Today’s message is very different from what I would normally preach. Usually, I would pick one Scripture reading, and expound on God’s message through that text for our context, using that text as a vehicle to proclaim something about God, God’s kingdom, and God’s Good News in Jesus Christ.
Today, however, the vehicle of proclamation is expressed through these banners that now hang on the walls of our sanctuary. These banners are more than just pretty decoration for our walls; they are liturgical art in the grandest sense of the word. The arts have a great history in Christian tradition. Stained-glass windows, for example, appeared in medieval cathedrals and churches at a time when the literacy rate was very low, and so those stained-glass windows told the story of faith in pictures, allowing those who could neither read nor write to understand the great story of Christian faith. Glass, paint, gold, stone, and fabric were all used in ways that told the story and helped worshipers imagine a vision of the kingdom of heaven that was beyond what they could have known.
God gave us five senses because God wants us to use them! Worship is just more vibrant and authentic when it is multisensory. I cannot believe that the God who imbued us with five senses intended us to forgo their use when it came to our worship. These banners are not just a decoration on the wall; they are an expression of worship from those who have designed and created them, they tell the story of faith, and week after week, we who sit in this space and look upon these banners will find just some of the things of God communicated to us through these banners.
Therefore, I invite you on a journey, the journey of faith that is depicted upon these banners. We will stop along the way, point out the symbols and the story of each, but then take a step back and think about how the whole set tells a complete story. Then, in the weeks and months and years ahead, continue to tell the story depicted here to anyone who asks.
Creation – Genesis 1 & 2:4b-8
We begin in the back corner with the Creation banner. I figured the Bible begins with Creation, so that seemed like a pretty good place to start! In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
In the beginning - the beginning of what? The beginning of all that has ever been, the very beginning, the real, live, actual, honest-to-goodness beginning. There are two creation accounts in Genesis, the first in Chapter 1 and the second in Chapter 2. The point of these stories is not to provide a scientific account of how the world was created; reading the Bible as if it’s a science textbook is a gross abuse of Scripture and viewing it through a lens through which it was never intended to be viewed.
The story of creation gently reminds us that there is a point, stretching back at least 4.5 billion years, where it all started, stretching back beyond physiological change of species, stretching beyond primordial soup, stretching beyond matter and gases and any sort of big bang, and we call that point the beginning. And yet we people of Christian faith confess that even before that beginning, there was God.
And what do we know about this God? This God has been revealed to us in the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is only one God, yet in God’s mystery, God is also three persons. They are equal, they are all divine, they live and move and dance in union with each other. And in the beginning, all three persons – the entirety of the Trinity, in other words, were active and present together. The orthodox teaching of the Church has been that God’s nature is unchanging, and God has always existed in the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So in the beginning, God – and by God I always mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – created. Did you know that the Trinity is represented in this banner? Take a look toward the top, and you will find three small white blocks of fabric grouped together – these represent the three persons of God , all of whom were present and active in creation.
They are white as a reminder that God created out of nothing. Think about that – there weren’t bits of a pre-existing universe lying around that God scooped up and fashioned a universe. There were no raw materials. God creates out of nothing. The story of creation is this: once there was nothing, but then God created something. Creation displays the power of God, creation reminds us that God transcends us in every way possible, for who among us can create something out of nothing?
This first banner reminds us that God creates. All that ever has been, all that is, all that ever will be, is created by God. God is free to create however God wishes, usually using the very laws of nature and science God has set up in the first place, but by no means is God bound to stay within those laws. But think about that – God creates! And that’s what I want you to remember when you look at this banner – God creates. We live in a world that was fashioned by God. We ourselves are fearfully and wonderfully made. You were not ordered out of a catalog, you were created. And creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good. It is very good!
The First Covenant – Matthew 5:17-18
The second stop on our faith journey brings us here to the Ten Commandments. Let’s remember that all the things on these banners are a symbol, and the Ten Commandments in front of us are no different.
They represent the entirety of the Old Testament law and prophets. Throughout Christian history, there have been those who wanted to throw out the Old Testament. People make a false distinction, saying that the Old Testament is all about law, and the New Testament is all about grace. In reality, both the Old and New Testaments are about law and grace all mixed together.
The Old Testament has played a major role in Christianity from the beginning of the faith. Jesus, the apostles, and the earliest converts quoted from it, alluded to it and understood the Christian faith in light of its teachings. They did not have what we refer to as the New Testament; the Scriptures they knew were the Hebrew Scriptures, in other words, what we commonly call the Old Testament.
The earliest Christians were predominantly Jewish. Jesus was Jewish. The apostles were Jewish. The vast majority of the first several thousand followers of Jesus were Jewish. If you had asked the earliest followers of Jesus if they had renounced their Jewish faith when they became followers of Jesus, they would have looked at you like you had two heads. Christianity is built upon the foundation of the Hebrew faith. Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus’ earliest followers would have told you they followed Jesus because they saw their faith pointing toward him, and everything in their Scriptures, teachings, and experience led them to believe with every fiber of their being that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Therefore, it has been the practice of the Church to read the Old Testament Christologically, that is, by finding Christ within its pages. Because God’s nature is unchanged, and because God has always been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it stands to good reason that evidence of the life and work of Christ may be found within the Old Testament.
When you look at this banner that represents Hebrew origins of our faith, you will find a hidden symbol that represents Christ. Down here toward the bottom, do you see two darker patches of purple that sort of form a fish? The fish was an early symbol the followers of Jesus used to identify themselves to one another, marking themselves as among those for whom Jesus came fishing.
So, when you look at this banner, I want you to remember two things. First, we are participants in a faith that is a direct inheritor of a great tradition that predates Jesus of Nazareth. And second, as we read through the Old Testament, we can find glimpses of Christ throughout it. We praise a God who didn’t just pop on the scene 2000 years ago, but was active in the world through God’s people and has been revealing God’s very self to us for a long time.
Baptism – Ephesians 4:4-5
Having established our foundation, being reminded that it is God who creates all things and that our faith is rooted in an ancient tradition, we come to baptism. For each of us, the Christian life begins at baptism.
No one was ever born a Christian. Did you know that? Christians aren’t born; they’re made. Even if you were born to two professing Christian parents, you were not a Christian by birthright. We become a Christian at baptism.
The scallop shell is one of the most ancient symbols of baptism you can find, dating back to the early Church. It would be almost universally recognized by Christians of all times. Early Christian art depicts the scallop shell being used to pour water in baptism. Ancient baptismal fonts feature carvings of scallop shells around their rims. In the architecture of early churches, scallop shells were carved into the walls.
The scallop shell symbolizes baptism for a very practical reason. Baptisms were done outside in natural bodies of water. They needed something handy to carry a lot of water in, and guess what happened to be handy along the seashore, beside lakes, and next to rivers? Shells. And so the shell became a symbol of baptism.
The Baptismal Covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God, promising our response of faith and love. Baptism incorporates us into the Church, which is the body of Christ, and makes us one in Christ.
The Scriptures tell us there is one body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Because of this, baptism is something that only happens once in life. Baptism is less about the decisions we as an individual make than it is about God’s faithfulness. God keeps God’s promises, and as long as God keeps God’s promises, the covenant still stands. Even if we walk away from the grace of our baptism, even if we choose to reject God, even if we choose to live outside the benefits of God’s family, the covenant still stands. We don’t condone rebaptism because the covenant does not need to be remade – God’s promises are still trustworthy, God still got it right the first time, God’s grace is still available. We need to recommit ourselves to the covenant constantly, but the terms of the covenant are still good.
Baptism is all about God’s grace. Baptism is literally inviting the grace of God to be poured into our lives. So when you look at this banner, you’ll notice a river of blue being poured into the shell from the top – symbolizing a river of God’s grace that is offered to us in baptism. Then, three droplets of water below the shell remind us that we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Lest any of us should think that baptism itself has some sort of magical power or is simply a single moment suspended in time, we must remember that baptism is an act that looks back with gratitude on what God’s grace has already accomplished, it is here and now an act of God’s grace, and it looks forward to what God’s grace will accomplish in the future. While baptism signifies the whole working of God’s grace, much that it signifies, from the washing away of sin to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, will need to be accomplished over a lifetime. Baptism anticipates a lifetime of further and deeper experiences of God and further acts of Christian commitment.
Whenever you look up at this banner, I want you to see the water being poured into the shell, and realize that in baptism, God’s grace is poured into our lives.
Eucharist – 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17
We now come across the sanctuary to the banner which represents the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is the beginning of a lifetime of discipleship; Eucharist is food for the journey. Whereas baptism only happens once for each of us – a journey only has one starting point, after all – the Eucharist is a place where we are invited to feast on God’s grace again and again. Christians are encouraged to receive Communion as often as we have the opportunity; John Wesley, in fact, encouraged the early Methodists to celebrate “constant Communion.”
It is no mistake that Baptism and Eucharist are here in the front in a place of prominence, for these are both God’s very special gift to the Church. Baptism and Eucharist are both Sacraments, which we define as an outward sign of an inward grace, and the means through which we receive that grace. In other words, grace is something that happens within us, but baptism and Eucharist use outward, real, tangible things – water, bread, wine – to convey that grace to us.
One of the stories I love from the life of Jesus occurs after his resurrection. He meets up with two of his disciples along the road to Emmaus, but they don’t recognize him. They talk, they share, Jesus teaches, and then they arrive at their destination and have supper together. And when they sat at the table and Jesus broke the bread, all of a sudden they realized who he was. I love the way the text says it: “They knew him in the breaking of the bread.”
We know Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Jesus gives us Communion as a way of knowing him, of experiencing him, of feasting on the very grace of God. The more we are filled with grace, the more that grace overflows from our lives, and the more we grow. It is no mistake that Baptism and Eucharist are portrayed on a green background – green symbolizes growth. Baptism and Eucharist are both about receiving God’s grace, and as we receive grace, we grow.
Receiving grace is a gift, and it’s a gift we should constantly seek. Whenever Communion is available, we should make it a priority to be there to receive it. I look at it this way: who here has a 401(k) or some other investment plan where your employer matches up to a certain percentage of what you put in? So, if your employer matches at 4% of your income, the minimum you should be putting into the fund is 4%. Not putting that money in is like leaving money on the table. It’s a gift that’s available to you, but you have to receive it. Likewise, not taking advantage of opportunities for Communion is like leaving grace on the table, quite literally. It’s there, it’s available, it’s a gift, it’s got your name on it – but you have to take advantage of the opportunity to receive it.
Holy Communion is just as much about our relationships with each other as it is about our relationship with Christ. Just as baptism makes us one with Christ and one with each other, so does Holy Communion keep us one with Christ and one with each other. The elements we use have great symbolic value, and this value is important. For instance, we use one common loaf. The Scriptures tell us and our Communion liturgies echo this truth – “because there is one loaf, we, though we are many, are One, for we all partake of the one loaf.” The use of one large broken loaf and a common cup underscores the aspect of Communion that is sharing and unity with each other.
Now, next Sunday is World Communion Sunday, and so I’ll be discussing the meaning and importance of the Eucharist in much greater depth next week. But for now, realize that the consecrated bread and wine are food for the spiritual journey that produce continued growth in grace.
Ministry – John 13:3-5,12-17
Question for you – what percentage of Christians throughout time and around the world have been called into ministry? You all know I love statistics, so it won’t surprise you to learn that I have reliable numbers on this one. This one is easy – 100%. 100% of Christians, all Christians, each Christian, every Christian is called into ministry.
Now, you may be thinking, “We’re all called to service, yes, but ministry?” The reality is that both “service” and “ministry” are translated from the same Greek word, so we’re all called into ministry.
This banner is about ministry. It’s about serving others in the name of Christ. It’s about serving others just as Jesus did. There are three parts to this symbol – a pitcher of clean water, a basin for the water, and a towel to wipe and dry the water. This reminds us of Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet on the very night he would be arrested. He did this as an example, “You ought to wash one another’s feet as I have washed yours.” Our faith lives itself out in the service of others.
I belong to the Rotary Club, and I know many of you do or have, as well. Rotary is not faith-based, is not aligned with any political party or ideology, but draws together diverse people from the community who want to serve their community. I am proud to be a Rotarian. I am proud to be part of an organization that has done so much good around the world. Do you know what the motto of Rotary is? “Service above self.” Rotary, which has no faith affiliation, has as its motto is “Service above self;” don’t you think the Church of Jesus Christ should be able to do at least this much? And really, following a Savior who gave himself for the world, don’t you actually think we should probably do a little better?
A faith that is self-centered, all about me and mine, preserving my personal beliefs, inflicting my personal agenda on others is not the Christian faith. Baptism and communion are about grace bringing God’s greatest blessings into our lives, but you know what? Blessing always carries with it a great responsibility, because the Biblical tradition shows over and over again that we are blessed . . . in order to be a blessing. The Church is the body of Christ in the world, and we are called to do the things Jesus would do in the world. Over and over again, we see him serving others, and our task is to be his ongoing presence in the world. A faith that doesn’t serve is certainly not Christian faith.
Church membership is not like country club membership. There are no perks to joining. We have no privileges if you join. You won’t get social standing or recognition by joining. You will, however, get put to work. We have an important task, to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, and we need all hands on deck.
This banner reminds us that Christ has set an example for his followers to roll up our sleeves and get to work. And as long as there is need in the world for the presence of Christ, our work isn’t finished, and so we will continue to serve, following the example of Christ himself.
The Holy Spirit – John 14:12-17
Finally, our journey through the banners lands here, at the Holy Spirit. The dove is one of the most common symbols for the Holy Spirit, who is also portrayed as wind which blows wherever it will, and as fire that consumes everything.
Now, the Holy Spirit is not here at the end as an afterthought, but rather as an anchor. The Holy Spirit is the unseen force present in all that we have talked about already, and without the Holy Spirit, none of this is possible. So here, we see the dove descending from heaven, coming down, entering into our lives and winging into our church, lifting us to new heights, soaring into new places, going places and doing things we never would have thought possible.
But the Holy Spirit is not only represented as a dove. The Holy Spirit is also represented as fire. In the story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on 120 of the first followers of Jesus, we are told that something like a tongue of fire rested on each of them. Can you find the fire in the banner? There’s a strip of fire running from the lower left to the upper right, reminding us that the Holy Spirit is like fire.
Fire gives heat. Fire gives light. So if your heart is cold and dark and lifeless, if the church is cold and dark and lifeless, it just takes a little spark of fire to light it up. We need the fire of the Holy Spirit in our hearts! We need the fire of the Holy Spirit in our church! We should be praying constantly for the Holy Spirit to fall on us! We need that fire to burn away all the things that aren’t of God. Quarrelling, fighting, jealousy, power plays – we need all of those things to burned away.
But we not only need heat, we need light. In places of darkness, we need to see clearly what God wants us to see. Darkness comes in many forms, but the light of the Holy Spirit can expose the things within us that would rather hide in the shadows, and then that light can drive those things from us.
We need the Holy Spirit. Apart from the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can do nothing. We need the Holy Spirit to come into our lives like fire – exposing what would remain hidden in the dark corners, and burning away everything that isn’t pleasing to God. We need the Holy Spirit to come into our lives like a dove, giving us wings and lifting us to new heights.
So, what’s the story of the banners when they’re all put together? First, God is the creator of all that is, that ever has been, and ever will be. The 10 Commandments remind us that our faith has a DNA older than Christianity itself. Baptism is the entry point into the Christian story, a moment of adoption into God’s family and the beginning of a lifetime of discipleship. And if baptism is a starting point, the Eucharist is food for the journey, a constant and ready source of God’s grace into our lives that will never run out. But along the journey, we will encounter others, and Jesus has called us to reach out and serve in his name. Every time we encounter a need, we encounter an opportunity to be the presence of Jesus. But through everything, we need the constant indwelling of the Holy Spirit, animating all that we do, growing us in grace, and giving us wings to soar to new heights.