The following sermon was preached by Revd Dr Thomas Winger for the opening Matins at the “Militant Secularism” Conference, held at CLTS on Thursday, 16 October 2014.
Thursday of 18 Pentecost 2014 – Mk 2:18-22
Dear fellow members of the Body of Christ: If I were inventing a sacramental meal for the fledgling Christian community, I would do it somewhat differently than our Lord did. I would have fresh, crusty bread with copious amounts of sweet butter. I would serve Niagara VQA wine in delicate, but generous goblets. The wine would flow till hearts were lightened and tongues were loosed and the cares of our lives were momentarily forgotten. It is, after all, a wedding feast—and who would dare serve a single bite of flatbread and a brief sip of sweet wine from a single shared cup in celebration of such a joyous event? I suspect the Stephenson family have something better in mind for next Friday—and this time it’s not even a royal wedding! Surely when our Lord transformed the old Passover meal into a feast celebrating His marriage to the Church He could have improved upon it, not diminished it. Why does He choose the least festive parts of the Passover—not the bitter herbs, thankfully, but the unleavened bread that was meant to remind Israel of their hasty departure from Egypt? He keeps the wine, but reduces it from three or four cups to just one. The Mishna specified a minimum amount of wine that everyone was supposed to imbibe—enough to bring that moment of joy—but our Sacrament gives us only a sip. Luther once wrote that if our Lord wished to create a memorial meal as Zwingli would have it, He would have kept the roast lamb—which is a much more fitting symbol of His body than a piece of unleavened bread. Surely it would have also been more festive. But instead He chose to take up that simple bread, that NT manna, and say, “Take eat, this is My Body.”
If I were to create a sacramental meal, … we’d probably end up in Corinth. The rich would arrive early to get the best seats. They’d bring their own food and wine and dig in before everyone else arrived. By the time of the sermon they’d be drunk and abusive. The poor would be left lonely and hungry, excluded by the meal that was meant to unite. The festive meal, the wedding banquet, would become a family feud. And Paul would say, “when you come together in the same place it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat” (I Cor. 11:20). What Paul means is that it’s not up to us to decide what makes a true feast. If the Sacrament were a festive meal in the way of this present age, this is where we’d end up: in division and strife and self-destruction. What was meant to draw us close to God would pull us back into the ways of the world. The ancient Greeks coined a verb to describe the way the pagan Corinthians celebrated in their temples: κορινθιάζομαι “to corinthianise”, meaning to carouse and get drunk and cavort with sacred prostitutes, of which Corinth was said to have a thousand (Strabo, Geographica, 8:6.20). Perhaps if Jesus were still visibly with us, as He once walked with His disciples, we might have festive meals with a little more feasting and drinking—that is, after all, the kind of behaviour that sparked the people’s question in today’s second reading. He was reclining at table with tax collectors and sinners (Mk 2:15-16), eating and drinking and carrying on in a way that seemed quite un-messianic. “Why don’t you and your disciples fast like the disciples of John and the Pharisees?” (Mk 2:18), the crowds ask. And Jesus counters, “The wedding guests can’t fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? For as much time as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast” (Mk 2:19). But, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mk 2:20).
We live in that day, in that in-between time when the age that was past and the age that is to come overlap. The Bridegroom has come; His people rejoiced to feast with Him; and now He has hidden Himself for a time. He has gone away to prepare a place for His Bride, and He will soon come to bring her home amid cries of rejoicing (Mt. 25:1-13). He will soon draw her into the wedding feast of His kingdom that has no end (Mt. 22:1-14). But in the meantime we fast. Fasting and feasting go together as this age and the next. Just as fasting without feasting is mere starvation, feasting without fasting loses its meaning. Holding back from the meal makes its coming all the more joyful. But there’s more to this age of fasting than just such a psychological truth. Fasting is a confession that we don’t belong to the age that’s fading away. The Latin word for “age” is, of course, saeculum. “Secularism” is an unhealthy attachment to the present age. “Militant secularism” is a fight to the death to cling to this age, a steadfast refusal to accept that it’s fading away, a violent opposition to the coming of God’s eternal age.
The modest feast of the Lord’s Supper is a perpetual reminder that we live in the overlapping of two ages, between the First Coming of Christ and His Second. Its spare table of unleavened bread and modest wine teaches us that the things of this world cannot help. It’s not a feast in the way of this world. The bread and the wine aren’t the big thing. To take the old Passover and just make it bigger—more bread, more wine—would have been, in the words of Jesus, to “sew a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment,” to “put new wine into an old wineskin” (Mk 2:22). The new thing that has come, the living God come to earth in human flesh, is filled with such life that, like new wine still fermenting, it will explode any old vessel it’s put into. The only thing to do is to begin afresh, to take just a little foretaste of the feast to come, to receive in bread and wine the precious Body and Blood of Christ that we might be ever kept focussed forward on His return. Like pilgrims leaving Egypt, we eat the unleavened bread of haste that reminds us of our departure from the present age. And like pilgrims marching towards the promised land, we take a brief refreshing drink from the wine that will overflow in the age to come. The wine reminds us that our Lord is coming to redeem us. The Lord’s Supper is a defiant shaking of the fist in the face of “Militant Secularism”, that “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). It draws us away from our sinfulness, our dying, our addiction to the ways of this world. Each time we come to the altar we fast and feast at the same time. We set aside our fleshly desires for food that satisfies only in this age, we “lift up our hearts” and set our minds on heavenly things (Col 3:1-2), and we open our mouths to food that feeds us eternally. “Wide open stand the gates,” sings Löhe. “This sacrament God gives us / Binds us in unity, / Joins earth with heav’n beyond us, / Time with eternity!” (LSB 639:3). Amen.