Thursday, April 5, 2012

What Jesus Did Besides Teach

Jesus may have healed people. This is hard for us to understand unless you believe that he had supernatural powers and was different from you and me. I think I better understand how he may have healed the sick by the recent concept of “conversion syndrome.” This is a bit more sophisticated than what we used to call “psychosomatic illness.” A person’s emotional state, brought about by family, social, or cultural pressures, is released in physical dysfunctions or sickness. It may be that someone genuinely ill suffers that illness because of trauma embedded by a culture permeated by a purity code or abuse that repeatedly reinforces that their suffering is caused by their own sin. Someone like Jesus comes along and says authoritatively that their sin is forgiven – something that no one was expected ever to do – and they are suddenly liberated and healed. This was a pre-scientific world.

The notion that we are responsible for our own salvation or liberation may be seen even in the Moses and Passover story. While the narrative makes much of God’s actions in bringing about the escape from slavery of the Hebrew people, who makes it happen? Moses and the actions of the people. Moses believes God has done it because Moses cannot possibly do it. He wasn’t a good speaker so Aaron was appointed to help. Did Moses fail to express himself to Pharoah? No. Did God write the Ten Commandments or did Moses? We say that God did it to show the awe we have for an action so significant that we feel we must attribute it to a power beyond our own.

I ramble about these things to introduce the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Eucharist (thanksgiving). Jesus went about teaching but also invited people to eat with him, and asked people if he could eat with them. I think he used the traditional blessing of the food, something like “Blessed art Thou, O King of the Universe, for giving us bread from the grain of the field and wine from the grapes of the vine” as a way of illustrating their reliance on each other’s work, their responsibility to each other, and their reliance on God’s rule rather than Rome’s. Jesus then could teach, “We are not slaves to Rome, but free in our trust of God and in our belonging to each other.”

In this view the “last supper” is not the model for the sacrament, but rather his “table fellowship” with sinners. (Norman Perrin introduced this to me.) It was remembered because it was done repeatedly, not because it was “instituted” at a last meal. Was there a “last supper?” There is always a last supper. But do we know it is the last supper we or a friend or loved one will have? The story says so, but that is very likely hindsight: “Jesus was so great, he knew everything that was going to happen!” There was no “magical” last supper. They probably didn’t sit on the same side of a table. They probably didn’t have a table.

No one has fully explained the origin of the “words of institution.” Did Jesus actually say, “This is my body; this is my blood?” The metaphors are powerful and may come from Jesus himself, but only if he did know what was in store. Verhoeven thinks Jesus could not have escaped knowing his fate, this late in the drama of his life. Hal Taussig, writing In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity lays a heavy foundation for understanding the words as meaning applied to the memory of the table fellowship post Easter experience.

Also, we have the story of Judas Iscariot. The Jesus Seminar concluded that there probably was not any such historical person. Paul Verhoeven objected, based on his childhood with the Nazis: “There may not have been a Judas, but there is ALWAYS a betrayer.” See his film, The Black Book, to better grasp this.

The ritual of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as Eucharist and remembrance of his table fellowship with sinners is the basic and best thing Christians do. It should be done every Sunday (The Disciples of Christ do this.) Sacraments are defined by many Protestants as an action instituted by Christ (churches don’t often say “Jesus.”) In that case baptism is not a sacrament because Jesus never baptized anyone. And why not have footwashing as a sacrament? (Church of the Brethren does.) Maybe the rest of us don’t because the fourth gospel is not considered as historical as the first three.

Here is what I have said in sermons about the sacrament:
When we eat together as a church,
the risen Christ is made known to us
and our eyes are opened to see him more clearly.
When we are gathered around the table,
we are drawn under the influence of Jesus.
Then we find ourselves in a similar relation to him
as had the first disciples who ate and drank with him.
All the words of his teachings, the stories of his suffering and death,
the promises of the fullness of life,
are given texture and flavor in this meal.

If we enter into the spirit of this table fellowship with Jesus,
we can find ourselves united with God.
If we allow ourselves to be haunted by the vision of the Kingdom of God
given to us by Jesus,
we can join God's mission for abundant life and justice for all.
If we allow ourselves to be taunted by his teachings
to be as gracious to others as God is to us.
then we are on the road to right worship and right living.


Michael_SC said...

People have mentioned the implausibility of Jewish men talking about eating flesh and drinking blood...being against the kosher laws and all... but it might not be so implausible in a religious context within a Greek culture. So, what do you think of the theory that 'This is my blood, this is my body' was a later development of belief, and then inserted into the gospel stories?

Dennis Maher said...

Yeah, I think it was a conclusion or interpretation given to it later, maybe soon after Jesus' death. I think it was such a shock that it struck them that Jesus was gone but his teachings and the table fellowship went on. "You cannot imprison the Word of the Lord" sort of thing. Or at the end of Godspell they sing in counterpoint as they carry the dead Jesus: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord" and "Long live God!"