Sermon: Have you heard the Good News?

After some website delays, you can now listen to the audio on the Christ Church website, or read along here.


Do you remember the first time you heard the Good News that God loves you?  Having basically grown up in the church, I can’t identify the precise moment when I first heard those words, but I do have early memories.  I remember one Vacation Bible School: the theme was some sort of undersea adventure, and inside a giant blown up plastic tube that was painted to look like the ocean, we sang “Jesus loves me, this I know.”  I remember another VBS, sitting the pews at St. Thomas Episcopal Church singing, “If I were a butterfly,” and thanking God for “making me me.”  I remember Sunday school classes and sermons and confirmation classes that all, in their own way, showed me the love of God.  I also remember those stories, sermons, and lessons that reminded me of God’s judgment as well.  I remember the story of Adam and Eve: how they had eaten of the tree of good and evil and were punished.  I remember hearing the story of Noah: how God had become so disappointed with the world that God decided to start over by flooding it, killing nearly every living thing.  Some of those stories are difficult for us adults to understand, let alone children, but they, like the numerous stories of God’s love, are important for us to hear.  The fullness of God’s story is a story of God’s hope for a full and perfect relationship with humankind, our ongoing ability to screw that up spectacularly, the repercussions of broken relationship, and God’s loving work to restore the hope of a full and perfect relationship.

It is right in the middle of that ongoing pattern that we find ourselves in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this Third Sunday of Easter.  Each Easter season, instead of reading from the Hebrew Bible, we read selections from Acts.  In Year A, we spend three weeks on Peter’s Pentecost sermon.  Last week, it was a pretty in-depth exegetical study of the prophet Joel.  This week we hear a summation of Peter’s sermon and the crux of salvation history.  Because of God’s passionate desire for right relationship, God the Father sent God the Son in the person of Jesus.  Although humanity killed Jesus, God raised him to his rightful place as Lord and Messiah.  Peter preached this sermon to a fairly significant crowd.  It was the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival that occurs fifty days after the Passover during which they remember the gift of the Law and offer God the first fruits of the grain harvest.  Jerusalem was teeming with spiritual tourists.  Jews from around the known world were gathered to offer their first fruits in hopes of a successful harvest when the city was brought into confusion by a loud noise like a rushing wind, and a cacophony of voices, each speaking in a different language.  Every visitor for blocks heard the Good News of God’s mighty acts in their own native tongue.  Thousands packed in tightly around the disciples’ house to see what was happening.

There, amidst an increasingly raucous crowd, Peter shared the Good News of God’s love.  They were cut to the heart by his message.  They had never heard such preaching.  Sure, like many generations before them, the crowd gathered had hoped for the Messiah.  They had prayed that God would restore the fortunes of Zion.  They longed to find right relationship with God, but few of them really expected anything to change.  Yet here, on this Pentecost Day, something was different.  This word from Peter was like a word straight from God’s own lips.  This word was both judgment and love.  It cut them to the very core, and they pleaded with Peter and the rest, “Brothers, what should we do?”

As it turns out, the proper response to God’s love is actually quite simple: “repent and be baptized.”  Repent is a ten-cent church word that has lost much of its meaning over time.  After years of only hearing it from television preachers and street corner evangelists, repentance has come to mean something like “feeling guilty because you’re a wretched mess of a sinner,” but that isn’t exactly what Peter meant when he told the crowd to metanoio.  The first step toward right relationship with God is to change your mind, to change your direction, to change your focus, and ultimately, to change your actions.  That’s what repentance is all about.  It has very little to do with feeling guilty or sad, and everything to do with turning away from the old life of sin and turning toward life eternal in right relationship with God.  You can feel sorry for doing something, and go right on doing it.  What God desires is a transformed life.  “After that,” Peter says, “then you should be baptized in the name of Jesus so that your sins can be washed away and receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.”  That’s it.  Repent and be baptized.  Eventually, this two fold action of repentance and baptism was made symbolic in the baptismal liturgy itself.  Immediately before being immersed, the new Christians would face west, the direction of the sunset and gathering darkness, and be asked three times to renounce Satan and the forces of evil.  They would then turn to face east, the direction of the sun rise and the return of the light of the world, and three times would proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ.  To this day, the liturgy for Holy Baptism mirrors that ancient rite, which makes today is a perfect day for a baptism.

Our newest Christian is Christopher James Chaffin [who will be baptized at 10 o’clock this morning]. He isn’t even two months old yet, but I’d be willing to bet that he has already heard the Good News that God loves him more times than we can count.  He’s experienced the love of God through the care of his parents, Justin and Jamie, and his siblings Meredith and Benjamin, his extended family, and the people of Christ Church.  In a few minutes, [it’ll happen at the later service, but you still have a part in this] we will join with his parents and Godparents in promising that we will do all in our power to support Christopher in his life in Christ.  We, the people of Christ Church, on behalf of all Christians, will promise to make sure Christopher knows that God loves him both in word and action.

There isn’t much that a less than two-month old baby gets to decide on his own.  His days are basically made up of automatic bodily functions and being carried from one place to another.  He is not in need of repentance… yet.  Likewise, there isn’t much sin that needs to be washed away from Christopher… yet.  But it will come.  When Christopher does begin trying to walk in his own path, it’ll be his family: nuclear, extended, and church that will be here to remind him of the right pathway to God.

What will come true today is the final promise of Peter to the crowd gathered to hear that Pentecost sermon.  Christopher James Chaffin will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit this morning.  The Spirit will work alongside the rest of us to remind him of God’s unending love.  The Spirit will convict him when he begins to stray the wrong way.  The Spirit will help him to repent by making right choices and walking toward God’s love.  And the Spirit will do the work of fulfilling our prayer for Christopher this day, that he might be given “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.”

Some of us are blessed to remember the first time we heard the Good News that God loves us, but for many of us, that news has been a part of our lives since before we ever existed.  Christopher Chaffin is blessed in knowing God’s love every day of his life, and we are blessed to be a part of sharing that love with him.  He won’t always do the right thing.  God’s redemption story will be just as true for him as it is for me and you, but in the end, the only truth that really matters is that God loves him, God loves you, and God wants to be in perfect relationship with all of us.  So, repent, remember your baptism, receive the forgiveness of sins, and lean into the gift of the Spirit for discernment, courage, love, joy, and wonder.  Amen.

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In remembrance of me

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There are a lot of ways to understand what is happening in the Eucharist.  Transubstantiation, Transignification, Real Presence, Memorialism, Receptionism, and the list goes on.  This theological murkiness has occurred, in part, because Jesus wasn’t all that specific in what he meant when he said, “this is my body,” “this is my blood,” and “do this in remembrance of me.”  Depending on one’s tradition, one or more of these phrases (or even the words within them) can be given undue influence.

In our Gospel lesson for Sunday, as well as the Collect for Easter 3, we are put to mind that, for Luke, the common meal of Christians, commonly called the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, and the Great Thanksgiving, among other options, is about anamnesis: the remembering of an event based on past experience.  Cleopas and the unnamed disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread because four days earlier, they had seen him do the exact same thing.  Not that blessing and breaking bread was uncommon in 1st century Jewish life, but that this blessing, this breaking, was different.  It was the blessing of their Rabbi, now their risen Lord, who had commanded them to break bread and share the cup in remembrance of him.

Two thousand years removed from that first Last Supper, we who are people of broken bread don’t have the recollection of the past event to draw on for ourselves.  What we do have, however, is the unbroken history of bread being broken from a Thursday evening in first century Jerusalem all the way up to today.  Our remembrance, our anamnesis, is based on the shared experience of generations of believers.  We remember because we have been told the story by those who have been told the story… by those who lived the story.  When we pray that our eyes might be open, we are asking God to tap us into the ongoing unveiling of the story, that we might take our place in remembering and sharing the good news of the risen Lord.

The Breaking of the Bread – a homily

It is Parish Picnic Sunday, so this week’s sermon is short, sweet, and hopefully not too boring for the children who won’t be going off to Follow the Word.  I’m fighting a backup voice recorder, so audio may or may not be available.

I love bread!  How many of you love bread?  Almost everybody loves bread.  Having gotten to know some celiac and gluten intolerant folks, I’ve come to realize that even if you are gluten-free, one of the main goals in life is to find a decent loaf of bread.  Really, since the beginning of human existence, some form of bread has been one of the basic building blocks of life.  “Bread represents the life of the community; various members contribute their time and effort to grow, harvest, grind, and cook in order to provide bread for the people.”[1] People eat bread in many different ways: flatbreads, bagels, loaves, crackers, biscuits, rolls, and even hushpuppies; and it can be made from all sorts of ingredients: corn, wheat, barley, rice, cassava root, even potatoes.[2]  Of course, it is bread made from wheat flour that we are most familiar with.

Bread was very important to Jesus as well.  When Jesus was out in the dessert and didn’t eat for 40 days and 40 nights, it was bread that the devil used to tempt him.[3]  Jesus used bread as an example in his teachings.[4]  When his disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray he told them to ask God, “give us this day our daily bread.”[5]  What I find most interesting, however, is how Jesus used bread in his ministry.  First, there is the story of the time Jesus and his friends were out in the middle of nowhere teaching to a crowd of more than five-thousand people.  It came time for supper and everyone was hungry, but all they could find was five loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus took that little bit, asked God to bless it, broke the bread into pieces, and told his disciples to share it with the people.  They ate and ate until everyone was full and then collected twelve baskets of leftovers.[6]  Every Sunday, we remember the night that Jesus was at dinner with his friends when he took the loaf of bread from the center of the table, gave thanks to God for it, and then broke it and gave it to his disciples.[7]  And then there’s the story you just heard me read.  It was evening on the first Easter Day when Jesus met up with some friends on the way to a town called Emmaus.  They didn’t recognize him because they weren’t expecting to see Jesus, but when they sat down to eat, he took the loaf of bread, blessed it, broke it into pieces and as he gave it to them, they realized who he was.[8]  The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

According to the Book of Common Prayer, one of my main jobs as a priest is to “celebrate the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood,” which is a fancy way of saying that I am a bread breaker.[9]  Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Father Keith or I recall for us all those moments of sharing when Jesus took the bread, gave thanks and asked God to bless it, broke the bread, and shared it with his friends.  Like Cleopas and his companion, I see Jesus every time the bread gets broken.  As I look out at the congregation, I see Jesus in the eyes of the faithful gathered in worship.  I see Jesus in the wide eyed smiles of children with arms outstretched at the altar rail.  I see Jesus in the withered hands of an aging great-great-grandmother.  Of course, I see Jesus in a lot of other places as well.  Just this week, I saw him in Joseph, the Red Cross employee, who was handing out Waffle House biscuit sandwiches to those who had been displaced by rising water.  I saw Jesus in the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Deputies who were taking a moment amid the busyness of the flood to break bread over lunch.  I saw Jesus in the outpouring of care that neighbors have given each other in the aftermath of all that rain.  I’ve seen Jesus all over the place this week: in helpers and those in need; in the mundane and the profound; and often in moments of broken bread.

[10:30 ONLY In just a minute, we are going to renew our baptismal vows and Father Keith will ask you if you’ll continue in the breaking of the bread and if you’ll seek and serve Christ in all persons.  To me, they might as well be the same question.  When we break bread, whether it is at church, in the cafeteria, or at home, with God’s help, we see Jesus in the faces of our companions.]

I love bread.  I love it in biscuits, loaves and rolls; ciabatta or pretzel; plain or toasted; I even secretly love those ridiculous wafers we call “Eucharistic Bread.”  I love breaking bread: be it at my dinner table or standing at the altar. I love the power of bread to bring people together.  Even our word “companion,” someone we spend time with, comes from the Latin for one with whom we break bread.  Bread creates community, even in the depths of sadness, and especially when we follow the example of Jesus by taking, blessing, breaking, and most importantly sharing it with those around us.  And so, on this Parish Picnic Sunday, our prayer is simple “be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.”  Amen.

 

[1] Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 289

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_breads

[3] Luke 4:3

[4] Luke 6:4, 7:33, 11:5, 14:15, and 15:17

[5] Luke 11:3

[6] Luke 9:13-17

[7] Luke 22:19

[8] Luke 24:13-35

[9] BCP, 531

Take, Bless, Break, Give

I once read somewhere that the average college degree is out-dated in about seven years.  I’m thinking my MDiv was probably useless before the ink was dry on the Dean’s signature.  Scholarship is constantly changing, even in disciplines thought to be arcane like Koine Greek, theology, or liturgics.  One of the required readings for my discernment process was a book by the late Reverend Canon Leonel Mitchell called “Praying Shapes Believing.”  Mitchell was one of the leading voices in shaping the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer and he published his theological commentary in 1985.  Not only was this book required reading, but his use of Dom Gregory Dix’s Four-Fold Shape of the Eucharist was the driving organization force in our process of discernment.  By now, Dix’s four-fold shape has come under scrutiny, some might even say they are out-dated, but the action of Taking, Blessing, Breaking, Giving continue to be central to my identity as a priest and liturgist even today.

While there is now plenty of historical evidence that suggests there was no standard form for celebrating the Eucharist in the ancient church, those four actions Dix found weren’t made up out of thin air.  First and foremost, we find them in the actions of Jesus in scripture.  They all appear in one sentence in the Road to Emmaus story appointed for Sunday.  “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”   No manual actions, no words of institution, not even any wine, just the four-fold action of Jesus and a loaf of brown barley bread, and in an instant, Cleopas and his companion knew that Jesus was sitting before them for he had done the exact same thing in the Feeding of the 5000 (Luke 9:16).

As you can probably tell, I’ve been on a bread kick this week.  It is partly because I love bread: biscuits, loaves and rolls; ciabatta or pretzel; plain or toasted and made especially delicious thanks to the Maillard effect; even those ridiculous wafers we call “Eucharistic Bread.”  Also, and more importantly, because of the power of bread to bring people together.  As I noted earlier this week, a companion is literally one with whom we break bread.  Bread creates community, even in the depths of sadness, especially when we follow the example of Jesus by taking, blessing, breaking, and most importantly giving: sharing with those around us.

Where do you see Jesus?

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work…” (Collect for Easter 3)

I’ve never been a fan of Fraction Anthems.  Well, that’s not true, I’ve never been a fan of music at the Fraction when congregational singing is expected.  The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer make it clear that the moment of fraction is meant to be contemplated, silence is mandated, and I’ve never understood why we would send people diving for hymnals and flipping through obscure service music to find a setting that few people can sing anyway.  True Fraction Anthems, that is, music sung by a Cantor or the Choir, I’m OK with.  Or, as is the case at our 9:00 service, a conglomeration of the two, where a Cantor sings the verses and the congregation echos a refrain, I’m OK with that too.  That refrain finds its home in this week’s Gospel lesson and Collect:

“The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread.”

As a priest, one of my main duties to to faithfully administer the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  In the moment of the Fraction, I see Jesus.  I see Jesus in the eyes of the faithful gathered in worship.  I see Jesus in the wide eyed smile of the 14 month old child.  I see Jesus in the withered hands of an aging great-great-grandmother.   I see Jesus in the exasperated parents whose child just won’t sit still.  Of course, I see Jesus in a lot of other places as well.  Just today I saw him in the Red Cross employee doing his best on no sleep to serve those who had been rescued by first responders or fled the rising water on their own.

Fish River residents are brought in by boat as Fish River crested to near record levels on Wednesday, April 30, 2014, in south Baldwin County, Ala. (Marc D. Anderson/manderson@al.com)

I saw Jesus in the poor (in every sense of the word) couple I drove back to their trailer down at the end of Meth Avenue.  I saw Jesus in the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Deputies who were taking a moment amid the busyness of the last 24 hours to grab a bite of lunch.  I saw Jesus in my parent’s who though they got very little sleep last night, came to watch FBC and SBC so I could get to the office and start making calls.  I’ve seen Jesus all over the place today: in helpers and those in need; in the mundane and the profound.  But nowhere was he more present then in the breaking of the bread at the noon Eucharist today.

Where have you seen Jesus today?

Breaking Bread

Despite the recent trend away from products containing gluten, bread has for centuries been one of the most important food commodities around the globe.  Be it Baguette, Matzah, Cornbread, or Nan just about every region of the world has a grain and water based staple that provides calories and carbohydrates for the hard working lower class.  In times of high cotton in America, workers have been said to “bring home the bacon,” but the reality is most of us are doing well to “keep bread on the table.”  It is no wonder then that Jesus’ encounter with Cleopas and his companion (literally, one with whom you break bread) is so intriguing.

Sure, it is a story full of nuance and questions.  Why don’t he disciples recognize Jesus?  Why does he pretend to continue down the road?  What were the disciples thinking as their hearts were strangely warmed?  To my mind, however, the most important action in the story is their sitting down to break bread together.  In the depths of their despair, the disciples offered hospitality to the stranger in their midst, invited him to spend the night, and shared a meal with him.  How many of us would do the same?

There is, I think, a discipleship lesson in the Emmaus Road story.  Followers of Jesus eventually realize the holiness of the mundane.  Breaking bread is something we do whether in joy, as in the Eucharistic Feast, or in sadness, as in the traditional funeral reception.  We take time in the midst of the highs, lows, and in-betweens of life to share a meal and remember the good things God has given us.  Sometimes it is strictly ceremonial, sometimes its therapeutic pimento cheese, and sometimes it is a feast of rich foods and well aged wines, but breaking bread is something we do, no matter what.

For the record, I hate pimento cheese, so please don’t see this as an invitation to bring some by my office. Thanks!

What should we do?

I grew up in one of the few remaining strongholds of the Anabaptist faith tradition.  From the Greek meaning “to re-baptize,” the name Anabaptist was a pejorative used by their opponents to highlight what was deemed the heretical nature of their baptismal theology.  Not unlike our conservative evangelical brothers and sisters, for the Anabaptist, if baptism is to be considered genuine, it must be coupled with an adult profession of faith.  The Anabaptists took this to the extreme, re-baptizing those who had been baptized as infants.  Of course, they don’t see it as re-baptism, since the first washing couldn’t have been a baptism because it lacked an adult confession.  It’s complicated.

Anyway, not too long ago someone who was baptized after the age of reason, but now as an adult is realizing that the faith of their youth has long since been stagnant, asked if one could be baptized more than once.  Of course, the answer is no, we believe in “one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all,” but as I re-read the end of Peter’s great sermon in Acts 2, I realized what my friend was really asking is, “brother, what should I do?”

The life of faith is lived minute but minute, one decision at a time.  We often fall short of the ideal, that is to say, we’re all sinners, and there are moments when the depth of our sinfulness becomes a weight too heavy to bear.  What should we do?

Peter tells the crowd to “Repent and be baptized.”  Those of us who have already been washed clean in the waters of baptism, don’t have that choice, but we certainly can “Repent and recall or renew our baptisms.”  Since we didn’t do the Easter Vigil, it has been a while since the Saint Paul’s community has had a chance to renew our baptismal vows, and since we’ve got this great moment from Acts as our first lesson on Sunday, since we’ll be at one of our favorite baptismal spots, on the shores of Week’s Bay

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it seems like a perfect opportunity to remember our own commitments, to renew our vows, and to decide yet again to live for the Kingdom of God.

The Renewal of Baptismal Vows

Celebrant  Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and
renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?
People      I do.

Celebrant  Do you believe in God the Father?
People        I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

Celebrant  Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People        I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Celebrant  Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
People        I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Celebrant  Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
prayers?
People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?
People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving 

               your neighbor as yourself?
People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you strive for justice and peace among all people,
and respect the dignity of every human being?
People        I will, with God’s help.

The Celebrant concludes the Renewal of Vows as follows

May Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who
has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and
bestowed upon us the forgiveness of sins, keep us in eternal
life by his grace, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.