Occasional Nibbles or Perpetual Feast?

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

John 6:56-59

Few other Gospel texts capture the tension between Jesus’ accessibility and his acceptability.  Jesus is easily accessible.  He’s like the bread that came down from heaven, indiscriminately accessible to everyone.  But he is not always easily acceptable — “and the bread that I will give…is my flesh.”  When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”In the Gospel of John, it is common for people to misunderstand Jesus.

Jesus also has a tendency to lean into these misunderstandings. Many times his “clarifications” only serve to further muddy the waters for his listeners. Perhaps this is because some of his would-be followers are only desiring to nibble on the bread of life, while Jesus is inviting them to a feast. The New Oxford Dictionary defines food as “any nutritious substance that people eat or drink in order to maintain life and growth.”  When I eat something, it becomes a part of me, and it enables me to live and move and have my being.  Just as our bodies have a space and capacity to receive the life and vital nutrients of food, so too do our souls have a space and capacity to receive the life-sustaining love of God, which becomes a part of our lives. As Thomas Merton once noted, “the root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. The faith that one is loved by God.” And this love is offered to us as a love feast, not an appetizer or a supplement.

It is also worth noting that not all food is good.  Much of my health comes as a direct by-product of what I eat.  And the things that I perpetually eat will be transformed into the molecular structure of who I am. Literally every cell in my body comes from the food that I eat. The human body is a space of transformation. We take food into our being and it is transformed into our body’s material reality. Jesus is offering us nothing less than to consume divine food. When we take this food into our being, it has the potentiality to transform our material reality into something divine. We become partakers in God’s divine nature. “Thus he has given us, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4)

While God has created us with the capacity to become divine by consuming the heavenly food of Christ, we also have the capacity to become vile by consuming the rancid feed of this world. We must remember we are going to become that which we continually take into our lives.  The good news of Jesus Christ is that the same God-given capacity to become is what enables to receive the life-giving bread of God.  But it doesn’t happen without cultivating a continual and constant hunger to take Christ into our lives.  Christ embodies what it means to be human, and Christ himself is at the fulcrum of this transformation and becoming.

The Word becomes flesh. Through the power of this Word-become-flesh we see water become wine for the sake of a feast.  We also see a few scarce loaves of bread become a feast to feed the multitudes. At Christ’s table we proclaim that just as water became wine, so now wine becomes blood, and bread becomes flesh. Christ invites us to this table of transformation and becoming. As we take take this reality onto our lips and into our lives, may almighty God transform our everyday lives into the body of Christ, and may Christ make of us an eternal offering to God.

Sharing the Gift of Truth with our Neighbors

Image Credit: Hilma AF Klint, Altarpiece #1, Guggenheim Museum

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

John 6: 35, 41-51

It seems like I have spent a great deal of my scholarly life engaged with Ephesians.  The passage that comprises the epistle for this Sunday is, to my mind, one of the most interesting in the entire letter.  It may be tempting to treat this passage as simply a list of some things to do and other things to avoid doing.  That is not incorrect, but it leaves out a lot. 

For example, what does it say about this church for Paul (let’s call the author Paul) to address people who are stealing on a regular basis? What do we learn about anger among and between Christians? I am as captivated by the image of words “giving grace” to those who hear them as I am terrified by the idea of causing the Holy Spirit to grieve.  Both the vices of v.31 and the virtues of v.32 are concerned with relations with others and, thus, imply a certain sort of common life. There is so much going on in just a few verses. 

This passage appears in the lectionary at a time when church life in so many places seems caught up in larger societal tensions, divisions and communicative habits. It takes a great deal of discipline to avoid looking at our congregational life with lenses ground for us by media accounts of the state of political life in the U.S.  I think we should treat the presence of this passage in our lectionary as a providentially arranged call to self-reflection.  

Let’s look at the first admonition in this passage, “Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” 

Paul begins by speaking of falsehood as something that can be “put away” as if it were a garment that is no longer attractive or in fashion.  Truth, however, is not treated as a more fashionable garment.  Rather it is something that must be spoken to neighbors. Truth is a good that can and should be shared.  It is a gift we and our neighbors can offer each other.  Of course, Paul’s admonition presumes we and our neighbors can distinguish truth from falsehood. If truth is a gift that can be spoken between neighbors, then one thing this passage may be pointing out is that truth is best established in conversation. If that is so, then it is easy to see how those with the loudest or most appealing voices could have a huge advantage in distinguishing the true from the false.  If the past couple of years have taught us anything, however, it is that many of us have been ignoring voices that have been pushed to the edges of our conversations.  These voices often belong to people most different from us.  When we primarily rely on those with the loudest voices that sound most like our own, then truth becomes more like something we impose on our neighbors rather than a gift arrived at and spoken between us.  

Establishing truth conversationally is much slower and more labor-intensive than virtually all of the other paths we use for dispersing information, opinion and reaction. Ideas, issues, points of interest are offered, revised, negotiated, and clarified through a patient sustained engagement with others in an iterative process.  The first words are never the last word.  Even then, the last word is always awaiting further attention in the light of new circumstances and new information.  Despite the fact that such conversations are more labor and time-intensive, the results of establishing truth this way are much more enduring, making our words much more likely to be gifts that “build up” and “give grace.”  

The cacophony of voices surrounding us, the density of mis and disinformation, and our own impatience, makes it tempting to adopt the idea that we live in a post-truth world in which each of us has our own truth.  If Christians adopt this view, we give up on speaking the truth with our neighbors.  There is no gift of truth established and shared communally.  There is simply self-assertion.  Even if “evil talk” is not coming out of our mouths, we have little reason to think our words will “build up” or “give grace.”

If Christians desire to speak the truth with our neighbors, we could do well to return to John’s Gospel.  I am not thinking of the bread of heaven passage that is the reading for this Sunday.  Instead, we should recall Jesus’ announcement to his followers that he is the truth (Jn 14:6).  Later when Jesus tells his followers that the Spirit of truth will lead them “into all truth,” it is clear that the work of the Spirit is first and foremost dependent upon sharing the truth that is Jesus (Jn 16:12-15).  At its root, truth is not a set of assertions, it is a person.  This fundamental disposition toward truth means that coming to truth that might be shared with neighbors depends first on a relationship rather than a set of true beliefs.  

The importance of speaking the truth with our neighbors is made clear in the final clause of 4:25.  Speaking the truth is important because “we are members of one another.”  Paul says little directly in this passage about what this might mean.  Yet everything he advocates in these verses is based on the conviction that the lives of the Ephesian Christians are so deeply intertwined that stealing, anger with each other, and a commitment to falsehood are realistic options for them. Obviously, these are all things to be avoided, but the fact that they are live options for these Christians already indicates that their lives, their possessions, and their speech are open to each other to such a degree that abuses are possible.  They are members of one another.  I wonder if for many of our congregations the first step towards sharing the gift of truthful words with our neighbors is to understand and come to love the fact that we are members of one another.

The Work of God, the Bread of Life

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Jesus Breaking Bread for the Five Thousand by Brent Kastler

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

John 6:24-35

If the crowds were not hungry before they began to look for Jesus, certainly they were when they arrived. A windy night had passed since they had been fed with the loaves and fish created and broken by the hands of Jesus. Then, they rowed and searched again. If the twelve baskets of remnants had filled them in the morning, by noon the hunger had crept back into their bodies.

The crowd went out onto choppy waters to look for Jesus, filled with questions. Perhaps each morning we join them in wondering about the signs of yesterday. Curiosity propels us over the edge of the boats as we launch into a journey toward that which astounded us. Finally, after rowing and peering along the shoreline, Jesus comes into sight. We greet him with questions and with each response he guides us into divine mystery.

“Rabbi, when did you come here?”

Jesus never tells them. He does not reprimand them for seeking. Instead, he speaks their reasons for seeking into the space between them: you are hungry; you want to see; you want to live and be filled. Deep within, Jesus sees that human hunger for more than what we ate yesterday, the desire to see something greater than what we saw yesterday, the craving for life eternal and fullness within him. He names that hunger and says the food to satisfy it is coming.

To this promise of eternal food the crowd asks, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” What are the things we can do to satisfy that pang and grumbling within our souls?

“Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”

A work in the singular, performed across time. The manna in the wilderness and the true bread from heaven are the same work of God. The manna was sent from heaven so that the people might live and believe in a God of deliverance and sustenance. In the fullness of time, the true bread from heaven came down so that humanity might live anew and believe in that very same God.

What is this true bread which came from heaven? What is this bread which gives life to the world? It is not a what or a that. This bread is a who.

The Bread of Life, come down to humanity, for humanity, stands in the middle of a crowd. Amid this crowd, where we ask questions that seem to miss the mark, the Bread of Life still calls us to him. We insist that this bread be given to us always. To our questions, demands, and even confusion, the Bread of Life waits in our midst with arms outstretched, saying “come to me. I am right here.” The Bread of Life is the work of God, echoing across from manna in the wilderness to the tables in our sanctuaries. It is the work of God which continuously calls humanity to come and believe.

There are days now and days ahead when ravenous questions will be gnawing at our souls. When did you come here? What must we do? What are you going to do? Please, can we have this forever? Jesus never condemns these questions. Instead, each answer invites us into new life. Jesus names the deepest hunger inside of us and never tells us to stop seeking. Curiosity about the signs of yesterday launched us into the boats on the water and it is the work of God, the Bread of Life, which draws us always to the shore.

Imagining Reality

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

For many years now, with varied consistency, I’ve begun my day with the Morning Prayer office of the Book of Common Prayer. At the end of that prayer service there are a few options of closing benedictions, but more often than not I skip to the final one:

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.

It is not always conscious, but praying these verses from Ephesians changes how I go about my day as I dwell with the knowledge that God is doing more than I can “ask or imagine”. Knowing that God is always doing infinitely more, I’m invited to ask and imagine more boldly and live in the humble realization that I don’t really understand the whole of reality.

Jesus invites his disciples into this same kind of work in our Gospel reading from John. Discipleship is about learning to live into a constant conversation with God (asking) and learning to see, even if through a glass darkly, the reality of God’s reign. Since much of this reality is imperceptible through the usual means of our senses, it is only through imagination that we can properly get even a glimpse of what is really happening.

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