I am going to begin with a made-up story,
slide into ancient history,
and end with what it all has to do with us.
Once upon a time,
there was a little Episcopal congregation
located in a small town
in the rural part of the state.
That congregation had been there
for over two hundred years.
Like all congregations of any stripe,
this one had many traditions well practiced
and preserved for so long
that no one could remember
exactly where all of them came from.
And 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 fact, the red prayer books in the pews
nearly turned to page 355 all by themselves.
In addition to knowing the rituals of worship
so very well, and with such comfort,
they knew each othervery well too,
and in all these ways
they were not unlike thousands of other
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.
But 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 a hymnal!
But 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.
Still, that was not the worst 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
red in the face…
from anger or embarrassment or both.
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.
That is a parable rooted in the experience
of many a small Protestant congregation
that have experienced charismatic
or pentecostal renewal
within more sedate traditions.
It is also a metaphoric description
of what happened between
Judaism and Christianity between 50 and 200 CE.
A great deal of the early Christian history
I learned in seminary over thirty-five 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.
Instead of a split it was a splintering.
Neither Judaism nor Christianity
was a single river in the 1stcentury
and instead, mostly unaffiliated
and often competing groups
scattered and set adrift in the Roman world.
Where there had been strong connecting threads,
nearly all local connections
to Jerusalem, Judah, and Galilee were lost.
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 beliefs and practices.
Two Jewish-Roman wars,
one in 66 C.E.
and one in 135 C.E.,
had 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 afterthat second war
though the fraying had long been in the making.
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
after 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.
BUT 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
and because the Messiah was supposed
to be a victorious warrior king inthis world
or a supernatural force
bringing about the arrival of the nextworld.
Jesus did neither.
So Jesus’ 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 today 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,
seventy years afterJesus’ execution,
many of the believers in Jesus
were probably still associated
with a synagogue.
Just like my made-up story
about the presence of charismatic Episcopalians
among 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 Jesus became God,
and that was the breaking point.
It may be controversial today
to say that the belief in Jesus-as-Messiah evolved,
but there is little disagreement about
this fact among historians and scholars.
Over decades 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, (40 years later)
Jesus is with God in the very beginning –
before the creation of the universe.
THEN, two hundred and fifty years after
the last Gospel is written (John),
it still takes the Councils of Nicaea –
wrangling for sixty years –
to bring a forced harmony to Mark and John.
The Roman Empire, as it absorbed the religion
like a giant continental amoeba,
strong-armed unity between scores
of other beliefs about Jesus
that were part of the splintered constellation
of groups known as “Christian.”
So now the punch line.
John has Jesus say this:
“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 John, writing into his narrative
that Jesus told his followers to
“Eat my flesh and drink my blood,”
is an emphatic exclamation mark
at the end of his claim that Jesus is God.
Jesus, by these words in John’s Gospel,
claims to be the real manna from God,
not Moses, and not Torah.
“Eat my flesh and drink my blood”
was so repugnant that immediately
upon hearing it, it says in John,
many of Jesus’ disciples quit –
they left right then.
So, with this story John paints the break
between Israel and Jesus in stark
and certain terms.
They are words, however,
that more than a few Christians today
also find repugnant.
While most of Protestantism would choke
on these words from John,
even some Roman Catholics
would prefer a more nuanced description.
But there is no hiding them,
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 a small town –
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 –
a deal-breaker if asked to believe them literally.
I know that like many
traditional Episcopal congregations, Trinity
once operated as if orthodoxy was in place:
no women or girls on the altar,
homosexuality an anathema,
any overt sexuality a discomfort,
liturgy something that was surgical not artistic,
music prescribed by a blue book
and European names,
priests that wore and did things
as they have always been done,
creeds and beliefs prescribed and confirmed.
Here is a fact.
The veneer of Christian unity
and the coercion of orthodox conformity
In 2018 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 are Protestant and Catholic,
Evangelical and Traditionalist,
unbelieving, agnostic, and curious.
Even in our little group
we span the continuum.
In this town even, while once it may have been a scandal
that St. Peter’s and St. John’s and Trinity
were not the same and could not be melded,
it makes perfect sense now.
We serve different missions,
with different visions of what it means
to be a spiritual community,
and no need to pretend or force conformity.
Our task is not to make people members
of our place, but to help people be
where they need to be
in order to practice Christian spirituality
as they come to understand it,
and as God is plucking that song on their hearts.
If that is Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church,
St. Peter’s Episcopal,
First Love-God’s Revealed,
or The Alliance Community Church…so be it.
We welcome the world,
respect the dignity of every human being,
and rejoice when it is this community
that holds them.
So, we need not push out one side or another
in order to pretend again
that we are all the same.
We need not politely ignore our clear
and definite differences?
We need only establish an atmosphere of safety,
in which we can talk about what we believe
and explore our questions
without fear or trepidation.
To look around and see other people
who embrace us rather than harshly judge
or begrudge us our peculiar notions.
We need, instead, to be able to look
into one another’s eyes around this table,
knowing that we do not all believe
the same things,
nor even all share the same values,
and still experience, and share,
the love of God.