Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

Living in the Thin Places: Sacramental Spaces

Sunday, January 7, 2007

 

 

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

After the Roman emperor Constantine legitimized Christianity and made it the privileged religion of the Roman Empire with the Edict of Milan in 313, Christianity – which had been a somewhat loosely organized and chaotic movement – began to take on the organizational structures and values of the Roman Empire.

 

Some of the organizational terms still used by branches of Christianity today, such as the word “diocese,” were originally secular terms borrowed from the governance system of the Roman Empire.

 

Toward the end of the fifth century (476 CE), when the Roman Empire came to an end, western Christianity also began a long season of organizational decline, some believe because it had adopted the legal and governance systems of the Roman Empire.[i]

 

As the Roman Church was declining, far away from the centers of power in Rome, an alternative expression of Christianity was emerging in places like Ireland, Scotland and Wales, areas which hundreds of year’s later would be particularly receptive to Methodism.  

 

This alternative expression of Christianity, planted by missionaries like St. Patrick, is commonly called Celtic Christianity, and it was characterized by qualities many of us find attractive today:

 

Religious life was organized around monastic community, as opposed to hierarchical structures. The focus was on community, not control.

 

The monastic communities included both married couples as well as celibates. Priests were allowed to marry. Women held positions of leadership equal to those held by men.

 

Celtic Christianity emphasized the connectedness of all things. Its great symbol was the circle, so the Celtic cross has a circle at its center.

 

The theologian John O’Donohue says: “To the Celts, the circle symbolized the interconnectedness of everything; suffering and redemption, death, and resurrection. There were no hierarchies. Life was an unending circle with no beginning and no end. [They] never separated mind from body, soul from body, or God from us, or masculine from feminine, or nature from the divine, or time from eternity, but…had them all together within the one…circle.”[ii]

 

The Celtic Christians loved mystery and paradox more than doctrine, which is why they were greatly attracted to such paradoxical ideas as the Trinity. They talked about “one God who embraces the world with two arms of love: the right arm is Christ, the left arm is the Spirit.” They liked the number three.

 

An early Celtic poem said:

“I lie down this night with God
And God will lie down with me
I lie down this night with Christ
And Christ will lie down with me
I lie down this night with the Spirit
And the Spirit will lie down with me.” [iii]

The Celtic Christians loved poetry, perhaps because poetry captures the mystery and wonder of life more than rational doctrine.

 

They believed that God was profoundly present in our intimate human relationships. Their favorite term for Jesus was “child of Mary.” Celtic Christians were encouraged to have a “soul friend,” who was like a spiritual director or guide.[iv]

 

Celtic Christians put particular emphasis on the critical importance of hospitality as a Christian practice. An early Celtic poem:

 

O King of Stars!

whether my house be dark or be bright

it will not be closed against anybody;

may Christ not close his house against me.[v]

 

One of the most important emphases was the belief in the presence of the holy and divine in nature and in the ordinary.

 

Another early Celtic poem said:

“There’s no plant in the ground
But is full of his blessing.
There’s no thing in the sea
But is full of his life...
There is nought in the sky
But proclaims his goodness.
Jesu! O Jesu! it’s good to praise thee!”[vi]

 

The God of Roman Christianity tended to been seen as a divinity who lived high above us and who was distance and powerful and authoritarian – sort of the emperor in heaven. The God of Celtic Christianity was near and intimate and wonderful and mysterious.

 

Dee and I want to talk during the season of Epiphany about a concept of Celtic Christianity called “thin places.”

 

According to Celtic Christianity, a thin place is any place where the wall between this material world and the realm of the divine becomes so thin that we can experience a glimpse or taste of the glory, majesty, and love of God.

 

Thin places may literally be places…in the Bible mountaintops and wildernesses were often thin places. Some of us have places we go where we seem to experience a sense of the holy and divine more nearly.

 

Thin places may also be experiences, or music, or writings, or silence, or people. Many of us are especially aware these days, because of his physical absence from us, that Bill Branner was a thin place for many of us.

 

One of the biblical thin places was Jesus’ baptism, and the way the gospel of Luke describes it is that at Jesus’ baptism “the heavens opened,” and the Holy Spirit was so tangible that it was like a physical living thing, and God’s presence was so clear that you could hear a voice from heaven. (Luke 3: 22)

 

This is a description of a thin place experience.

 

Marcus Borg believes that one of the best ways to understand Jesus is that Jesus himself was an especially thin place. Jesus was a place through which we could clearly see the eternal realm that Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”[vii]

 

Sacraments are thin places. They are places where the heavens open and we get a glimpse of the divine. People tell me again and again that when we baptize a baby and walk with him or her through the congregation something happens to them. They suppose it is something Dee or I do, but it isn’t. Baptisms are thin places. That is the only way you can explain their power. They are places where the barrier between the mundane and the eternal becomes so thin that we can see the other side.

 

But you will find thin places outside the church doors as often as inside, maybe more often. Dee and I want to talk about just a few thin places between now and Lent.

 

We invite you to ponder during this season of Epiphany the thin places in your life. Sacraments are everywhere. Priests cannot contain them or control them. Holy Communion can erupt during a supper of hot dogs and root beer. Bathing a grandchild or a niece or nephew can become a baptism.

 

Conversation during a work break can become confession. An impulse to comfort a friend can be an ordination. Visiting a loved one in the hospital can be a healing.

 

When Bill Branner was in his last days of life in hospice care, his niece saw him reaching up above himself as he lay in bed. She asked him, “What are you reaching for?” He answered, “A crown.”

 

The next day Beth, his daughter, asked him what the crown looked like. He said, “It has rubies in it.”

 

The heavens open sometimes. The Holy Spirit becomes as solid and tangible as a dove. It is as though you can hear God speak.

 

If we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to feel, there are thin places.    

 

 

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[i] Richard Woods, “The Spirituality of the Celtic Church,” Spirituality Today (Fall 1985, Vol. 37, No.

3) 243-255. (http://www.spiritualitytoday.org/spir2day/853735woods.html)

[ii] Interview with Religion and Ethics Newsweekly at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week428/feature.html.

[iv] Woods, “The Spirituality of the Celtic Church.”

[v] "Old Ireland and Her Spirituality," in Robert McNally, ed., Old Ireland (New York: Fordham University Press, 1965), 47.

[vii] Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: Harper, 1999), 250.