Thursday, September 28, 2017

On Challenging Sacred Symbols in Church and Society: A Word for World Communion Sunday

When he bent down on his knees, he knew he was about to do something that challenged everything they knew. He was about to uncover a hard yet central truth to the movement he had inaugurated.
“You call me Teacher and Lord- and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to was one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you…” (John 13:13-15). 
The Gospel of John is the only of the four to tell this upper room story. The Gospel of John is also the only of the four not to include the Eucharist just before Jesus' arrest. 

This was no accident. It also was not unnoticed by the early church reading this rendition of the Jesus story in the latter portion of the first century. 

The gospel writer, in a bold, prophetic, and likely controversial move, replaced one of the more sacred symbols of the Christian movement with another ritual that would challenge the social norms and intra-community privileging that had begun to creep into the witness of the church. There is reason to believe,  see 1 Corinthians 11:17ff, that less than a generation after Jesus broke bread and shared the cup, calling his disciples to become the broken body and blood of Christ in and for the world, they constructed fences of elitism around the praxis. Was the table in danger of becoming a means to elevate status of persons within this grassroots community versus assurance that all had a place within God’s dreams for the reconciliation of all things?

John knew whenever a sacred symbol became more important than the fuller meaning to which it points, it was no longer a sacred symbol but an oppressive idol. The gospel writer knew that whenever a sacred symbol impeded upon our call to love and serve our most vulnerable neighbors, the sacred symbol must be challenged and deconstructed. This was less an affront to the symbol, in this case the Eucharist, and more a subversive attempt to rescue the holy from being misappropriated as an icon for a movement of exploitation, isolationism, and injustice. John aimed to draw the church into a fuller meaning of what it meant to participate in the mission of the Christ.

So John replaces the Eucharist with a foot washing and call to radical servitude, turning the servant into the very embodiment of Christ, and flipping social hierarchy upside-down. In essence, the beloved disciple added another layer of significance to the sacrament, whenever you eat the bread and drink the cup, remember this and do likewise.

It is important to note that the Eucharist is not necessarily absent from John’s gospel. If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, it shows up in another place. 
“Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’” (John 6:10-12).
Here we quite literally have the eucharist: when he had given thanks, or eucharist─ôsas, among the hungry crowds who would be satisfied by the one who was the very bread of life. The sacred symbol reframed until all are seated to be satisfied with the fuller meaning of God’s story incarnated in the person and work of Jesus then carried on by those who professed their allegiance to him and him alone. 

The church must remember, especially as conversations about flags, anthems, pledges, and national symbols swirl around us, there is nothing so sacred and worthy of human reverence that it is immune to being confronted and reformed. When any symbol or system it represents begins to stymie human flourishing, wholeness, and what the Scriptures call shalom, there is biblical warrant for subversion and a great cloud of witnesses to back the protest. This includes, as John reminds us, the Eucharistic table.*  After all, what makes a thing sacred and holy, in good reformed theological language, is when it points away from itself and towards God’s grace and dreams for justice, righteousness, and the reconciliation of the whole world. This redemptive grace is wrapped up in the person and work of of Jesus. 

In the midst of the pressing national and global realities that not all are free, treated equal, and valued as bearers of the very image of God, dare we heed the witness of Jesus and bend down in servitude until we can hear the cries for justice. May we ensure the movements that began as a confrontation against the killing of black lives by the hands of those sworn to protect are not reduced to generalized calls for unity by those who are privileged. May we not allow Twitter tirades by those in positions of power to distract us from the harsh realities that there are islands of U.S. Citizens and other global neighbors who go without electricity, food, water, or certainty about how to rebuild after Hurricane Maria. 

On this World Communion Sunday, may the Christian Church not allow flags to replace the table as our most sacred symbol of a unified allegiance that pushes us to link arms with the marginalized and broken until equity and justice are afforded to all. May we have the faithfulness to take a knee at the Table as a reminder of our call to always be on the side of those who are most vulnerable in our neighborhoods, cities, nations, islands, and larger world. The table, lest we forget, is what binds us together as the people of God, not any banner of one country. And when we do lapse in memory, may we turn to the pages of John’s Gospel as reminder of who is our Teacher and Lord and then go and do likewise. 

This is the message of the gospel. This is the witness of the church across every generation and geographical place. This is the fuller meaning of the sacred and the holy we find at Christ's table. 

Related Post: An Alternative Pledge of Allegiance

*In this year when we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this also includes the church as (oppressive) institution. Thanks Martin Luther!