It All Depends on the EmPHAsis

Scott L. Barton
May 18, 2014

So, it seems that they have invented a new, low-calorie communion wafer!  I know!  What’ll they think of next?  They’re calling it, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Jesus.”

Now, if somebody asked you to describe one of the differences between the Catholic and Protestant branches of the Church, I suspect you might think of the communion elements as one item. Is it Jesus, or is it not Jesus? When the priest at Mass consecrates the host and the wine, it is said to BECOME the body and blood of Christ. That may sound difficult to you; and yet, I doubt that many Catholics believe that there is an actual molecular, chemical change as a result of what the priest says. It has more to do with where the emphasis lies. The Mass is intended to reflect a mystical union between the receiver of the elements and the sacrifice of Christ for that person. For Protestants, it all depends on what you mean by “IS.”  One early understanding was that the bread and wine SIGNIFY Jesus’ body and blood.  Early Protestants struggled with this question; and John Calvin’s way of describing it was that Jesus actually did come to people when they took communion, but not because the elements had been changed by the priest.  He came in a kind of parallel way, by the work of God the Spirit, and it was the real presence of Christ.  Think of electricity being induced in a coil of wire.  You have two coils, one is inside the other, but they’re not physically touching.  When an electric current is put through the inside coil, it will induce current in the outside coil. It’s the idea of a transformer. So, take communion, and something does happen, but not because you touched physical elements that had been changed.  The change already happened with the death and resurrection of Jesus. But it comes to transform you.  Protestant emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus is also very communal because it’s about his presence in the community of believers. That’s where the transformation happens.

It all depends on the emphasis.

Here’s another example. “Do Congregationalists believe in predestination?”  Well, it actually all depends on how you look at it. If you think it’s all about everything that we do being somehow all planned out, then I suspect for most if not all of you the answer is no. I could be wrong! But if you think it means there is nothing that we can do to make God love us – and you may not all believe that, either, although I hope by the end of the sermon you do! – then the answer is yes. Reformed Protestants like Congregationalists say there is nothing you can do. There are no words, no actions, no declarations of forgiveness, no contributions to a good cause, that can save you. Thank God!  Because our motives are never perfect. Are they?  No, but God’s are.  Reformed Protestants emphasize what Paul says, that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Ever? Right. Nothing. Ever. This means salvation isn’t about what happens to us after death. We emphasize what has already happened by GOD. And so we turn away from worrying about death to focus on the creative living of life.  We worry less and less about being right, and live more and more to show who creates right, meaning the one who dared to love the whole world always, even when we fail, and even in old age when we find ourselves failing. Always! So we don’t deny death. What we deny is the fear of it. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Ever.

Thus we come to Jesus’ saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Where is the emphasis for you?  For me, it’s partly on that word that Jesus used a lot, Father.  But pay attention.  He often used the word, Abba. It’s an intimate word.  It’s like, “Daddy,” or “Mommy.” A relationship with God, like a child’s to a loving parent, is what we see and have through Jesus Christ. This doesn’t make anyone else’s belief false. But what’s true is that a relationship with God as Daddy - or Mommy, if that can be more intimate for you - is the kind that Jesus had. If you want intimacy with God, rather than a theoretical idea like, say, God as the Man Upstairs, Jesus is where you go.

And why is he the way, the truth and the life? Marcus Borg says: “The way is the path of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being, and it’s the only way to God.”  That’s what God is all about. It’s the opposite of power and money and acquiring and defending ourselves – all those things that come so naturally to any of us. An old way of being.

Marcus Borg tells a story to illustrate. “The same point was made in a sermon preached by a Hindu professor in a Christian seminary several decades ago. The text for the day included the "one way" passage, and about it [this Hindu professor] said, "This verse is absolutely true--Jesus is the only way." Then, he continued, "And that way--of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being--is known in all of the religions of the world."  The "way" of Jesus is a universal way, known even to millions who have never heard of Jesus, to love the Lord with all your heart, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.

“The way of Jesus is thus not a set of beliefs about Jesus. The fact that people ever thought it was is strange, if you think about it--as if one entered new life by believing certain things to be true, or as if the only people who can be loved by God are those who know the word "Jesus." Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables.”

Sometimes this way of dying to an old way, the truth of death and resurrection, means putting aside the thing that has gnawed at us for years even though it has given a certain status in our own eyes, and when we do, we find possibilities for living that we had forgotten all about.  Jesus is the way, the truth and the life then.

Sometimes this way of dying to an old way, the truth of death and resurrection, means giving up all those stories we all have about what so and so did, or said way back when, or maybe only last week, that clearly is meant to put us in a better light but which ends up alienating us from friends and neighbors; and when we do, we see that God loves us for who we are, not for what other people aren’t, and for what we can still do to make the world a better place.  Jesus is the way, the truth and the life then.

Sometimes this way of dying to an old way, the truth of death and resurrection, means dying to our old fears that we won’t be loved, and our unceasing quest for more and more things, as if having it all could somehow make us more ready to die; and instead live lives of generosity, stand up in the public sphere for generosity and hope for all, and trust that if we don’t have it all, maybe someone else will have what they need to live at all. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life then.

Rachael, today you join of your own accord this way, this truth and this life.  But it’s not because you believe the right things.  As Fred Buechner says, “Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are all wrong.

“Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day. [Mind you, these aren’t bad things.  But they’re not the essential thing.]

“Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy [or Gal].
“[But Jesus himself didn’t say] that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. …He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.

“[As the opening meditation in your bulletin says,] A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.”
The way, the truth and the life – it’s all about whom we thank. It’s not salvation by syllables!  It’s salvation by emphasis, the One who is emphatically for you!