This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Ascension Means Jesus Is Everywhere.

One of my favorite little snippets of Scripture is Acts 1:10-11.  It is the passage about Jesus’ ascension into heaven after his resurrection.  The disciples are with him as he rises into the air and disappears behind a cloud.  Then it says, “While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’”

First, I love the advice that the disciples are not to waste their time gazing into the sky, waiting for him to come back, like dogs staring out the window looking for their master to pull into the driveway.  Neither are we supposed to be pouring our mental energy into figuring out exactly when he’s coming back.  Jesus has earlier told them that it is not for them “to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  In other words, the specific time-table for the return of Jesus is not their concern.  

We have in the last few years witnessed some Christians misled by idiotic proclamations of the exact date.  This happens in every generation, which is part of the point.  We are to live the the urgency and immediacy of God’s imminent Presence.  God and God’s Kingdom is always near.  Indeed, Jesus says it is within us! (Luke 17:21 KJV). 

Secondly, The implication is that there is work to be done down here!  Jesus says to the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  He’s talking, of course, about the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, 10 days later.  The church is given an assignment, which is to be living witnesses to the good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus.  That witness has to go out to everyone on the planet.  Get to work!

Finally, the question arises as to where exactly Jesus goes.  I mean, the more cynical and literal among us might observe that, had Jesus gone into the sky at approximately 3 miles an hour, he would not yet have reached the orbit of the moon.  The text says that “a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Now, there are places in the New Testament where the church is referred to as “a cloud of witnesses.”  I am wondering if Luke is telling us that Jesus’ mortal, visible form kind of gets dissolved into the gathering of his disciples as they go forward in continuing mission in his name.  Then they ruminate on this for over a week and then his Presence is activated by the Spirit, and the church explodes in missionary activity.

The angels’ last word to them is to say that Jesus will come in the same way as they saw him go into heaven.  Can this mean that the Lord will eventually reappear out of the community, the cloud, and be somehow directly visible once again?

In the meantime, Jesus dwells “in heaven.”  This does not of course mean at some coordinates in the atmosphere or outer space, but in a sense everywhere.  Maybe Jesus becomes omnipresent in a way akin to how astrophysicists say that anything attaining the speed of light expands to fill the universe.  As the Light of the World, perhaps we may think of Jesus ascending into all things.  He becomes one with all, and immediate to all, but at the same time not as recognizable and distinct as he was during his earthly, mortal existence.  We know him now not as a distinct and separate person, but as the One in whom we trust, whose teachings we obey, validated and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

While present to us in this subtle form, the Lord does make his presence more directly felt in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in prayer, and in the gathering in other ways.  We carry out his mission of compassion, healing, forgiveness, and hope, confident that he does emerge again into a more directly sensory form, in the end, when we will see him face to face.

In other words, the Ascension does not mean that Jesus goes away and is now distant from us, and we carry on in his absence, awaiting his return.  I find it more fruitful to imagine the Ascension to describe the way Jesus — God’s love — is invisibly present in all things, with it being the job of those who trust in him to show this presence in their actions.  He has not abandoned us; but now he is closer to us than we are to ourselves.



Thursday, April 25, 2019

What to Do with Communion Leftovers.

Or: What to Do with Communion Leftovers.

I know this is going to sound somewhat odd, especially for Presbyterians.  But as my eucharistic theology evolves I have been thinking about the bread and the wine.  (I am using “wine” to refer to fermented and unfermented grape juice.)    

I was in a conversation with my Russian priest friend the other day, when he indicated that we can identify one’s eucharistic theology simply by noticing what they do with the leftover communion elements.  

In “high” liturgical churches — Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and perhaps some Lutheran — they are first of all careful to only consecrate enough of the elements for the number of people who will participate.  Then anything that is left over is consumed by the priest, or sometimes may be reserved for a future service.  In some places I even think leftover elements are buried. 

But, first of all, I have a problem with the practice of only preparing “enough.”  One aspect of the Sacrament is a witness to God’s abundance and generosity in creation and salvation.  This is hard to imagine when we have just a small amount of the bread and wine before us.

For instance, I get frustrated by baptisms that use as little water as possible.  I witnessed one baptism in which the pastor barely dipped his finger in the water and then shook it (!) so that by the time his hand reached the head of the person being baptized it must have barely been damp.  Presbyterians already have enough of a problem with matter and symbol and anything sensory.  We need to emphasize the water and use a lot of it.  We need to get wet!  By the same token the elements of the eucharist are not incidental.  It doesn’t have to be about the volume of bread and wine consumed, but it should be clear that God has provided more than enough!   

I mean, in nature, God is ridiculously promiscuous.  A single oak tree can produce like 10,000 acorns in a year.  So I don’t like the optics of just preparing enough for those present.  It makes God look cheap.  I don’t have a problem with having leftovers.  The issue is what to do with them.  

Now, I certainly don’t hold to the Roman Catholic view of “transubstantiation,” in which the elements somehow become physically the Body and Blood of the Lord.  One problem with transubstantiation is that it identifies realness with physical materiality.  I do hold to Calvin’s view of the “real presence” of Christ in the Sacrament.  For Calvin this is spiritual presence and therefore more real than mere limited, physical presence.  

At the same time, I do believe that the elements — and the people — are indeed changed in the Sacrament.  On the one hand, the elements become more than just ordinary bread and wine simply because of their use in the rite and that the sacred words have been spoken over them.  On the most basic level, this is like when a particular baseball becomes special when it was the one your child hit for a home run in Little League.  But this is even more special than that because we are saying words Jesus told us to say and doing things Jesus told us to do.

The bread and the wine are changed into more than special bread and wine.  While the elements certainly remain bread and wine, they do in some sense become, at the Lord’s command — “this is my body;” “this is my blood” — his Body and Blood.  This does not happen in terms of physics, but spiritually; not outwardly so much as inwardly.  

Jesus goes into this in some detail in John 6, where he states that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53).  The Lord clarifies this teaching few verses later, when he says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (v. 63).  

When we remember that the inspiration for this discourse is the actual feeding of the hungry crowd on the hillside, we realize that the physical bread serves to ground and focus analogically and metaphorically the real bread which is Jesus’ presence and words.  The bread is not incidental and disposable any more than is the water of baptism.  Through these elements we remain rooted in creation.  Matter and bodies are valued precisely because of the sacramental freight they bear, showing us that God comes to us in and through what God has made, and not by means of some gnostic, anti-material, psychic fantasy.

Therefore, the elements do indeed become charged with God’s Presence for their sitting on this particular Table and having these particular words spoken over then, and being offered to these people with this intent and this these thoughts focused on them.  This change is fulfilled when the bread and the wine are actually consumed and interact with each participant.  Yet even the bread and wine left behind still carry this charge, even if unreleased.  

We do need to be conscious and careful about what we do with the leftovers, because my priest friend is right: it expresses something about what we believe about the bread, the sacrament, creation, and Jesus.   

Presbyterians, unconsciously influenced by Zwingli (at best) and a knee-jerk antipathy to everything “Catholic” (at worst) tend to dispose of the leftover elements by three methods.  
  1. The worst practice, in my view, is to throw the bread in the trash and pour the juice down the drain.  This is wasteful and ungrateful even for normal bread and juice.  Who would dispose of perfectly good food this way in their homes?  This is a sign of our sinfulness, that we would take a gift of God — especially something he has made significant in our specific obedience to him — and simply decide it is now worthless and relegate it to the category of garbage.  If your child bakes you a cookie you thank them and at least pretend to eat it.  You do not toss it in the trash in front of them.  At the very least, let’s treat the leftover communion elements like the real food they are.  To throw them out in the face of a world hungry for both food and grace, is an abomination.    
  2. Another practice is to leave the bread outside for birds, and pour the contents of the cup out on the ground.  This is a little better, if done with gratitude, prayer, and consideration, in that it shows some respect for the elements and semi-ritually returns them back to nature.  On the other hand, in my experience birds are not always interested, and the bread just sits there getting weathered.  This can easily be seen as careless disposal, little better than throwing it in the garbage.  After all, “for the birds” is what we sometimes say about something we don’t value.    
  3. Still better is when the elements are either consumed or sent out with the representatives of the church to be shared with homebound people in the congregation.  Here is a good use.  But most churches would not do this every time the sacrament is celebrated.  (One church I served did send the deacons out with the elements after every celebration; I never hesitate to commend them.)  
The Eastern Orthodox have something called the Antidoron.  The Antidoron is bread that is blessed but not actually consecrated in the eucharist.  (They don’t use much bread in the actual eucharist.  The priest chops it fine, mixes it with warmed wine, and literally feeds it to the people by a small spoon.)  In some churches the non-consecrated bread is cut into cubes and sent out with the people.  The Antidoron may be given to anyone, therefore it is also a way to include non-Orthodox around the edges of the sacrament.

Once when I attended an Easter liturgy at an Antiochian Orthodox church, it was clear to the congregation that I was a visitor.  Parents must have pointed me out to their children as a worthy recipient of Antidoron, for several kids, after having received communion themselves, took some pieces and gave them to me on their way by.  By then end of the service I had almost more Antidoron in my cupped hands than I could handle.  I felt very welcome!

Would it  not be inappropriate to use a strategy like this with our communion leftovers?  That is, what if we Presbyterians encouraged participants to take some pieces of the communion bread with them as they leave and give it away as a sign of blessing and inclusion?

Taking the bread to shut-ins in the congregation is one obvious use.  We could also offer it to others whom we meet.  Who can say that this kind of sharing of the literal bread might not inspire some recipient to wonder and ask about the true Bread of Life, Jesus Christ?

Such a practice would indeed reveal something about our theology.  Giving away the bread reflects what we know about Jesus, who gives his life for the life of the world.  It would speak of God’s abundant love overflowing in creation.




Wednesday, April 24, 2019

White Walkers.

Like many Americans, in our house we are spending our Sunday evenings watching the new and, apparently final, season of Game of Thrones.  The growing threat for most of the series has been the “white walkers,” an army of the dead which is gathering in the far north and moving inexorably south with the coming of winter.  The last few episodes have been about a) convincing the leaders of Westeros that this threat is real and not a fairy tale, and b) figuring out how to get the characters to set aside the complicated and vicious personal and family vendettas to unite and face this existential threat from the north.  The problem is that characters would rather cling to the stupid and petty nonsense that defines their lives and gives them a reason to keep killing each other, than let that go and deal with something that could destroy their whole world.

The author of the books upon which the series is based, George R. R. Martin, has noted the parallels between his work and the threat of climate change.  It is a sad fact of history that leaders tend to focus on short-term personal gains and successes, while ignoring or denying larger problems, even those that threaten the lives and well-being of everyone. 

Climate change is our white walkers: a comprehensive threat to our whole civilization.  Our leaders often deny this existential liability.  Even the ones who don’t deny it appear powerless to address it.  We continue our squabbles, competition, business, and wars.  We even press on with the very economic practices that caused the problem in the first place, at best convincing ourselves that the same thinking that got us into this mess can somehow extricate us.   

There is in the Bible — and in history — a repeated pattern that also applies here.  Idolatry produces injustice which produces disaster.  We see it with what happens to the Egyptians when they enslave the Israelites and so bring down those ten mostly ecological plagues upon themselves.  We see it when Israel and Judah, in turn, sink into idolatry which results in societal injustice and inequality.  The consequences of that are the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians and the exile of the Jews by the Babylonians.  And so on.  

Thus I don’t have to read the voluminous scientific literature and mountains of data to understand the threat of global warming.  I just have to notice the breathtaking idolatry of a global economy that puts money, growth, and the wellbeing of owners first, and how it spawns terrible injustices in terms of violent exploitation of people and planet, to realize that this will not end well.  Such circumstances have always brought down catastrophe.

The most granular and comprehensive examination of this is found in the book of Revelation, which we are now walking through together.  It is an immensely sad book, detailing the ultimate consequences of human idolatry and injustice.

And yet, at its core is a profound hope, which is finally realized in the last chapters of the book.  For the good news is that God and life and love and joy always win in the end.  And because they will in the end, we may participate in that victory in advance all along the way.  We can dissociate from the bad things happening around us, and witness instead to the Truth of God’s love revealed in Jesus, letting his power sustain us.

This is what is going on in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  This weekly participation in God’s life, given for the life of the world, grounds our faith, opens our eyes, and strengthens our witness to God’s love.  For this meal is the antidote to idolatry.  In it we connect in a very tangible and visceral way to two things:  First, we encounter the cross of Jesus, and through him identify with all the victims of injustice and terror, all the scapegoats, all those whose lives were taken in the name of someone else’s power and fear.

Secondly, and at least as importantly — and this is why we are doing this during the joyful season of Resurrection — the Sacrament is how God gives life to us.  It is, after all, a meal, a place where we are fed and a nourished, where we receive the energy we need for repentance and discipleship.  As the disciples’ eyes were opened to recognize in the breaking of bread the presence of the risen Lord with them, so may our eyes be opened to understand the living presence of Christ in ourselves and even in all things.  For he makes us one with each other, and with all.

Only this sense of oneness in love will get us through.  Expressed in acts of forgiveness, simplicity, acceptance, compassion, welcome, justice, and love, the body of Christ, which we both consume as individuals and are as a community, means that we present a different kind of life to the world. 

I do not know if the white walkers will be defeated on Sunday nights.  I do not know if we will avoid the dire consequences of climate change.  I do know that no matter what happens we have to live according to Jesus’ example and commandments.  That is, we have to approach everything with gratitude, gentleness, and wonder.  If that’s what we receive in the bread we break on Sunday mornings, we will be okay. 

Only Jesus’ life will save us.  So let’s live that life.