The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

May 8, 2011

First Congregational Church

 

Leviticus 5:14-19

I Timothy 3:8-11 (revised)

I Corinthians 11:23-34

 

"Invitation to an Agape Love Feast"

One shouldn’t change the title of their sermon minutes before publication of the bulletin and then do it by telephone.  What I really wanted to do was invite you to an agape love FEAST, not a love FEST. We already did something a little different this morning through the blessing of our deacons using the traditional laying-on-of-hands ceremony similar to that usually reserved for the ordination of Ministers of the Word and Sacrament. Perhaps, a love fest would have made the occasion even more special but I would have had to request the blessing of the Board of Deacons first – and there just wasn’t time.

In preparing for this morning, it occurred to me that  as time went on the early church had to  develop all sorts of bylaws and other provisions for governance, not unlike some of the work this congregation has been doing this past year. The early Christians no doubt asked themselves, “How do we plan to make decisions as a group?   What kind of process are we going to use when we want to change the way we do things around here?”

“What is our worship time together going to look like?  What are we going to do, how are we going to do it, and why?”

Those were all questions we Congregationalists would take before a committee, often the Deacons, with the final say being the Congregation itself.  Back then, the decision-making process was simpler, summed up in two words, Ask Paul. The Apostle Paul worked tirelessly in the field of new church development and continuing education for the young, organizing pastors he left in various communities to shepherd the new little Christian flocks.

Two of the organizing pastors were Timothy and Titus and the means by which Paul conducted his continuing education efforts was The Letter.  The two Letters to Timothy, for instance, outline in great detail how Paul thought the new church organizations should be run.  Now, as it always seems to be, there is some difference of opinion as to whether or not the Apostle Paul actually wrote these letters or whether it was an unknown author (greatly influenced by Paul) who wrote during the early decades of the second century.  Whoever the author was, his primary purpose was to defend and transmit sound doctrine and to establish systems for the running of the church.

This author gives instructions for prayer at the beginning of the worship service which you will find very familiar.  Chapter 2 begins:

“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for all kinds and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness…. I want men everywhere to life up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.  I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes…”

He also gives guidelines for such things as Christian charity work, such as the care of widows – who must be over the age of 60 to be put on the list. 

I am bringing all this to your attention, because I think these things are VERY important.  Decisions regarding the ordering of the church and its worship are so important that, in the case of First Congregational, they fall under the purview of the Deacons.  It can be a job for which folks seldom get the thanks that they have earned.   When you read the letters to Timothy and Titus, however, I would suggest you not read them as a list of commandments from God, but rather as Paul’s best guess effort at one moment in time.

The letter to Timothy institutes a system of “overseers and deacons”. In some translations, the overseers are referred to as bishops. You may find some of the instructions given troublesome according to today’s values, but you will see that the church leaders were dealing with a wide array of concerns.  Our deacons and overseers would, perhaps, come up with different solutions to some of these problems, but interestingly, they are often dealing with the same questions.  Today, we offer special prayer for their guidance, enlightenment, and fortitude.

While operational decisions were being made, the theological foundation for the worship experience was developing, as well.  Let’s take a look at the place of partaking of food together during the worship service, for instance. I’m most particularly interested in the symbolic meaning of what we call the Lord’s Supper and how that understanding has developed and changed incorporating religious concepts from several competing sources.

 The Jewish way of worship almost always included special foods prepared in special ways, with special menus assigned to special observances.  Three-corner pastries called Haman’s hats are popular during purim, oversized, braided bread is baked to represent the rope used to hang Haman later.  Purim celebrates the time when the Jewish woman Esther saved her people by becoming the wife of King Ahasheurus and outwitting the evil Haman. 

Initially, it seems that the early Christians had a special place for food in their gatherings, as well. The worship gathering almost always included a potluck, in fact, the potluck or “agape, love feast” was the worship service –serving as a social action program, as well.  The program provided both religious fellowship as well as charity for the poor and the widows of the community.  The agape meal might also be the basis for the common meals of Jesus and his disciples and the feeding of the multitudes stories.

We’re told that the customs of the Christian agape meals stemmed originally from the table observances of the Jewish families, particularly for more formal suppers.  The family or group of friends would gather for supper, before sundown, at home or other suitable house.  After preliminary hors d’oevres, including wine, the company reclined or sat at a table for the meal proper.

The head of the group formally began the meal by praying over the bread which was then broken and distributed, giving thanks to God.  During the meal, conversation, though festive and joyous, was devoted to religious topics.

When nighttime came, lamps were brought in and the group recited a blessing to God as the Creator of light.  At the conclusion of the meal, hands were washing, and a final prayer was offered by the father or other presider.  On occasions of special solemnness, the grace after the meal was said over a cup of wine – the “cup of blessing” – with a special remembrance before God of God’s providence and a prayer for the fulfillment of God’s purpose in the coming of God’s kingdom.

A Christian emphasis was given this fellowship by its association with charitable gifts and provisions for widows and the poor. Guests, you see, were allowed to take the leftovers home.

This information comes from the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, published in 1955, not some radical publication of the twenty-first century.  I think that the Last Supper attended by Jesus and his disciples was more closely based on this Jewish custom for formal dinners or even the Passover Seder itself.  But by the second century, the agape meal had pretty much been superseded in the church by the Eucharist, a memorial to the Lord’s Passion during Holy Week.   The Interpreter’s Bible suggests that the new practices developing communion, the eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, derived from the pagan custom of funeral and death anniversary banquets, designed to honor the memory of departed loved ones, on their “heavenly birthdays,” when they were born into heaven.

That may be, but the Old Testament and writings from Ancient Rome and Greece would strongly indicate the possibility of some other sources.

It’s not often that I get to use my copy of The Golden Bough: Roots of Religion and Folklore in preparation for a sermon.  But Sir James George Frazer rocked the late nineteenth century with his extraordinary research on the development of mankind’s religious practices, including all sorts of vaguely familiar rites and ceremonies. His work involves cultures from around the world, but I am most interested in the cultures which influenced early Christianity – Greek, Roman, and Hebrew.  The cultures which most influenced Saul of Tarsus who later became Saint Paul the Apostle, presumed author of large chunks of the New Testament, including the first references to the Last Supper and what might have been said that evening.

The ancient religious concept I am most interested in today is that of human sacrifice, death and resurrection in these ancient cultures.  The Greek god Dionysus, for instance, is best known as the god of the vine, but he was also a god of trees. The ancient Corinthians worshipped a particular pine-tree which represented Dionysus.  Dionysus was believed to have died a violent death, descended into Hades, and was later resurrected. One religious tradition of the ancient Corinthians was to kill an animal representing Dionysus after which the worshipers ate the meat of the slain bull or goat and drank its blood. The old stories are vague and incomplete, sometimes contradicting one another – but they were stories told in cities like Corinth long before the time of Christ.

And if you are beginning not to like Corinth, let’s return to the Promised Land, where the Hebrew people are setting up there own civil and religious rules.  In the Book of Leviticus we have a complex set of rules governing sacrifice of animals to atone for various intentional and unintentional sins.  In my Bible such sacrifices are called Guilt Offerings.

Which brings me back to Jerusalem, the Upper Room, the night before Jesus died.  It was the Jewish Passover, the night the families of Jesus and his disciples had been observing all their lives, the night the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelite slaves in Egypt to take the first born sons of each Egyptian household, including that of Pharoah.

“Let my people go,” Moses had commanded Pharoah.  And Pharoah did not.  God protected the children of Israel and their children that night. And Jewish families gathered generation after generation to remember and give thanks for that protection.  They broke bread and drank wine and prayed in remembrance of their deliverance in the sure knowledge that God would continue to travel with them and be their God.

Jesus and the men and women who gathered with him the night before Good Friday were also facing down Pharoah – only this time not in the form of the Egyptian Empire, but rather the minions of the Roman Empire.  Jesus knew that if he persisted in challenging the political and religious authorities in Jerusalem, they would eventually get him, kill him.  But tonight, he and his friends would eat together one last time; they would share stories of their time together; and he would reassure them that he would be with them always.

I cannot imagine that these folks would talk that night of God requiring a sin offering, or a guilt offering, to save their souls.  It was not they who were guilty of wrongdoing in the first place. Their God, like the God of Moses, would protect them, perhaps fight along side them. And certainly, there would be talk of Jesus’ willingness to die for the cause.  Not a desire, mind you, but a willingness, if it became necessary.  He would, indeed, give his life so that they might live and the movement might continue.

Each of us will probably develop different understandings of what the Lord’s Supper meant for Jesus and his disciples two thousand years ago and what it might mean for us today.  Our communion service this morning reflects some of my thoughts and I hope these one-time only changes are meaningful to you.  Next month we can return to a more traditional observance.

But this morning, in the spirit of a living, breathing, growing church, I have asked the deacons to participate with me in a service which focuses, yes, on remembering Christ’s gift of his very life so that we might understand, live, and live again, but perhaps finds more connectedness with the formal family dinner observances of the Jews or the Agape love feasts of the early Christian community – than with the guilt offerings of the early Hebrews or the Dionysan rites of the early Corinthians.

Ours is a God of Love, Agape. A God who presides over the family table and calls us all, each one of us, to join in the family feast.  The bread is to feed us, the wine is to quench our thirst. The prayer is to give thanks for this life and for the life of Jesus, the Christ who travels with us.

Would the Deacons come forward, please?

            (Go to the Communion Table)

The table is now prepared for us.  We are invited to share in the feast of God’s presence, celebrating here and now all that is meant by being alive.  The spirit of God moves in and through all time, in every age, in every corner of the earth, calling people to renew their hope and their joy.

 

DEACON No. 1

At this table we celebrate Jesus, who touched our brokenness with his life; who gathers us together, inside and out. We give ourselves to that wholeness, moving from hurt to happiness and from darkness to light, filling our lives with love, laughter, and each other, and joining with all created things to say:  “Holy are you, O God.”

 

LEADER

The peace of God be with you always.

DEACONS

And also with you.

DEACON No. 2

Why is it that we come together like this?  What is it that we think sharing some bread and wine can do to change the spaces that separate us from one another and from God’s world?  We eat and drink with other people on many occasions.

 

 

DEACON No. 3

How is it that the common act of eating – with strangers, even with enemies – can be transforming, healing, activating?  Are we even sure we believe that can happen?  Do we really want it to happen?

 

DEACON No. 4                    

Let’s worship God, with the hope instead that after all the winds and storms of being together, the colors of our various lives might appear, distinct, yet unified, like a rainbow.  Let us worship in the hope that just for a moment, God’s Spirit might shine through us to bring light and color to an often dark and complex world.  I hunger for moments of wholeness like that.  What about you?

 

DEACON No. 5

 

So be it.  Yes, we hunger, not only for the rainbow to appear – bright and illuminating, but also that we might come to the end of this rainbow fed and ready again to meet wind and storm with hope – hope of clear skies and rainbows ahead, once more.

 

LEADER

 

Let us pray, as our Lord taught us to pray, using these words: Our Father….

 

LEADER

 

O God, we call now your Holy Spirit upon each of us and upon these gifts, that in sharing them, we may experience and understand your presence in our lives.  In Christ’s name, Amen.

 

On the night before he died, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks to God, he broke it, saying, “This is the bread of life. Take eat.  Think of it as my body, my life shared with you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

 

(Please hold the bread until all are served.  We will eat it together as a symbol of our unity in Christ.)

 

(distribution)

 

Take. Eat.  In remembrance of our Lord.

 

In the same way, our Lord took the cup of wine, and after giving thanks to God, he gave it to his disciples, saying:  “Drink this, all of you.  Think of this as my life’s blood, shed so that you may live. Whenever you drink of this, do so in remembrance of me.

 

(You may drink the wine when you are served as a symbol of our individual relationships with God.)

 

Let us rejoice in the our Lord and in our time together.

 

(distribution)

 

Let us pray.  We give thanks, O God, because in your own free gift of love you have reached out to us.  You have refreshed us at your table, touched our deepest needs, and called us to a life shared in memory and hope.  Send us forth with courage and joy in the name of Jesus Christ, that we, too, may become bread and peace for one another and the world.  Amen.

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