Sermon - 11 Pentecost
In the Name...
A Sunday school teacher was explaining Holy Communion to her class and observed that it was a joyful feast. “Joyful”, she said, “means ‘happy.’ And ‘feast’ means ‘meal.’” One little boy then said, “Well, if it’s a Happy Meal, why don’t we have a hamburger, fires and soft drink?”
In the liturgy of the Church of England, after the congregation has received communion, the celebrant addresses the congregation with the words we heard read this morning from Hebrews, "You have come to Mt. Zion, to the city of the living God, to innumerable angels in festal gathering, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant."
In one sense, this is a very strange thing to say to a typical Sunday congregation because we probably don't think our worship space resembles a topographical feature of the Middle East. But, the author of the letter to the Hebrews would say that we should because he was very concerned about what things meant, what things represented, and he's always drawing parallels between the Old and New Covenants. Something physical in the Old represents something spiritual in the New.
So, what, on earth, does "you have come to Mt. Zion" mean in heaven? Well, as the author of Hebrews would say, it means you have said good-bye to Mt. Sinai, the Old Covenant. For him, Mt Sinai represents the past - legalism, exclusion, and fear, while Mt. Zion represents the present and future - grace, inclusion, and joy.
When the old covenant was made at Mt. Sinai, the voice of God boomed out like thunder and the earth shook. Reading Exodus, one imagines a dark sky, tornado strength winds, and flashes of lightning. The glory of the Lord was so terrifying that people quaked in terror. His physical presence and voice would surely split the world with a loud cry.
And, when the new covenant was made, the physical presence and mighty voice of God indeed did let out an ear-splitting cry. But, the only people who heard it were a carpenter named Joseph, his wife Mary, and a few shepherds. It was the cry of a baby. Yes, the sky was dark, but, an otherwise silent night witnessed the miracle of the Incarnation, the union of divinity and flesh, God Himself among us.
The Old Testament shows us a God who is powerful enough to melt mountains like wax, divide seas, bring fire from heaven, and stop the sun in its course. The New Testament shows us that this same God also has the power to chat with Samaritan women, lay hands on lepers, and eat with tax collectors.
Not exactly Wagnerian, but, acts of power nonetheless. Funny how people reacted, though. The Prophets trembled before the God who led with a pillar of cloud and fire. The scribes and Pharisees weren't quite as impressed with the God who dared to lead by showing kindness and compassion.
Today's Gospel is a good example of the sort of thing Jesus said and did which infuriated so many. He heals a crippled woman on a day that had been declared off-limits for healing. You and I might find such an edict absurd, but, in those days, religion was all about rules and regulations. The idea was that the way to please God was by following a detailed check-list of do's and don'ts and not just about things we would call moral issues.
For example, the rabbis debated could a man open a window on the Sabbath or did opening a window make God angry? Again, we might find this a bizarre question but, that's what people worried about because they were conditioned to fear God. The God of the scribes and Pharisees was an angry God ready to destroy anybody who offended him in the slightest and the only way to avoid offending him was to do what the scribes and Pharisees said. Hmm. Does that attitude sound familiar? But, this is not the Gospel. This is not the Good News of God in Christ.
God has told us how he wants us to live. That said, he doesn't force us to. Rather, he asks us. He encourages us to follow his lead, to study his words and deeds and figure out the best way to imitate him. He didn't have to. He could have just hurled some thunderbolts around and said "listen up, or else". But, then we wouldn't be his people, we'd be his slaves, and that's not what he wanted.
That's what's so upsetting for a lot of people about the New Covenant. You can't impose it by force. Not even God could do that. All he could do was invite us. But, what an invitation. To share his life. This is what the New Covenant is about, not a life of rules but, a rule of life, of breathing the Holy Spirit in everything we say, think, and do, of being so at one with God that we, in the words of the historic liturgy, dwell in him and he in us.
And we can do this. We can do this especially because of something that happened one night on Mt. Zion, well, the Mt. Zion neighbourhood of Jerusalem to be exact. On a Thursday evening, in an upper room there, a Passover blessing of bread and wine was accompanied by new words, "This is my Body. This is my Blood. Do this in remembrance of me."
No command, before or since, has ever been obeyed so well. "This" has been done every day for twenty centuries among every race on every continent. "This" has been done for kings at their crowning and for murderers at their execution; for soldiers before battle and for couples exchanging wedding vows; for those setting out on journeys and for the souls of the faithful departed. And why? Because it is in "this", the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup, that we experience, as in no other way, the living presence of God in our lives, and that experience is what this New Covenant is all about.
Before great cathedrals were built, before great theology was thought, indeed, even before one word of the New Testament was written down, there was the breaking of bread, there was the Holy Eucharist. Yes, people can say holy prayers at home, they can read holy books and think holy thoughts, but, one thing they cannot do by themselves is experience the Holy Eucharist. It is the centre of our being as the Church, the people of God, the community of faith, because it, the Eucharist, is God and He is the centre of everything.
That's why it is so important for us to be focused on what is really important. Not, how do I avoid offending God, but, how can I be like Him? So, when you come to the altar today in this re-creation of the Upper Room, come desiring to be one with God in heart and mind and spirit. Come remembering that we are not alone here. We are indeed surrounded by innumerable angels, the assembly of the saints, and when we reach out our hands, we reach out to touch God as he appears, not this time in fire and cloud, but, in bread and wine. Subtle, but, powerful. We are privileged. We are blest. We are come to Mt. Zion.
In the Name...