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“Thank you” is always a good way to begin.

This morning, we continue our closer look at the feast we share. And as we do so, we look at one of the terms we use to describe this feast: The Eucharist.

We have already talked about several of the other identifiers we use. Next week, we will talk about it as the Last Supper and what that means for us. We also speak of this as communion, a simple reminder that we are together around this table. We refer to it as the Lord’s Supper, remembering that it was Jesus who gathered the disciples together, set an example for them in the simple sharing of bread and cup, and commanded them to do likewise. Incidentally, it is this command, combined with the physical elements, which makes this one of our two sacraments as Presbyterians, the other being Baptism.

Today, we talk about the Eucharist. It’s an old term, one that comes from the early centuries of Christianity, when the bulk of the community spoke Greek as their common language. The word itself is Greek in origin. The two-letter prefix “eu” is the same that we find in words like eulogy. It is also there in evangelism, where it becomes “ev”; and it simply means “good”.

“Charis” means grace. Put them together, add a Greek ending, and you get the word ευχαριστία (eucharistía), which means “thanksgiving”. The Eucharist is, then, the thanksgiving feast. You can see some of this retained in the fuller liturgy we use, the call and response referred to as the Great Thanksgiving:

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Communion, then, is an opportunity for us to thank God for blessings received and for the chance to gather around this table. In fact, if you change a couple of letters at the end of the Greek word, and you get ευχαριστώ (eucharistó), the modern Greek for “thank you”.

Elizabeth and I once had the chance to travel to the Greek side of Cyprus. I remember flying over on Cyprus Airways with its multilingual signs all around the plane. We sat in the emergency exit – or, as it was written in Greek, έξοδος  (exodus). The word for seat belt included ζώνη (zonay), which is also the name for the special liturgical belt that Greek Orthodox priests wear. And when the flight attendants thanked us, they said “eucharist”. I had no idea we were in for an experience that was so sacred!

I joke, of course; and yet, I wonder: could we live our lives in such a way that we, too, can see the sacred all around us, even in the most ordinary of things? Could we give thanks to God, not just when things are going the way we would like, but at all times and in all cases?

There is a tension in doing so. Our Scripture this morning from the Proverbs attributed to King Solomon reminds us of this fact. In them, we are told that “wisdom begins in the fear of the Lord.” And again, we are commanded to “fear the Lord” as we turn away from evil. How on earth are we supposed to give thanks to that of which we are supposed to be afraid?

The Hebrew word behind this phrase, the fear of the Lord, has many meanings. It means to be in awe, to stand in wonder. These are meanings we can swallow a little easier, I’m sure. The hard truth, though, is that it also means fear. For many of us, that might conjure up images of a vengeful God, one who stands ready to condemn us at a moment’s notice. And yet…if God really is God the way we describe and believe, then is it just possible that fear is the right response?

God created worlds with just a word. I can build a mean Lego house, if it includes the instructions…God has bottomless patience, calling for a people, sending prophets, and even came in the person of Jesus. I…I get angry when someone enters the Express Lane with sixteen items. And as Christ, God was willing to suffer and die on a cross. I, on the other hand, need a band-aid for a blister…

When faced with the creative, patient, and sacrificial power of God, could it be that we really should stand in fearful awe and wonder? The vastness of God and the smallness of humanity – that is a fearful gulf to be bridged…and yet, God does it again and again and again.

It may not be a comfortable place to be, between fear and gratitude, but it is a far more interesting place to be. And I believe that, somewhere in the creative tension that arises, we can find our faithfulness to what it is that God desires of us.

That, I trust, is the intent of gathering around this Eucharistic table. It is, among other things, a moment to remind us and reconnect us with the sacred so that we might find sacredness wherever we go. And yet, that is an increasingly counter-cultural idea. Our American culture is becoming one in which more and more people find transcendence in places other than in religious community. Faith is no less ardent; it is just as individualistic, too. What is new is that it is less and less connected to any recognizable tradition.

I suspect that many of us here resonate with that description, though. We find holiness, Sabbath, rest, refreshment in the mountains, or by the shore, or with friends and family, or in sleep and naps. I don’t think any of that is wrong. I personally find transcendence in conversations, in moments that challenge my thinking and assumptions, in serving others. I find it in music, in live performance, in laughter. I find it in many, many places far away from our gathered feasts, well beyond the four walls of a Sanctuary, away from the property footprint of a congregation. And yet…here’s the missing key:

It is the gathering of the faith community that gives context to the holiest of experiences. When we are here, when we listen to Scripture read, when we lift up prayers for and with one another, when we hear the call to selfless service, when we are fed and nourished in body and in Spirit, then the rest of the moments where we sense the divine come into focus. The grandeur of the mountains points to the God who crafted and crafts them. The relationships with others who lift us up, challenge, us, and stretch us remind us that we are not alone, and that God isn’t finished with us yet. The creative arts connect us with God’s creating and re-creating act. And all of it is focused in the light of Christ, reminding us that living in God’s desires isn’t just something we do in our hearts and minds. It is a fully-embodied activity, an incarnational truth that is at stake.

It is this perspective, I fear, that is missing for so many. You see: without the anchor of faith, without the joy and challenge of living in community, we are prone to craft our own beliefs, to create God in our image instead of the other way around, so that God, miraculously, agrees with us at every turn. We are never judged or convicted. And so we are never forgiven or receive mercy. Which means we don’t know how to share it with others.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a defender of religious institutions at all costs; far from it. I see the shortcomings and wrongdoings. I know how far we are capable of straying from what we are actually called to do. I believe that even a congregation as gifted as Oglethorpe Presbyterian has a long way to go to reflect the image of God within us.

And yet, with that said, I know that I am a better person when I am in community than when I am alone. It is only in community that I can grow more and more into the person that God has created me to be. It is because I don’t have it all figured out that I am forced to realize how grateful I ought to be. The very fact that others are willing to put up with me is the gift. When others reflect God’s grace and mercy to me, that’s what teaches me to pass it on – to live into the deepest, holiest “thank you” of the Eucharist.

So, come: let us gather around this table. Let us gather as God’s people, invited here not by me, not by the leadership of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, but by the awe-inspiring holiness of God’s very self.

In each other’s faces, may we recognize the beauty of God’s creation. In each other’s voices, may we heard the holiness of God speaking through in words of wisdom, of comfort, of challenge. In each other’s presence, may we know that we are not alone in this world, but that God is with us every step of the way, giving us the cause and the faith to say “eucharistó”, thank you, at every turn.

Amen.

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The Holy Ghost has been replaced by the Holy Spirit. Oh, there are remnants of that dear old spook in some of our traditional liturgies: the Doxology’s “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”…or the Apostle’s Creed’s “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church”…But for the most part, our Trinitarian theology has become the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Why is that?

Well, if you’re looking for a theological answer, or something that would give credence to the notion that change is something that happens only to irritate us, then I’m afraid I have to disappoint. The answer has more to do with language.

We English speakers might have been more comfortable at Pentecost than we think; English is a mutt language. When it comes to categorizing English, it’s a Germanic language. Our grammar looks a lot like the grammar of the Germans, the Dutch, the Swedes. And our simpler words tend to come from the Germans: “hand” is “hand”; “hat” is “hut”; “foot” is füß”.

But we have also adapted and adopted words from just about every language under the sun. “Rodeo” comes from Spanish; “pajamas” comes from Urdu; “velcro” comes from French; “Chattahoochee” comes from the Muskogean.

And the question about Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit reflects our special breeding, and how our language simply changes over the years. “Ghost” is from German, “geist”. “Spirit” is from Latin, “spiritus”. And both are equally accurate translations of what the Greek says in the New Testament: “pneuma”.

The difference is this: when the Doxology and the Gloria Patri and the Apostle’s Creed were being translated into English, our use of language was very different. The word “spirit” was used to describe those things that haunt graveyards and visit Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas time. “Ghost”, at that same time, meant something far more civilized and elegant.

Over the centuries, the meaning has flipped. For us, a “ghost” is Caspar; it’s what Charlie Brown dressed up as for Halloween; it’s what Scooby and Shaggy ran from; it’s what Haley Joel Osment saw in The Sixth Sense. And “spirit” means something akin to the vital source within us, our soul, our essence.

So in short, in the 21st century, to refer to God as “ghost” seems like an insult; “spirit” works much better.

And that’s all we have time for on The Writer’s Almanac today. Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

But maybe there is something more to this than just linguistic nuance. Maybe it says something about who we are as a people of God.

The ghost is something that haunts us; we often talk about the “ghosts” or even “demons” from our past that surprise and spook us from time to time. And the spirit, well, we live in a world where more and more people talk about themselves as “spiritual but not religious”; spirit is something that’s hard to pin down, define, contain. And the disciples, on that ancient Pentecost day, found themselves wrestling with both.

Ten days ago, Jesus ascended into heaven, leaving them back on Earth at the Mount of Olives to figure it out. Not knowing what to do, they went back to that upper room. It was where they last shared a meal with Jesus before his betrayal. It was where they hid after the crucifixion fearing for their lives. It was also the place where Jesus burst in, daring Thomas to touch his hands and sides. It was what they knew; it was comfortable.

And then suddenly, as they pray and seek comfort, everything changes. They are driven from their seats as a violent wind bursts in and tongues of fire appear on their heads. They are forced out into the streets, where this chaos and confusion of multiple languages and inexplicable comprehension takes over. At a moment’s notice, there is no more hiding out; their faith becomes a matter of public knowledge, and Peter finds himself in a place we never would have imagined after his denial of Christ; he becomes the first Christian street preacher. And as a result, we learn, hundreds are welcomed into this new community of faith.

As we read this story again today, I wonder if Pentecost is all about the disciples’ journey from “ghost” to “spirit”…They were in the upper room, haunted by what that place had meant. And they also had no idea what to do next. Jesus had become the ghost; they were waiting on him to make a move so that they would know how to react.

But then everything is suddenly in motion. They cannot sit still. What was once a quiet scene of contemplation becomes almost impossible to understand, as these country bumpkin Galileans suddenly have a working knowledge of every language under heaven. Spirit takes over where ghost once held the day.

Following Christ is no longer about being haunted by what came before; it is now about being moved into what’s coming next.

Could we say the same thing about the church in 2011?

This past week, I heard a speaker give a presentation on the topic “Things I couldn’t tell you if I was your pastor.” It was one of the most jarring, challenging, honest conversations I’ve heard about church in a long time. And as I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder if the purpose of it was to move us from a people of the Holy Ghost, haunted by the church of years past, to a people of the Holy Spirit, unsure – and yet excited – about what’s to come. And I want to share with you just three of the things he said.

The first was “There is more to living a Christian life than just being a good church member.” We all know this, of course; when Sunday worship is over, that’s when the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Being a Christian isn’t something we can do for only an hour a week. But there’s more to it than that: in the church, he said, our “pews are filled with people who are committed to their church, but not their faith.” And we in the pastorate end up perpetuating that by confusing the two. We convince ourselves that discipleship can only happen within the physical bounds of the church, that we are most Christian when we usher or sing in the choir.

The truth is that our work within a congregation is a part of our faith. It should not be separate from it, but neither should it be the totality of it. Discipleship is a 24-7 job. That doesn’t mean that we become obnoxious evangelists, incapable of having a benign conversation at work without mentioning Jesus. But it does mean that being Christian infuses everything we do and every relationship we have. It influences how we behave in the checkout line and what we do in traffic and how we raise our kids and love our spouses and spend our time.

There is more to living a Christian life than just being a good church member.

The second piece is this: “Church is not supposed to be comfortable.” We have used the word “challenge” here at OPC from time to time – yes, God meets us where we are, and in our brokenness and moments of heartache, there is comfort. At the same time, the calling of faith nudges us. It takes us from where we are on our journeys and moves us on down the road. It challenges us, because we don’t have all the answers.

Annie Dillard, the American writer, talks about the life-changing power of the gospel this way:

“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? It is madness to wear…velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Church is not supposed to be comfortable.

And finally, he dropped this little challenging nugget: “We need a whole new way of doing church.” He spoke of a mission trip he took to Jamaica. The group went up into theBlue Mountains, where they visited a church in middle of the rainforest. They were welcomed and had a wonderful worship service together. Afterwards, the pastor took them on a tour of the church. He pointed out their pipe organ, which the colonial missionaries had brought over at great expense. “We don’t use it at all these days,” the pastor said. “It’s just too hard to keep it in tune.”

Those early European missionaries could not imagine church without a pipe organ. But to build a pipe organ, an instrument which is sensitive to every nuance of weather, in the rainforest? That is nothing short of madness. The world of Atlanta in 2011 is as different from the world of Atlanta in 1980 as the Jamaican rainforest was from colonial Europe.

We need a whole new way of doing church.

There were other points in the talk, and even out of the three I mentioned, there is enough to spend weeks and months in discussion; perhaps we will do just that in the years to come. But at the very least, I want you to be left with this thought: how much time and energy and resource do we spend as a church on the worship of ghosts, trying to recreate something that once was in a world that was very different, or struggling to make sense of the things that haunt us? And how much do we spend making room for the Spirit, moving us into unknown places and unknown ministries?

The truth is that, here at OPC, we do a little bit of both. But on this Pentecost day, let’s get out those crash helmets. It’s time to move!

Amen.

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