Thursday, April 5, 2012

For and Against

For and Against

Exodus 12:1-14 Maundy Thursday

Romans 8:31-39 April 5, 2012

Reading over the Exodus account of the institution of the Passover, we discover important resources for preparing our hearts and minds for the holy meal we are about to celebrate. In the old days, some denominations required the use of little wooden or metal buttons called “communion tokens” which were handed out the week before the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated. These were supposed to serve as certification for admission to the Lord’s Table on the following week. The leaders of some churches made it their business to keep very close track of those who failed to participate, and also to see to it that “unfit” people were not permitted to commune.

The majority of churches have discontinued this practice, for the most part. One of the reasons is that we are aware of different needs in modern circumstances. Members of congregations are on the move continually, and so we couldn’t count on the fact that a token handed out one week would be used in the same sanctuary the next. But there is a more important reason. Just as we can’t count on the presence of the same folks from week to week, we wouldn’t want to limit access to the table only to those who are active members of our own congregation. In the Invitation at the table we hear words such as: “Our Savior invites those who trust in him to come and share in the feast which he has prepared.” Now, Jesus does not invite just this church or that denomination, but all those who trust in him. That means that the table is pretty open to anyone and everyone whose life is in the process of responding to the call of Christ.

What does the Passover have to do with all this? A good deal. Frequently, the temptation in the church has been to overly spiritualize the sacrament. The insistence of 1,000,000 sermons since New Testament times – that the deliverance of God is a spiritual matter – must run up against the Old Testament feast of the Passover, which serves as the foundation for our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Our insistence that God’s liberation is spiritual does not cancel the Old Testament witness that the physical freedom of people is involved as well. This does not narrow the importance of the realm of the spirit, but rather enhances it. Perhaps it enhances our understanding of the “spirit” in unexpected ways.

Dr. Roy Fairchild of San Francisco Theological Seminary once asked a large convocation audience to call out words that came to their minds when they heard the word “spiritual.” “Piety,” “meditation,” “holy,” were the sort of words that came in response. Then he said, “What words come to mind when you hear the word “spirited“? Now folks thought of words such as “lively,” “animated,” “energetic.”

What was the difference? In actual fact, the word spirited is a more faithful biblical concept than our current understanding of spiritual. Our faith must not be conceived as a spiritual matter, so much as it is a spirited one. That throws the entire idea of such things as the Lord’s Supper into a whole new light. When we forget our Passover roots in the Lord’s Supper, we can become excessively spiritual about it, forget that God really intends to free real people. We can sit as isolated, even mournful-looking individuals in our pews, partaking of a sacrament that seems almost ludicrous when we think of the actual meaning of a word like communion: that it is community with God and each other which we celebrate at the table.

I hope we can begin to think of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a spirited experience, enlivened by the spirit of God. Now, don’t fret, there will be no introduction of parlor games into worship in order to make the sacrament more lively. Still, I would like for each worshiper to consider not only their relationship to God which we declare in taking the sacrament, but their new relationship with each other which Jesus’ sacred meal makes possible. The Passover, as we will remember, was a distinctly social occassion, even though fraught with anxiety the first night it was celebrated. The Passover was not a time for each child of Israel to retire to his or her room and contemplate spiritual matters. Rather, it was a spirited occasion celebrated in households while people ate and drank together — as it is to this day in Jewish homes — in anticipation of God’s saving act of liberation.

When Jesus established the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, it was not alone in his room, but at this very Passover meal, with his family of disciples. Ever since it has been a means whereby the people of the church have declared the continuing presence of Christ in our midst. The Passover serves as a warning against overlooking the community in which we are gathered when we call ourselves a church. Both the Passover and the Lord’s Supper look to the past to find hope for the future.

Having recognized all this, like the people of Israel who first heard Moses’ instructions concerning the Passover, we may wonder at its power. Can we really believe that God has the power to overcome the evils that seem so much more present to us than the promise of our deliverance? We hear the words of the prophet Moses, but we see the power of Pharaoh and all his army standing between us and our freedom. Even if God in Christ is a powerful ally to us, is Christ strong enough to fortify us when the evils of the world seem so much more apparent? Paul asked the same questions when he wrote to the Christians in Rome.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul came up with a pretty convincing list. Still, No matter the obstacles the world might raise, regardless of tribulation, persecution, powers, even our own self-destructive behavior, Paul declared that God is still for us more than anything else can possibly be against us.

That is what blood on the doorposts comes down to. That is what crucifixion comes down to. That is what symbolic meals shared around tables such as this one and real meals shared around other tables of love in our homes and gatherings come down to. That is what helpless armies of Pharaoh and other superpowers come down to. That is what the smallest act of kindness and the largest sacrifice we can make for others come down to. They all lead to the selfsame conclusion as the one reached with such dynamic intensity by Paul: The One who is for us is so very much more the wave of the future than all the evils that may line up against us that we may rejoice even if we must rejoice in adversity.

Friends, believe the good news of the gospel: nothing in the whole wide world can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory!