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Sacrament 8/4/17

It started before you were born

the mixed messages

of your mixed blessing,

The sacrament of lust, you know;

and presumably desperation, relief, escape,

perhaps hope,

maybe even love,

certainly fear.

Invisible things woven in the secret place

into something visible.

Cowardice and courage.

Abandonment and anxiety.

Blessing and curse.

Though it wasn’t conscious

you have always known this

while not equally always aware.

And in this way

you are a sacrament of grace.


08.20.17 Minority Movements—Possibilities Matthew 5:38-48 Sermon Summary

One of the slogans of the Reformation was the Latin phrase “ad fontes”: “back to the sources.” Groups that looked only to the Bible introduced some problematic practices. Fortunately, some looked to the early church also.

Summary Points

  • Why more than one source is important
  • Peacemaking as the best response to Jesus’ teaching on peace
  • Commonality as a way of peacemaking
  • Ways of practicing commonality as a congregation

The Reformation of the 16th century was in part a rediscovery of ancient Christian practice. As reform movements went “ad fontes,” back “to the sources,” they looked to the Bible and the early church (called the Patristic Period). Some of the reformers who didn’t look to the patristics (fathers of the church), came to justify armed resistance, polygamy, forced conversion, and the ban. They were part of the Anabaptist movement. Other Anabaptists looked to the early church and rediscovered more helpful ancient practices, including the pursuit of peace and sharing goods in common.

It is instructive that opposite positions can be reached by interpreters of the Bible. In the same faith community, some found cause for armed resistance, others discovered forms of pacifism. This observation invites us to maintain a broad conversation, to “turn with caution” as I encouraged last week.

The Anabaptist of today most well-known for peace is the Mennonites. They follow the teachings of a Dutch Anabaptist named Menno Simons. Returning to the source of Scripture, the pursuit of peace comes most directly from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. One of Jesus’ most famous illustrations has to do with the pursuit of peace. In speaking of this topic, he instructs his disciples to “turn the other cheek.”

The interpretation of Jesus’ words has taken various forms. One form is pure pacifism, which is the refusal to acknowledge any value to war or to engage in war. Another form is non-resistance, best known through the 20th century social reform movements of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.

Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blessed his disciples with these words: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” They are in the context of being a peace-pursuing people. He knew what he was talking about. Those who pursue peace are often persecuted. The early Anabaptists were, as were King and Gandhi. Even today peace activists are maligned by some who don’t understand that a person can be patriotic and peace-loving at the same time.

Perhaps the best way to interpret Jesus’ words on non-resistance and peace is to remember the beatitude from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

On the practice of peacemaking, consider the following description.

Peace is not just about the absence of conflict; it’s also about the presence of justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. even distinguished between “the devil’s peace” and God’s true peace. A counterfeit peace exists when people are pacified or distracted or so beat up and tired of fighting that all seems calm. But true peace does not exist until there is justice, restoration, forgiveness. Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free. (Common Prayer, p. 382)

The main points of this perspective of peacemaking are that peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. It works towards inclusive solutions that reconcile differentiated groups. And it is redemptive for all involved. Peacemaking is about relationships. Sounds to me like the heart and example of Jesus.

Another positive Anabaptist rediscovery is the common ownership of goods. It is based on the testimony of the early church in Acts. It is, in fact, a means to peace and justice. “Common”, of course, means “held by all.” It’s a hard concept to fathom in a culture of independence. Perhaps it can be made easier for us to remember that common also means “ordinary”. It helps because even though we are special, we are not more special than others. Gandhi put it this way: “There is enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Our failure to pursue commonality has a negative impact on our social fabric, but also on our spiritual lives. Commenting on Psalm 132, and invoking the Acts passage above, Augustine had these words to say about verses 3-5: “I will not enter my house until I find a place for the Lord.”

Many people have no interesting in making a place for the Lord; they seek their own interests, love their own possessions, rejoice in their own power, and are greedy for private property. Anyone who wants to make a place for the Lord must take the opposite line. . . It is on account of what we own individually that litigation is instituted and enmity, quarrels, and fights break out. Uproar, dissension, scandals, sins, unjust actions, and even homicide are all the result of private ownership. . . I will not enter the tent where I dwell, [the psalmist writes], until I find. Find what? When you find a place for the Lord, will you then go into your own tent? Or would it be truer to say that the place you have found for the Lord will become your tent? How can that be? Because you will yourself be the Lord’s place, and you will be one with all the others who have become the Lord’s place. (p. 159-60)

Here the main points are that creating a place for the Lord creates a place for others. It creates a common life, a shared life, a just life for all, and a peaceful life for all. The primary obstacle is our fascination with private ownership. Our Buddhist friends would agree.

While our culture makes it impossible not to practice private ownership, we find some guidance from Jesus. He sent his itinerant disciples into the world to preach with nothing, purposefully making them dependent. We can have that same attitude, no matter how much or how little we possess. We can remember our dependence on God, which makes us sensitive to everyone else’s dependence, and which compels us to compassion, generosity, and commonality. It’s how we remain God’s possession, how we keep our possessions from possessing us.

Pursuing the common good, as common people, moves us towards justice, moves us toward peace, and moves us toward Christian faithfulness.

Envision for a moment a church of common-ality and peace:

  • The building and grounds would be functional, safe, and attractive
  • The sanctuary would accommodate differently-abled people and families with children
  • The fellowship hall and kitchen would be functional and comfortable
  • Recovery groups would meet there
  • Homeless families would live there
  • It would participate in food and clothing drives
  • It would gather school supplies for needy children
  • Members would vote in elections according to the common good
  • They would pledge time and talent to the ministry
  • They would talk about hard issues with civility
  • They would pray for peace and justice, even when it is uncomfortable
  • They would support local businesses

I hope this list sounds familiar because your church is already doing these things. My church is doing or preparing to do these things. The more we think about peace and commonality, the more such activities we’ll discover.

The Bible calls us to such pursuits, and we can thank the Anabaptists who have kept this witness alive for us today.

08.13.17 Minority Movements Problems Revelation 14 S Sermon Summary

The Reformation Luther inspired 500 years ago has made the church more faithful. But along the way there were some problems. Here are some of them, and how we can avoid them in the future.

Summary Points

  • The Reformation context giving rise to the Anabaptists
  • Four problematic practices of the Anabaptists
  • Two roots of the problems: Apocalyptic Millennialism and Special Revelation
  • Five ways to avoid the problems today

Martin Luther’s break from Rome was founded on the rediscovery of our justification by faith apart from works of the Law. Luther reasserted God’s Word as the highest authority in the life of the Christian and the church. It was not the Pope, nor the councils, nor tradition. For Luther, God’s Word, especially as contained in the promises of the Bible, is the sole authority. The appropriate response is simple faith in God’s promises.

The problem is, not everyone interprets God’s Word the same. We considered the case study of infant baptism. The Swiss Brethren found no justification for child baptism in their reading of God’s authoritative Word. They quoted a verse here and a verse there to make their point.

In response, Ulrich Zwingli read the verses in context, and found they were not so clear. Reading the Bible as a whole, he rediscovered covenant theology as the justification for infant baptism. Just as male infants were circumcised under the Old Covenant, so male and female children in the New Covenant church should be baptized.

In the Lutheran and Reformed (Zwinglian) traditions, we look to our founder’s writings, various faith statements (“Confessions”), and ancient commentators to guide our interpretation of scripture. Among the Anabaptists movements, by contrast, there were few who looked to these guides. This difference resulted in there being many variants of Anabaptism, some more helpful than others. Some contributed positively to the Christian church; others presented problems.

Four of the problematic forms of Anabaptism are: Armed resistance, polygamy, forced conversions, and the ban.

Some branches of Anabaptism advocated armed resistance. The Reformation was not just a religious event. It occurred during a time of general political and social unrest. In the soils also of philosophical changes, Luther added religious questions. And there were numerous other variables in play as well.

With all the traditional anchors of society coming loose, it is hardly surprising that violence would result. In 1524 the Peasants War broke out. Hearing Luther question the authority of the church and championing the freedom of the individual Christian, tenant farmers sought to overcome their indentured servitude to landlords (who often also had positions in the religious hierarchy). Up to 100,000 people were killed in the ensuing violence. Luther was horrified to see his ideas put to such service.

A decade later the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster was founded. The leaders of the movement did not recognize the authority of regional principalities, and war broke out again. When the men of the kingdom became sparse, through flight or death, the leaders invoked the practice of polygamy to maintain the population.

These Anabaptists justified their polygamy on the basis of King David having between 8-12 or more wives and concubines (see 2 Samuel 3-5), and his son Solomon reputedly having over 1000 (see 1 Kings 11). In other words, according to the way they read the Bible, polygamy was faithful practice.

Some Anabaptists also practiced forced conversions. Their motivation was two-fold. On one hand, they wanted to save people from the judgment that led to hell. The reasoning was, if you didn’t convert to their brand of Christianity, you were going to hell. Rather than allow you to continue to corrupt the world, it was better to send you to hell early. On the other hand, they wanted to ensure conformity to the group norms. One either converted, or was terminated.

Concern for conformity also led some Anabaptists to practice the less permanent solution of the ban. To help ensure the purity of the group, errant members were shunned and excommunicated. Some Anabaptists groups today still practice the ban. My grandmother-in-law’s family was excluded from Sunday worship because her sister wore shorts in the back yard one summer.

The ban was based primarily on the reading of 1 Corinthians 5:6-13. The Corinthian churches were an infamously fractious group. Paul’s preoccupation in his letters was to re-establish harmony. In his enthusiasm he wrote, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you.’” Those who practiced the ban would also cite Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17.

Today we look back and wonder how the problematic practices of armed resistance, polygamy, forced conversion, and the ban could arise among the followers of the peacemaking, celibate, socially promiscuous Jesus? There are two main reasons.

The first has to do with what is called “Apocalyptic Millennialism.” The characteristics of this way of thinking are:

  • That a thousand year reign of Christ is coming
  • That it starts or ends (depending on the branch of Millennialism) with Christ’s return
  • That it culminates in the Last or Final Judgment
  • That this is known only to the special ones to whom it is revealed

Apocalyptic Millennialism is based largely on the following passages of the Bible. Revelation 7 and 14 make reference to the 144,000. “Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard . . . a new song before the throne . . . No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth.” (Revelation 14:1, 3) “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14) They are contrasted by the others: “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands” (Revelation 14:9)

In Daniel 2:27-45, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has a dream of a statue: “The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.” (verses 32-33) The faithful Hebrew Daniel interprets the dream by identifying those various parts with kingdoms who fail on the world’s progression to the last day or judgment, when God’s final Kingdom will prevail over the fallen statue of the world’s kingdoms.

According to Apocalyptic Millennialism, the arrival of God’s Kingdom is at hand. With this conviction, those faithful who are awaiting the final demise of the worldly kingdoms eagerly cite Acts 5:27-32. There Peter and John and the Apostles are shown preaching God’s Kingdom in the Temple. They are arrested for disturbing the peace, told to stop, but then return. They are re-arrested and reminded, but they respond, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Armed Resistance, leading to polygamy and forced conversions, emerges from the theological soils of such Apocalyptic Millennialism. But there is another factor that led some Anabaptists to problematic places: the concept of the special revelation.

Special revelation was particularly powerful when it came through a single charismatic leader. Followers believed this person was guided uniquely by the Spirit. The whole concept of special revelation is by nature anti-tradition, and sometimes even anti-Bible. The charismatic Anabaptist leader Sabastian Franck, for example, referred to the Bible as a “Paper Pope.”

Special revelation together with apocalyptic millennialism have conspired to bring us problematic forms of Christianity since the beginning. They reemerged at the Reformation, carried both sides through the American Civil war, and remain particularly strong in American Christianity to this day. In the 1970s it was the Late Great Planet Earth; since the 90s it’s been the Left Behind series. It leads to the kinds of things we saw this weekend in Charlottesville, VA.

How do we avoid these problems in the church today? Here are five suggestions.

  1. Keep heart and head together. It’s of the essence of true religion to engage our hearts. But our hearts can deceive us. Both heart and head have to be engaged to discern faithfulness.
  2. Remember that God is very old, very patient, and full of grace. We can become quite ego-centric to think that history will end in our generation and exclude everyone else but us. God has been laughing about such presumptions for millennia when not crying about the horrific consequences such presumptions create.
  3. Remember the community of Scripture. One verse here and one verse there do not justify an entire movement. Like Zwingli, we have to read the Bible in conversation with itself.
  4. As in driving, we must “turn with caution”: Looking backwards and around before changing the direction of the church. What does tradition say? What are others around us saying, not just our leaders, our denomination, or even our religion?
  5. Keep in mind Jesus’ preaching and practice of Kingdom. It is true that Rome crucified Jesus as a traitor because he preached a different king and kingdom. But his preaching caught their attention because he actually lived it out. He didn’t wait for the world around him to end. He sought to transform the world around him.

Not all Anabaptist movements created problems. Most were marginalized, including those who practiced positive things. But many of those positive practices are making a comeback. That is the topic of next week.

Prayers from 08.13.17 (National White Supremacists and Local Anti-Semites Sunday)


Lord Jesus Christ, we call upon you in those three words, because you alone are our Lord, because you are our Yeshua—our Savior, and because you are our anointed King and Prophet. We call upon you, Lord Jesus Christ, because you have made us adopted children in the family of God through baptism, made us members of your body through your Spirit, and have gathered us here in worship. In this hour, fill us with your Spirit, we pray. Make us bold like our Colorado Republican Senator and our state’s Democratic Governor, to recognize evil when it appears, and make us bold to stand with those who value all your children and pursue peace, justice, love, and forgiveness, because what we freely receive here, you have called us to freely give. In your name we pray. Amen.


God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Jesus our Jewish Savior and Lord, we pray for the Jewish community of Colorado Springs with whom we share ministry now among homeless families, and with whom we have shared space in worship of you. Bless them with courage and grace as they deal yet again with vandalism and intimidation. We thank you for their witness to your faithfulness and their partnership in ministry. And we pray that all people of peaceful religion and good will can stand together united by your love.

And in light of the events of this weekend, we pray that instead of our taking America back—back to whatever we might think best, back to white supremacy, back to male dominance, back to oppression of native people, back to exploitation of immigrants, back to whatever vision myopic memory and nostalgia may generate—we pray, O Lord, that you will take us back. Take America back if we repent of our greed for power and hegemony. Take America back if we repent of our consumeristic indulgences. Take America back if we repent of rugged individualism and the hubris of self-reliance. Please, God, for whose Kingdom we pray every week and maybe every day, take America back as a nation blessed with inordinate and even obscene resources, but also as a nation with unending opportunities to bear witness to your generosity, to do good, to pursue peace, and to ease the suffering of others. Take us back if we repent of bigotry that vandalizes houses of worship, that drives cars through crowds of people with opinions different from ours, that shoots, stabs, threatens, and bombs innocent people. Take America back, O Lord, that we might be among the blessed who are recognized as your children because we resemble the one whom we confess as your Son, our Lord, and the Savior of the world, who taught us to pray for your kingdom in these words, Our Father . . .


07.30.17 Prayer by the Book Romans 8:26-39 Sermon Summary

Three texts have done more to shape the English language over any others. With the church’s cultural decline, we are at risk of losing two of them.

Summary Points

  • The three texts that shaped the English language
  • Brief history of the Book of Common Prayer
  • Two benefits to using a prayerbook
  • How to pray using the “collect” prayer form

You know these phrases:

  • “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
  • “To be, or not to be; that is the question.”
  • “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse.”

The King James Bible, Shakespeare, and the Book of Common Prayer: If you love the English language, you recognize these fundamental sources. Even though the popularity of the Bible and the Prayerbook is waning, their influence upon contemporary English is still profound.

The Book of Common Prayer came about during the reign of Kind Edward VI, who was the son of King Henry the VIII. Henry was the monarch in England who severed the Church of England from Roman Catholicism by having himself declared Supreme Head of the Church in 1534.

Mostly Henry was interested in divorcing his wife Catherine of Aragon, from whom he got a special dispensation from the Pope to marry in the first place. Of course, the Pope could not reverse himself so he refused to grant an annulment of the marriage.

Generally speaking, Henry remained mostly Catholic in this theology. Earlier he had received the Pope’s commendation as “Defender of the Faith” for his writings against Luther. Around Henry there were committed Roman Catholics and true adherents of Reform. Among the latter was Thomas Cranmer, who exercised enormous influence upon young Edward.

Cranmer produced the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. The principles guiding its development were: That it reflect the whole Bible; replace Latin with English; offer simpler rubrics (liturgical instructions); and facilitate uniformity of practice.

Cranmer was a student of Zwingli, and so the eucharistic theology of the BCP was memorial. It denied the real presence of Christ at the Table, and rejected any hints of sacrificial theology (the idea that Communion participated in the unique sacrifice of Christ).

But despite the theological nod toward Zwingli, the BCP was still based on the Roman Latin Mass, translating words and phrases and ordering worship in ways that made the eucharistic theology ambiguous. Thus while some applauded the work as an example of Reform, others accused it of camouflaging Catholicism.

So in 1552 Cranmer offered a revision following the consultation of other Reformers including Martin Bucer, John a Lasco, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and John Knox. The 1552 edition was unambiguously Zwinglian.

But it didn’t last long. In 1553 Queen Mary 1 came to the throne and returned England to Roman Catholicism. She executed Cranmer along with nearly 300 other Protestants. (Our vodka drink is named after her.)

But then, in 1559 Elizabeth 1 came to the throne. She had a long reign characterized by astute political acumen. She returned to the Edwardian reform movements, including a revision of the BCP. She removed the harsh Zwinglian rhetoric, allowed the ambiguities to remain, and was able achieve some unity and stability. The BCP continues to undergo change, but since 1662 it has been largely the same.

What can we learn from the BCP about reform in the church?

First, sacramental theology really matters. Sacramental theology asks the question, How do we think God is present? Is God present only in miraculous revelations like speaking voices, ecstatic experiences, or theophanies? Is God’s historical presence limited to the Incarnation in the natural life of Jesus? Is God present only as a matter of memory or faith?

Second, we too easily underestimate the importance of prayer. There are some people who can offer an eloquent prayer, but it’s the only prayer they know. Others can’t find another way to address the divine other than “Father God, . . .” I’ve heard people with “prayer ticks” who “just wanna” this and “just wanna” that. These people never took the time to learn how to pray, and as a result they have limited their experience of prayer.

The Book of Common Prayer, along with other compilations of prayers, helps form us as Christians and as the church. When we disagree with someone’s prayers (as I hear regularly from my congregation), it stretches us. We realize others experience God and exercise faithfulness differently than we do. We’re invited to broaden our perspective and deepen our relationship with God.

And though “the Spirit helps us in our weakness, because we do not know to pray how we ought,” resources like the BCP can bring us quite a ways further in our spiritual life.

As a practical step, I want to share with you a prayer form characteristic of the BCP. It is called a collect, which is pronounced “KAH-lekt.” You can remember it through the words, “You, who, do, that, to.”

There are five parts to a collect.

  1. Name (“You”): Because we pray to a personal God, this address should be personal. It can also be creative and imaginative. It may preview the rest of the collect.
  2. Attribute (“Who”): We pray because we trust God’s faithfulness in the past to continue in the present to us. We recite an attribute of God which forms the basis of our request below.
  3. Request (“Do”): Here our prayer becomes personal to us. Here we ask God to do whatever we feel led to offer.
  4. Result (“That”): We pray for a purpose, for a reason. We don’t take time praying for inconsequential things, so here we state the result of God’s answering our prayers.
  5. Praise (“To”): When we conclude our prayers “To the glory of God” (In the many ways we can say this), we profess our final trust in God who may not answer our prayer as we’ve offered it. Even so, we praise God.

Solomon’s prayer, except for the concluding doxology, contains the parts of the collect.

  1. He addresses God as, “LORD, my God” (which is significant, because at this point in his life Solomon was practicing polytheism—the all-cap “LORD” is the proper name of Israel’s God).
  2. He reminds God of his steadfast love for his father David.
  3. He asks for wisdom, the knowledge between right and wrong.
  4. In order that he may lead faithfully.

Here’s an example from the BCP from the Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas Day):

O God, who hast caused this holy night to shine with the illumination of the true Light: Grant us, we beseech thee, that as we have known the mystery of that Light upon earth, so may we also perfectly enjoy him in heaven; where with thee and the Holy Spirit he liveth and reigneth, one God, in  glory everlasting.

The BCP has at least one collect for each Sunday, and many more for other occasions. I encourage people to write their own collects—daily, or with regards to whatever issue they are facing. I have found it to be immensely helpful. Practicing writing collects can lead anyone to the ability to pray spontaneously in public or private whenever the need arises.

My prayer is that as you practice writing collects, and begin to use compilations of prayers like the Book of Common Prayer, you own life will become a book of common prayer, that is, words shared and actions displayed that demonstrate your dependence upon God, and that cause others to offer thanks.

07.23.17 Eating in the Presence of Christ Luke 24:36-53 Sermon Summary

The interpretation of one verse continues to reform the church within the Reformed branch of Christianity. Eventually, one hopes, it will reform the whole church.

Summary Points

  • Zwingli’s interpretation of the sacraments
  • John 6:63 in context
  • Calvin’s reading of John 6
  • How God overcomes our weakness
  • The role of the sacraments in the life of faith

One verse, embedded in a very long and complex discussion between Jesus and crowds of disciples, set the course of sacramental theology for the Reformed wing of the Protestant Reformation. It is John 6:63, when Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich who changed his mind about infant baptism, took this verse along with this thoughts about baptism, and denied the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table. In his debate with Luther, it was this verse that convinced Zwingli that “is,” in the phrase, “This is my body,” means “represents.” Review his full argument here, but this verse sealed the deal for Zwingli, since it proves that the flesh doesn’t matter. The Spirit matters, and the Word matters, and our response, i.e., faith matters. But not the flesh.

This was Zwingli’s position against both Roman Catholicism and against Luther. And it would eventually lead to non-sacramental Christian fellowships like the Quakers and the Salvation Army. And it would contribute to the theology of the Anabaptists (and today’s Baptists) who observe the sacramental rituals but call them “ordinances,” since they are obedient responses to Christ’s command.

The context of John chapter six is that Jesus has just fed 5000 people with some loaves and fish. Now crowds are growing and following him, and Jesus offers the “Bread of Life” discourse to thin them out. We’re told that many disciples abandon Jesus over this teaching. To them, it smacks of “crass materialism”: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask.

Is John 6 talking about the Lord’s Supper? In its context, the literal answer is no. But within the context of John and the Christian liturgical practice, the obvious answer is yes. John has a complex relationship with the sacraments. Through narratives about water, bread, and wine, he offers us the most beautiful elaborations of sacramental theology. But John embeds these teachings in indirect narratives. He does this to deny an ultimate value to the sacraments.

Here, in the “Bread of Life” discourse, John presents Jesus as over miracles (the feeding of the 5000), over mana (the tradition inherited by the Jews), and over the meal (the Lord’s Supper as practiced by the early church). Jesus is over all these, but not against them per se.

This is the point Zwingli missed. He read this passage as saying Jesus is not only over these realities, but against them as well. And so he took the “uselessness of the flesh” literally.

Fortunately, John Calvin of the next generation of refomers, read John 6 differently. Whereas Jesus, Roman Catholicism, and Lutheranism could all be accused of “crass materialism” with regards to the flesh of Jesus being contained and eaten in the bread of the eucharist, Zwingli could be accused of “mere symbolism,” leading to the practice of the Quakers. Calvin saw that the problem was with the adjectives, not the nouns. The bread is material and symbolic; the real problem comes when these are crass and mere.

Calvin saw that when Jesus says the flesh is “useless,” he is being rhetorical. The emphasis in John 6 is on Jesus, yes. And on the Spirit. And on the Word. And on faith. To highlight these emphases, Jesus points out that relative to them, the flesh is “useless.” He has to do this because it is so easy to over-value miracles, mana, and the meal at the expense of Jesus.

How did Calvin arrive here? Remember that Luther was motivated by his search for peace. Zwingli was motivated by his search for precision. Calvin was motivated by the question of perseverance. “How can we survive the spiritual life,” Calvin would ask, “given that we are so weak?”

This weakness is evident at the end of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus had been appearing all day: First to the women at the tomb, last to the two disciples traveling to Emmaus, and in the meantime to Simon. Now, “while disciples were talking about these things,” he appears to them again. And STILL they are startled and terrified, fearing they are seeing a ghost.

Jesus himself seems surprised at this. He asks them incredulously why they are frightened and have doubts arising in their hearts. Don’t they know him? Can’t they recognize him? So he offers them his material body. “Look at my hands and feet! Touch me and see. I’m not a ghost. I’m not something to be feared. I am still truly Jesus, still truly here, still truly present.”

But still we are weak. The disciples are in their joy, but they are still disbelieving and wondering. So Jesus eats a fish in their presence. This is crass materialism. In only one other story does it get more crass. But it teaches that in no way is the flesh useless. On the contrary, Jesus uses his flesh to overcome our weakness. Far from useless, the flesh is indispensable.

Someone recently asked me, “Why do we rock when we grieve?” The answer has to do with the fact that profound grief is an extraordinary experience. We’re not practiced at it. We have a difficult time expressing it. But grief has to be worked out through our bodies. Why do we raise our hands when we’re elated? Why is our breath taken away at overwhelming beauty? Why do we cry involuntarily? It’s because we are flesh, and necessarily these immaterial aspects of being human must find physical expression.

The flesh is necessary because we are flesh and God wants all of us. God wants not just our disembodied spirits, or our exalted thoughts, or our sanctified memories. Jesus said we are to love God with our heart, soul, mind, AND strength—strength is a reference to our flesh.

But the flesh is weak and needs strengthening. God’s physical presence is that strength. God comes not to judge our weakness, but to help us despite it. This is why there are Old Testament sacraments which culminate in Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus means when he says, “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms are fulfilled in me.” In Jesus Christ the coming of the God’s Kingdom has begun. Where he is, the kingdom is. We experience it now in part only, but now nonetheless.

This is why Jesus lifts up his hands at the end. He is reminding the disciples of his presence even in his imminent absence. Luke is telling us that God meets our weakness by coming to us in the flesh. God strengthens us this way, and also calls us beyond our weakness. And so Jesus “withdraws” and is “carried up to heaven.”

In his absence, Jesus has left us the New Testament sacraments. They are symbols, but not merely symbolic. Jesus’ presence is material, but not crass materialism.

This perspective is articulated in the Scots Confession of 1560:

“in the Supper . . . Christ Jesus is so joined with us that he becomes the very nourishment and food of our souls. . . this union and conjunction which we have with the body and blood of Christ Jesus . . . is wrought by means of the Holy Ghost, who by true faith carries us above all things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and makes us feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus . . . if anyone slanders us by saying that we affirm or believe the sacraments to be symbols and nothing more, they are libelous. . . On the other hand we readily admit that we make a distinction between Christ in his eternal substance and the elements of the sacramental signs. So we neither worship the elements, in place of that which they signify, nor do we despise them or undervalue them, but we use them with great reverence.”

The point is, we need the sacraments. The spiritual life is too hard. Our faith is too weak. We need a savior. We need the assurance of the Incarnation: God with us; of the Crucifixion: God loves us; of the Resurrection: God rescues us; of the Ascension: God calls us still; and of the sacraments: God is with us still.

Thanks be to God for giving us these assurances in Word, in Spirit, and in sacrament.

07.16.17 Arguing Over What’s Not There Acts 1:6-11 Sermon Summary

Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language which doesn’t require the utterance of the verb “is.” This means that what divided the Reformed Presbyterians from the Lutherans was a debate over a word Jesus probably didn’t even say.

Summary Points

  • Zwingli’s baptismal theology applied to communion
  • Zwingli and Luther on the word “is”
  • Zwingli’s three arguments
  • Luther’s perspective, including his famous illustration
  • Some ways Presbyterians might have gone, but didn’t

The reason Ulrich Zwingli rejected the arguments against infant baptism was because he realized baptism is the sign of the New Covenant. As circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant, as it included children, was administered once, and was administered on the basis of a communal faith, so baptism was to include children—boys and girls.

Zwingli also applied this thinking to the sacrament of Communion. For him, the bread, wine, and participation in communion, was a covenantal sign—but ONLY a sign. These were meant to be prompts, reminders, or substitutes only, NOT vehicles of grace. Today the language we use is “means” of grace. Zwingli denied this.

Thus, for Zwingli, when Christ says “This is my body,” “is” doesn’t mean is: “Is” means “signifies” or “represents.”

Not so for Luther. Luther was a literalist with God’s promises. For him, “is” means “is.” Jesus promised what the communion element “is,” and Luther believed it. His problem with communion was with the official Roman Catholic explanation of how Christ is present, which is called “Transubstantiation.”

Transubstantiation came from the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s. It is based on Aristotelian philosophy. It distinguishes between the way things appear to us through the senses, and the way things are in their essence. The appearances are referred to as “accidents,” and the essence is referred to as the “substance.” During the Mass, when the Priest recites in Latin Jesus’ words from the New Testament, “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body”), the accidents of bread and wine remain, but the substance changes. In other words, they appear to us as bread and wine—feel and taste and smell as such—but what they actually are is the body and blood of Christ.

(This is where magicians came up with the phrase, “Hocus pocus.” It comes from the medieval experience of laity knowing the bread and wine were changed with the priest’s words, but not hearing or understanding the words fully.)

Luther was offended that the church would depend on Aristotle, a pagan philosopher, to explain this divine mystery. “We don’t need philosophy,” Luther would say. “We only need faith.” “Is” means is: you either believe it or not.

So Zwingli and Luther were at an impasse over the word “is,” again, over a word Jesus likely didn’t utter.

Zwingli made three arguments. First, these words of Jesus were spoken while alive, at the Last Supper. There’s no way Jesus could be literal because his death hadn’t happened yet. His body and blood were still alive and contained with him. The original bread and wine could not be his body and blood.

Second, Jesus is presently at right hand of God—ONLY at the right hand: He couldn’t be present in the bread and cup or at the table also. Acts, Hebrews, Paul, and some of the Gospels all agree that Jesus was raised to God’s right hand. Here, Zwingli is the literalist.

Third, Zwingli argued from a verse in the “Bread of Life” discourse of John 6. Even though he denied this passage is about the Eucharist, he nonetheless seized on verse 63: “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” For Zwingli, it is the words that matter, and our response to the words, not the accompanying material symbols. It is remembrance and faith, not flesh, blood, or eating that counts. Communion, like Baptism, is a sign, a badge, a marker ONLY. Christ himself is not presently active.

For Luther, Christ is not limited by the flesh. Because Christ is both human and divine, and because God is Spirit, Christ also is not limited by the flesh. He can be in two places at once—at God’s right hand, and with the bread and wine of communion—just as God could be in the Old Testament sacraments, just as in the waters of baptism. The clearest example of this possibility is the Incarnation itself: God was with us in Christ, but also in heaven.

Luther used a famous illustration to make his point. Imagine a horseshoe placed deep in hot coals, so deep you are not able to see the horseshoe. It is still distinct from the coals, but it is in, with, and under the coals. After a while, you remove the horseshoe. It glows hot with the fire of the coals, which appears in, with, and under the horseshoe. The two realities are distinct, but they also appear as one. So, Luther argued, the body and blood of Christ is in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine, just as the bread and wine are in, with, and under the body and blood of Christ. (This way of explaining the dual reality of the bread and wine came to be called consubstantiation—two substances at the same time.)

In 1529 Philip of Hesse called Luther and Zwingli to a colloquy at his castle at Marburg. He was interested in uniting the two reform movements because the Holy Roman Emperor was finally fixing his sights on the Protestant reformers. An alliance would strengthen their position against the Emperor. The two parties agreed on 14 out of 15 articles—all except how to describe the presence of Christ at the Supper. From that time until the last century, the Lutherans and the Reformed would be separate reform movements.

Why, given Zwingli’s way of thinking about things, didn’t we Presbyterians go the way of the Baptists? They didn’t retain the language of “sacraments” and “means of grace,” but instead talk of “ordinances” that we observe because Christ commanded them.

Or why didn’t we go the way of the Quakers? They don’t use any material elements at all—not water for baptism or bread and wine for communion. They simply cogitate on the realities symbolized by these elements.

Or what does Jesus mean when he says he will not partake of the bread and wine “until the kingdom of God comes”? When does that kingdom come? Is it only at the end of the world? Or sooner? These are the matters we will take up next week.