Japanese royalty either have really good genes or a whole lot of secrets. The myth is that they are descended from a sun goddess, and that there in an unbroken male lineage stretching back 2600 years, roughly to the time of the Babylonian Exile. If only Henry the Eighth had been so lucky! Or more accurately, if only the first wife of Henry the Eighth had been so lucky. Or the second, or the third, etc., etc. But this is Japan’s story, their myth, this continuing lineage.
Every country, tribe and family has its own myth, a story that gives shape, that builds and sometimes destroys. Some of these tribal and national myths are healthy, some not so much. Our founding myth includes religious refugees, the Puritans and Pilgrims in New England, William Penn’s liberating colony to the south of us. But this version of events, this founding myth, over-emphasizes the role of religion in colonization. The vast majority of those who came to the Americas from Europe came for one reason, and one reason only: economics.
Religious wars in Europe certainly contributed to the grinding poverty on the continent, but monarchs and nobles didn’t need a religious reason to go to war. Then there was the sheer number of people. While the Black Death had wiped out something like half of Europe’s population in the Fourteenth Century, it was back at pre-plague levels by the Seventeenth. Poverty, over-population, lack of opportunity, one war after another… it would be enough to drive any of us to a boat across a dangerous sea, something we still see playing out in the news centuries later.
So it was that Germans of the Reform Protestant persuasion landed on the American coast, mostly settling in the Mid-Atlantic region, for they found New York unwelcoming. Because they were economic refugees, they did not bring along their own clergy, because, you know, why would a clergy person leave a good gig back in the homeland? Nevertheless, they formed their own Sunday School societies, called lay pastors, and eventually one of their lay leaders was ordained by the more established Dutch Reform church in America.
There was the Great Awakening, the first of several waves of religious fervor, the rise of Christian diversity and tolerance, where people of differing faiths could co-exist in the same territory, no longer subject to the whims of a monarch. Who knew that was even possible? Eventually, those German Reform Christians would build a seminary, today called Lancaster Theological Seminary, but then still in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. It is one of the remaining United Church of Christ seminaries, for those German Reform Christians were part of the merger that formed the United Church of Christ in 1957.
Like their Congregationalist cousins to the north, Christians of the German Reform understood the Protestant Reformation as a break from a corrupt Roman church, emphasized and, dare I say, exaggerated the differences between their faith and that which had dominated Western Europe for a thousand years. They threw out anything that looked like ritual, harshly judged others in the Christian family, were really good at seeing splinters in the eyes of others. Then along came Philip Schaff, a Swiss-German and a rising superstar in European theological circles when he surprised everyone by taking a position at the small reform seminary in Mercersburg, on the other side of the Atlantic.
While Reform theology emphasized the church as something created by people, Schaff understood the church as created by God, and rather than emphasizing conflict, he focused on continuity. The Mercersburg movement, or theology, that developed around Schaff and his colleague John Williamson Nevin, would lay the foundation for the ecumenical movement that would flourish at the start of the 20th century, cooperation between different Christian denominations that would even flow back to Europe and, a half a century later, have a tremendous impact on people like the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the clergy leaders of our own Civil Rights movement, an ecumenism that would contribute to a number of church mergers seeking to restore, where possible, the unity for which Jesus prayed during the Last Supper, that they might all be one.
Schaff particularly warned of an internal threat to New England Puritanism, the Reform cousins to the north: “For having no conception at all of the historical development of Christianity, and with its negative attitude of blind irrational zeal toward its own past, it may be said to have armed its children with the same right and the same tendency, too, to treat its own authority with equal independence and contempt.”
That is to say, the hubris with which Puritans approached their not-pure Christian sisters and brothers would, in Schaff’s opinion, plant seeds of disdain in their own young, by modeling judgment and division, that would one day bear fruit.
As part of the emphasis on continuity rather than separation, the Mercersburg movement also reconsidered matters of sacrament and ritual. Just as the post-Ascension church would be marked by a struggle between faith and works, the Reformation was framed as a battle between Word and Sacrament, with the Reformers accusing the Roman church of abandoning one, while they themselves largely abandoned the other. Reform Christians spent more and more time listening to sermons, came to the communion table less and less.
And just as proponents of the mission to the Gentiles accused some of “Judaizing” tendencies, so Shaff and Nevin were accused of Romanizing tendencies. People took sides, called each other names, broke covenant, destroyed relationships. And there were lots of long meetings and votes, a sure fire way to guarantee that someone loses.
Today the heirs to the Mercersburg movement belong to an ecumenical order of lay and ordained Christians called the Order of Corpus Christi. Though founded in the United Church of Christ, the Order includes members of the Lutheran, Presbyterian and Reform churches in America, as well as members from churches in India, Germany, Switzerland and Great Britain.
A century and a half after the Mercersburg Movement pushed for a balance between Word and Sacrament, asked Reform Christians to opt for grace in relations with other Christians rather than judgment, and invited them to reconsider their hostility to communion and ritual, and we still have moments when folks get their knickers in a twist over communion, their way or the highway about the very rite that is supposed to bring us together. Butter-side up versus butter-side down, to borrow from Dr. Seuss.
And here is this journey to Emmaus. The reading provokes the same set of questions we might ask about all of the post-resurrection appearances. If this is bodily resurrection, if there is so much emphasis on the physicality of it all, the wounded side, the holes in the hands, then how could they not recognize him? Even better, how could he just disappear into thin air? Poof!
And in the words of Bishop Yvette Flunder, “I don’t know.” What I do know is that they recognized him in the breaking of the bread. That’s sort of the point of the story.
And in the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.” For I believe in a both/and world, not an either/or world. The Lord’s Table is both incredibly ordinary and incredibly extraordinary. It is something unique and it is of the every day. They recognized him in the breaking of the bread, an ordinary act that Jesus made sacred, one that would become a defining mark of our Christian faith. That the table was open to everyone was extraordinary. Some branches of Christianity have forgotten this, place barriers and priests between people and God, but we in the United Church of Christ tend toward open communion, choose, if we should err, to do so on the side of love and grace.
How do we signal at once both the ordinary and extraordinary act it is to come to the Lord’s Table of Love? How do we mark it as a radical act of hospitality when we treat it as an inconvenience?
Even if we have abandoned the theology of transubstantiation, the claim that the bread and wine become literal flesh and blood, and we have indeed abandoned that theology in the Reform tradition, still there is room for this ritual re-telling of our story, still there is room for the divine to act in our coming to the table.
It is in this ritual that we find ourselves most clearly part of that story that stretches back to the earliest Christian communities, a story that is being told in churches with altars and churches with communion tables and on the hood of an Army Humvee somewhere in the field. We find ourselves as Christians, as members of the church universal, little “c” catholic, in this ritual.
Ritual consecrates a space and time, sets it aside and says “here we are attending to something bigger than this time and this place. Fully present to this time and this place, we also transcend the particular. We make sacred what could be ordinary.
Singing “Take me out to the ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch is a ritual, one that connects one particular game to the entire history of baseball, to ballparks around the country, around the world.
Would that we find such a sense of connection in the ritual of breaking bread and sharing a cup.
Of course, the Communion Rite is not the only way in which we make the ordinary into the sacred. In our congregational polity we come together and make decisions, but we try to do so not in the ways of the world, but in seeking God’s will through discernment. In but not of, as Paul said.
Church should feel like home, and feel completely alien. And while we open our doors to concerts, while we could meet in any old auditorium and still be church, it should mean something that we give this space a name that is today considered by many to be too radical, for we call this place a sanctuary, set-apart, and well it should be.
Ritual, not because the pastor has the mojo, does magic, but because we mark off a time, mark off the everyday, as sacred.
And then, the real trick… to follow creating sacred spaces and sacred acts by allowing that holiness, that sense of the extraordinary and the divine, to intrude into other spaces. To carry small rituals into our lives. By attending to the sacred, we bring the sacred back to the mundane. And just as Jesus re-orders creation so that cleanliness becomes contagious instead of uncleanliness, so we are empowered through ritual to insure that rather than the profane creeping into our life together as church, we can carry the holy into the world.
Bearers of good news, telling the story of a God that loves enough to be with humankind, a love so powerful that it is stronger than death. Telling the story through acts that recreate and create, that mark of the sacred and allow it to overflow back into the world.
And he broke the bread. And their eyes were opened.
Tell the story.