in the light of the LORD,” which leads down a new path, to a new place, a place of rebirth and renewal.  What Isaiah hopes for is the return of God’s people back toward God, the renewal of the covenantal relationship, the (re)discovery that they are the beloved children of God.  Judah has a long road to trod before they discover this.  Jerusalem will be destroyed and the people forced into exile in Babylon.  But it’s in Babylon, in exile, that the promise of a return starts to emerge, it’s the image of a redeemer who will come to save the people through the birth of a child who will bring salvation.

            These are the images and words of Advent and Christmas. Immediately, we begin to think of Jesus as that redeemer and savior, a child given to us, wonderful counselor.  That’s how the early church understood Isaiah, how they approached the birth of Jesus.  So as we enter Advent and move toward Christmas, these are the stories we hear – the promised coming of Jesus, the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, Mary, Joseph. We try each year to focus on the reason of the season.  We know Isaiah’s warning rings true. We are all complicit in the over-commercialism of the season.  Advent, to some extent, offers resistance to the pull of the culture in its rush toward Christmas without taking the time to prepare for it. But it’s tough.  We want to sing Christmas carols, decorate our homes and churches, so we can be just like the malls.  There was a time in American society when homes were decorated for Christmas on Christmas Eve.  Every year churches are engaged in a titanic struggle to preserve the meaning of Christmas.  It’s tough.  It’s not surprising that many churches just give up and give in (probably the same ones which cancel worship when Christmas falls on a Sunday).
            All of which leads me to this Advent sermon series.  This year I’m not going to follow the lectionary, no apocalyptic texts from Mark, no reference to the Baptist’s voice crying out in the wilderness.  Advent hymns? You betcha! I’m not giving those up.  Instead, I want to listen for a different voice that runs through the Christian tradition which is often not heard or ignored.  It’s a voice that comes from the early centuries of the Church, from places like Palestine, Egypt, and Turkey; it’s the voice of Christian mystics and theologians who were less concerned with the facticity of the historical birth of Jesus They didn’t deny the historical veracity of Jesus’ birth.  They went deeper than history. Instead, they looked to his birth, the reality of his birth, of God taking on flesh in Jesus, becoming incarnate and dwelling with humanity full of grace and truth, as a revelation of something deep and profound in human experience.  And it’s this:  the birth of Christ reveals to us the mystery of God.  His birth, life, death and resurrection, together, sets the pattern for all of us.  By pattern, I don’t mean example.  That is, Jesus was not born only so that we might follow him.  Instead by pattern I mean that his birth reveals a pattern that we are called to participate in and that pattern, that way, that life is the very life of God being born and again and again and again in human flesh. 

            It was the early theologian Irenaeus (c.115-c.202), from France, among many others, who affirmed that, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”[2]  Irenaeus had a tough life, his community of faith was traumatized by persecution and yet he held on to a vision of humanity as full of divine light and presence: “For those who see the light are within the light and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and received of His splendor.”[4] The incarnation was viewed as a cosmic event through which “Divinity became human so that humanity could become divine.”[5]  In other words, divinity becoming human didn’t just happen in Jesus and for Jesus alone, but Jesus, participating in our humanity, calls our humanity into the divine life – all of us.  The Christian experience is this journey; it’s the way toward new life – our life.  It begins with birth.
            And birth, a new way, as Isaiah said, is required. The British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) pointed his readers in a similar direction.  In his twelve-volume work, The Study of History (1923-1961), Toynbee analyzed the laws of the rise and disintegration of civilizations.  He argued that schisms or divisions in the soul or in the body politic can only be resolved one way.  They will not be resolved “by a scheme of return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements.  Only birth can conquer death – the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.  Within the soul, within the body social, there must be – if we are to experience long survival – a continuous ‘recurrence of birth’ (palingenesia) to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death.”[6]  I believe that the walk with and toward Jesus is always a “recurrence of birth.”  Every time we encounter him we experience a “recurrence of birth.”

            What if every mother is Mary, every child is a kind of “Christ,” every father is Joseph?  What if Mary and Joseph are more than historical figures, but each parts of our personality?  What if God is really trying to birth something new within you?  What if God is trying to born something of God’s own life with you? What if you are, like Mary, being asked to bear the life of God into the world? What are you being ask to “father” and care for, like Joseph, something, some life that belongs to God within you?  That’s what this sermon series is about. 

            Perhaps there’s resistance to all of this, to what might appear as wacky ideas.  Or maybe you can resonate them.  Either way, they’re worth examining.  My hunch is that there’s a part in all of us that is unwilling to fully claim who we are as beloved children of God. Why is this so? No less an authority as Augustine (354-430) – Augustine – said, “The Son of God became the Son of Man that he might make the sons of men sons of God.”[7] 

            What if this Advent, what if on this Christmas morning you can celebrate the birthing of your identity as a son of God, as a daughter of God?  Is this not what Jesus came to show us?  Is this not the greatest truth we can discover about ourselves, that at the core of our being, in the depths of our psyches, that we are beloved daughters and sons of God?  Then everything else we might say about ourselves becomes secondary, secondary like silver and gold and horses and idols.

            “The Son of God became the Son of Man that he might make the sons of men sons of God.

            Our journey toward Bethlehem is also the way toward our birth.  This can happen no matter how old we might be.  So let us follow the light and step out on this journey and go where the Spirit leads us.

[1] Allusion to Robert Frost (1873-1963) poem, “The Road Not Taken,” Mountain Interval (1920).
[2] The Wizard of Oz (MGM Studios, 1939).
[3] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), 4. 20.7. (c. 180 AD).
[4] Irenaeus, 4.20.5.
[5] Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away:  A Theology of Incarnation (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 170.
[6] Cited in Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Third Edition) (Novato, CA:  New World Library, 2008 [1949]), 11-12.
[7] Augustine, Mainz sermons, 13.1. Cited in Norman Russell, Fellow Workers with God:  Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 39.

15 November 2011

What is a Life and What is it For?

Psalm 23 & John 10: 1-15

22nd Sunday after Pentecost/ 13th November 2011

Both Psalm 23 and John 10 lift up familiar images of God as shepherd.  Actually, both of these texts are related.  The shepherd leads us into green pastures, to places of safety, nourishment, and growth.  These pastoral images have offered considerable comfort, especially during times of loss and grief.  Psalm 23 is often read at funerals, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”  We imagine the psalm speaking about a heavenly pasture, of the life to come.

Jesus takes up the shepherd image, of course. He’s the good shepherd because he lays down his life for his sheep.  This is a remarkable statement, given that shepherds were despised in his day.  When Jesus takes up the image, however, he does something new and different with it.  First, the focus of John 10 is not on some far-off distant shore, as in Psalm 23.  John 10 is rarely read at funerals, probably because Jesus is not talking about a life to come, but life here and now.  “I came that they may have life,” Jesus said.  Life.  “…and to have it abundantly.”

            In John’s gospel, Jesus has a lot to say about life – Jesus is the light of life (John 10: 12), the way, the truth, and the life (John 14: 6).  The majestic prologue to John’s gospel draws our attention to this theme:  “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1: 3-4).  We also find plenty of reference to “eternal life” in John.  We might think that Jesus is talking about the afterlife, but he isn’t.  Jesus is concerned about this life, this world.  Eternal life might be better translated as life touched by eternity, or life informed by God’s presence.  Either way – eternal life or life touched by eternity – is not reserved for some far-off future time, but something we can possess in the present.  And we can hear it in Jesus’ high priestly prayer, in John 17,  “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have give him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.”  Now, listen carefully to what Jesus says. Eternal life is not reserved for the after-life, it’s not the reward for believing in Jesus, or what we get for accepting Christ as our savior.  Here’s Jesus’ definition of eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3).

            Can you hear this?  Eternal life is experienced here and now.  How?  When we know God.  Know God.  It doesn’t say, when we have belief in or faith in God.  It doesn’t say, when we know about God.  It says, when we know God – have a personal knowledge of who God is, who God is for us and for our neighbor and for the world.   It also claims that eternal life is given when we know who Jesus is as the Christ, and that to know this Jesus – not just believe in him, not just know something about him, but to know him – is to know God.  To know one is to know the other.

            To know Jesus as shepherd is to know God as shepherd.  And what does a shepherd do?  A shepherd keeps the flock intact, protects the flock, and provides food.  Of course we can see all of these qualities in both God and Jesus.  But we need to know more than this.

            It was common for shepherds in the Middle East to give each of their sheep a name.  We can hear this in the text: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (Jn. 10:3) of the pend.  This verse attests to God’s high esteem accorded to human beings.  Later, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14).  This too is a remarkable claim and it’s easy to miss its significance.  You see, Jesus does not love in general.  Jesus loves in particular.   Jesus’ love is not love in general, but always in particular.  “I know my own and my own know me.”  Knowledge of Jesus is not in the abstract, it’s not intellectual, nor even theoretical.  It’s intensely personal.  It’s a personal knowledge.  It’s a particular knowledge of Jesus because we have been and are being known by Jesus.  “I know my own and my own know me.”

            Jesus doesn’t stop here.  He expands the metaphor.  Not only is Jesus a good shepherd, Jesus is also the gate for the sheep.  To which the disciples offer a profound theological response: “Huh? – What are you talking about; this is confusing.”  How can Jesus be both the shepherd and the gate through which the shepherd walks, leading the way for the sheep?  The brain starts to hurt pondering on this image.  Now there will be a tendency in us to say either he’s a shepherd or a gate, but not both.  We have to resist this temptation. 

            Working on this text this week, I remembered one of my religion professors at Rutgers College making a comment about this confusing text.   It was a class on the gospel of John, the professor’s name was Bart Ehrman.  Today, Ehrman  is a New Testament professor at UNC-Chapel Hill  and a best-selling, having published twenty books.  When I had him as a professor he was a Christian, but he’s not one today.  I can remember Ehrman’s quizzical, puzzling response to these verses about the shepherd and the gate.  It didn’t make any sense to him and therefore wasn’t very useful or edifying, so we moved on.  I’m not sure what he would say today.  Since then in my journey, one of my core convictions is that deep truth and profound wisdom are almost never found through either-or thinking, but always discovered through both-and.  Jesus is both shepherd of the sheep and the gate by which the sheep enter and leave the pen.  We have to hold the tension.  Holding the tension of the metaphor helps to remind us that Jesus is a person, not an idea or even a collection of beliefs about him.  Like all human beings he is irreducible, that is he can’t be reduced to this or that, but requires respect as a complex being, like all of us.

            And it’s the person that matters.  As I stressed several weeks ago, it’s not the ideas or beliefs about Jesus that are the way, the truth, and the life.  He is the way.  He is the truth.  He is the life.  He gives us himself, his person, and it’s through the relationship with him and his way of bringing us into the life of God and God’s truth, that call us to eternal life, or God’s life.

            The gate statement was was difficult for the disciples to wrap their heads around, so Jesus says to them, again, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate…” He is the gate.  Not the church, not theological orthodoxy.  He is the gate.  Although we find a reference to gatekeeper earlier in the chapter, here Jesus says he is the gate.  The sheep come and go through him.  He is a kind of threshold or doorway.  He is the thoroughfare through which we move, through which we come and go.  And it is through him as gate that we are led by him out from the confines of the sheep-pend out onto vast, broad, safe, green pastures. And it’s out there in the fields of the Lord we feed on the food that yields life! 

            “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9).  By “saved” Jesus means saved from those who seek to rob and steal us from life.  The Greek here suggests a thief who robs, steals, and kills for food and does not allow the sheep to fully develop or grow. Jesus wants us to develop and to grow and to grow up.  We are safe to come and go – where? – to find pasture.  He grants us freedom to come and to go find the place that yields life.  For “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

            This is not just ordinary life.  But zoē life.  There are two Greek words for life, bios and zoēBios is basic, functional existence.  That which allows us to survive.  Zoē is life-giving, generative life.  It creates.  Bios is about surviving; zoē has to do with thriving.  I came that you may thrive, Jesus says.  Jesus doesn’t just want us to “get by,” but to thrive, perisson – abundantly.  This word suggests life that is superfluous, more than is necessary for life, it suggests surplus, it means to have it all.  Not “up there” after we die alone, but here and now.  This is the same resurrection life of God that raised Jesus from death.  It’s the life that will never die.  And it’s offer to you and me when we are found in him.  Or, to put it another way, we experience this life when we are in Christ, when we follow him, listen to his voice, dwell in his presence; know, as our baptisms attest, that our lives are hidden in his.

            The life of God Jesus holds out to all of us is about thriving, about coming to life.  So many people have come to believe that life is about surviving, the survival of the fittest, of achieving, having more “toys,” winning, getting ahead. At some level the Occupy movement on Wall Street in Manhattan and in other cities is tapping into the deep dissatisfaction in American life, that existence has to mean more than accruing wealth and greed and capitalism absent a moral ethic.  There are many for whom life is about survival; some are just trying to hold on, one day at a time.  I’ve come to believe, dare I say, know, that this is not God’s intent for God’s children.  Life was and is meant for so much more.  How this thriving will be enfleshed in your life will be particular to who you are, to your circumstances, your life-experience.  But I’m convinced that God wants us, every one of us, to come alive.  

            The spiritual life, the way of faith and discipleship, the way of the cross is figuring out how and what and why and where God’s life will be lived in us.  The answer, I’m convinced, will be found, not through simply belief in Jesus or ideas about God.  God doesn’t want our beliefs or our ideas.  God doesn’t need our beliefs and our ideas.  In fact, as heretical as this might sound, God does really need our faith.  God wants us – not to possess us, but in order to love us, deeply, intimately, so that we know just how loved we really are, right now, completely, every part of the us, the good and bad, the light and the shadow.  Right now.  As Paul said to the Corinthians, “Now is the day of God’s favor. Today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2)! 

            With Jesus’ words here in John 10 and his priestly prayer in John 17, we have been allowed to witness the deep communion between Jesus and God.  We’ve been given a glimpse of this relationship in order that we too come to know – not believe, but know – that this is what is available to all us: a deep union, a profound communion of our spirits with the Spirit of God.  Through this relationship, through deep prayer, through worship, through service, staying close to God, learning from Jesus how to relate to God, we follow after him and follow this pattern.  Jesus’ way with God, we then discover, is the gate, as the way he is the gate, the gate through which we move out into the pastures of freedom and abundance, of life. 

            The contemporary poet, Mary Oliver, asks, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[1] That’s the question. Or, to theologically reframe her question,  “What are you going to do with your now resurrected life?”[2]  What is a life and what is it for?[3] 

            How we answer these questions, “live the questions now,” as Rilke (1875-1926) said, will shape our lives and the lives of our children.[4]  Living into these questions, I’m convinced, will lead us to green pastures and still waters, water that revives and blesses us, onto vast, broad pastures of freedom.

            I can’t tell you what that the pasture will look like from your perspective.  I can’t tell you how to get there.  I can’t tell you what you should or should not do.  No one can.  You have to discover that for yourself, listening to God’s voice, following Jesus’ way.  Yes, together in community, but you have search for it. If you ask for it, Jesus said, you will receive it.  What is a life and what is it for?  If you seek it, you will surely find it (Matthew 7:7).

[1] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems (New York:  Beacon Press, 1992), 94.
[2] This is what Richard Rohr deems to be “the heroic question” in Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2011), 21.
[3] This is a variation of James E. Loder’s  (1931-2001) question, “What is a lifetime and what is it for?”  See The Logic of the Spirit:  Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998).
[4] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (1903):  “Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”  

Image:  Georges Rouault (1871-1958), Crucifixion

01 November 2011

Real Presence

John 14: 1-8

Reformation/ All Saints’ Sunday/ 30th October 2011/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

Even though I’m in the pulpit, I want to draw your attention away from here toward the table.  The table is all prepared for the celebration of the sacrament.  The Church has many names for what we are about to share together:  Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Eucharist, Love Feast, Mass.  Every Christian tradition has something valuable to say about what this sacrament is and how to share it. For us it isn’t an altar, but a table.

For those of us who grew up in the Reformed tradition – Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Dutch Reformed – we probably have very similar experiences around of this meal, what it means. If you grew up Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, or Roman Catholic, you have other associations of this meal. Maybe you didn’t grow up in the church and don’t have any associations with the meal – which might be a good thing because you don’t have the some of the baggage that comes with our traditions.

            Last Sunday in adult education we talked about the meaning of the sacraments and what our views of the Lord’s Supper were as children or now as adults.  I grew up Presbyterian, as did Dorothy Boulton.  I didn’t have strong associations with the meal as a child.  I can remember friends and even adults muttering on Communion Sundays that the service would be fifteen minutes longer that morning. It seemed more of an inconvenience, than a cause for joy.  In fact, there was no joy around the meal.  It was a somber, funereal meal in which we remembered the death of Christ, of a body broken, of blood shed, of death.  The feeling was heavy, it was dour, to use a good Scots word. It was gloomy and sullen, something to be endured (dour and endure are related etymologically).  I was taught in confirmation class that it was a “memorial meal.”  That is, we have Communion periodically during the year to remember Christ’s death.  At some level I guess I equated “Communion” with “death.” My childhood pastor studied at the oldest Protestant Seminary in the United States, New Brunswick Theological Seminary situated on the campus of Rutgers College – founded by the old Dutch Reformed Church.  Rutgers was originally a training grounded for Dutch Reformed ministers.

            My pastor’s view of the Lord’s Supper, like many of his colleagues across the Reformed tradition educated in other seminaries, was heavily influenced not by John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva, but by the thought of the reformer Ülrich Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zürich. Zwingli’s theology of the Lord’s Supper held to a “commemorative view;” it was essentially a memorial meal.  We shared the sacrament in order to remember Christ’s death.  The Zwinglian view prevailed in the Church of Scotland and in many Reformed bodies. 

            I can remember people in my own church, including my mother, sort of downplaying the importance of the sacraments.  It was “just” a memorial meal – with the word “just” it was discounted, as a method of memory it didn’t carry a lot of importance.  I can recall my pastor standing at the table saying, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God,” but there was really nothing joyful about it.  And it didn’t look like a feast.

            I’m not judging my pastor’s theology or my mother’s faith.  It was what they believed; it was also what they were taught.  It was only years later at Princeton Seminary that I discovered a fuller theological view; since then my understanding has grown over the years and is still growing.  You could say that while I was formed by Zurich, but I was and am being reformed by Geneva. That is, I discovered that Calvin didn’t approach the sacrament as “just” a memorial meal.  In the sixteenth century the one question that plagued both Protestants and Catholics was where Christ was located in the sacrament.  It seems arcane to us, maybe, but it was a hotly debated question at the time.  As we know, Roman Catholics over centuries developed a theology of the Mass, a sacrifice, in which they came to confess that the bread and wine are literally transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Christ.  To consume the elements is to consume Christ.  It is through the Mass that grace gets into you that why you should go to Mass often, daily actually.  The Protestants wanted none of that, primarily because scripture can’t substantiate such a view.  But even among Protestants agreement was elusive.  The Lutherans engaged in heated, angry debate with the likes of Calvin and Zwingli.  The Lutherans said the elements didn’t change, but Christ was located in the elements. Calvin and Zwingli and many other Reformed pastors didn’t agree, but even they couldn’t agree on what goes on in the sacrament.  In the end, Zwingli’s “memorial” view prevailed, perhaps because it’s the simplest.

            In contrast, Calvin believed the sacrament was more than a memorial meal.  He didn’t agree that Christ was limited to the elements.  But he would not give up on the notion that when we celebrate the meal, rightly administered, that Christ was present. It wasn’t imaginary or magical, but what he called a “real presence.”  In fact, it might come as a surprise to many that his views on the sacrament come very close to what we would call a mystical understanding. Can you imagine Calvin as a mystic?  Yet, the argument could be made.  That is, he believed that when we share the meal we encounter the real presence of Christ and that this meal is really Holy Communion because there is an actual communion that takes place between human beings and the Holy.  When we share the meal we are participating in Christ’s presence.  Communion is union with Christ. Calvin said, “It is not lawful for us to drag Christ down from heaven to be in the bread;”[1] instead, the Holy Spirit conveys the human spirit to unite with Christ in the heavenly realm.  When we celebrate the sacrament we are lifted up to Christ.[2]

            Now, the logical part of our brains will probably kick-in at this point and try to figure out how this could be so. However, Calvin, who was an extraordinary logical thinker, penned these telling words in his Institutes from 1559:  “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.  Therefore, I embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest.”[3]  I rather experience than understand it – this is an extremely significant and wise statement coming from Mr. Logical.  He experiences the real presence of Christ in the meal; with profound reverence he opens himself to the power of the symbols of bread and wine and rests in the knowledge that somehow, some way Christ will communicate himself through the meal.

            This is no memorial meal for Calvin but something far more profound and significant – it’s a mystery that confronts us and embraces us, it’s a mystery that pulls us into a deeper communion, a union with Christ.  It is not to be understood, but experienced.  This is a remarkable understanding, given that the Reformed tradition has never known what to do with religious experience. We would rather stay in the safer world of reason, of logic, of belief, of understanding.  But, to be honest, who really understands what’s going on here at the table?

            It was theologian John Williamson Nevin (1803-1886), in 1846, writing up at Mercersburg Seminary (which evolved into Franklin and Marshall College), who tried to reclaim Calvin’s view.  Most have never heard of Nevin, very few read him these days.  He took on the Zwinglian tradition, represented at the time by the towering theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary. And they were towering, Princeton Seminary dominated the theological world in America for almost a century, with theologians such as Charles Hodge (1797-1878).  In Nevin’s book The Mystical Presence, he tried to reclaim the real presence tradition within Reformed Protestantism.  In language that is oddly contemporary and relevant, he urged the Church to remember that Christianity is not first a belief system; it’s not first about doctrine.  Ideas are “cold and dead,” he said.  Doctrine, important as it is, only follows from experience.  Doctrine as such has “no power as such to generate life.”  Christianity has “living power” he writes, but it comes not through doctrine and theological prepositions.  It comes through an experience with Christ.  This is perhaps the appropriate way we should read John 14, when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  This verse troubles a lot of people, particularly liberal-minded Christians.  It sounds so exclusive.  But note that Jesus doesn’t give us doctrine here or beliefs about him.  These aren’t life.  Jesus said, he is the way, the truth, the life – not beliefs about him, he gives us his self, his person, who he is is the embodiment of God’s love.[4]  It’s about the person.  It’s a person that we follow. When we are in him, we share his way, share his truth, and share his life. It comes through the depth of the relationship, through ever-deeper communion with Christ.

            So how do we share in his life?  Where do we encounter his presence?  There are many ways and many occasions, including the table.  Here we can see why for Calvin the Lord’s Supper is more than just a memorial meal and why he wanted Communion served every week in worship, but the elders in Geneva said, “No.”  Remembering is important and powerful, but does it allow us to really share, participate, and experience Christ’s presence?  If remembering alone is so effective, then why has our Presbyterian way of sharing the supper been so dour?  Does remembering as such transform us?  Does remembering unite us with the “living-power” of God?  Perhaps if we realize that when say in the Communion prayer, “Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord” – known as the sursum corda – that we are being mystically lifted up into the presence of God, we would see ourselves welcomed to the Table where Christ is as host and we the honored guests. Perhaps then we will have more than an understanding, but an actual experience.  Perhaps if we approach the table not simply remembering Christ’s death and resurrection, but participating in his death and resurrection, sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ, we might then move from seeing this as a somber, heavy meal to what we actually confess, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God,” and what Jesus himself said it was, “Men and women will come from north and south and east and west [– eager –] to sit at table in the kingdom” (Luke 13:29).

            Viewing the Table as mystically participating in Christ takes on even deeper meaning when we remember that whenever we share this meal, the saints below (that’s us, a saint is a beloved child of God) share this meal with the saints “above” in glory. When we celebrate the feast on this All Saints’ Sunday let us imagine we’re at the table with all the saints who have gone on before us and urge us on in the work before us.  This is more than “just” a memorial.  More is going on here than we might suspect or could ever imagine.  The key is remaining open to it all.  So let us go to the Lord’s Table, with joy, with eager hearts burning to dwell in the presence of the Lord.  Knowing, as we will sing at the end of the service, “O blest Communion, fellowship divine, we feebly struggle, but they in glory shine.  Yet all are one in Thee for all are thine.  Alleluia! Alleluia!”[5]  Amen.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), 4.17.31.
[2] Calvin, “But greatly mistaken are those who conceive no presence of flesh in the Supper unless it lies in the bread.  For thus they leave nothing to the secret working of the Spirit, which unites Christ himself to us.  To them Christ does not seem present unless he comes down to us. As though, if he should lift us to himself, we should not just as much enjoy his presence!  The question is therefore only the manner, for they place Christ in the bread, while we do not think it lawful for us to drag him from heaven.  Let our readers decide which one is more correct.  Only away with that calumny that Christ is removed from his Supper unless he lies hidden under the covering of the bread!  For since this mystery is heavenly, thee is no need to draw Christ to earth that he may be joined to us.” 4.17.31.
[3] Calvin, 4.17.32. Emphasis mine.  He continues:  “He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink [John 6:53ff.].  I offer my soul to him to be fed with such food.  In his Sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine.  I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them.”
[4] John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or CalvinisticDoctrine of the Holy Eucharist (Philadelphia:  J. B. Lippincott, 1846), 21-22, 23. Cf. quotation from the worship bulletin:  “Only as life, is Christianity the life of men; as the Savior himself clearly signifies, when he says, not that his doctrine is the truth, but, I am the truth, which is immediately referred again to his, that he is also the life” (23).  Emphasis original to the text. Nevin studied at Princeton Seminary (1823-1828), studied under Hodge, and taught Hodge’s classes at Princeton when he was in Europe (1826-1828).  In April 1848, Charles Hodge responded to Nevin in a review published in the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review. In September 1850, Nevin published a 128 page response to Hodge in the Mercersburg Review.
[5] Stanza from the hymn, “For All the Saints;” text by William Walsham How (1823-1897).