My work as a theologian has been largely spent exploring the realities and challenges presented by some of the most immense and debilitating kinds of suffering that have occurred throughout human history. For me these questions have always been profoundly personal, shaping the family that I love and the world in which we live, in ways that are hard to wrap our heads around.
And so it was one of the great discoveries of my own wrestling and journeying with and among these questions when I learned that the most ancient posture of Christian faith to the struggle and suffering of life, in this case from the perspective of a fledgling and persecuted church, was not surrender to a kind of cosmic fate, or a deterministic explanation of the way that “all things work together,” but was actually a posture and an embodied practice of defiance. And that at the very heart of this open defiance towards the powers of sin and death and those people and systems that cooperated with or were co-opted by them, was the Eucharist.
You see I grew up, maybe like some of you who were raised in our tribe, to understand that this was a time almost exclusively for reflection and repentance. And while this is certainly not wrong, there is so much more.
Behind me on the screen is an image that was prolific in ancient Christian catacombs and burial sites. If you are at all familiar with later Christian art you recognize that this is a representation of the Last Supper. However, this deployment of this image in ancient Christian burial sites came with two very distinct additions to the story that is recorded in the Gospels and First Corinthians: First, the deceased person is now portrayed as a guest at the table. This is no longer the Last Supper, but a depiction of the state of the one who has died: Present with Christ, unable to be harmed or killed by the Powers of Sin and Death again.
This art, this embodiment of concrete belief was an act of defiance. It said to the Powers of Sin and Death, “You took our loved one. Whether through sickness, old age, violence, or martyrdom, you did your worst. And look what has come of it!! So that you do not forget we have left you a testimony!”
The second change made to this representation of the Last Supper can be seen in the foreground of this painting where you can make out a small piece of furniture that we might describe as a coffee table. And on it are five loaves and two fish. In other depictions there will be twelve baskets of bread pieces in the foreground. Either way, the sentiment is clear. “Not only did you take our loved one, and look where they are, but the Savior who rescued them has a table big enough and food bountiful enough for all of us!” It was in effect these early Christian’s way of affirming the words of the Disciple: “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4b, NRSV)
But it seems to me that along the way, through a series of changes of in our language, practice, and even our art, that the church has largely lost its capacity and/or willingness to operate in that kind of defiance in the world today. And while the reasons that we have arrived in this place are complex not only to describe but to untangle, the loss of the church’s life as one of defiance to the Powers of Sin and Death at work in the world is so profoundly costly. It has not only caused the church and those who are a part of it to suffer, but it has brought great woundedness to the world, and perhaps most troublingly, the radicality and transformative capacity of Christian faith has been muted by a more “civil,” more “refined” embodiment of that once you unapologetic and defiant community which made up the early church.
And this is why it is important to understand that this practice, this moment, this use of our bodies and this nourishing of our souls, was created for the particular shaping of a people who were convinced that the world as it was and as it is, is not only not inevitable, but that it is also not yet the place of God’s unchallenged reign and justice. It is for the sake of the world that God is calling and forming a people who look to the malforming of the world by the Powers of Sin and Death and say with our words and with our lives, “Enough!” And we echo the words of the Apostle Paul: “Look, now is the right time! Look, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2)
And so we come today, to remember, to reflect, and I pray, to begin to rediscover for ourselves what it means to be God’s transformative , redemptive, and Defiant presence in the world.
(Prayer for the Bread)
Lord may you make us in this moment and in this community your defiant resurrection presence in a world of suffering and death. Meet us in this place and form us into your likeness we pray in the name of the One who defied death itself, Jesus our Savior and elder brother.
(Prayer for the Cup)
God would you use this moment to stir up in our hearts your unsettling and unrelenting work of love in the world and for the world. Would you disturb us and disperse us into your sacred mission of redemption and justice.
Delivered January 28, 2018 at the Manhattan Church of Christ.