Monday, September 27, 2010

Communion: The Holy Polyseme

I learned a new word today. Polysemy. It means "a diversity of meanings." Isn't that a cool word? It seems to me that a lot of things that have to do with faith and God and religion and church are polysemic. For example, the sacrament of Holy Communion.

World Communion Sunday is this week. That means not only will we have the holy privilege of celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in worship, but we do so knowing that Christians all around the world will be sharing the Eucharist meal together on one remarkable day.

I like to imagine a wave of Holy Communion sweeping over the world, as the planet spins into the sunrise and Christians gather together in one time zone after another. Our sacrament in Springfield has been preceded by the sacrament happening to the east, and will be followed by the sacrament as it happens to the west. It is like a “grace wave” that washes the world with its gentle strength, one bite of bread and sip of juice at a time.

To prepare for this week, I asked the congregation some prayerful questions in my newsletter article …

What does the sacrament of Holy Communion mean to you, personally? What do you bring with you to the table? Is the meal simply a symbol? What does it symbolize? Is it a historic reenactment of a moment Jesus shared with his friends? Is it a foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet table God is preparing for all people? Is it an entry point for the grace of God into your life? Is it a time of shaping the communal identity of the church? Is it something else altogether?

Of course, any of my questions could be answered in the affirmative. The truth is, Holy Communion is all of those things and more. The event has shades of meaning that emerge differently for different people. And similarly, Communion can mean something different to you at one point in your life than it might mean at another point. That means the sacrament is kind of a “Holy Polyseme.” It is one of the numerous polysemic aspects of Christianity.

It's too bad the ambiguity apparent in polysemic things makes people so uncomfortable. This discomfort leads us to strive for monosemy, the fact of having only one meaning. Of course, problems arise when my monosemy doesn't match your monosemy! We then have a choice to make; we either fight about it until the winner gets to declare his or her monosemy to be correct, or we agree that the thing we are fighting over may very well be a polysemic situation.

See how great this word is? So useful.

Please don't read this as a blanket affirmation of any and all perspectives. I am comfortable with ambiguity, but not all ambiguity is created equal, if you know what I mean. For example, I am not remotely tolerant of perspectives that are harmful to another person. So if a child is being abused, I will in no way shape or form say, "Well that's just another person's definition discipline. It's not how I would do it, but hey, they're entitled to their point of view." No way! I'll stick up for the kid, every single time.

There is a place for certainty and a time to say, "This is not right!" or "That's just how it is, period." Part of spiritual, emotional, and social maturity is discerning when those times are.

Holy Communion is not one of those. It's meaning is richly polysemic, and I love every bit of it! And this coming Sunday is one of my favorites, every year. Just thinking about the significance of a global sharing in the sacrament, so many millions of souls gathered around Christ's table together ... wow!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Lost / Found

In Luke 15, Jesus tells a series of parables about being found: one sheep out of a hundred, one coin out of ten, and one prodigal son who “was lost and has been found.” In each parable, an extraordinary effort is made for the sake of the one who is lost, an effort that seems disproportionate to the rest of the story.

A shepherd leaves 99 perfectly okay sheep behind to find one stray. A woman sweeps up her whole house to find a coin and throws a party for her neighbors when she does. And speaking of parties, a father puts on a blow-out fiesta celebration for a son who squandered his entire inheritance.

Why the imbalance? Surely it isn’t fair to the 99 sheep who stayed home! Surely the woman can make do with 9 coins out of 10! Surely the older brother deserves just as big a party as his irresponsible, prodigal sibling! I mean, come on! *Stamp foot indignantly*

Of course, as understandable as such indignation may be, it only serves to emphasize the larger lessons Jesus is teaching in these parables. He tells them in response to a challenge; namely, that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (v. 2). And rather than say simply, “Well, of course I do; that’s kind of why I’m here!” he tells a series of parables designed to help us figure that out for ourselves.

What we see is determined by where we are standing. Grace may create indignation for the 99 sheep who stay in the fold, but for the one who is lost, there is no greater bliss than realizing the shepherd has come looking for you!