I don't even know how to begin this post, it comes from so many things that a stirring within me that and I have no real idea where it will go....
OK I'll start with this; this last weekend I gathered with a group of friends who are involved in ministry to the New Spirituality/ Pagan/ spiritually seeking arena; no surprises there I guess. I left that gathering (it is hard to call it a conference for it was so unique), with a sense of reconnection and joy but also a sense of frustration with myself, I'd wanted to say something, but I hadn't really had time to work it through within myself in order to present it coherently.
I had wanted to ask questions about the way we might use the sacraments in a way that connected with the culture, told the story of Christ from creation to re-creation, and offered a physical, tangiable yet spiritual response. My thinking had been primarily centered upon the bread and wine of communion, but offering baptism might also be a possibiltiy...
Now I am not suggesting an unthought out rush into the local market place or shopping centre, but I am suggesting that there are occassions and contexts where we are able to share the story of God in the world, from creation to re-creation, the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and we need to give people the opportunity to respond...
Imagine setting out to tell the story of God at a town festival, a music festival or something of that kind, tell the story in an imaginative and creative way, and people gather to listen. How then do we invite them to respond? They could come forward and recieve a tract, and prayer, and maybe those things are good, or we could break bread together...
Jesus did just that with the 5,000 who had gathered to hear his teaching, they were hungry, physically and spiritually, and recognising their hunger as a whole hunger Jesus fed them; the action of taking, breaking, giving thanks, distributing the bread and fish are replayed and brought to fullness in the last supper, where the bread and the wine took on holy significance...
Would we be offering holy things to people who don't understand, just think for a moment, at the last supper Jesus shared bread with one who betrayed him, one who denied him, and several who ran for cover and hid as the terrible events of his trial and crucifixion unfolded. They didn't understand, and lets face it , we don't understand the depth of love that gave and gives itself so freely even now, and yet we receive, and as we do we are converted as we enter into the transforming and renewing and recreating purposes of God.
How about the one who comes to us with an extraordinary experience of God, and on hearing their story we cannot deny that is was of God, do we demand that they attend classes to prepare themselves, when do we welcome and accept?
Now I am not saying that we should neglect discipleship, but I am asking whether the sacraments could be offered in an outside of the box , a tangiable, physical way for people to meet with and respond to what the Spirit is stirring in their lives.
I find myself rooted in a tradition that offers and open table, and yet I find that many people feel that they are unworthy and excluded, they voice a spiritual need and a spiritual hunger that is not met, and as much as we might think that the table is open many people's perception is that is is closed; and frankly the "body language" of church is unhelpful.
So what I am asking is how do we make something open really open? How do we do away with the boundaries and barriers in our minds, I wonder if we have replaced the temple curtain with communion rails and service books... If we've re-worded the open invitation to all who want to respond in a language that is exclusive and incomprehensible to many....
On the day of Pentecost many responded to Peter's message:
Cut to the quick, those who were there listening asked Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers! Brothers! So now what do we do?"
38-39Peter said, "Change your life. Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is targeted to you and your children, but also to all who are far away—whomever, in fact, our Master God invites." (Acts 2)
Whoever God invites we are to welcome, and as God's ambassadors he makes the invitation through us... (2 Corinthians 5), but we are not inviting people to jump through hoops, to conform and to become like us, we are inviting them to respond to the one who is living bread, and living water, who calls us to worship him in Spirit and in truth, to the one who has compassion on all that he has made, the one who loves completely, sacrificially and powerfully! Too often I hear people voicing a belief in a God who excludes and punishes with harsh discipline those who do not live up to his exacting standards, and I struggle to reconcile this God with the one I have come to know, the one who says to us:
28-30"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."
13"Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
14-16"Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.
None of this was said to people who "got it", invariably they didn't and they needed freeing from the rules they and others had made for themselves. When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, she questioned him about the right place to worship, here is John's account of that part of the encounter:
" “Sir,” the woman said, “you must be a prophet. 20 So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?”
21 Jesus replied, “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. 24 For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”" (John 4)
Jesus broke down barriers and through boundaries, and opened a new way of worship, a new way of knowing God centered upon himself, and in doing so, set the good news free. I find this concept strangely offered again through a mathematical principle reclaimed as a missional model; centered and bounded sets (many thanks to Steve Hollinghurst for introducing me to it). Frost and Hirsch pretty well sum it up here:
"In the bounded set, it is clear who is in and who is out (fences, not wells), based on a well-defined ideological-cultural boundary --usually moral and cultural codes as well as creedal definitions.. but it doesn't have much of a core definition beyond these boundaries. It is hard at the edges, soft at the center."
The centered set, on the other hand, "is like the Outback ranche with the wellspring at its center. It has very strong ideology at the center but no boundaries. It is hard at the center, soft at the edges. We suggest that in the centered set lies a real clue to the structuring of missional communities in the emerging culture.
"The traditional church makes it quite difficult for people to negotiate its maze of cultural, theological, and social barriers in order to get "in.".. and by the time newcomers have scaled the fences built around the church, they are so socialized as churchgoers that they are not likely to be able to maintain their connection with the social groupings they came from...
"We propose a better and more biblical way.. is to ... sink wells. If you sustain your connection with the water sources, you will find a whole host of people relating to Jesus from different walks of life. We allow people to come to Jesus from any direction and from any distance. The Person of Jesus stands.. at the center." (The Shaping of Things to Come)
So what am I saying about the sacraments? I believe that they open a door of powerful encounter with God, and that they can be used missionally, indeed that they are in some way; for if it is the Holy Spirit who brings them to life, who are we to deny that gift to people wanting to respond to God, no matter where they are on their journey? Maybe we need to learn to become wellkeepers rather than spiritual bouncers....