Suppression of the Truth, Right-wising, and the Eucharist
I need to begin this sermon with confession. I stand before you today and bring the words that are about to follow, in part, to fulfill a class assignment for a course on the Sacraments that was part of my first intensive set of seminars at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois this past January, where I began my Doctor of Ministry in the pastoral counseling track. But that’s not all I need to confess. Having offered to preach in part to fulfill that assignment, I find that I come to this task with an agenda that seems too big for one sermon. For not only do I want to preach about the Eucharist, but I want to publicly affirm the importance of this faith community to my own faith and life journey, and to share at least the broadest strokes of a new interpretation of Paul’s task, context, and theological message in Romans — an interpretation of Romans that I was also exposed to at Garrett in January, in a course taught by Bob Jewett.
I have felt led to wrestle with the task of interweaving this three-fold agenda into a coherent whole But I am sure I will need your indulgence, then your clarifying questions, and finally your feed-back before I can discern whether I have in fact made sense.
I am comforted by the fact that we will celebrate communion as the pinnacle of our service — and that the communion celebration itself will be a more effective proclamation of the mystery of God’s self-giving love through Christ than any interpretation I might offer. I am also grateful to the Celebration Circle Mission Group for agreeing to offer consecutive Sunday worship experiences that include communion this month during Lent.
The only other time I have preached here in this refreshingly open and gifted pulpit was by invitation of Celebration Circle two years ago, during Epiphany, on Transfiguration Sunday. It seemed natural then to share the story of a transfiguring event in the lives of Carol Ann and myself, the birth of Nathaniel on the previous Thanksgiving Day morning — an event that was greatly facilitated by phone in the pre-dawn hours of that morning by the advice of then mid-wife-in-training Shauna Leinbeck. It also seemed natural then to share the Washington Post Metro section story of a baby girl born to homeless parents that January, and from there to assert the theological and moral imperative of universal health care access in the U.S.
It is more difficult for me stand before you at my initiative, and to begin to claim the importance of this faith community in my own life. I began to be nourished here in 1990, my first contact being a public policy retreat at Wellspring in early February of that year. I will spare you the details today, but several experiences have been timely and highly significant ones for me. Among those was David Lloyd’s Christian Doctrine class offered in Seekers School of Christian Living in the fall of 1990; David’s class gave Carol Ann and I the opportunity to explore our respective Catholic and Protestant perspectives on Christian faith as we were exploring our own relationship; for me a silent weekend retreat at Dayspring in the spring of 1991 helped confirm my decision to propose to Carol Ann. Another “SCL” course in Christian Growth/New Testament taught by Caroline Brock that same spring encouraged a deepened connection with Seekers for me; I began exploring with the Public Policy Mission Group that summer and joined them as I began what turned into two years as an interim pastor with a small Disciples of Christ congregation in McLean.
As this week I follow Emily Gilbert’s sermon last Sunday sharing her public policy work and call, I want especially to note how that recently disbanded mission group nourished both my connection with Seekers and my vocational journey until the spring of 1994, when I left the PPMG in order to do justice: to my commitments as a father and husband; to work for the Interreligious Health Care Access Campaign; and to my pastoral psychotherapy training and internship. I am also aware that several silent retreats and a number of relationships here have been pivotal for me. For now I want to acknowledge that the prayer of blessing Kay Shultz led for Nathaniel in Carol Ann’s womb at the Fall 1993 Silent Retreat is a memory we cherish, and that Rachel and Diane preceding us in parenthood by 5 months and nurturing us along in our own journey into it has been a real gift to us. Most recently, it has been truly enriching to be back as regular participants in Sunday Worship after I finished my last interim pastorate at Ft. Washington Christian Church this past summer.
Our theme this year in Lent is entering Mystery through Darkness. That theme fits well with both today’s lectionary selection from Romans, and the contextual interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Romans that Dr. Jewett says has been crystallizing for him in the past several years.1 As I said, I want to share the broad strokes of that interpretation as a way into not only today’s text from Romans, but to highlight meanings of the Gospel that the Lord’s Supper also proclaims.
Firstly, Dr. Jewett and others have asserted for several years that Paul’s Roman letter was written primarily for the purpose of proposing a jointly sponsored mission to Spain (15:23-24) from the splintered Roman house and tenement churches. As such, this letter was not intended to provide doctrinal guidance for the ages, but rather is an ambassadorial letter by an outsider who wants to unite divided factions on behalf of a common mission objective.2
Secondly — and what is the newest and most intriguing aspect to me of Dr. Jewett’s reading — recent insights from cultural anthropology suggest that the ancient Mediterranean world in which Paul and the early Christians are situated is pervasively marked by competitive systems of shame and honor. As cited by Dr. Jewett, Bruce Malina describes the dynamics of this “agonistic” culture, where honor is defined as ‘the value of a person in his or her own eyes…plus that person’s value in the eyes of his or her social group. Honor is a claim to worth along with social acknowledgment of that worth.’ In this competitive culture, honor was gained by excelling over others in a social interaction dubbed by Malina as “challenge and response.” Such competition occurred only within persons of the same class, since superiority over those of lower status was assumed and did not have to be proven. In this setting, the goal of a challenge in various arenas of power or influence, was to ‘usurp the reputation of another [or] to deprive another of his reputation. When the person challenged cannot or does not respond to the challenge posed by his equal, he loses reputation in the eyes of the public…every social interaction that takes place outside one’s family or outside one’s circle of friends is perceived as a challenge to honor, a mutual attempt to acquire honor from one’s social equal..’ Persons from this culture would have had a ‘dyadic personality,’ in which they understood themselves as defined by their family and cultural group. 3
The implications of this honor-shame cultural understanding both for reading Romans and understanding the revolutionary power of the Gospel in its first century context are startling. It highlights Paul’s understanding that the Gospel relativizes all socially defined group barriers and honor/shame categories, and emphasizes the Gospel mystery that a shameful execution is the means God has chosen in order to reveal Godself and redeem humans and creation from bondage to sin. Hence, “the theological center of Romans” is its “thesis statement,” set forth in 1: 16-17.4 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is right-wised (righteous) will live by faith.'” 5
The third brush stroke or theme of Dr. Jewett’s lectures I want to share is Paul’s understanding of sin. This is succinctly expressed in the verse (1:18) which follows the two I have just quoted. Namely, Paul understands the essence of human sin to be the suppression of the truth, in both the public and personal spheres, for the sake of honor. Writing to Roman congregations that are beginning to compete amongst themselves for honor in a Roman culture that epitomizes the “agonistic” honor/shame system just described, Dr. Jewett asserts that Paul “never forgets his evangelical starting point: that Rome crucified Christ, and therefore that the distortion of its system of honor and shame was exposed for all to see.”6
Today’s reading from Romans represents a bridge between Paul’s initial thesis statement and a second major section of Romans, ending in Chapter 8. It elaborates this idea that we are right-wised or set right with God by accepting the free gift of God’s love for us in Christ. By acceptance of this gift or grace through faith/trust, we know ourselves to be loved by and reconciled to God — and by implication to the community of those who also accept this gift of grace.. The “boasting” that we do then is no longer designed to shame another in order to suppress the truth about ourselves, and gain “honor”, or to deny our finitude and the distinction between ourselves and God. We are instead to “boast”/rejoice in our hope, hope that we know through Christ and the community of faith. We do this in the midst of the suffering that this still distorted and fallen world imposes on those who would be faithful to God’s radically inclusive and reconciled/peace-full vision for humanity and creation. Christians are not shamed by such suffering, despite the larger culture’s perspective on it.
Sin as the suppression of the truth about ourselves and others is a fascinating topic for the season of Lent into which I will resist the temptation to digress for more than a few minutes. But Brenda Seat’s children’s sermon this morning certainly captured well the personal dynamics of the suppression of the truth. And before this congregation and Pat Conover I wanted to say that his recent pre-Lenten sermon claiming the anger and alienation he feels with respect to the systemic economic and racial distortions of social reality in this country along with his acknowledgment of complicity in them and his challenge to this congregation felt like Lenten truth work that I needed to hear and work with. So did Diane Wilken’s Feb. 4 sermon inviting us to push through the grays come beyond seeing only the black or white to claim the color a loving God would have us enjoy for our lives. Which leads me to Mary Hunt’s sermon the following and final Sunday of Epiphany, for along with her, I would also say that we live in a culture which is badly in need of prophets who are willing to name the truths about ourselves and others that a misplaced cultural competition for honor suppresses. And I can’t leave this topic without acknowledging the way in which Cynthia Dahlin’s sermon on the first Sunday of Lent modeled a ministry of being with and empowering persons struggling with the universal truths of loss and death which are so often suppressed in our success-oriented, death-denying culture.
But I imagine you may be wondering by now what all this has to do with communion? Dr. Jewett provides a helpful bridge in his Romans lecture on the centrality of the sacramental love feast to the early house and tenement churches that were the form the early Christian communities likely took.7 The idea that there were tenement churches in addition to the traditional concept of “house churches” is one that Dr. Jewett has recently put forward, based on evidence that the early Christians would have likely been 80 to 90 percent comprised of the poorest classes of society, and would not always have had access to a patron who could offer a free-standing house church headquarters for a local church.8
At any rate, it seems clear that the earliest Christian communities, even through the fourth century, celebrated the Eucharist in the context of a common meal — that the “eucharistic liturgy was combined with diaconal service, [which was] understood as serving meals in celebration with the faith community.”9 So, despite the fact that “researchers have often attempted to separate the sacramental celebration from the common meal,” the early Christian communities were apparently organized around a ‘single Christian sacrament of table fellowship,’ the agape love feast.10 It is Dr. Jewett’s contention that the last three chapters (beginning with 13:10) of Romans, and their exhortations to the Roman Christians to greet one another deal with a critical sacramental issue: “who is welcome to take part in the breaking of bread and drinking of the cup? Paul’s answer is ‘every Christian, whether Jew or Gentile, conservative or liberal.” Paul’s concern is that the sacramental love feast be retained as the arena in which the boundaries of shameful status are overcome and commonality in Christ recognized, not only for the integrity of the gospel but also so that support for the Spanish mission can be realized. 11
In this understanding, the original setting of the agape love feast as an extension of corporate worship incarnated the love commandment, and enabled the community to celebrate the reality of the presence of Christ among them through the power of the Holy Spirit. It allowed the community to experience their oneness in Christ, and actually served as a means of feeding all of them abundantly — concretely redistributing their usually quite-limited resources in the form of food. Dr. Jewett believes that the love feast was clearly used evangelisticly, that it would have been offered prior to commitment and baptism as an experience in which the presence of Christ could be made known to the unconverted guest.12 It was only later that the separation of a real meal from the liturgical enactment of Christ’s last supper took place. It was much later still that the Reformation controversies over the interpretation of the Eucharist and the manner in which Christ was really present or not continued a legacy of doctrinal division, dispute, and persecution over the different ways in which the Lord’s Supper was to be understood and observed.
My charge from Dr. Stein’s class in Sacraments for this sermon is to make a clear statement about how Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper. We did a lot of reading on the subject for our D. Min. class, and I found myself reviewing a lot of it in preparation for this sermon. But yesterday I asked a counselee of mine what he thought — he is a mentally retarded adult man in his thirties whom I know to be a committed Christian, and with whom I have worked with for about 6 mos. He gave me permission to share his answer with you today. Which is that Christ is present in the bread and wine/juice, which are served as symbols of his body and bread. Christ is also present in communion because it is his table to which we are invited, and because Christ’s Spirit dwells in each of us. Whenever we take communion, according to my client, we are Jesus’ guests, and he is the host, spiritually present through the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t see him. Further, he added, communion is an opportunity for us to be strengthened, so that we can live out our commitment to Christ. My client had given the invitation to communion at the end of a three day retreat experience which focused on this topic, and he also shared that with me, as he still remembered it by heart: “We are all called and invited to share in a banquet prepared in Christ’s honor, at which Jesus is the guest of honor.”
I don’t think I have any more to add to what this young man told me yesterday, except to speak of how meaningful it was to witness my son’s first, pre-baptismal communion here last fall. I grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where we had communion weekly, and practiced believer’s baptism. In the congregations in which I grew up unbaptized children were not allowed to partake of communion. I had little awareness of this as an issue for me until someone came to retrieve me from the nursery the first Sunday in November for communion, and Nathaniel asked me to take him with me, which I did. In a moment it became clear to me that I would not deny him communion, which he had begun taking an interest in as soon as we joined the circle. Carol Ann decided to provide him with some quick and concisely worded catechesis, something to the effect that this is communion, and we do it to remember Jesus. At which point he clearly and slowly repeated the word, communion. And then had his first.
I appreciate that in this inclusive Christian faith community, where some practice infant baptism and others do not, that no one took me to task or shamed me for serving communion to an unbaptized toddler. For the truth about God’s self-giving, whether expressed in the “dominical sacraments” of baptism and eucharist, or in any other of a wide variety of ways, is that it does not depend upon the truth about us — we are only called upon, out of gratitude for the right-wising experience of that self-giving love, to confront, confess and even rejoice in the truth about ourselves, that God might might dwell more strongly on earth, as in heaven. Partaking in the eucharistic sacrament is good practice and sustenance for this larger project. May that be true for each one of us today. Amen.
1Robert Jewett, Introduction: Paul’s Cross-Cultural Mission to Advance Global Pacification by Transforming Systems of Honor and Shame.” (Romans 1:1-17; 14:1-16:23). 1/10/96 Lecture, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, D. Min. Plenary Sessions on “Romans in a Cross-Cultural Setting,” p. 1.