We recall from last week that Job, who was running very low on patience, had decided to appeal to God to allow him an opportunity to plead his case. After all, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He was by all accounts a good and righteous man. All he wanted from God was a chance to ask what he had done to deserve the horrific fate that had befallen him.
This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Even Jesus on the cross, asked of his heavenly father, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). It happens to most of us. When words such as these tumble out of our lips, they don’t come from a place of logic. They originate somewhere deep within our subconscious minds. Being confronted with a perceived injustice evokes a visceral response.
Like Job, we want to believe that if we are good, if we follow the ways of Jesus and live as his disciples, if we treat others with kindness and generosity, if we love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and strengths and minds and our neighbors as ourselves, then God will reward us with abundant lives. We want to believe that the world operates according to some kind of order that makes sense to us. We want to believe that actions have foreseeable and reasonable consequences.
And yet, the world proves to us over and over that this is not the way the universe is ordered, at least as far as our poor, finite minds can determine.
Lately, the news has been dominated by stories and images of refugees of the Syrian Civil War desperately seeking to escape their country to build a new life in another place. As I watch and listen to the stories of families who have been affected by the crisis in Syria, I want to help. I know that many in the church are feeling a similar call.
The current crisis in Syria began in the spring of 2011, when ordinary civilians began to stage protests against the government led by President Bashar al-Assad. What were these citizens protesting? They were fighting for a democratic state. Pro-democracy demonstrations began in March 2011 in the city of Deraa, after some teenagers who had painted revolutionary graffiti on a school wall were arrested and tortured by government security forces. These same government forces then opened fire on rising ranks of demonstrators who had taken to the streets. The government’s actions triggered nationwide protests calling for the resignation of President Assad. The protesters were immediately met with corresponding force from the government. The citizens then began taking up arms to defend themselves, which later grew into the use of armed citizens to expel government forces from local municipalities. The government responded by sending in troops to re-take control of the dissenting towns and villages. By the year 2012 the fighting had moved into major cities like Damascus and Aleppo.
United Nations reports indicate that by mid-2013, 90,000 people had been killed in the conflict. That figure had doubled by August of the following year, and as of March 2015, has now risen to more than 220,000. Moreover, the conflict has now expanded beyond those fighting for and against President Assad to include the overarching conflict in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shias, and has been further complicated by the rise of jihadist groups throughout the region.
In addition to the war itself, there is growing evidence that war crimes have been committed by both government and rebel forces in Syria, including murder, rape, disappearances, as well as restriction of access to basic necessities such as food, water, and healthcare. Civilians have been massacred. Terrorists groups have also begun carrying out public executions and mass killings, and the use of chemical weapons by the government against rebels has been documented. Outside terrorist groups have become organized within the boundaries of the country and are now actively at war within the nation’s borders. Although attempts at peace talks have occurred, there has been no success at bringing an end to the conflict. What began as a civil war against an autocratic leader has now turned into a proxy war being fought or backed by regional and world powers, including the United States, which is arming moderate rebels and a Kurdish militia (historical overview summarized from a March, 2015, BBC article found here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868).
The result of all of this is that almost 4 million people have fled Syria already. An additional 7.6 million people have been displaced within the country, often in refugee camps, and are in need of assistance. It is this latter group that has been featured prominently in the news in recent months. According to a CNN story from September 10, 2015, some 4.1 million Syrians are in the process of fleeing their homeland and do not have plans to return. This means they have lost all hope that life as they knew it will return.
Why did I take up all this space to give details about a situation in Syria when I am writing notes on Job? Well, precisely because all of these millions of people from Syria are fighting for basic human rights—to stay alive, to have a safe place to live, to have the ability to feed, clothe, shelter, and provide education for their children—because of the actions of those fighting for control over their nation.
Just like Job, the people of Syria are caught in the crossfire of a conflict that has nothing to do with most of them. What was the conflict in which Job found himself in the middle? Reading the first chapter we might get the idea that the problem was between two individual beings named as God and “Satan.” But I think the problem is much deeper and more nuanced than a simple fight between two biblical superheroes. I think that in this story, “Satan” represents the theology of Job’s well-meaning friends. The struggle is between the way of God and the way of human beings. It is the same struggle that we see in the story of Adam and Eve. It is the same struggle we see in the crisis in Syria. It is the ultimate human struggle that originated in what we call original sin: trusting ourselves to judge what is good and what is evil apart from God. In other words, the battle is between trusting God and trusting a Jewish theology that insists that God’s actions are always a response to human actions, rather than the other way around.
As noted above, this is a theological worldview that continues to have a grip on many people. If we believe, or act as if, God rewards the righteous and punishes the sinful, then our view of human-divine interaction puts the control not in the hands of God, but of humans. That is a fatal flaw in thinking, because it means we believe God doesn’t hold any power over anything. And yet, is that not how we act a lot of the time?
Job’s story is our story. It is the story of humanity’s sin of thinking we are the ones in control of this world. It is what leads to the victimization of good, honest, often innocent people who find themselves caught in the crossfire between warring factions, each of whom believes their side is not only right, but completely justified in making a judgment on the value of the other.
What happened to Job is what happens to all of us when we find ourselves caught in the middle of unimaginable catastrophe. We question the ways of the God who created us. We lose faith in the overall goodness of the world. We lash out in anger and try to find a reason for what has happened. Lots of times we look for someone to blame. When there isn’t an obvious target, we begin to wonder whether there is even anything underneath it all, some kind of reason and order to the world itself, some kind of divine purpose intrinsic in the universe. We all know that crisis causes people to deeply confront their belief system. When there is no clear answer, what are we to do? Well, like Job, we cry out in anger and frustration and question the basic nature of our faith.
So how does God respond to Job’s plea to have his day in court? The LORD answers Job out the chaos of a whirlwind and says, “Who are you to question ME? Gird up your loins like a man. You don’t question ME. I question YOU. Tell me, Job: where were you when I created the world and everything in it? What understanding do you have of how it is ordered? What power do you have to control it? What ability do you have to support life on earth? I’ll tell you what power you have, Job: no power. You have no power and no understanding of the intricacies of life.”
It is a shocking thing. And yet, it is not only true, but it is critical to our faith. What can we human beings really do? What power do we really hold? Are we not completely at the mercy of our God who created us? Is everything we are and everything we claim to have created not in fact the work of our God?
The sin is to ever imagine that we as human beings have control over anything. It can be personally devastating to come to this realization. It can be hard to find the way back to trust and faith, let alone love. And yet it is necessary. It is necessary that we human beings ground ourselves not in a position of arrogance, but in a place of humility and complete trust before our God. What else is there?
The good news is that once we come to this realization, we are better off. We serve a loving and gracious God. Who better is there to trust than the One who made us, who formed us in God’s own image, who incarnated in the form of a human being and lived among us in order to better know us, who offers us grace and mercy even when we turn away and our love fails, and who promises to prepare a place for us to feast for all eternity at the heavenly banquet?
I wish this had been the reading for last week’s celebration of World Communion Sunday, because it would have offered a great opportunity to talk about the sacrificial meaning of Holy Communion. But it is never too late to talk about Communion from the pulpit, and certainly this reading from Hebrews gives helpful insight.
Although all baptized followers of Jesus Christ are members of the priesthood of all believers, in the United Methodist Church certain people are set apart by ordination for certain roles in the church. Specifically, ordained elders are set apart for service to Word and Table.
Presiding at the Lord’s Table is historically related to the priestly role in the Old Testament. In the Jewish Temple, it was the priest who oversaw the sacrifices and offerings made in the Temple. Only priests were believed to possess the level of holiness sufficient to approach the holy of holies where the altar of the Lord was located. In their ritual capacity as “ministers of the altar” (Joel 1:13), priests performed certain rituals, including the sprinkling of blood before the divine presence and making burnt offerings. They offered these items as sacrifices to God on behalf of the people, and they were allowed to consume a portion of the grain and animal offerings in compensation for their services.
I am always amazed at how many blood-sacrifice hymns for Holy Communion we have in the United Methodist Hymnal. It makes it seem as if United Methodists have only one theological understanding of Holy Communion: it is related to remission of sins bought by the blood sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Many people translate this to mean that in the holy meal, we are sacrificing Jesus over and over again on our table, much like the priests in the Jewish temple “offered gifts and sacrifices for sin” on the altar (Hebrews 5:1). I know this may come as news to some, but in spite of this widespread “misunderstanding” of the meaning of the sacrament that continues to prevail in the minds in many in our congregations, our United Methodist theology of Holy Communion is not particularly blood-sacrifice oriented. Further, understanding our holy meal as a repeated enacting of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins is not only woefully incomplete, but also erroneous.
The writings of both John and Charles Wesley reveal a complex theology consistent with the Anglican tradition, but also distinctive to particular Methodist commitments and practice. United Methodist eucharistic theology holds many dimensions, including:
- a memorial meal
- a symbol and means of grace
- a proclamation of the eschatological hope achieved for all through the salvific work of Christ
- a commemoration of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross
- a sacrificial oblation of both the individual and the church
So even though our theological understanding of the Table is very broad and complex, I guess that if you asked the people in your congregation what is being offered to God as a sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper, most would answer “The body and blood of Jesus Christ.” United Methodist pastors (or “priests,” if you want to use the language of Hebrews) do not offer blood sacrifices for the atonement of our sins. Our theology teaches that Jesus’ “once and for all” sacrifice on the cross has removed the need to offer sacrifices in the Temple.
Prior to the Middle Ages, worshipers understood that what was being “offered” to God through the celebration of the Holy Meal was not a reenactment of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, but rather, an offering of the people of God, the body of Christ, for the transformation of the world. Wesley sought to recapture this theology from the early church. For Wesley, by gathering around the Lord’s Table, the worshiping community—the body of Christ—was nourished and sanctified. Through the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine, the congregation was renewed, unified, and enabled to offer itself in sacrificial actions for the sake of the world. This is the reason John Wesley called the Methodists to the duty of “constant communion.” He really believed that followers were transformed, both as individuals and as a congregation, by the sharing of bread and wine around the Table of the Lord. The language of our current liturgy for Great Thanksgiving reflects this intent when we pray, “We offer ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us as we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.”
So this text is not about Communion, even though it uses the language of priests and sacrifices. It is about the nature of Jesus Christ, who “did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest” but was appointed by God. During his time on earth, Jesus took on some of the roles assigned to priests: he “offered up prayers and supplications,” he “learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7, 8-9 NRSV). In essence, Jesus takes on the role of the high priest for all. He has already acted on our behalf through his death on the cross. His actions have purified us, making it possible for each one of us to approach God ourselves. Therefore there is no need for him to be ritually sacrificed over and over on the altars in our sanctuaries.
If Communion isn’t a ritual enactment of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, then how can we help our members better understand what it is? What can we do to deepen our understanding of the meaning of this Holy Meal for United Methodists?
As you work on this text, I would urge you to consider not just the narratives associated with the Last Supper in the context of the Passover meal (Exodus 12:1-28, Matthew 26:17-20, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-23, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), but also the feeding miracles (Matthew 14:13-21 and 15:32-39, Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-4), the post-Resurrection meals (Luke 24:13-35, Matthew 16:12-13, John 21:4-14) and the witness of the early church (Acts 2:42-47).
Consider also looking at the texts to the 166 Eucharistic Hymns written by John and Charles Wesley.
Finally, I would invite you to read the official United Methodist document on Holy Communion, This Holy Mystery, and commit to study with your congregation the new publication The Meaning of Holy Communion in the United Methodist Church by E. Byron Anderson, available as a free PDF download from Discipleship Ministries.
[Notes cross-posted to Laity Sunday 2015 Resources]
What would you do with it if you had it? Would you keep it for yourself? Would you do everything you could to become even more powerful? Would you relish having power? Would you boss everyone around and enjoy a luxurious, pampered lifestyle? Would you have servants to wait on you hand and foot? Would you travel the world and stay in the most beautiful and expensive places? Would you buy a mansion and ten fancy cars? Would you be a benevolent dictator, but a dictator nonetheless?
Or would you use your power to make others more powerful? Would you be willing to relinquish some power in order to help the powerless?
What makes a person powerful in our world today?
A few months back I read a story about Dan Price, the thirty-something CEO of a credit card payment-processing firm that he founded in Seattle named Gravity Payments. Mr. Price, who as the company’s founder and CEO draws an annual salary of nearly $1 million, announced that he was voluntarily reducing his salary to $70,000 a year in order to raise the minimum salary of every employee at Gravity to $70,000.
Mr. Price had read an article about researchers from Princeton who had discovered that in the United States, there is a direct correlation between annual income and overall well-being in life. The research showed that for people to be happy—meaning enjoying a life with not too much stress, where the balance tips in favor of joy and affection over anger and sadness—their annual income needs to be at least $75,000 (Read the full study here).
When Mr. Price read that article, he realized that he had the power to substantially change the lives of his 120 employees. And so he made the decision to lower his own annual income in order to raise the incomes of others.
Power is what the disciples were after. But what is power? What represented power to the disciples? What represents power to you? Does having money make a person powerful? In the story about Mr. Price, the purpose of increasing the annual salaries of his employees was to improve their well-being, to make their lives happier. Is being happy and enjoying a sense of well-being a form of power? Ask someone who struggles to pay the rent and put food on the table if he or she has any power.
Does having a certain status or job make a person powerful? Do titles, levels of education, or positions of authority give people power? Do these accomplishments entitle some people to do things that others can’t? Do these things give them responsibilities that others do not hold?
In the church we sometimes think that the pastor has more power than the lay people. We think that because he or she has that degree, or that title, or that salary, that the pastor is the one who is called to share the gospel with others, or lead people in prayer, or invite people to church.
I remember one time I was teaching a confirmation class in the church where I was appointed as the pastor. Every week, I would ask if one of the students would offer a prayer at the beginning of class. Most of the time, no one would volunteer, so I, the pastor, would offer the prayer. One week after I extended the invitation a young man in the group said, “Why do you always ask us to pray? Isn’t that YOUR job? You are the pastor. You are supposed to pray. Isn’t that what you get paid for?” I said, “Yes, I’m the pastor, but it isn’t my job to pray. It is my job to equip YOU to pray.”
Actually, I probably should have confessed that I usually invite someone else to pray because I honestly don’t think that leading prayers is my greatest gift. Maybe that sounds strange coming from someone who has a Ph.D. in liturgy and more than twenty years of experience leading worship, but it is true, nonetheless. I know how to teach. I know how to preach. I know how to lead a meeting. And of course, I know how to pray. But extemporaneous public prayer has always been difficult for me. I get tongue-tied, and I never feel like I’ve been eloquent. Oh, I’ve gotten better at it over the years, and probably most people who have heard me lead prayer would not be able to detect that this is an area where I do not feel the most confident. After all, I’m an ordained clergywoman. Isn’t it my JOB to pray? Isn’t that what I get paid for?
Do pastors have special power when they pray? Do they have more power because they are ordained or licensed or degreed or appointed? Do they have more power than laity? Is it acceptable for the pastor to ask someone else to pray? Is it reasonable for a congregation to assume that if someone is a pastor, he or she has gifts for leading prayer? What would happen if the people in the congregation who are most gifted for leading prayer stepped forward to offer that power for the benefit of the congregation? What would happen if that gifted person were to offer to pray in worship and in meetings, and to lead a class on leading in public prayer, or even volunteer to help the pastor improve his or her skills?
When James and John asked Jesus to give them power, to give them a double-share like Elijah did for Elisha (see 2 Kings 2:9) and pass on that mantle and name them as his successors in leading the movement, what did Jesus say? He said, “You don’t know what you are asking. You aren’t ready. If you are asking for power, then you are the last ones who should have it. You are not prepared at all to do what I’m about to do. Power is not mine to have, and it is not mine to bestow. Any power I have is meant to be given away, in order to lift up those who have no power.”
Jesus says if you have it you must give it away in order to help the powerless. The first must become last. The great must become servants of all. Power is only worth something if it helps to empower another.
Maybe the greatest power we can have is when no one lords it over the others, when we offer ministry together, each giving out of his or her unique set of gifts. By the power of the Holy Spirit, every person has been clothed with gifts from on high. Our power as congregations comes not from the strong leadership of one, but from the strong leadership of many. It is tempting, when we have some power, to want to use it mostly to feel good about ourselves. But the message of Jesus is that when we have power, the best thing we can do is use it to help others feel good about themselves. This, says Jesus, is the greatest power we can ever hope to have, for the Human One didn’t come to be served, but to serve and to give his life to liberate many people. This, says Jesus, is true power.