George is away on vacation during August. In his absence, Suzanne Sykes has sent a series of 4 sermons prepared on the theme of Paradise. The fourth one is below.
August 3, 2008
Kanata United Church
Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
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The Rev. Suzanne Sykes
Over the past three weeks we have been thinking about paradise. We have thought
of our beautiful earth, God’s good creation, as our original paradise home. We have considered how early Christians decorated their sanctuaries with images of paradise - the garden of Eden, scenes from Bible stories, saints of their own community and men and women from scripture. They made and thought of their church as a paradise on earth. Over the past few weeks the children and some of us adults created our own little bit of paradise and hung it on the wall!
We noted that Jesus called his followers friends, making us all friends, equal partners, in paradise. And then we thought about hospitality as the mark of true friendship. It is through our generous hosting of each other and all people in our community and our world that we make friends out of strangers and create a paradise of peace, justice and abundance and beauty, in our congregation, our community and our world.
Today we continue our look into paradise through examining the sacraments: baptism and communion. Baptism and communion have deep connections with paradise.
For the early church baptism was your ticket into paradise. Becoming baptised was serious, strenuous work. Rita Brock in her wonderful book “Saving Paradise,” says:
From the time of Jesus baptism was more than a personal choice about one’s beliefs. It was a ritual that incorporated initiates into a community and its sources of power. As such it was inseparable from social and political issues.
... To be baptized was to renounce allegiance to the polluting and false powers of Rome and to join movements that drew on different wellsprings - Wisdom, Word, Torah and Spirit. (p.41)
Candidates prepared for baptism for a year or more. They underwent intense initiation to train them to live as Christians. The period of preparation made a space between their old life and the new one they sought. They learned the stories, memorised the Psalms, learned the liturgy and ritual of the service. They were encouraged to fast to train the flesh, and they underwent rituals of healing and exorcism to empower their psyches. They studied with the Bishop - three hours every morning - listening to lectures on scriptures, and theology, and asking questions, in order to train their minds in critical thinking. And they were supported and encouraged in their transformation by the whole congregation.
Becoming Christian required a high degree of discernment in order to perceive paradise in the ordinary world. And it still does. It requires high degree of commitment, strength, wisdom in order to see the lure of God in everyday life. Rita Brock sums up the training this way:
It was akin to applying for, attending, and graduating from college while also training for an Olympic team sport and undergoing group therapy. (117)
Baptism was a requirement for participating in the Eucharist. The Eucharist, like baptismal initiation, was training of the whole person - body, soul, mind and strength to know the world and to discern the Spirit of God in it. People feasted on the Eucharist surrounded by the images of paradise. The presider called upon the Holy Spirit to enter the elements, and as the divine spirit entered the food so it entered everyone who ate it.
Eucharist made you a participant in the divine life. In every Eucharist Christians feasted in paradise. They were nourished by paradise, by its joy and its beauty. Eucharist strengthened Christians to live the life of paradise in the world. It trained them to resist evil, coercion of Rome. The life of paradise - of friendship, hospitality, creativity and beauty - was so powerful that those early Christians would not give it up in the face of ridicule, persecution, and even death.
Paradise belongs to us still. Baptism is our ticket of admission. This morning we are called by our baptism to the eucharistic table, to the feast of paradise. In the taste of bread and wine we partake of the divinity of Christ. We too participate in the joy and beauty of paradise. We train all our senses to discern glimpses of paradise - God’s goodness, justice, peace and beauty - in the world we live in.
Like those early Christians, we too live in a world that is full of persecution, fear, worry, injustice, poverty, scepticism. In the communion feast we strengthen our minds, our bodies, and spirits to resist these evils. The Eucharist prepares us to bear witness to the truth of God’s kingdom of peace and justice and goodness and beauty and to live out God’s paradise of shalom in the world around us. We overcome adversity and ridicule with the gifts of paradise; the gifts of generosity, hospitality, friendship, justice and truth.
Christ calls us to be witnesses to paradise. We are called by our baptism to care for the world and all its creatures because it is the creation that God loves. It means doing something as everyday as tending our own gardens, our own little patches of paradise and valuing up all the good in we find in them. It means doing everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint and slow down climate change. It means caring for the poor for the poor and disempowered are also part of God’s paradise.
It means, in our secular age and materialist world, to insist that God loves the world and desires its wellbeing. We claim that we make a difference to God and that God values up the goodness in what we do. And we go further. We claim that we are living in paradise, in the kingdom of God that Christ spoke of, right now. That assurance can free us to live in abundance, generosity, compassion, peace, delight and joy. Our spirits cannot be quenched by the troubles, ills and fears of the present age for we are nourished by water from the rivers of Eden and fed at the table of the shepherd. That is the gift of Christ we claim through our baptism and that we celebrate together.
At this table the elements of paradise - creation, friendship, hospitality - come together. Here we renew our commitment to create paradise in our everyday world. All are welcome at this table. All are welcome at the feast of paradise.
c. Suzanne E. Sykes August 2008
Acknowledgements for this series, and for further reading:
Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire. Beacon, 2008
Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighbourhood Church Is Transforming the Faith. Harper, 2006