What are they, for you? For your family? In mine, one is that I’m a terrible cook. There’s a lot of supporting evidence for this, all of it from about twenty years ago. I have more than redeemed those early disasters.
Still, my family delights in retelling the stories, in making my mistakes come alive again, so that, however much things change, I will always be … a terrible cook. There’s no getting out of that identity for me. The story makes it stick.
There are stories we tell in the church that do much worse damage than this.
There’s a story we tell about Jesus. Some of us, every week. Scripture readings change and music changes and our own lives change but regardless of what else we say and what else we pray, we come to a particular point in a worship service and we get serious, we get reverent, and we tell the story that Jesus was betrayed.
Body broken; blood spilled. We tell that story often enough that it has become central to who we are. Whether we meant for that to happen or not. Whether Jesus meant for that to happen, or not.
Maybe he didn’t. Mark gives us just a few words about the betrayal – it’s a story interrupted, even, by another, a story about anointing…
We ritually tell the betrayal story. Some youth I work with were preparing to serve one another communion and trying to remember the words of institution, and it was so telling: of this ritual they participate in every week, all they knew for sure was that it began, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…”
But the other story is gorgeous, filled with luxurious detail: Jesus is reclining; he’s a guest in a home and he’s laying back, after the meal, and a woman comes into the room and she releases this exquisite fragrance into the air, she lovingly pours this expensive perfume on his head.
The disciples harass Jesus about it, and he tells them that wherever the Gospel is preached, this is the story to tell: her courageous generosity. Wherever the good news goes, he says, say also that there was this woman, who offered what she had, who did what she could, and it was beautiful.
But we don’t tell the story that way. We tell it like whatever else there was – whatever beauty, whatever faithfulness – whatever other details help fill it out, the center of the story is betrayal, and brokenness, and blood. That’s what churches tell, ritually, when we gather for communion.
We took a rebuke from the apostle Paul, and made it liturgy. When he offers the language we still use as sacred, he’s telling the church at Corinth they’re doing this ritual wrong – they bring private meals, and at the end of what should be communion, one person goes home hungry and another leaves drunk. He’s chastising them for this when he says, “This is how it happened, ok? On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” I’ve tried to imagine how that language might have come about. I wonder if there’s some conversation the disciples have about the meal. They’re mourning, they’re trying to be faithful, and maybe one says, “How does this go?” And another answers, “Well, there was bread, wine. Like always.”
And another asks, “When was it? The last time we ate with him? What’d he say? It’s all so blurry…” And another says, “Don’t you remember? It was … that night we were all there. The night he was betrayed.” Others nod. “Right. Right, that’s when it was. What an awful night.”
I can imagine that happening. But the betrayal is not the only story told by the early church around this table. Broken body and spilled blood are not the only images used for this meal.
Ephrem would say, “The Fire of compassion descended and took up residence in the Bread. See, Fire and Spirit are in the womb of her who bore You; See, Fire and Spirit are in the river in which you were baptized; In the Bread and the Cup are Fire and Holy Spirit.”
How did we lose that? Why do we use Paul’s context of betrayal every week? What if we came to communion and said, “When a hungry crowd followed Jesus, he told them, ‘I am the bread of life. Come to me – never hunger; believe in me – never thirst.”
Or we said, “When people gathered around Jesus, to hear him teach, he promised, ‘Blessed are you who are hungry; you’ll be satisfied.’”
Ritual language matters because rituals are acts of re-creation. What is it we speak into being when we share story and bread and wine?
There’s a story we tell in this country, over and over again. Thirty-one times since the year 2000, we’ve told a new story about mass murder. They’re each unique – a movie theatre, a workplace, an elementary school, a temple – but there are similar threads, and we respond similarly.
We respond with shock and sympathy, with prayers and promises to be more diligent. We try to understand, and explain. We collectively deny that these stories shape who we are. We buy more weapons. And we defend them more fiercely. We argue whether violence will save us from violence.
And I wonder how much all of that is connected to our practice of ritually telling a story of redemptive violence. I wonder if repeating a story of betrayal and horror – even one that ends in awe – might breathe more of that into the world.
As it is, there’s a terrible disconnect between the abundant life we preach and the violent liturgy of our sacred moments. It’s as if because the table ritual is ancient, we can’t touch it. Banners, hymns, prayers can reflect liturgical seasons, or congregational concerns, or world news, but we can’t imagine another way to share bread and wine.
But this story, of betrayal and blood, is not really what connects us to Christians across all time and space. … We know now earlier Christians used life-giving images, spoke of sacred identity – Augustine told his congregation, “You are Christ’s body; it is your own mystery that lies here upon the table of the Lord…”
Early Christians did not deny the realities of violence and suffering and sin, but they did tell more than just one story.
And if we did, too – if we loosened the hold the story of betrayal has, and began to ritualize stories about abundance, and care — what else might we do?
It may sound far-fetched – this idea that the words we say become the worlds we inhabit, that if we make sacred stories if courage and beauty and generosity we’d breathe more of all of that into the world, but… we are people of faith. The story about us is that we believe impossible things. Do we?
(This is excerpted and re-worked a bit from a longer sermon, The Stories We Tell, that you can find here.)