The Central Mystery
February 26, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Those among you with extreme type “A” personalities might, at this point, be a little confused. We just read and meditated upon the core communion passage, yet we are not having communion. Additionally, the front of the bulletin identifies today as Transfiguration Sunday – yet we have not read or even referenced the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. We’ll get to the Transfiguration in a bit; but first a return to that which Paul received from the Lord and also passed onto us …
Starting next week and continuing through Lent, we’re going to be celebrating communion weekly. This decision, ratified by the Session, goes back to an experience I had in January as I was serving communion. I was, honestly, going through the liturgy on autopilot while my brain struggled with the Congregational Assessment Survey’s finding that many in our congregation felt disconnected from their neighbor in their pew. Then I recalled how many of my friends who’d experienced conflict and hurt in their congregations had found new spiritual homes in congregations focused more on sacrament than doctrine. At the table of Jesus Christ they found a unity based on grace, not belief; on our common identity as invited guests of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. A few weeks later I shared this experience with the Session. Together we decided to make Communion our central spiritual practice for Lent.
In adopting this practice for Lent, we are not sending up a trial balloon with the thought of making weekly communion a regular practice – but I’ll freely admit that many of the practices we’ve added to our worship over the last few years – from circles to silence – were never meant to be permanent. They proved transformative, so they stayed. The elders also fully understand that in adopting weekly communion for Lent, we are moving far from Presbyterian tradition. While the official rules for Presbyterian worship – yes there are such a thing – state “it is appropriate to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as often as each Lord’s Day,” many of us remember when communion was celebrated quarterly or even annually.
So why make communion a core part of our worship for six straight weeks? What makes the sacrament the spiritual practice most benefiting to our congregation at this time? That brings us to the Transfiguration.
“Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John – his leadership team if you will – and led them up on a high mountain, by themselves. And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. While Peter was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him. When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus, himself alone.”
Scripture never says which mountain Jesus ascended with his disciples, but tradition holds that they ascended Mount Tabor, the summit of which may have been a sacred site from the most ancient of times, the type of place known in Celtic spirituality as a thin spot or thin space.
Thin spots or spaces are where the mystical, the magical, the spiritual happens, They are where we experience heaven and earth collapsing into one, where the power of the Holy Spirit can be viscerally felt, where the presence of God is real. On Mount Tabor, Peter, James and John were still standing on earth, but they were also standing in heaven. They saw Jesus for who he was and heard the voice of God claiming Christ as his own. Our world abounds with thin spots. Some are geographical. Sinai was a place of worship long before Moses saw a burning bush and was told by God to take off his shoes. David removed ancient shrines from Jerusalem before building his temple to God. Others are personal – for me it can be the beach at night, or my garden. We can also create thin space through liturgy, through meditation, through music. And for Christians one of the most powerful thin spaces occurs when bread is broken, when a cup is shared.
In the days following the resurrection, the disciples meet a stranger while traveling along the road to Emmaus. As they reach their destination, they invite him to dinner. During the meal, he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and shares it with them. In that moment heaven and earth collapse. A thin space forms. The disciples eyes are opened and they recognized the risen Lord. Millennia later little has changed. Christians continue to bless and break bread. They continue to share the cup. Heaven and earth continue to collapse. In the thin space, we continue to meet our risen Lord.
No one knows why communion works. Thin spaces always remain clouded in mystery. What makes Stonehenge sacred? What has led the generations to pray and fight so fervently for Jerusalem? While theologians have tried to untangle the sacrament, to describe what happens and why, scripture gifts us with a practice, not an explanation, a practice received from the Lord and passed from generation to generation to be experienced again and again as if for the very first time.
I’ve celebrated communion in churches and hospital rooms, camp sites and class rooms. I’ve used every type of table imaginable – from a lap to elegant furniture like graces our sanctuary. I’ve used wine and grape juice, even cranberry juice. I’ve used shortbread, artisan bread, unleavened bread, pita bread, Wonder bread and communion wafers whose closest siblings must be styrofoam. I’ve celebrated according to denominational standards and I’ve celebrated in ways that broke all the rules. I’ve spoken or heard elaborate liturgies and very simple prayers. I’ve celebrated when I’ve been spiritually locked in and spiritually lost. It doesn’t matter. In the mystery, Christ resides. Heaven bends down. We ascend. We meet our risen Lord and in him become one – Christ’s body healed, equipped, renewed, called.
During my first year of college, during a time when I was both lost and searching, some friends invited me to go with them to church. They had a car. I needed to get off campus. The invitation included lunch. The church was several towns over, nestled in the hills right off the interstate. The building was modeled after a ski chalet and designed to feel like a house. I’d never heard of the denomination and don’t remember what it was – but things were very informal. So informal it wasn’t clear who the minister was, so informal they served the juice in bathroom cups carried on trays from Walmart. I’d spent the service lost, alone, unsure. Songs, scriptures, sermons passing over me, bouncing off my shell, leaving no impression. Yet as bread was broken, as servers passed around paper cups of juice on cheap Walmart trays, my eyes were opened and I recognized Christ. I was transported into the mystery. I experienced the embrace of the risen Lord.
On the night he was betrayed, our savior gave us a gift. A gift whose deep mystical powers heal, renew and unite unlike any other. As we enter Lent next week, we’re going to place that gift at the center of our worship, through it we’re going to seek Christ anew. Amen.