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Sermon 4.21.24 Is your All on the Altar

Sermon Begins at 18:17

“She hears shouts and laughter. On their left in the distance a log straddles a rivulet she hasn’t seen before. On the other bank, in a clearing sits a large burden stone.  These crude structures stand like primitive monuments along well-traveled footpaths, allowing a traveler to ease their heavy haeadload onto the horizontal slab and rest for a while.  She sees a young man push and rock the horizontal beamof the burden stone, while two friends egg him on. All three have streaks of sandalwood paste on their foreheads. The one doing the pushing is powerfully built, his head shaved except for a knotted tuft in the front. The horizontal slab comes off its supports and hits the ground, raising a cloud of red dust. The miscreant’s face is flushed with pride and excitement.

Big Ammachi pictures Shamuel returning from the mill, balancing a heavy sack of ground rice flour on his head, anticipating the burden stone where he can bend his knees just enough to slide the sack onto the horizontal slab. He would be forced to go on, or else drop the sack and wait until someone came by to help lift it back onto his head.  In a land where most everything is transported in this manner, where roads are regularly washed away or too rutted for bullock carts, and where only the footpaths are reliable, a rest station like this is a blessing.”

Over the past two thousand years, there have been a few ways that Christians have viewed our altar, which is the centerpiece of our worship.

The apostle who wrote to the Hebrews tells us in Hebrews chapter 10 that symbolically, the altar is the place where Christ layed himself down as the sacrifice.

At the time of Jesus and before, the altar was a bloody place, where animals were laid down in order to cleanse sins, purify uncleaness, and help the people to become at one with God.

The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus offered his own blood, rather than the blood of animals, once and for all to perfect the daily sacrifices of sheep and goats that happened at the temple.

No longer would a priest have to go in day by day, doing the same ritual for their God when scripture clearly said, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire.”

Against this backdrop, we have a shepherd who laid down his own life and had the power to take it back up again.

The altar to these early Christians was a place where sacrifice became the signifier of Jesus’ death, and was transformed by his resurrection.

Christ’s sacrifice the symbol, or the stand-in, for the earlier form.

In the middle ages, around the 12th century, the doctrine of transubstantiation began to be fully articulated by the Roman church.

Transubstantiation is the philosophical idea that the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, which we make at our altar, becomes the literal body and blood of Jesus.

This doctrine was meant to safeguard the literal presence of Jesus in the bread and wine, because Jesus said “this is my body, this is my blood.”

Now, when we are making the Eucharist, we do a very ancient practice called the Fraction.  It is the part of the prayer where, I break the bread and show you that it is broken.  And I say, or we sing, “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.”

The problem became that when you mix the symbolic sacrifice on the altar with a theology of Christ’s literal presence in the broken elements, people might think that Jesus was being re-sacrificed every time and in every place that the Eucharist was made.

So, not only would this countermand Hebrews 10, but it would also mean that Christ suffered His passion again everytime we took communion.

Proto-reformers in the 13th century, like John Wycliffe and Jan Huss, became so concerned that ordinary Christians would think this that they completely rejected the idea of transubstantiation.

In fact, the Roman church was so angry with Wycliffe over his writings that they dug his body up out of his grave and burned it at the stake thirty years after he had already died.

As we can see, the altar during this time period was still closely associated with sacrifice.

Today, we still receive some of the sacrificial symbolism of the altar, you’ll notice later that our Eucharistic prayer will say that we “offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

This is directly related to the debates about transubstantiation and is a heritage of the protestant reformation.

It is said this way to ensure that no one thinks that Jesus is being sacrificed again on our altar.

Of course, the altar has also been seen as the table at which Jesus and his friends gathered to eat their last supper together.

This has been the case since the beginning, but has become even more the emphasis as the problems of sacrificial theology came to the fore.

In theological terms, we call the part of the Eucharistic prayer where we remember Jesus sitting at the table with his friends the anamnesis.

Anamnesis means to remember, but not just a memory of something past, but the type of memory, where we are literally transported back to the place of memory.

We are there with Jesus as his disciples, partaking of the passover feast, which he offers to us.

Whether we are a Peter who will deny him, a Judas who will betray him, or a disciple who will give their life for him, we are seated at His table and He gives us this mercy of filling us with himself.

And so the altar has also been seen as that table, from which God’s mercy flows with a new covenant of Jesus’ spirit abiding within us through the Eucharist.

These are the two classic models for our altar; the sacrificial altar of the temple, and the table of the upper room.

Today, I would suggest that the altar has become de-emphasized and that Christianity is poorer for it,

More liberal Christianity likes to take a route similar to that of Barbara Brown Taylor’s 2009 book An Altar in the World, which tries to find sacredness as a symbolic “altar” in secular things like hanging laundry on a clothes line or smiling at people in the grocery store.

The altar is to be found in the world as a place of connection with God and the divine, but it lacks the sacrificial element; The laying down and taking back up.

On the other hand, there are the evangelical forms of Christianity that rose out of the Awakening movements of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Almost without exception, these churches have completely removed the altar from their worship and theology.

If you have ever watched a televangelist, have you ever seen an altar or communion on those programs?

In fact, demographically today, most Christian churches in the United States don’t even have an altar, and millions of Christians don’t celebrate the Last Supper unless they go to a theme park in Florida.

Sacrifice in these churches has become almost singularly monetary.

“Give sacrificially for 90 days and see if God increases your blessings.”

Sacrifice becomes a psychological trick to get people invested, because “where your treasure is, there your heart will lie.”

But, I didn’t come here just to say “woe is us, look at the state of the world and Christianity.”

I came here to say that there is a better way.

We have a Good Shepherd who has showed us a better way.

because there is a third way that the altar has been viewed, which pulls all of the disparate symbolic elements together, and shows us what is lost, when the altar is overlooked.

I began this sermon with an excerpt from the book A Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese,

In this passage, we hear about the burden stones of southern India;

Places where weary travelers can set down their burdens for a little while to rest and recuperate.

Places of comfort and repose that can remind us that our Good Shepherd promises to let us lay down in green pastures and to lead us by still waters.

Places where we can lay things down and take them back up with power.

As Christians, the altar is the center of our universe. It is the place from which and to which all things flow in worship and in life.

Like that old song says, “is your all on the altar of Jesus Christ laid? Your heart does the spirit control? You can only be blest and have peace and sweet rest as you yield him your body and soul.”

Our altars show us that Jesus knows what it is like to be a sheep, to carry every burden that we carry.

Our altars show us that Jesus gives abundantly and we don’t have to earn His grace.

Our altars show us that “resting places like this are a blessing.”

Like a burden stone, our altars show us that we can trust in Jesus, because “he will not allow our foot to stumble.”

When we tear down the altars, when we ignore their significance, we lose something precious and necessary for our lives.

We become like those young boys pushing over the burden stones, relying on our own strength, thinking that we are so strong and funny and courageous; taking away what God has put into this world for our benefit; losing sight of the Shepherd who would lead us and call us by name.

God has given us the altars of this world because the altar is the place where the Good Shepherd proves himself to be good; Unlike the hired hands, he lays himself down.

And so the altar is the crucifier’s cross, where we can lay our burdens down as well, and take our lives back up again in a resurrection that transcends the power of this world.

Because this is what we do when we sacrifice on our altar, we lay things on the altar like sin and guilt and shame, we hand them over to be transformed by God;

We bring our gifts of bread and wine and ask that they be transformed into saving Grace.

We bring our bodies and souls to the altar and take his body and spirit into ourselves; we hand ourselves over to be transformed and made into something beloved and beautiful.

Finally, like a burden stone set along our path at regular intervals along life’s treacherous

and rutted cart roads,

Sunday mornings kneeling before the altar is our chance to take a rest, to recharge, and to meet God face to face in the likeness of Jesus Christ; where we can be liberated from what weighs us down and transformed more and more into the one who made us and who loves us;

Where we can be reminded that Jesus like a shepherd leads us and as our communion hymn will appropriately suggest,

“through days of toil when heart doth fail; God will take care of you; When dangers fierce your path assail; God will take care of you. God will take care of you through every day, o’er all the way; God will take care of you, God will take care of you…”

So, put your all on the altar, receive God’s comfort, take rest for your soul, and then take this love and peace out into the world and let people know that our altars are important and that resurrection in this tired and overburdened world is possible.


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