an oath of allegiance

(This year Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent, falls on February 18. At University Hill Congregation we are actively preparing our fourteenth annual online Lenten Devotional with forty-seven daily reflections on scripture to take us through to Easter Sunday on April 5. It will be available online here. Following are some thoughts about the role of the sacraments in Lent.) 

The season of Lent has its roots in the preparation of candidates for baptism. Lent culminates at the Easter Vigil and on Easter morning when these apprentices in the Way of the Cross and Resurrection die to their former life and rise to new life in Christ. Over time Lent has become a season in which the whole congregation, baptised and not yet baptised, renews its communal baptismal identity.

In the early church the very name given to the community identified its members as those who had pledged their lives and their deaths to Jesus. According to the book of Acts followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” in Antioch (Acts 11:26). In Greek it means “belonging to Christ” in the same way that a slave belongs to an owner. The name Christian connotes not so much choosing to be a follower of Jesus as it does being called - drafted - into the service of the Anointed One - the King in the coming reign of God.

This is the reason that the church calls its central rituals “sacraments”. In the ancient world a sacrament was a sacred oath. Sacraments were legally binding in law. Soldiers swore a sacramentum with the emperor in which they pledged to give their life to the empire. So it is that the church came to call Baptism the sacrament of entry in which the candidate pledges allegiance, not to the emperor or to other gods, but to Jesus as Servant Lord. Similarly the Eucharist (literally, the Thanksgiving Banquet) came to be seen as a regular renewal of the sacramental oath of allegiance in which Christians are joined with one another and with Christ in communion (literally, made one).

The risky drama of participating in the sacraments can be forgotten. Baptism becomes a domesticated photo-op with newborn infants. Communion is reduced to a meal for the spiritually hungry. It is spiritual food, surely. But it is much more. Every time we step forward to receive the bread and the wine we are participating in an oath of allegiance to Jesus that trumps all other allegiances in heaven and on earth.

At University Hill Congregation we celebrate the Sacrament of Communion on each Sunday in the season of Lent. It is a reminder that the forty days of Lent do not include the Sundays. Six days of the week in Lent are for fasting from the spiritual junk food in a consumer society that regularly diverts our lives from their primary sustenance - life in Christ. On the seventh day we gather to be fed by holy manna, the bread and wine of heaven. In doing so, we are reminded that this meal is a two way street. At the table we participate in a sacramental oath between two parties in which Jesus gives his life to and for us even as we give our lives to and for him.

Since University Hill Congregation is located on a campus and regularly includes visitors from a wide variety of Christian and non-Christian backgrounds we have learned to take care with the words of invitation to the Sacrament of Communion. We make an open invitation. It matters not where or when one has been baptised into Christ. This is the table of discipleship for all who have said yes to Jesus. What of those who have not yet been baptised? They are welcome, too, ahead of their baptism if they are prepared to live as a disciple of Jesus in the world. The table is open to all who say yes to living their life as a servant - a minister - of Jesus Christ.

Too often the open table is portrayed as a feast that can be celebrated without consequences, simply bread for the journey. Lent is the season when, like the first disciples, the church is given eyes to see the cruciform journey that is required of those who eat and drink at the Lord’s Table. In so doing we make a solemn vow of servanthood and enter into a new covenant with God and with one another. This new life in communion is the gift of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

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