Hopefully I will not bore you with a little bit of a word study. When the Pilgrims landed in 1621, and upon the institution of the day which we commemorate with gladiatorial munera and feats of extraordinary gluttony; the Pilgrims ate a meal, literally a Eucharist. Now we of protestant persuasions, may forget the meaning behind such wording, because of their catholic associations, but we must never forget their even truer associations with the Christ we profess, and to whom we “give thanks.”
Eucharist: meaning to give thanks, comes from the Greek word Charis, which means grace, but it also means beauty, and gratefulness. If we remove the writings of Paul from our survey we find even in secular writings, the concept of a God or gods who bestow upon men good things undeserved, for which the only responses can be contempt or gratefulness. Charis begets Charis. According to James Dunn, the secular usage of the word Charis always implied reciprocity. The one who receives the act of grace responds with grace.
We look at Paul's teaching separately because Paul uses Charis to draw a complex theology based on two key principles of the gospel: love and grace. Paul uses his understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures to draw together the principles of two Hebrew words meaning "favor" and "loving kindness" and combines the most positive features of the two when he uses the word Charis:
· On the one hand there is the unilateral sense of the undeserved favor of God,
· and on the other hand there is the lasting commitment of his loving kindness.
Just like elsewhere, Paul plays upon the concept that grace begets gratefulness, but always in the sense of "thanks" and never in the sense of a favor returned to God. When we look at the world around us we cannot help but become acutely aware of the turmoil and struggle everywhere. Depression, Poverty, Sickness, Hatred, Doom and gloom.
"For all creation groans in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed: It was for this that the creation was subjected to frustration... in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21)
It is in the midst of this that God's light penetrates the darkness. And we are called to be lights of grace to others as a grateful response; it is in this that we are transformed. This is precisely why the cross is such a powerful symbol of grace, because it was in the darkness and fulfillment of the evil and dysfunction of human kind that God shone his light most clearly, that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
The cross itself is an ancient symbol, and not unique to Christianity. It was used by the Norse, the ancient Egyptians, and Aryan civilization in India and was familiar to the entire Hellenized world. When the disciples of Jesus came onto the stage of world history, they did not use a cross of any sort but rather symbolized their faith with cryptic symbols such as a sheep or a fish drawn from the Greek Characters Iota, Chi, Theta, Upsilon, and Sigma
In the fourth and Fifth centuries AD the symbols of the religious establishment began to become entrenched. Just as the canon, doctrine, and church hierarchy had begun to become more "official" so did the religious symbols associated with Christianity. No longer facing persecutions by the state, in fact on mandate by the state under emperor Constantine, the cross became the dominant symbol of the Christian faith.
The Crucifix is however unique symbol within Christianity. Unlike the Chi-Rho, or the Ichthus there are no pagan equivalents, or astrological explanations, to the depiction of a suffering Jesus dying on the cross of crucifixion. Although extraneous examples of the use of a cross as a Christian symbol exist before Constantine, it wasn't until the sixth century that people had the audacity to depict the cross with the dying suffering form of Jesus upon it. These symbols contrary to our current thinking of catholic vs. protestant rose within the popular conscience over a period starting in the sixth century peeking in the fourteenth century and declining in the eighteenth century; why?
Hardships endured by the population of Europe ushered in the Medieval or dark ages. In 541, and again in 588, the plague of Justinian wiped out perhaps as much as 50% of world population. The Mysterious Pestilence which again broke out in Europe in 1348 killed a further 100 million people in two years. The most commonly noted symptom was the appearance of swelling in the lymph nodes, which oozed and bled. This was followed by acute fever and vomiting of blood. Most victims died within two to seven days.
For the next four hundred years, this plague would return several times accompanying wars and turmoil, inflicting regional devastation on the fearful populace. It was to these terrified people that the image of a suffering Jesus spoke peace; they could not easily identify with and empty cross, with a Jesus who was only in heaven, a place where there was no suffering; but they could identify with the image of that Word made flesh which had suffered like them, and for them.
From 1618–1648 one of the most bloody and brutal conflicts that Europe ever faced, raged on in the area surrounding Eilenburg Germany. During the Thirty years war, at least 4 million Germans died. Because this city was walled and secure, it became a haven for refugees and a prime breeding ground for "Yersinia Pestis" a small anaerobic bacterium natural to rodents such as marmots, and transmitted by fleas; the cause of both Bubonic and Pneumonic plague.
It was in this context that we meet a minister in Eilenberg in 1636. At the beginning of the outbreak between 1636 and 1638 there were four ministers serving in Eilenburg, but by the middle of 1637 one had fled, and one of the remaining three had buried his other colleagues as well as his wife. By the time it was over and done with more than 4,480 people had perished within the walls of this small city.
Our text tonight is short and simple, from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians: In everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.
The Medieval saint: John of the Cross wrote “One act of thanksgiving made when things go wrong is worth a thousand when things go well." While facing the brutalities of war and the suffering of Plague Martin Rinkart left us with an enduring lesson in Thanksgiving that I hope will live with us and remind us to be transformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus; and I hope a lesson that we will take with us and be reminded of while we partake of a meal that should truly be called Eucharist: Thanksgiving. For while Martin Rinkart, Arch Deacon of Eilenburg, performed at times 50 funerals a day, burying the dead in mass graves, and faithfully ministering to the living, he had plenty of reason to despair, But as we end, I ask you to meditate on his words penned from the hope he found in the Jesus who suffered upon that cross:
Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother's arms,
Hath led us on our way,
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.