Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on July 5 2009.
Have you ever considered the power of ritual?
We’re in a Fourth of July weekend when Americans celebrate the 233rd anniversary of the passage of the Declaration of Independence that claimed our freedom from Great Britain. And we celebrate with a variety of rituals, including concerts, cookouts, parades, and fireworks.
A few days ago, I celebrated my 57th birthday. And I enjoyed the usual birthday rituals of opening birthday cards and gifts, eating a birthday meal with Joani, and treating myself to a birthday bike ride around Salem Lake. Next month, Joani and I will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary. For the 35th time we’ll exchange cards and gifts and take each other out for a nice meal as we reminisce about a day full of ritual and ceremony back in 1974 when we tied the knot of matrimony. By the way, my favorite part of that wedding ritual was when I got to kiss the bride!
Speaking of kisses, you could argue that kissing is one of the oldest, most primitive rituals in human history. Think of the power of a kiss. I still remember my first one, and no it wasn’t with Joani! Kisses accomplish things words can never do. Nobody really understands the power of a kiss. We just know it’s something special.
Despite our occasional use of ritual, Catholic theologian Ronald Rolheiser argues that people in our day are often ritually tone-deaf. That’s because we instinctively reject what we cannot explain rationally. So we scoff at ritual because we don’t really understand it. And we Baptists in particular have tended to be negative about religious ritual, because we thought repeated ritual inevitably becomes lifeless and mechanical.
Jesus, on the other hand, lived in a ritually rich era, and he believed in and used ritual all the time. Mark 6:1-13, our scripture for today, is a case in point. Jesus has been riding a wave of ministerial success, preaching and healing and casting out demons like there’s no tomorrow. Then he decides to take a long weekend in his hometown of Nazareth, and just hang out with his family, friends, and disciples. We might call this a ritual of rest.
When the Sabbath rolls around, Jesus attends the synagogue, a very important ritual in the life of every faithful Jew. The Sabbath ritual calls for someone to read a scripture and then interpret that scripture for the congregation. Jesus does the honors on that Sabbath, and people in his hometown are not amused. In fact, they are amazed, but in a negative way. “Who does this guy think he is?” they ask. “We know his mamma and daddy. He’s just a carpenter’s kid but he thinks he’s God’s gift to the human race!”
To this Jesus makes his now famous response, “Only in their own towns…are prophets without honor.” And then the scripture adds, Jesus could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people (another ritual) and heal them. He was amazed by their lack of faith.
Jesus falls flat in his hometown, but he is not deterred…far from it. He sends out his twelve disciples two-by-two and commands them to cast out spirits, no doubt employing rituals of exorcism that he teaches them. He tells them what provisions to take and where to stay as they make their missionary journeys.
And then he adds this mysterious word: “If any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.” What kind of instruction is this? Actually, Jesus is offering still another ritual to his disciples that sounds odd to our ritually tone-deaf ears. Some say this ritual refers to the rabbinic practice of shaking off the dust of Gentile soil from your feet before you reenter Jewish territory. Some say it is a ritual of cursing and that invites the judgment of God to fall upon those who disbelieve. Some say—and this is my favorite option—that this is a ritual that urges Jesus’ disciples to leave discourteous doubters in the hands of God and move on with their ministry.
The point is, Jesus provides his followers with a helpful ritual for rejection, and a way to deal with the inevitable fact that they, like their Master, will be painfully rebuked and rejected from time to time. When somebody spits in your face, it’s easy to give up…unless you have a ritual to fall back on that helps you deal with your rejection and move on.
Jesus knows the mysterious power of ritual, and that’s why he offers us sacred rituals like baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I became a Christian at the tender age of seven—I’ll be the first to admit I was probably too young. But I will say this—while there are things I can’t remember about last week, I have not forgotten the Sunday night a half century ago when I was baptized into the faith and the church of Jesus Christ. I can’t explain what happened that night. I just know it was a memorable, life-changing experience.
Jesus was baptized, and we follow Jesus when we allow ourselves to be immersed. And Jesus offered us a meal to eat we call by any number of names—the Lord’s Supper, Communion, and the Eucharist, to name a few. For two thousand years Christians have gathered around communion tables to eat broken bread and drink from the cup.
What’s accomplished when we do this? We remember that Jesus died on a cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and Jesus was clear that the best way to remember what he did for us is by frequently repeating this ritual. As we eat and drink together, we also remember that we are community, called to be one in spirit. We share facilities and finances and faith and our very lives with one another.
Can anybody say with absolute authority they know how this ritual works? No. Somehow, in ways no one can understand or explain, the same Jesus who taught in the synagogue and performed miracles and instituted the Lord’s Supper and died on a cross and rose from the grave is present in breaking the bread and drinking the cup. Don’t ask me to explain it—I can’t. But I believe it, and so should you.
Can ritual be abused? Of course. Can it be rendered lifeless? Absolutely. But I am one Baptist who is coming to believe that we ought to repeat this ritual of communion more often, not less often. In fact, (and this may shock you!), I wish we had a way to celebrate communion every Sunday.
Why? Because there’s a transformative power in ritual. You see, when we engage in ritual in a healthy way, we make a time and space for God to do only the work that God can do in our soul.
None of us can explain the power of communion. And that’s okay. I invite you now to experience the presence of Christ through a ritual that’s 2,000 years old, but more powerful and alive than any of us.