Sharing Scripture and Communion
First Congregational United Church of Christ, Santa Rosa, California
An Open and Affirming Congregation
Epiphany 1: Sunday, January 9, 2005;
Bob Cramer, Eucharistic Minister
>Then Jesus comes from Galilee to John at the Jordan to get baptized by
>And John tried to stop him with these words:
>>”I’m the one who needs to get baptized by you, yet you come to me?”
>In response, Jesus said to him,
>>”Let it go for now. After all, in this way we are doing what is
>>fitting and right.”
>After Jesus had been baptized, he got right up out of the water,
>And — amazingly — the skies opened up,
>he saw God’s spirit coming down on him like a dove, perching on him,
>and — listen! — there was a voice from the skies,
>which said, “This is my favored son — I fully approve of him!”
>Matthew 3:13-17, _Scholars Version_.
When we turn to the Jesus Seminar’s translation of the gospels — the
Scholars Version — we first choose whether to consult The Five Gospels,
which reports the seminar’s conclusions about the actual historicity of
claims made, in the first 300 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection:
claims about what words ascribed by writers to Jesus may actually have
been Jesus’ own words. This is always a tentative conclusion, but if I am
going to teach or preach, I want to use those quotations most likely to
reveal who Jesus really was, through what he really said.
I know this is pretty dry and academic–but one of my resolutions for
2005 is to be as honest as possible about what is known, and is not known,
by reputable scholars. When they think something reflects early churches’
thinking more than that of the historical Jesus, I want to make that
knowledge clear, even though I value the scriptures early Christians
developed and used–all of them that we know about, not just what has made
it into what we call scripture. I want to honor the developing tradition;
there is great richness there.
When we wonder not what Jesus may really have said, but what he
actually did, using history scholars’ tools, and we want to use a version
of the gospels translated by the Jesus Seminar, then we turn to The Acts
of Jesus. There we discover that very little is known for sure; what we
have always been taught involves imagination and many variations of
often-told tales. While we can honor that, if we pay attention to
contemporary Jesus scholarship, we are confronted with a monumental claim
the scholars make: we really cannot be sure what is fact and what is
fancy, in the Bible. Did he walk on water? We do not actually know. We
know that that was believed; we also know much speech and writing is
essentially poetic. Was he in fact as perfect as creeds make him out to
be? We do not know. We can believe in his perfection without agreeing,
among ourselves, on what that means.
What scholars tell us is that we can know Jesus was born, probably in
Nazareth. He was baptized by John. He had brothers and sisters, we can be
pretty certain. He called people to be fishers of persons. He taught in
one-liner grabbers and open-ended parables. He could touch people’s souls
in ways that can be called healing. We don’t know how often he may have
gone down to Jerusalem, but we know he went at least once, and that he
capped a career of antagonizing powerful men by railing against the
leaders of his native faith. He was crucified; we know it was by Romans,
not Jews, even though religious leaders may have condemned him for
presuming to speak in the name of God. Many people believed he had risen
from death, although we don’t even know for sure that he was buried; and
his resurrection was said, by Paul and others, to be confirmation not only
of his blessedness but of that potential in all of us. A dove hovers over
all of us.
The visit by a dove, an image of God’s spirit, isn’t unique in
scripture — if we take all early scriptures used by churches as being
worthy of reading, as the earliest churches did, before theologians
developed creeds and bishops turned only some of the scriptures into the
Bible and began testing people’s faith in light of a limited number of
scriptures which, ironically, contain dramatic differences in perspective
and in statements of fact.
I consulted John Beverley Butcher’s _An Uncommon Lectionary_ in
preparation for worship today. And Butcher, an active Episcopal priest and
associate of the Jesus Seminar, informs us that from CE 100 to 325 the
second-oldest hymnbook in the Christian tradition has a hymn about the
spirit as dove. Here it is:
>The dove flies over the head of the Anointed One who is her head;
She sings over him and her voice is heard.
The inhabitants are afraid and travelers shudder.
Birds take flight and all creeping things die in their holed.
Chasms open and close, seeking God as a woman in labor. …
Chasms sink and are sealed by the Lord.
People perish in their old ways of thinking.
Everyone is imperfect and dies, saying nothing.
The Lord destroys the imagination of all who do not have truth.
They are weak in wisdom and are rejected, lacking truth.
The Lord discloses the Way and spreads grace in alien lands.
Those who understand know holiness. Hallelujah!
THE ODES OF SOLOMON, ACTUALLY COMPOSED IN SYRIA ABOUT CE100, ODE 24, FROM _AN UNCOMMON LECTIONARY_.
Perhaps I should apologize for this academic discourse in worship, but I
thought it necessary as background for the one thing on which to center
That is, that tradition says God was exceptionally pleased with Jesus;
later tradition claims he was “perfect,” presumably in ways we could not
hope to be (yet we, too, can be resurrected!); but Jesus may well not have
conformed to our Calvinistic, western norms. Jesus might have done all
kinds of human things. From one of the things _The Acts of Jesus_ informs us
is historically accurate, we learn that people wondered if he wasn’t a bit
too strange to actually have belonged to Mary’s family. Rulers and rabbis
thought him strange, and more than that. If he really never married, he
was by definition, in Galilean terms of reference, very strange.
Since we do not really know as much about Jesus as we’d really like
to, we can look at God’s approval of him just as we would look at God’s
approval of everyone in God’s family–which is the whole family of
humankind. Can’t we?
Jesus seems to have believed that baptism was necessary; we’re sure he
got it. And we can be confident that he took it seriously: he saw God in
everyone, even if he was mad at them, and he saw “the least” of human
beings as brothers and sisters in God’s family.
What we know about Jesus suggests he might not want to be a member of
any church; but, if he did, he might be at home in ours. And at communion
today I celebrate that–with humility, of course, but also with a renewed
urge to tell others they are God’s children no matter what they may detect
in the attitudes of people around them.
A Calendar of Prayer tells us, all this coming week, about UCC people
following Jesus in welcoming everyone.
In Phoenix, Arizona, UCC pastors founded an interfaith ministry to
gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, called No Longer Silent:
Clergy for Justice.
The UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries joined 900 immigrant workers
in 16 buses visiting 105 USA cities to get media attention for people who
are “different” in ethnicity and class status.
In Charleston, South Carolina, We Are Family provides peer support and
community forums to quell violence against people with varying sexual
Chewelah UCC in Washington state sponsored a girl in the Philippines
to break through the consciousness of a homogeneous small community where
“very few folks look different from our own kids.”
As the Massachusetts Supreme Court deliberated over gay marriage, UCC
Conference Minister Nancy Taylor urged UCC people to lobby legislators
according to the members’ own discernment, openly taking a stand in some
Our communion table isn’t ours, as our pastor loves to remind us: it is
the symbol of Jesus’ radical embrace of differences within the wonderful
family of God. There are places today where Jesus–whatever he was
actually like in appearance, demeanor, and beliefs–would not be welcome.
If that is a church it is outrageous.
Let us join Jesus who invites us all, and let us celebrate the family