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Sermon – Constantly Prayer – June 5, 2011

Sermon for June 5, 2011                                                The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Constantly Prayer
Acts 1:  6-14,  1 Peter 4:  12-14, 5:  6-11,  John 17:  1-11

English historian of ideas and philosopher R. G. Collilngwood wrote that Christians had a God with whom they were so angry for the injustices and suffering of existence that they put God to death every week as the centerpiece of their worship.  As with so much of Collingwood’s thinking, it is an arresting thought.
Collingwood, though he had a different interpretation of it, was taking seriously the traditional church’s participatory reenactment of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Mass, or the eucharistic meal–what we call communion.  Many Protestants have a vague sense that the distinguishing feature of Roman Catholic ritual, besides the use of real wine, is the belief that Christ really is present in the food and drink consumed.  What is less well understood is the Roman Catholic understanding of what that means.  Far from being a new crucifixion at every Mass, the doctrine of the church is that it is a participation, by God’s grace, in the once-and-for-all sacrifice of the original Good Friday.  It is a way of tapping ritually into an event with eternal significance.  The scruple is that the Church is adding nothing to what God has achieved through Christ, just restaging it and witnessing to it endlessly.
The restaging is what Collingwood interpreted as execution.  He may have known the custom in the Orthodox tradition of having a small sword which is pushed, at an appropriate time during Communion, into the loaf of bread, which in that tradition is regular, yeasted bread similar to what we eat.  That Eastern tradition also regards the ritual as both reenactment and remembrance, with participants experiencing the sacrifice not so much in terms of the history of an unjustly executed holy man, but in terms of God’s overcoming the powers of death and sin, a victory in which they understand themselves to share.
I am referring to the ancient church’s practice of Communion as a means of revisiting Good Friday–which Collingwood cast as a kind of indignant regicide, like the English beheading Charles Stuart or the French Louis the Sixteenth- but which the Church always has understood more like the three hundred Spartans dying alongside their king Leonidas, one’s king sharing the common fate of all, and by leading all through the battle, securing for all not only success, despite dying, but immortality.
What I am trying to get to as a concept is an acceptable way to conceive victimhood.  That is very hard to do.  We are a culture which doesn’t care for victims, and which holds as a great virtue a refusal to become victims.  There is, however, in the New Testament, a significant conception of Christ and Christ’s followers as those whose destiny is more-or-less helplessly to endure suffering and death, in order to be delivered, through their faithful obedience to God’s will, to a life everlasting with God.
To be delivered by God into paradise, like the sympathetic thief who supported Jesus from the neighboring cross, may in some sense not be victimhood at all.  However, the circumstance of coming to rely on God’s rescuing one beyond the grave is a place we all are reluctant to reach.  I believe we think it right to avoid getting there by all means, including denial.  Regarding the end, defeat, death, as unacceptable outcomes is a great booster of morale in those expected to fight on for as long as possible, and the early apostles themselves, though willing martyrs at the end, were, if Paul is an example, always attentively surviving and postponing reckonings.
The New Testament does not recommend passivity, in the sense of fatalism, but, perhaps because it believes God is working reliably behind the scenes, its posture toward the apparent helplessness of being treated unfairly and not having any violent means at hand to resist ranges from neutral to positive.  The model of Jesus  in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying against his destiny but pronouncing a readiness to take it if God means it for him, informs the ethos of early Christianity.
Everything in today’s scriptures touches this topic of innocent exposure to harm and perhaps death, and the sense that it may be unavoidable.  The account from the Book of Acts of Jesus’ ascension and the subsequent actions of his followers finds them leaderless for a while.  They are promised the gift of the Holy Spirit–this is the alternate tradition, which has become dominant in Christian teaching, that it comes weeks after the disciples last see the resurrected Christ.  What do they do, with Jesus gone and the reliable help of God’s spirit not yet secured?
They stick together.  They return to the place where they’ve been staying in Jerusalem, with the promise that they’ll be getting help from heaven.  They pray.  They pray a lot.  It is one of the things they can do, while they are waiting and hoping, and so it is one of the things that they do.
When they do that, are they being passive?  Are they too withdrawn from the world, from the possibility of productive work?  Are they right to believe that God has not yet equipped them to meet the challenges of the future, and they must prepare themselves for that day by training themselves into the habit of frequent prayer?
Here again an Enlightenment-tradition Protestant prejudice affects our outlook.  What Jesus’ followers look a lot like at the end of the first chapter of the Book of Acts is a religious order, living together apart from the society around them, and devoting themselves to prayer.  They are waiting on God, similar to those Christian traditions which have monks or nuns, in which simplified daily living supports a ceaseless regimen of ritual religious life.
What our Protestant ancestors were saying in ending the practice of cloistered life was not that daily prayer and waiting on God were a waste of time, but that a person didn’t have to be segregated from daily living in order to practice them.  The result, however, of embracing a religious identity unsupported by big, institutional structures is similar to what has happened with a repudiation of confessing in the hearing of a priest.  Protestants don’t confess as responsibly as they should, or accept forgiveness as confidently as they ought.  We, who do not live in a religious order, don’t pray as we should.  We don’t have the regard for the rhythms and resource of worship that we should.
We do share the circumstance of seeming like disciples who have to live in the world waiting for God to send us a spirit from heaven to enlighten and energize us.  Despite knowing that we are heirs of the Holy Spirit, some of the time– if not most of the time– we live instead like disciples whose Lord has gone on ahead, leaving us to what resources we already have.  If those resources do not include prayer and patience and counting on God to respond to our need, we have ended up a long way from the New Testament.
The self-reliance which is a such a big deal in our society, where it is often used as an excuse for selfishness, either to support the illusion of our own deserving or the illusion of others’ undeserving–is not a Christian virtue.  God-reliance is the virtue we seek.  That is threatening to us, because it forces us to see how little control we have over the world and our lives– but it is encouraging, if we believe that Christ, as he does in the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel, really recognizes our vulnerability and bids us to be blessed by merciful outcomes and meaningful security.
Jesus, in John’s gospel especially, recognizes that his followers are following him to the cross, and if John’s gospel thinks that is a victory, Jesus in this long prayer at the last supper acknowledges that it is hard.  Those who share the food and drink of Jesus’ table are vulnerable, innocent souls who must count on God, just as Jesus has counted on God.
The body and blood of the meal represent mortality and promise resurrection.  Our task, as we practice our faith and mature in our discipleship, is to grow to the point where we are consumed by the meal and its meanings, and content with our weakness, because, as in the case of Our Lord, it is an opportunity for God.

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