Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Water, Wine and Wafer

My mother-in-law's first husband was one of those men who went out to get a pack of cigarettes and never returned. She finally had to divorce him in absentia. Luckily that did not bother a young soldier who met her on a double date. They got along quite well and corresponded when he went to Alaska to monitor radar during the Second World War. He missed actually talking to her, though, and so wrote that when he was back in St. Louis, he would give her a ring. Unintentionally misinterpreting his promise--or not--she sent him her ring size. He got the hint and they were married.

But while he, a devout Roman Catholic, had no trouble with his wife's previous marriage, his church did. They would baptize their children and let them go to the parish school but having married a divorced woman, my father-in-law could not take Communion, even though he went to Mass regularly. In fact, until he took the wafer from me at my ordination, he had not had Communion for more than 50 years.

In the Episcopal Church, we have what's called "open communion." Our only requirement for partaking of the Eucharist is that one be a baptized Christian. Still some feel that is one requirement too many. Our sermon suggestion for this month asks, "what does being baptized have to do with coming to the communion table? Certainly, Christ wouldn't have had restrictions like that ritual?"

Baptism and the Lord's Supper are the earliest rituals of the church. They're called sacraments, outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. Churches may recognize other channels of God's grace but these 2 were actually practiced by Jesus and commended to his disciples. That makes these two special. Is that simply because they both came from the same man? Queen Victoria told Lewis Carroll she loved "Alice in Wonderland." She asked him to send her a copy of his next book. It is said, she received a copy of "An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, with their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equations" by Charles Dodgson, the author-mathematician's real name. Despite the fact they came from the same man, I bet Her Majesty was not amused.

To discover if the two sacraments are connected in any vital way, let's look at how they originated and what they mean.

Baptism goes way back before the New Testament. Ritual baths were prescribed for those who were considered unclean. It offered a way that such a person could rejoin the community. Also, Aaron and his sons were ceremonially washed by Moses prior to their ordination. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest was to wash himself both before entering the Holy of Holies and after leaving. The physical cleansing was symbolic of spiritual cleansing.

Eventually, Gentile converts to Judaism were baptized as well as being circumcised and asked to make a sacrifice. At Qumran, the community of separatist Jews responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, they maintained ritual purity through daily baths accompanied by repentance. Against this backdrop, John the Baptist emerges offering baptism as a one-time sign of repentance and the cleansing of sin for all people, not just converts or the unclean.

Jesus comes to John to be baptized. John protests because his baptism is about repentance. But Jesus is adamant that he identify with the people he will be ministering to. So John baptizes Jesus, just as Jesus' first disciples were baptized by John. Later Jesus and his disciples baptize people. After his resurrection, when Jesus commissions his apostles to take his message to the world, he tells them to make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Baptism becomes the rite of entrance into the church, the community of those who are saved by Christ. To illustrate baptism, Peter uses the image of the great flood and how God saved Noah and his family through the ark. Paul compares it to the Red Sea, through which God led the Israelites, liberating them from slavery. He also compares it to circumcision, the rite of entrance into Israel, the people of God.

The most intriguing theological idea is that just as Jesus identified with sinful humanity by submitting to baptism, so by being baptized in his name we identify with Christ. Bearing in mind that in the first century baptism generally meant total immersion, it is easy to see how Paul makes draws the parallel between baptism and Jesus' burial and resurrection. In baptism we are buried with Christ and rise with him to new life.

Whether or not Jesus' last supper was held on the first day of Passover, it is obvious that he modeled it on that feast. The centerpiece of this celebration of Israel's liberation was the paschal lamb. At the original meal, the lamb's body was eaten and its blood was smeared on the door frame of each Israelite's home so that the Angel of Death would pass over them. Also featured in the meal was bread made without leaven because the children of Israel would be leaving Egypt so fast there was no time to let it rise. Finally there were 4 cups of wine drunk at the Passover feast, the third of which was called the cup of blessing. The father or head of the family explained the significance of the elements of the meal. Jesus takes the bread and identifies it with his body, folding in together the idea of the lamb of God with the unleavened bread. The wine is combined with the shed blood of the lamb that saved those celebrating the meal. The covenant with Israel is superseded by a new covenant with the community of the Messiah.

But not only are those who eat the bread nourishing themselves on the Body of Christ, they are nourishing themselves as the Body of Christ. We are to embody the Spirit of Christ on this earth. So we are not just receiving his body; we are becoming it. And in doing so we are focusing on the most characteristic thing about our Incarnate God--his loving, self-sacrificial death for us. As Paul says in 1st Corinthians 11, the earliest written account of the meal, "for every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

The first Lord's Supper took place among Jesus' closest followers and friends. They were all baptized and the supper was meant to be a distinctive ritual binding his disciples to him and to each other. As in baptism, it was meant to identify the disciples with Jesus. It was a community-building activity.

When I was in the Society of Creative Anachronism, the medieval reenactment group, my persona was Brother Gillecriosd, a Cluniac monk at the time of William the Conqueror. No one else represented the religious side of the Middle Ages, which is rather like doing the American Revolution and neglecting to mention the role of democracy. I must have been convincing because one of the members of the group asked me if I would baptize her niece. I told her I just couldn't. Not only was I not clergy, baptism is not play-acting.

Nor is a rite of magical protection. It is the real incorporation of a person into the Body of Christ. If the person is old enough to understand, they are instructed so they can give assent to the questions asked of them. If the person is an infant, the parents and godparents vow to raise the child in the faith. Baptism is a sign of commitment to follow Jesus in the company of other faithful people.

And since Communion or the Eucharist is a rite of binding us to Christ and to each other as members of his body, baptism is a necessary prerequisite. To put it differently, you can't participate in a nation's civic life without becoming a citizen first. Baptism is a necessary part of becoming a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Communion, like voting, is reserved for citizens.

There are those who feel that this is being unnecessarily exclusive. In this time of declining church membership and attendance, there are parishes experimenting with giving baptism and communion to anyone who asks, without restriction. The problem with this is that, taken out of the context of a person being baptized into Christ or bound into the Body of Christ, the 2 rites lose a great deal of meaning. If I'm not particularly religious but want my child or myself baptized to cover all bases, that reduces the sacrament to a superstition. If I am doing it to please others, like parents or grandparents, but not acting out of faith, then I am engaging in hypocrisy. The same can be said of taking communion without faith or a basic understanding of why one does so.

And it's not going to mean much to those who respond to this "no-strings-attached" form of Christianity. I once had a card saying I was a member of the Pepsi Generation. It was a promotional giveaway handed out at some event. It didn't make me a Pepsi drinker and I never used it to get Pepsi merchandise. Because it cost me nothing, to me it meant nothing.

If there's one thing Jesus challenged people to do, it was to commit themselves to him. He wasn't interested in getting people's approval but their allegiance. He wanted people who would drop their nets, and anything else that would hinder them, deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow him. And if they couldn't be bothered to get their feet wet first…well, casual inquirers need not apply. Because he didn't want people to make the world nicer; he wanted them to make it new. And that takes commitment.

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