by Beny Krisbianto, Nations Worship (with Emily Ralph)
God sent His only SON, HIS BEST to come to this earth to save us. He never intended to send the second or third best from heaven to redeem us. He didn’t send angels or prophets to die for us—he sent his son! God ALWAYS gives us THE BEST.
What about us? How do we respond to God’s gift? Are we committed to follow Christ in life? We are not left to live this way alone—just as Christ was raised from the dead, we, too, have the power of the resurrected Christ in us.
These are just some of the ways that Franconia Conference congregations have given God their best, witnessing to the power of the resurrection in the last year:
“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Galatians 6:9-10, NRSV)
On this great Easter weekend, as we celebrate the triumph of Christ’s resurrection, I want to encourage every single one of us to always give our best to God in everything that we do. Christ is Risen!
At a gathering of church leaders at camp Men-O-Lan in the early 70’s, I heard Gerald Studer (then pastor of Plains Mennonite) say something like: “If I were the only person living on earth, God so loved the world that he would have sent Jesus to die for me.”
As a teenager I was never sure I was good enough to take communion. I knew I did not live up to the expectations of the church community, nor of the Scriptures so I always took communion with much anxiety and guilt. I lacked an understanding of the grace of God and of my own self-worth. All my being and doing good didn’t achieve the peace and confidence I was taught or hoped for.
After years of college and seminary training I came to discover in a much fuller way the meaning of Christ’s death. Intellectually, I understood God’s grace and mercy. I could preach with passion and conviction that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believed in him would not perish, but have eternal life.” I owned it, but did not enter into it fully in my inner being.
Holy week was a rich time for me. I enjoyed leading my congregation through what were often high times in our life together. Yet deep within me was this haunting uneasiness about how this incredible love of God reached my needs. Why would God love me to this degree? With all of my goodness on the surface which people could see, I was still a rebel inside, driven with selfishness and insecurities.
At one point in my early years of ministry I was wrestling with the question of how God could offer total forgiveness and hold nothing against me. How could I be fully his beloved son? I had no sudden epiphany, but the grace of God slowly overwhelmed me over several weeks and months. It had something to do with my self-worth and my being able to forgive and receive forgiveness. My view of God began to change from that of a judge who stood over me to a God who had high expectation but was gracious and understanding and forgiving. I began to hear the loving and welcoming voice of a God who was with me at all times. I was more gracious with myself. I found myself extending grace to others. If God could love and forgive the rascal and phony I was at times, I could do the same.
After 40 years of ministry, I enter another Holy Week eagerly anticipating the week’s events, Thursday evening at the last super and Friday evening at the cross. Yes, I am drawn into deep awareness of my own brokenness and the grace of God extended to me. Even more, though, I am now aware that Christ died for the whole world. Because of the grace of the Lord Jesus toward me, I am freed by His Spirit to extend grace and forgiveness to others; God’s mercy extended to me through the death of Jesus now flows on as I extend that mercy to others.
I am keenly aware of my brothers and sisters around me. I am aware of strained relationships and unresponsiveness to need. I know that I enter more fully into the grace of God as I am more fully in a gracious relationship with other believers.
When I stand by the cross this Holy Week, I will stand in and by the grace of God. For I know that going deeper into the grace and love of God is related to extending more grace and mercy to others. As I weep because of my times of betrayal, may I also weep for the brokenness of others. As I enter into God’s mercy and forgiveness, may I also release others by grace to experience mercy and grace in God’s Kingdom of Love.
At Bethany we share communion at least three times each year. Our first communion service is in January when we renew our annual membership covenant with each other. Our system of membership at Bethany is an odd hybrid. We can become members by taking a membership class and being baptized or by transferring a letter of membership from another congregation, and we can become members by annually affirming our covenant with this congregation. When we renew our membership covenant each January, affirming that we intend to walk with this particular group of people and uphold our commitments to what we state in our covenant, we mark this by celebrating communion together.
This is one of the times that I most feel the difference between the Mennonite congregation in which I grew up and the Mennonite congregation of which I am now a part. I grew up seeing communion as a very somber service in which people wore dark clothes and often wept. I recall preparatory services the week before the communion services in which members filed into a small anteroom and shook hands with the bishop and declared that we were “at peace with God and our fellow men.” Members were warned not to eat and drink “unworthily,” thereby eating and drinking “damnation unto himself.”
By comparison, our communion services at Bethany feel very open, perhaps even lax. I invite people to come forward to receive the bread and cup with the words, “This is the Lord’s table and all are welcome.” I do not ask if someone has been baptized or is a church member. This seems not very Anabaptist. It does however seem to be in keeping with what Jesus did in sharing the table with anyone who wanted to eat with him.
The Bethany communion service that I most enjoy is part of our annual outdoor service. Each summer I mow a labyrinth into the grass in the back lawn and at our outdoor service we take the bread and cup just before we begin walking the the labyrinth together. We walk into the middle of the labyrinth in silence, pause in the center circle, and come back out again. Some people look into the faces of others they pass going the opposite direction, some look down, some are chewing the bread, many are barefoot. Some children are held in their parents’ arms. Most of the children enter the labyrinth at the front of the line and run to the center ahead of the adults. There they receive a spoken blessing from one of the servers, “You are known and loved by God,” and are given grapes and crackers. They run or walk back out, passing the adults who are still on their way in. The adults walk more slowly and contemplatively.
I usually take the bread and cup to the older people who are unable to walk the labyrinth and are seated on the grass that is slightly higher than the labyrinth. I love to look out across the people walking and see our congregation moving as one, like a giant organism on the grass. Sometimes we are a little crowded as we walk but we have not outgrown the practical limits of this ritual. The service is full of laughter and reflection, movement and epiphanies. If the labyrinth symbolizes our spiritual path, the bread and cup represent nourishment for the journey.
Our other communion celebration is part of our Good Friday service. This communion meal seems to be most in the spirit of the first Last Supper. It holds together the joy of the Passover celebration, remembering liberation from slavery, with the grief of the looming death of Jesus. It focuses on the stated purpose of communion — doing this in remembrance of Jesus — reminding us of his life, death and resurrection. The service is virtually the same every year. We eat a simple meal together in the church basement on Good Friday evening. We read aloud the Passion account from one of the gospels, we sing, we serve one another the bread and cup, and we leave in silence.
I value something about each of these three services. In the January communion service, I appreciate the emphasis on our covenanted commitment to God and one another. I appreciate the symbolism of nourishment for our faith journeys that is part of the summer communion service. And I appreciate the remembrance of the first Lord’s supper that is part of our Good Friday service. What I love about all of them is the way the communion ritual holds in tension joy and sadness. Words can’t make sense of that paradox, “proclaiming the Lord’s death.” But ritual does.
It’s a familiar story, especially for those who have grown up in the church. So how do we retell the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection year after year in ways that open us up, once again, to the pain, the beauty, and the wonder of Jesus’ sacrifice and victory over death?
The season of Lent, celebrated for the forty days leading up to Easter, marks Christ’s journey to Jerusalem. It invites those who follow Jesus to walk with him by remembering his life, practicing disciplines of fasting and sacrifice, and engaging in deeper commitment to their brothers and sisters in the church.
Souderton (Pa.) congregation began Lent by diving deeper into Mennonite Church USA’s “Year of the Bible” with an art project. Members of the congregation were invited to choose a word or phrase from scripture on which they wanted to meditate and to write it over and over on a panel using colors to create images. These panels became banners that hung in the front of their sanctuary during the Lenten season.
Souderton wasn’t the only congregation to celebrate the imaginative Spirit. Swamp (Quakertown, Pa.) spent Lent exploring God as creator, “littering” the steps of their platform with items created by members of the congregation, symbols of God’s unique creative work in them. Their children memorized Psalm 139, which they recited on Palm Sunday after leading the entire congregation in a procession, joyfully waving palm branches.
Palm Sunday marked the beginning of Holy Week and was the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the adoration of the crowds. The week soon turned more somber, however, as Jesus ate his final meal with his disciples, washing their feet, and predicting his betrayal. These events are remembered on Maundy Thursday.
Conference congregations reenacted Christ’s humility with their own experiences of footwashing. Traditionally, Mennonites have practiced footwashing in groups divided by gender. At Perkiomenville (Pa.) congregation this year, footwashing was one of several stations that members could visit, which, for the first time, allowed married couples or family members to wash each other’s feet.
In addition to footwashing, Plains (Hatfield, Pa.) congregation acted out Christ’s care and humility by setting up prayer stations with large maps of the world, the country, and their region. Members could pray for and mark areas on each map with a dot or a heart.
Compassion for the community continued to spread into Good Friday, the day when followers of Jesus remember his death on the cross. Members of churches all over the Philadelphia region gathered outside a gun shop in the city for a Good Friday vigil. As these believers stood against violence in the city, others gathered in Good Friday services to remember that Jesus’ death made peace and reconciliation with God, and one another, possible.
Just when Good Friday seemed like it couldn’t get any darker, Salford (Harleysville, Pa.) congregation’s evening service was suddenly interrupted by a power outage. For just a few, brief moments the congregation was surprised by the darkness and powerless to do anything but sit in the shadow of the cross.
There was a hush in Franconia Conference on the Saturday of Holy Week, as though the Church was holding its breath, waiting for the joy they knew was coming on Easter morning.
And the joy did come—in colors and flowers, in song and story, in food and hope and promise. Crosses were draped in white and lilies and hyacinths and forsythia decorated sanctuaries. Congregations met as the sun rose, around breakfast tables, and in their morning services to celebrate an empty tomb.
Philadelphia Praise Center viewed a video in which church members took to the city streets to ask people about the significance of Easter. Blooming Glen (Pa.) congregation acted out the resurrection story in a chilly sunrise service and a member at Deep Run East (Perkasie, Pa.) built a custom tomb to display on Easter morning. In Vermont, members of Bethany congregation participated in an ecumenical sunrise service on the side of Mt Killington and then, after brunch, were led in worship by a new generation of storytellers–their children.
It’s a familiar story, and yet it’s born fresh each year as we once again walk with Jesus through Lent, Holy Week, and the Easter season. In this story, we recognize what theologian H.S. Bender once wrote: we live on the resurrection side of the cross. May we continue to celebrate Christ’s resurrection by living our lives as a resurrected people.