A Sermon preached on January 24th (Ecumenical Servcíce for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity) at the Evangelische Bergkirche, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 55:1-3, 1 Peter 2:9-10, Matthew 5:1- 16
As an Anglican or Episcopalian, I come from a somewhat more sacramental tradition than the EKHN or of course Rosalind’s church, the UCC – both of whom have a strong reformed influence. When we look back to the Reformation, and without it of course we wouldn’t need to have a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we see how all sorts of outward signs and symbols were abandoned or destroyed. There was a massive destruction of beautiful statues, pictures, and windows, in England too as many traditional symbols and signs of a common faith became instead the signs of the new divisions. Decoration, clothing, music ….. and of course also those greatest of all signs, the sacraments, suddenly separated one Christian from another.
We argued and fought over the right number of sacraments - 7, 3 or 2? We argued and fought over their meaning and significance, are sacraments just symbols or memorials, or do they have a value or effect in themselves? Now Anglicans have a reputation for being good at avoiding taking a position, so how many sacraments do we claim to have? Well … let me tell you a story first:
A Baptist, a Catholic and an Episcopalian were standing before the pearly gates and were met by Jesus himself: "I have one question that you must answer: who do you say that I am?" The Catholic replied, "The church teaches . . ." Jesus interrupted, "I didn't ask about the church, I asked about you! Wait over there for a moment please.” Next the Baptist answered, "The Bible says . . ." Jesus interrupted, "I didn't ask about the Bible, I asked you! Wait over there for a moment please." Then it was the turn of the Episcopalian, who said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!" Jesus started to smile and was about to wave her through when the Episcopalian continued, "but on the other hand…..”
So while we share just the two Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion with the other churches of the Reformation, on the other hand … we also recognize 5 so-called sacramental rites (confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction) to help keep us in conversation with our RC brothers and sisters.
The reason I started thinking about sacraments and signs and symbols in the first place, apart form the role they played in the Reformation, is because we will be using and sharing two symbols – salt and light – in just a moment. These symbols are obviously meant to be a sign of our unity and presumably also have something to do with this year’s WoCU theme to “proclaim the mighty acts of God?” And they do, and like the traditional symbols of the sacraments salt and light are not just supposed to be outward signs, but also effect an inward change in who we are and what we do.
In Baptism we use water as a sign of cleansing and for God we are really and truly cleansed of sin at that moment – whatever we do afterwards. In my tradition we also anoint the Baptismal candidate with oil. Oil reminds us of the oil that was used to anoint both priests and kings in ancient Israel and not only that, at Baptism when we become members of the Christ’s Church we join what the author of the 1st Letter of Peter calls “a chosen race and a royal priesthood.” (2:9) That is when we really and truly become “God’s people” through God’s grace. At Holy Communion we share bread and wine, in Isaiah’s words to “eat what is good, and delight ourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:2) But this real food and drink is more - it is also genuine nourishment for the soul because it is at the same time the Body and Blood of Christ – the one Body we are all part of as Christians. It is a great shame that this sacrament, Communion, is still not the sign of unity it should be.
But what of salt and light? What might they stand for? In the verses from the Sermon on the Mount, the Bergpredigt – how appropriate that were are in the church on the mount, the Bergkirche today – we heard Jesus call on us all to be salt of the earth. (Matthew 5:13) Salt is spice, it gives bland food taste. Salt also preserves and cleanses and aids healing … even when and though it hurts. It stands for the call to proclamation, to proclaim God’s word to the world, to bring real taste to the often bland consensus of opinion, to apply ourselves to the wounds of society even though and when it stings and hurts and society tells us to leave off and go back into our churches where we belong. Take the salt you are offered in moment to strengthen your resolve to be salt and so that you do not lose your taste.
And what of light, symbolized by a candle to be lit at the Paschal candle? God’s first recorded words in the Bible (Genesis 1:3) are “Let there be light.” According to 1 Peter we are called “out of darkness into God’s marvelous light” (2:9) and in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus we are supposed to be the “light of the world” (5:14) – which sounds a tall order considering that in John’s Gospel Jesus says of himself: “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) To be the light means to be visible, welcome and inviting, like a city built on a hill. But light is also something we shine into dark corners, to bring injustice out into the open. And light shows us the way ahead - to what unites us all. Take and light the candle you are offered to make you into a light giving “glory to our Father in heaven.”
Take these symbols, these outward signs, and become what they stand for. Be Salt of the Earth, and be Light to the World, and proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord by what you say and what you do in God’s name. Amen.