Where the mystery comes in is the conviction for those who follow him (from the early days of the Jesus Movement, in fact,) that the cross, the execution of Jesus, is where the redemption of humankind is made complete. The mystery is the notion that we are saved by Jesus’ death on the cross.
Most of us learned to understand this – that Jesus’ death on the cross “saved us” and transformed our relationship with God - in a way that many of us can no longer affirm. You’ve heard me reflect on this before, but I think it’s one of those things that is worth returning to. I know that I continue to work at “unlearning” many of the “truths” I was taught in growing up.
Saint Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, declared that “Christ died for our sins”. Certainly, Jesus died because of the sinfulness of those who sentenced him and supported that sentence. He died because sinful human beings sought to protect their own privilege and authority against the threat that his popularity seemed to represent.
Over the course of time, Paul’s notion of Jesus “dying for our sins” evolved into a complex theological doctrine in which Jesus’ death came to be seen as having been required by God the Father. The religious doctrine we were taught maintains that Jesus’ death on the cross served, in effect, as the payment for the sins of the world. (This language is still reflected in our liturgies.) This “substitutionary atonement” theology maintains that humankind was held hostage by our own sins until Jesus, in effect, gave up his life on our behalf, in our place.
Such an idea – that God required sacrifice of God’s beloved child in order to forgive human sin – doesn’t sit right for many of us. It’s not consistent with the God Jesus described in his parables, a God who longs for relationship, who seeks out the lost and forgives, recklessly. The notion that violence was the necessary and pre-ordained means of human salvation does not ring true.
Theologian Marcus Borg points out that the Greek root of the word “martyr” means “witness”. “A martyr, or “witness,”” Borg observes, “is killed because she or he stands for something – which in early Christianity meant standing for God and standing against the powers that created a world of injustice and violence.”*
The powers of the world are still enacting crucifixions,
The powers of the world still crucify, and our efforts to stand in opposition so often feel like shoveling sand against the tide of human selfishness and greed – both within ourselves and in the social and political world outside ourselves.
And yet we are still left with that conviction – articulated by Paul and central to the faith of the Church – that it is the cross that saves us.
Along with others, I have come to see that the cross was not required to change God, but to change us. Jesus’ death provides us the means to face up to our deepest failings.
One of the mysteries of the cross is that it is the place where God’s grace meets and coexists with human violence.
The old hymn puts it this way:
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
As we contemplate the cross today we see the sorrow, the brokenness. We are in the fortunate position of knowing that the sin and the brokenness are not the final word.
The power of love gave Jesus the courage to submit to the worst the world had to offer. May that same love and courage inspire and transform us as we, too, join Jesus in the work of building God’s reign justice and peace.
In our lesson from 1 Corinthians, Paul reminds us of Jesus’ words that final evening:
“...the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor 11:23-26).”
These familiar words have been held close and remembered in every generation. For the community in Corinth, these words were a reminder of how their divisions led them to lose sight of Christ’s teachings. For those leading the Protestant Reformation, they were a point of passionate study and interpretation, where some felt these words meant the bread and wine actually became bodily elements; for others they were a memorial meal; for still others they were bread and wine that somehow Christ is really present in. Each of us has likely experienced these familiar words in a wide variety of contexts--from different pastors, churches, and denominations. Each of these experiences plays an important role in shaping our understanding of why and how we approach worship.
My own understanding of the eucharist was largely informed by two rather different worshiping communities in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine. The first was the parish I attended in middle and high school. St. Mark’s was a church that had clearly enjoyed wealth and prominence at one point in time, reflected in the richness of the building itself and in the ornate way in which the community embodied high church practices--think smells and bells. Our Latvian priest would set the table with the assistance of acolytes, and then he would begin to chant the eucharistic prayer. At the invitation to receive communion we would make our way up to the high altar where the priest stood behind a locked altar rail. When we stretched out our open palms, the priest would place the bread into our hands. We would consume the round, strangely dissolvable wafer, and then discreetly shuffle back to our pews.
St. Mark’s Church did a particularly fine job of creating sacred space where divine mystery could flourish, using chant, bells, candles, and incense. Yet however intoxicating that mystery might have been, I was equally troubled by the community’s emphasis on children and youth being seen sitting still and not heard; by the long trek we had to make to the high altar where the priest stood guarded and locked up handing us something that we called bread. Somehow those aspects of the worship did not feel in keeping with the warm and intimate meal shared by Jesus and his friends all those years ago. How did this sacred meal become so strangely formal, with an almost private quality to the communal worship?
The second community which played a large role informing my understanding of the eucharist was the Diocese of Maine’s youth and young adult ministries. The environment we cultivated during our quarterly retreats was quite different from my home parishes’ formal and high church worship. When it came to worship, we always seemed to be sitting in a circle. We were a fairly unkempt group-- all unwashed teenagers, some dressed in their Sunday best while others remained in their pajamas. There were no vestments, and seemingly anyone willing to be trained in a couple of minutes could assist with worship. Youth and young adults were the ones giving sermons; serving as Eucharistic Ministers and actually distributing the bread and wine; teenagers gave all the readings and proclaimed the gospel.
Instead of the people helping the priest as the primary actor, it was the congregation, the gathered people who led the worship while being shepherded by the priest. Even as the priest led the eucharistic prayer, youth leaders stood nearby holding up the fragrant loaf of blessed bread and the pottery chalice of wine at the invitation. The community was not perfect, but gosh, did they do radical welcome at the eucharist well, with a deep sense of connection to fellow worshippers.
Little did I know how scandalous this way of worship was. Years later, when I switched roles and was hired as a Youth Missioner for the diocese, I quickly learned these practices were not normative, but rather were exceptions for special situations as approved by our bishop. While I understood it, I also always struggled to accept it wholeheartedly. Somehow those worship services felt more in line with what Jesus was doing with his friends in the Last Supper than what my home parish did on Sunday mornings. These two different communities within the Episcopal umbrella produced a bit of liturgical quirkiness in my own theology of worship.
Normally, I save my questions for the end, but I want to give you some right now...
Part of why it is so critical for us to do this work of reflection is because the global pandemic has lit a fire on our understanding of what it means to be the Church and how we approach our worship. And I think it is a Holy-Spirit-Kind-Of-Fire. In the early days of the pandemic, every faith community was forced to try and figure out what it might look like to be the Church when we could not safely be together in-person.
Churches like ours embraced the idea of virtual consecration, where we invited you to prepare your own altars in your homes as an extension of our community altar. We told you to bring your own bread and wine. The idea being if we engaged in this worship together, even if it was virtual, the community was still gathered together and that somehow, God would still become really and truly present in the bread and wine at our various altars. Many of you shared photos of these altars, and those images continue to move me as much as any experience of consuming the eucharist in-person. This communal act of faith was a poignant reminder of the ways the Spirit was with us and holding our community together, even as we remained isolated in our homes, scattered across Franklin and Hampshire counties, into Vermont and New Hampshire.
With time, virtual consecration was ruled out by the House of Bishops, and as your Rector, I worked with Molly and Ann to help our parish transition to spiritual communion and what would become more than a year long fast from the eucharist. Yet, speaking as a priest in the Church and as a follower of Christ, I will confess that I still remain a firm believer in virtual consecration. Virtual consecration speaks to our belief in what is possible when a community leans into God together, and I hope our tradition will return to the conversation in the coming years or we risk limiting our understanding of God by putting her into a box.
Other churches experimented with Zoom Worship, and found people actually liked looking at one another. Folks in those parishes have begun asking if those forward facing pews are really as helpful as we once thought they were. The list of things that were experimented with during this last year across denominations is pretty vast. The Spirit set our hearts on fire for finding ways to keep being the Church, to keep embodying this intimate sense of community we witness between Jesus and his loved ones during the Last Supper.
As our Church prepares to resume some in-person worship at the end of the month, I hope we will ready our hearts for what is possible in the future. And as we make our way towards the grave and then Easter, this seems like the right time to do the working of readying our hearts...
Meet our Preachers
Rev. Heather Blais,
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm, Associate Rector