Link to Lectionary Texts: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Pentecost/BProp15_RCL.html
Once upon a time
there was a little Episcopal Church
located in a small town
in a rural part of the state.
It was a sweet little church
and had been there for over a hundred years.
Like all churches
this one had many traditions
that had been practiced and preserved
for so long that no one could remember
the origin of them all.
Because it was an Episcopal Church
it had certain ways of doing things in worship.
It followed the Book of Common Prayer
to the letter, following it down the page
and praying within its borders.
When the members came to church
they knew exactly when to stand,
when to kneel,
when to sit,
when to listen,
when to sing,
when to pray out loud
and when to be silent.
In addition to knowing the ritual of worship
so very well, and with such comfort,
they knew each other very well too.
In all these ways
they were not unlike thousands of other
small congregations all over the country
that were held in place
by the stability of continuity over time
and a relative lack of people moving in and out.
Then one day
a stranger showed up at the door.
Not a visitor nor a tourist
but someone who had moved into the community
and was also an Episcopalian.
She knew just what to do in the worship
and seemed utterly comfortable
from the moment she entered the door, except…
she did some things differently.
For one thing,
she held her arms up above her head
when she prayed.
She closed her eyes
and raised her arms
and prayed the prayers
without looking at the book.
It was a little unsettling at first
but hey, this was church,
so the “regulars” decided they could tolerate such a personal preference
as kooky as it seemed.
But soon the new woman
started mumbling prayers during the silences.
And during some of the hymns
she raised her hands and sang
without looking at the hymnal!
Then the feathers really hit the fan.
One day she started speaking in tongues.
Yep, right in the middle of one of the silences.
During the formal “Prayers of the People”
when everyone else knew to be quiet
this woman started speaking
in a loud, guttural, glossolalia
that of course, no one understood.
Mothers grabbed their children
and children grabbed their mothers.
Men looked down at their shoes
while one or two of the matriarchs and patriarchs
turned their heads to offer a stern
But the woman didn’t notice
because she was praying.
Then the next week the woman actually
sang in tongues!
She had a nice voice but still
her nonsense could be heard
by all the people sitting around her.
But that wasn’t the worse thing that happened.
One of the young mothers in the church,
and their weren’t many of them,
started sitting with the new woman and
soon was also speaking and singing
in that strange, unnerving gobbledygook.
As these things happen,
eventually there were six or seven people
who were not worshipping within the lines
and who started talking about Jesus
with a kind of passion
that makes traditional Episcopalians
The priest, who was only part-time and honestly
kind of milquetoast anyway,
didn’t know what to do
and so he didn’t do anything.
That meant it was up to the movers and shakers
to do something before things got
too far out of hand.
They pulled the woman aside one Sunday
and said her antics were disrupting the worship for everyone else.
They suggested she could have her own worship,
maybe an Evening Prayer service
where those who wanted to speak and sing
in tongues could do it to their hearts content.
The new woman wasn’t obstreperous
and it wasn’t her intention to upset anyone
so she did what was suggested
and started a Sunday evening worship.
The small group continued to worship
on Sunday morning also,
but they restrained themselves
within the more narrow confines
of what the leaders called “traditional” worship.
Their little group grew to about a dozen or so
but eventually they all left that little
Episcopal Church when they found other people
and believed and spoke
as they did.
Okay, that is a parable
rooted in the experience
of many a small Protestant congregation
that has experienced charismatic
or Pentecostal renewal
within more sedate traditions.
It is also a metaphoric description
of what happened between
Judaism and Christianity
sometime between 50 and 200 CE (Common Era)
(or what used to be called AD).
A great deal of the early Christian history
I learned in seminary over thirty years ago
has been turned upside down
by modern scholarship – aided by amazing advances
in archeology and anthropology.
What I was taught to imagine
as a fork in the rivers
of Judaism and Christianity –
a definite, singular split
mostly instigated by the apostle Paul –
is now viewed much differently
and with much greater complexity.
(I will eventually get to why this matters to us).
First of all, instead of a split it was a splintering.
Neither Judaism nor Christianity
was a single river in the 1st century
mostly unaffiliated and often competing
groups set adrift in the Roman world
and having lost almost all local connection
to Jerusalem, Judah, and Galilee.
We should not imagine that Christians
were a cohesive group or movement
that sprang from the resurrection
into a bonafide religion of its own
organized by the surviving disciples.
Rather, the beginning of Christianity
was more like a shotgun blast of buckshot
spreading out in groups
of varying size and velocity
and mutating into very different cells
of belief and practice.
Two Jewish-Roman wars,
one in 66 C.E. and one in 135 C.E.,
scattered and mutilated, and forever changed,
both Judaism and Christianity.
It is generally agreed that the separation
of these two similar religions
did not fully take place until after that second war.
So, for a hundred years before 135 CE,
these two religions were rapidly
changing and splintering into scores
of free-floating cells.
Some of those Christian cells
were more different from,
and more competitive with
other Christian cells
than they were from Jewish ones,
and vis versa.
For the first hundred years,
as Christianity was going through
the labor of its birth
and Judaism was becoming radically changed
from its first millennium,
and maybe for another hundred years after that, very little theologically
would have separated Jews and Christians
other than the claim by Christians
that Jesus was the messiah.
For Jews in the first century
there was nothing wrong or unusual
about claiming someone as the messiah.
Contrary to the Gospel accounts
described in the trial of Jesus,
it was not considered blasphemy
to claim someone as messiah.
In fact, numerous Jewish sects,
before and after Jesus, claimed their leader
to be the long awaited Messiah.
Most Jews would not have believed
Jesus was the messiah
simply because he failed in his mission
against the Romans,
and because the messiah
was supposed to be unquestionably eminent,
and either a victorious warrior king in this world
or a supernatural force bringing about
the arrival of the next world.
Jesus did neither.
So his execution
made it impossible for most Jews to believe
that Jesus had been the messiah.
But the messiah claim did not cause the split
between Jews and Christians.
Even the idea of resurrection
that most Christians assume was anathema
to other Jews was not a deal-breaker.
There was a belief taught by many Jews
that there would be a day of resurrection
and it was a popular belief
that had a wide variety of manifestations.
Even at the end of the first century,
sixty years after Jesus’ execution,
many of the believers in Jesus
probably still associated with the synagogue.
Like my story
about the presence of Pentecostal Episcopalians
among primarily traditional Episcopalians,
the actual differences were quite few.
But as time went on
those particular differences
became glaringly noticeable
and the source of great agitation.
Then, when Jesus became God,
it reached a breaking point.
While it may be controversial among
to say that the belief in Jesus-as-messiah
there is little disagreement about
this fact among historians and scholars.
and even centuries,
what it meant to claim Jesus as Messiah
changed from the idea
of a human anointed by God
to carry out a specific purpose,
to the notion that Jesus was God
from before time and for all time.
Just reading the Gospel of Mark
alongside the Gospel of John,
which we have been doing off and on
all this year,
we can see how ideas about the messiah
changed in the thirty or forty years between
these two Gospels.
In Mark, Jesus is baptized as an adult,
adopted if you will, by God for a specific mission.
In John, Jesus is with God in the very beginning.
Two hundred and fifty years later
the Councils of Nicaea
wrangled for sixty years
trying to bring harmony to Mark and John,
and unify scores of other beliefs about Jesus
that were part of the splintered constellation
of groups that came to call themselves “Christian.”
So now the punch line.
John has Jesus say,
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
That is in-your-face trash talk
from John to his fellow Jews.
We know that John and his community
of Jesus-following Jews
had just been expelled from whatever synagogue
they were participating in, so
“Eat my flesh and drink my blood”
puts a hot, emphatic exclamation mark
at the end of their claim
that Jesus is God.
In contrast, Paul,
who was never accused of being gentle,
writing in 1 Corinthians two generations earlier,
describes Jesus offering bread and wine
at the Last Supper,
as something symbolic of the covenant,
and says Jesus merely asked his disciples
to do it in “remembrance” of him.
But John has Jesus saying these words
directly in response
to fellow Jews grumbling that he, Jesus,
had claimed to be the Bread of Life;
or more succinctly,
that he, Jesus, is the real manna from God –
partake of him and him alone
if they want eternal life.
“Eat my flesh and drink my blood”
was so repugnant
that even in John’s gospel
it is reported that immediately upon hearing it,
many of his disciples quit – right there on the spot!
John paints the break between Israel and Jesus
in stark and certain terms with words
that more than a few Christians today
would also have difficulty with.
In fact, most of Protestantism
would choke on these words from John today;
even a great many Roman Catholics
would prefer a more nuanced description.
But there is no hiding these words,
they are here with us
all these centuries later
and will be with us for centuries in the future.
So here we are again
at that little church in the country –
which is actually every church everywhere.
For some, “eat my flesh and drink my blood”
is not a problem, and in fact, much beloved.
For others the words and idea are repugnant
and a deal-breaker
if indeed we are supposed to sign onto them
as if literal.
What will we do?
Will we seek to push out one side or another
so that we can pretend again
that we are all the same?
Will we gather around the table
and politely ignore and not talk about
our clear and definite differences?
Will we establish an atmosphere of safety
in which we can talk about what we believe
and what we do not believe
without the fear or trepidation
that other people will harshly judge us?
Will we look around the table
from which we share bread and wine,
into one another’s eyes,
knowing that we do not believe the same things,
or even all share the same values,
and then deny the acceptability
of certain people’s presence?
Here is a fact.
The veneer of Christian unity
and the coercion of orthodox conformity
is unraveling in our time.
In 2015 being church and being Christian,
Episcopalian or otherwise,
is far more like the first three hundred years
than it is like the past one thousand years.
At one and the same time, in every congregation,
we have Mark
and Jesus-believing Jews
and non-Jewish believers
and everything else in between.
We also have ideas about Jesus
and about God
and about spiritual practice
that have been influenced by other world religions
that those early Christians never heard of;
not to mention the influence
of scientific knowledge
that they could never have imagined.
Just as surely as youth and adults
in Newport, Vermont
have been greatly influenced
by Philadelphia and LA Hip-Hop culture,
the believers and seekers of Christianity
and gathered here in St. Mark’s,
are as splintered and diversified in belief
as they are everywhere else in the world today.
What will we do about it?
Push and shove?
Or host a safe community
in which people can believe and do
very different things?