Monday, August 12, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Community

Preached on Sunday, August 11, 2013 (a Communion Sunday)

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 & 11:17-34

Summer Vacation June 2013:
Scenes along the Feather River, East of Live Oak, CA
More than one hundred and fifty years ago there was a pioneer of modern nursing named Florence Nightingale who went to organize the medical care of the British troops who were fighting around the Black Sea in the Crimean War. The story goes that, one day, when she was spending some time carefully washing the wounds of a gravely injured soldier, that soldier looked up at her and said, “You are Christ to me.”

Imagine simply looking at another person (a perfectly ordinary person, just like you and me), and seeing Christ. As Christians, we ought to be amazed at being able, in the best of times, to do exactly this with each other. As Christians, we ought to be amazed to look at someone we don’t even know (someone who walks through these doors and sits with us in this room) and be able to see that they are Christ to us. We should find ourselves living every day being amazed (or at least deeply puzzled) by this.

What would you do if you saw this; if you saw Christ in others? How would you welcome them here, and anywhere? How would you welcome a stranger who might turn out to be Christ to you?

Jeremiah in his prophecy and Paul in his letter to the Christians in Corinth shed light on this experience. They tell us how we should find ourselves and our church being changed by seeing God, by seeing Christ, in others.

Jeremiah told of a time when a whole new relationship would be possible between God and human beings. It would be a relationship that changed people inside and out: a new mind, a new heart; a new life. “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

Something makes us hesitate to say, “I know God. I know the Lord. I know Jesus.” And our hesitation may come from the fact that we don’t, or not very well.

But there may be other reasons. When you say that you know something that other people may not know, you may feel that you are claiming to be smarter than they are: at least about that one thing. Even if we want to be smarter than others, we also want to appear to be polite. Or you might seem to be claiming special privileges for yourself. This also does not seem polite.

Knowing God doesn’t have much to do with being smart, but it ought to be a very humbling sort of special privilege. It is the knowledge that comes from special privilege that husbands and wives learn from each other. It’s the special knowledge shared by parents that kids learn about when they try to play mom and dad against each other. In a healthy marriage you see this special knowledge (this privileged knowledge) when you mention something about a wife to her husband; or about a husband to his wife.

The Old Testament teaches us that the knowledge that counts is the knowledge of relationship. In the older translations of the Bible, the first time we meet the knowledge that comes from the privilege of a special relationship is in Genesis.

It’s in the relationship between Adam and Eve. “Now Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived, and bore Cain.” (Genesis 4:1) That is a privileged experience of knowing someone in a way that makes a real difference.

From that time forth, I am sure that they were very different together, and they would have acquired a certain look about them that they had never had before. It was a look that anyone would have noticed, if there had been anyone else around to notice!

 Jeremiah said that there would come a time when this sort of privileged knowledge of God would become the common knowledge. Every one of God’s people would have this kind of knowledge of God based on relationship.

It wouldn’t be the knowledge of something written on stone, or in a book. It would be the knowledge of God and his ways written on their own hearts and minds.

It wouldn’t be found written in a special chapter of its own. You wouldn’t have to search for it in the index. It would be the whole story of the book of your life. There would be no sentence in your story that didn’t have God written in it.

Anyone who wanted you to know what they knew about God would begin to tell you, and then they would stop; because they would see that look. They would remember that they had just the same look that you have. Their own life was simply another telling of the same story of God in Christ.

When I was a child, I sometimes tried to pull something over on my mom. She would see what I was doing, and then she would repeat this very scary saying. She would say, “I can read you like a book.” But Jeremiah tells us of a time when we will look at the cover of any person’s life, and we will see a story that we know and share.

This new covenant, the new relationship that every person of God will share, is the story of Jesus, the story of the gospel (the good news of Jesus). It is the story of a life and death through which we die and live. Jesus died for our sins and so, in his death, we die to ourselves. In his resurrection from the dead he defeated every kind of death, and so (in him) we rise to a new life.

If anyone belongs to Jesus, the same story is retold in each and every one of us. Paul tells us the outline of the story in his letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

So any Christian can look any other Christian in the face and say, “You are Christ to me.” This is a kind of knowing and recognition that comes from God working in Jesus Christ. It is written in each and every one of us in the flesh and blood of a God who became a baby in Bethlehem, and a carpenter in Nazareth, and a victim of injustice on the cross. It is written in the flesh and blood of a God who died and rose from the dead; the flesh and blood of a God who still wears the scars and sits on the throne of the universe in heaven.

It is a story written in the biggest letters in the world, in our hearts and minds. How can anyone who has that story written upon them miss it in others?

But Paul says that the Christians who were living in Corinth were doing exactly that. They were all sharers in the body and blood of Christ, and yet they didn’t treat each other that way. In the Lord’s Supper, they all relived that story in the book where it is written in bread and wine, yet they skimmed over the place that says who the supper is for.

When they sat down to eat and drink the story, so many of them did it as individuals. They each did it as a party of one. They did not look at each other and see the same story written in the body and the blood, in the bread and the wine.

Paul seems to start out by complaining about divisions in the church, and we jump to the conclusion that these must be divisions of doctrine and teaching, but Paul makes it clear that the division was a failure of practice. They were divided because they were not including each other. They were living together, apart.

Well, the rich in the church were a little club unto themselves. Sunday was a work day in the ancient world of the New Testament; but not everyone had to work.

The Lord’s Supper was part of a larger meal that was served in a house that was big enough to hold a whole congregation. These big houses were the homes of the rich where they often entertained their wealthy friends. The well-off Christians could come early to these homes where they were often guests for social occasions.

They forgot, on Sundays, that these homes were also houses of worship where the body of Christ was to be found. They forgot that the body of Christ was bigger and more inclusive than the body of their special set of friends.

Other people had to work for bosses who kept track of their hours. They couldn’t come as early as the well-to-do. They came to the body of Christ and found a table of crumbs. They found the holy meal was shared without them.

In the history of the church, one reason why we have just a taste of bread and a sip of wine is to keep everyone on the same page in the same story. We are partners in the body and blood of Christ.

There are no divisions in this partnership. We are never to see anyone as having more or having less at this table. We are never even to think it. We are definitely never to treat others this way, as if they had less or more of the meal of Jesus, or as if anyone was entitled to less or more.

Modern people are so mental about remembering. We think that remembering has something to do with our brains; especially these days, when life spans have gotten so long that we all feel at risk for dementia. Remembering, in the Bible, has very little to do with the brain. It has to do with the heart. When our brains stop working our memories are hidden in a spiritual heart that defines who we are.

If we only read our heart instead of our brain we would know this. Our truest memories are not things that we think about. They are things we relive. We laugh again. We cry again. Our blood pressure goes up.

Real memories are the stuff our lives are made of. At least one purpose for our life is to live for the creation of real memories.

In the Lord’s Supper, we sit together (with a sampling of every Christian in the world) at the table of Jesus. We hear him talk about his death and our forgiveness. We hear him talk about washing each others’ feet.

We find ourselves at the foot of the cross and we watch him bleed and die. We come to the garden tomb weeping, and we find it empty. Jesus comes to us alive again. We see him disappear into heaven and we find ourselves watching and praying for him to come back.

It is our story because we know it by relationship. We live it every day.

Or we think we do. But, maybe we only think it. Maybe we don’t see it because we do not find ourselves saying to each and every Christian that we meet, “You are Christ to me.”

We are disciples, and disciples are learners. We are still learning. Do we really show signs that we are still learning?

Paul says that we need to discern or “recognize the body of the Lord” when we eat and drink the Lord’s Supper. He means that we need to see the story that makes us all one. We need to see the oneness that makes us one; that makes us partners who need each other in some high, and deep, and mysterious way. We do not come to the Lord’s Table as a party of one, or as a party of a certain set of people.

It’s always something. If it isn’t a matter of the rich and poor, it is always something. In small towns it is often a matter of being old timers and new comers. Or it’s the matter of a personal history that too many people know about, or have opinions about.

It’s always something. Something makes us a clique. Something makes us self-absorbed, and it makes others simply invisible.

We meet our friends, and it may not be hard to say to our friends, “You are Christ to me.” But what if we meet someone we don’t know here, in this place?  Christ comes through these doors, or we go out and meet Christ there.

They are Christ to us, but we don’t act like it. They are someone who is Christ to us in a new way, with a brand new face, and we are not excited or amazed. We ought, at least, to be puzzled.

The divisions that Paul saw were the divisions created by people who saw some people as “Christ to them” and overlooked the rest. The issue of what division had received God’s approval wasn’t an issue of who God smiled at because they believed correctly. It was the issue of Christians believing without passing the test of believing.

The word Paul uses to mean approval is a word that means passing a test. This word was used for a positive result when you tested a rock to see if it was gold or silver ore.

Approval came when the test would show that the story of Jesus was written, deep upon their hearts, in letters of the finest gold and silver. The silver and the gold would pass the test in the quality of their waiting for each other, or in their patience with each other, and in their gracious hospitality to each other.

Precious ore, containing gold and silver, was pounded and crushed to a powder, and melted down with fragments of lead to a point where the lead caught the impurities and then oxidized, like a scum on the surface and could be scraped or poured away.

Reading the story of Jesus in the lives of people you don’t know means getting to know them, and this can be like going through hammers and fire. We like the people we already like because we have learned all about them from experience. We may have argued and fought with them and gotten over that.

We forget that this is work. It is work to see Christ in others (and maybe it can even be painful), the way the wounded soldier saw Christ in his nurse.

There is more to welcoming Christ as he comes to us in others than by shaking hands and smiling. It means being willing to come, and meet, and see, and listen, and learn.

Part of remembering the body and blood of Jesus was remembering the obligation of gracious hospitality; remembering that the meal was for everyone, and especially for anyone who knows they are in some essential way, a stranger and an outcast. Remembering the body and blood means that you have a commitment of welcoming and being a good host to everyone who comes to you, whoever they are.

The Lord’s Supper is the Table of Love. Just as we are each a little Christ, walking around, we are also a little Lord’s Supper for those who need it most to “taste and see that the Lord is good.)  (Psalm 34:8) There should never be any delay in our passing the test of love, like the test of gold and silver.

Samuel Rutherford was a Scottish Christian minister and writer in the sixteen hundreds. He wrote this about the story of the grace of Christ in his life:  Oh, what I owe to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus, who hath now let me see how good the wheat of Christ is, that goes through His mill, and His oven, to be made bread for His own table.”

The truth is we all must go through the furnace and the mill to be Christ for others and to see Christ in others. In Christ, we have the knowledge of the Lord written on our minds and hearts. We meet the same story and the same knowledge in each and every one of his people.

The Lord’s Supper is a gift to teach us that we are all, one and the same, the objects of God’s amazing and gracious hospitality, and we are called to live together accordingly. Go and be Christ for others. Go and see Christ in them.

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