Perhaps the very oldest proclamation of Christian belief is to say: This Jesus, the Anointed One – who was crucified, buried, and risen, is the Lord of All.  In the era where the story of Jesus played out, to say, as followers of this Jesus did, that Jesus is Lord was also to say that no one else was.  To say that Jesus is Lord was also to say that Caesar is not.  Today, to make this proclamation that this Jesus, who was crucified outside of Jerusalem somewhere around 30 CE (as we now count the time) and was buried in a donated tomb from which he also rose… this Jesus is the true and ultimate power at work in the world.  To say Jesus is Lord is to say that any political leader … any social influencer … all the market forces … or even any ideology or -ism … is, in fact, not the supreme power or force at work in the world.  It was this confession that there was a power other than and greater than Caesar, that got the early Christians in trouble with the government.  And it is trust that this Jesus is still the ultimate power in the world that should be the distinguishing statement of Christians today.

The central word used in the gospels for what Jesus calls forth from his followers and disciples is pistis, which has long been rendered in English as belief or faith … which has come to mean intellectual assent to some unprovable tenets … something we take to be true without expecting proof or some sort of observable verification.  Over the centuries (especially the last one or two here in America), the word faith, as Christians use it has come to mean accepting a number of tenets about God and humanity and the role of Jesus as mediator between them.  Assenting to these is a requirement for obtaining salvation (usually depicted as eternal existence in a spiritual state in heaven after death).  Lamentably, this trend has moved Christian faith (and also practice!) away from this world and real life and real activity and God’s presence here and now.  It wasn’t always that way.

A better word in our current American English than belief would be trust.  We trust what we profess to be true and so we act as though it were indisputably true.  Taken in this sense, worship becomes as practice of acting out of this trust.  We experience the realities of life in God’s Reign and Realm so that we can trust this is so … this is how things ought to be … this is the way things will be in the fullness of time.  Such worship empowers us to then go out into the world in trust, acting as if what we experienced is true (at least in part now) and will be true in fullness one day, so that we live and work toward that day.

This is why, at least in the early gatherings of the first Christians, every worship service was intended to be an Easter celebration.  At the heart of it all was the memorial meal, recalling the supper Jesus shared with his followers the night before his death, doing what he commanded them, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  This was an act to remember whose they were … what Jesus lived and taught … and figuring out how to order and live their lives in alignment with his example.  Disciples really just means students; the first Christians were students striving to apply what their teacher had taught them.  The liturgies and practices of the early churches developed as a way to teach and model life as a follower of Jesus so that people could become acquainted with the story, understand how God was calling them to be in the world, and then go live it out in daily life.  As I said with the list of 40 Questions at the start of Lent, our tradition of the Lenten season began as a time of intensive preparation for baptism at the service of the Easter Vigil, the start of the one and only major festival in the life of the Church.

Over the centuries with changes in cultures and societal norms and expectations, for all kinds of reasons, things changed a lot.  Here, in America today, a lot of regular church-going Christians and those more casually connected with the faith might consider Christmas the biggest celebration of the church – but that wasn’t always the case.  The observance of the Easter Vigil is having something of a resurgence, at least among congregations with historic liturgical practices and connections to the liturgical renewal movement.  For centuries, to the extent it was practiced in the Western churches, it was mostly observed in the monasteries – not in the regular congregation.  And being celebrated among those who were already baptized believers, the significant role of baptism in the service diminished.

What could happen if we were to recenter faith formation and discipleship as the central intention in worship? … if worship were not something we did because God requires or needs it from us (for whatever supposed reason)? … if worship were not something we do to make amends for our mistakes, find reassurance that we are basically good people and, because of that, will get to go to heaven when we die (rather than that other place for the not-good people)? … if worship were not something we do to recharge our spiritual batteries to power us through another week of toughing it out in the world around us (a world that has nothing to do with God? What if worship were about reorienting ourselves to the confession that Jesus is still Lord of All and all other would-be powers do not actually run things … about remembering that we died to the old ways of the world and are now living as inhabitants of the Reign and Realm of God in the midst of the here and now … about growing as followers of this Jesus and learning to trust more deeply the promises of God?

For starters, we would take baptism a lot more seriously.  Far from a sweet little ceremony that we do with babies and small children that gives the adults around them the assurance that their children will not go to hell if they should die before knowing how to be good people in the world or even as a public demonstration of one’s private, individual commitment to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior, baptism is about life and death – or rather, death and life.

Christian rites of baptism have their roots in the activities of John the Baptizer at the Jordan River … and his actions drew on ancient Jewish traditions of cleansing rituals.  John called for people to be baptized as a sign of repentance (meaning a thorough transformation and through-going change  in one’s whole manner of living, thinking, feeling, and basic orientation to life) and preparation for the coming of the Reign and Realm of God.  At some point, Jesus showed up for baptism and then went out into the wilderness.  Then, when John had been arrested, Jesus took up that same proclamation: The Reign and Realm of God is at hand, in your midst, among you; repent (that word again!) and believe (read that as trust) the good news.  In most tellings, John questions why Jesus wants to be baptized; theologians have never come up with a clear answer.  However, this much holds: the act of baptism was connected with the coming of God’s Reign and Realm; Jesus, the embodiment of that coming, was baptized; in that act of baptism, his followers are transformed into people of God’s Reign and Realm.

Baptism, as the first Christians practiced it was a very big deal and a very serious event.  It meant going under the water into death and burial … to join Jesus in his dying  … dying to the old way of the life and the ways the world seems to work … all so that the resurrected life of Christ would rise up in the baptized, raising up a child of God from the water to live thereafter according to the ways Jesus modeled and taught.  This is what Paul wrote about in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  This isn’t just symbolic language; this is the heart and significance of baptism: You died; the risen Christ now lives in and through you.

In the early years of the Christian faith, this practice of baptism often severed believers from their families, got them exiled from their social circles.  Yes, it was initially practiced with full immersion like a bath; sprinkling only came into practice where climate and the condition of local water made immersion inadvisable in certain seasons.  Yes, this understanding of baptism can be appropriate for babies and children below “the age of decision,” so long as it truly is the parents’ expressed intention to raise their baptized children in active discipleship following the pattern given to us by Jesus.  In sacramental understanding, God is always the actor in this, the One who makes it happen – not our faithfulness, lack thereof, or full knowledge or belief.  We are simply to trust the promises God has made about baptism; God does everything else.

Likewise, the sacrament of Communion … the Holy Supper … the Eucharist … whatever we call it is essential to our celebration of the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection, the first day of the week … which we now call Sunday.  Bread and wine are blessed as Jesus blessed and shared this same food and drink with his closest followers on the night before his death.  He commanded them to do this in remembrance of him.  Before the gospels were written, Paul wrote his letters and the observance of the Lord’s Supper was already a central part of the weekly gathering of the Christians.  We know this from Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth.  This final meal with Jesus and the disciples is described in the gospels that grew out of the oral traditions of the first Christian communities.  The practice of the Lord’s Supper shows up in an early worship manual (called the Didache) as well as a report from a Roman investigator asked to find out if the accusations that Christians practiced cannibalism were accurate.  (For the record, he reported there was no cannibalism, just ordinary food and drink that the leader of the assembly said was something else.)

The Greek word used for remembrance in the gospels and Paul’s writings hearkens to a story of a young bride whose husband was about to be sent to the battlefield in some war.  Before he left, she took a piece of chalk and drew an outline of his profile on the wall by their bed.  When her father saw the outline, he hired a sculptor to bring clay and fill in the outline with the husband’s full shape.  This is what remembrance means – remembering so clearly and fully that the absent one is yet still present in some tangible way.  “Eat this bread; it is my body,” Jesus told those first followers. “Drink from this cup of wine; it is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

It is a biological fact of life that what we ingest is broken down in the digestive process and transported to cells in our body, where it is taken into the cell … to become part of the cell or else fuel for cellular functioning.  This is the truth in the maxim” You are what you eat.” I was once served communion by a woman who had spent considerable time with a certain group of Benedictine sisters.  Following a practice she had learned from them, she handed me the bread and said, “You are what you eat.” … and when she handed me the cup, she added, “You are what you drink.”

Cute … maybe – but also very true.  It is certainly true physically and, quite likely, spiritually as well.  We become what we eat and drink.  When we eat the body of Christ and drink the blood of Christ, how can it be otherwise than Christ’s very life is getting into us?  This is food and drink to nourish the resurrected life of Christ imparted in baptism.

These are the practices that formed and sustained the earliest Christians.  For far too long in our current American cultural practice, worship has been about any number of other things besides the formation and nurture of followers of Jesus to live out the ways of the Reign and Realm of God here and now.  We had target markets, worship services designed to appeal to certain tastes and preferences, church-shopping for a place where the worship “feeds me” (meant purely spiritually, of course).  Not going over 60 minutes has been a primary determinant of what to do and not do.

Enough, already! This is getting us nowhere as the application of “Christian values” to ways unlike those of Christ and contrary to what Jesus taught and modeled abound.  The transformative call of repentance has been reduced to “Christians aren’t perfect – just forgiven” (meaning I can do anything I wasn’t so long as I say “Sorry!” and God will erase it.)  The in-breaking of the Reign and Realm of God – right here, right now – has been punted away to some purely spiritual plane of existence completely separated from life as we know it.  Rather than seeking God’s will and God’s ways, we try to mold God to our ways, to bless whatever we want for ourselves.

Sisters and brothers, this ought not be.  How can we, who have died to the old self-centered way of life, who have Christ’s resurrected life rising up in us, how can we keep on striving to live the old ways, just “better”?  As Paul writes, For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his … if we have did with Christ, we believe that e will also live with him … The death he died, he died to sin once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (Romans 6:5-11, condensed).

What is needed are worship practices that embody this dying and rising, that envision how life is within the Reign and Realm of God, and shapes a people to act out that way of life in the here and now.