August 26, 2018
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Each of us has been involved in those conversations when we’re becoming acquainted with someone for the first time. The conversation often leads to questions about where we work, or what we did before retiring. I have found increasingly over the past three decades that when people discover that I serve the church as an Anglican priest, their response is to say, “That’s very interesting. I, myself, am not religious but I do consider myself to be very spiritual.”
Each time I find myself in the midst of such a conversation, I try to listen for the purpose of understanding, and have discovered over time that while the specifics of what this means vary greatly, there is a common thread that seems to run throughout; that is, a strong sense that the notion of God is consistently non-specific (hence the clear focus on spirituality), and at the heart of this spiritual quest is the goal to discover the spiritual authority of the self. Known increasingly as New Age Spirituality, it promotes the development of the person’s own power or sense of divinity. When referring to deity, a follower of this type of spirituality is not talking about a transcendent, personal God who created the universe, but is referring to a higher consciousness within themselves. Followers of this belief system see themselves as the ultimate deity, and this growing trend is a natural consequence of modernity, where humanity is considered the ultimate authority, even beyond the authority of God.
It seems to me that this brand of spirituality both springs from and perpetuates this culture in which we live which places the ‘self’, the individual, at the centre of everything. Interestingly, the New Age Movement is flourishing primarily in North America, where the focus on the individual continues to flourish, everywhere from significant political leaders to large segments of the population: and not just in the States, but here in Canada as well.
And when I say this New Age focus on spirituality avoids any specific ways of attempting to define God, what I mean is the avoidance of specifics found in mainline world religions. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Bahai faith – for example – see God as a being who created the world and who rules over the universe – those who follow any one of these faith traditions see their God as the centre of the universe… not themselves, as the New Age Movement suggests. Rising largely from the culture of the 1960’s, this focus on an exclusively spiritual path is growing exponentially; in fact, a large percentage of those exiting the church are embracing, in various ways, this focus.
Now, I’m not here to judge this growing trend or those who adhere to it; out of these many conversations with people who have moved and are moving in this direction, I’ve discovered that there are nuggets of wisdom from which we all may learn. What I will say, however, is that it is impossible to be a Christian and at the same time believe that the path to God is an exclusively spiritual experience with a focus on the individual. And our Gospel reading this morning makes this abundantly clear, were Jesus says that he has been sent by the ‘living Father’ – that is, the Creator of all; He Jesus, sent by God Himself, is the bread that came down from heaven. In Him; through Him; we discover life eternal. In Him; through Him… heaven and earth have become inseparable. In Jesus and through Him, the spiritual and the physical are intrinsically woven together.
And, in this particular passage, Jesus makes the point that we remain connected to Him, fed, nurtured, and empowered by, “eating his flesh, and drinking his blood.” As Christians, our spirituality is fed by the very physical act of eating Jesus’ body, and drinking his blood.
To put this into perspective within the context of its time, one of the best-known of the many Jewish regulations about food and drink was that blood was absolutely forbidden. The complex system of kosher butchering has this among its chief aims, that no blood should remain in the animal in order to negate the risk of it being consumed.
So, the fact that Jesus speaks of ‘drinking his blood’ in this setting gives us an all-important clue to what he means in this extraordinary passage. Jesus has been sent to be one with us, and in sacrificing his life for us, he remains intimately linked with us each time we eat his body and drink his blood. We cannot, must not, spiritualize the language of eating and drinking so that it only means an inner, non-physical act of meditation, celebration, or contemplation. As important as all of this is as part of the experience, we must emphasize the physicality of what is taking place.
When it is said that whoever eats His flesh, the word for ‘eat’ is a very solidly physical one. It was often used by Greek speakers to mean something like “munch” or “chew”, and might be used of the way that animals eat, making a noise as they did so. It may very well be that members of the first century church, remembering Jesus’ words most likely in the original Aramaic language that he himself spoke, were tempted (quite understandably) to spiritualize their meaning, and to lose any sense that he really meant to refer to an actual feeding; and John, in writing in Greek, deliberately chooses a word which rules this out.
It seems that the best explanation for this is that John understands Jesus’ language here to refer to the Eucharist, the sacrament in which Jesus’ body and blood are, in a mysterious way, offered to Jesus’ followers to be eaten and drunk. Thomas Cranmer, creator of the Book of Common Prayer, taught that Jesus is truly present in this meal (which differs from R.C.C. which teaches ‘real’ presence, or Protestant Church which suggests that the Eucharist offers the symbolic presence of Jesus in this meal). But no matter how we look at it, our spiritual lives are fed by the physical experience of a meal, with Jesus serving as both meal and host.
N.T. Wright makes the point that this whole passage, and indeed John’s whole Gospel, is about the Word becoming flesh: not the Word becoming an idea, a spirituality, a feeling, or even simply an experience. John is making a central point that in Jesus the Word became flesh, and each time we feast at the Eucharistic meal, we remain intimately, physically connected to, nurtured and empowered by this Word made flesh. And this central truth matters.
Now having said all that, cutting perhaps even deeper into the heart of why Christian theology differs from that of New Age, the author of this Gospel suggests that Jesus asks a rhetorical question, “…what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!” Why is this important? Well, this mention of the ascension is designed to say: maybe you need to come to terms with the fact that the one you are now dealing with is equally at home in heaven and on earth. Jesus is a citizen of both. He is, after all, the Word made flesh. In and through him the physical and spiritual become one.
The question and controversy over whether God can be identified as ethereal and dwelling in regions beyond our grasp, or perhaps One who dwells intimately within and through us and the places where we worship… this controversial question has always existed and today’s context is no exception. Our first reading which speaks of the dedication of the temple during Solomon’s reign wrestles with this question, “… will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” In other words, is it even possible that God can be present in this temple?
I think the context in which this dedication of the temple takes place offers a clue as we wrestle with this question. That is, as expressed just prior to this morning’s reading, the cloud of God’s presence which fills the temple. This dedication takes place within the context of this cloud. Throughout the Old Testament this cloud is sometimes thick and dark, cloaking God’s presence, and at other times it is dazzlingly bright, suggesting His glory. This same cloud will surround Jesus at his transfiguration, and as already mentioned earlier, will receive him at his ascension.
Indeed, in and through Jesus, we are intimately connected to the God of heaven and earth. Our spirituality is fed at his table; nurtured and empowered by his body and his blood. In and through Jesus, the God we worship dwells in both heaven and on earth.
So, that is the heart of who we are, who the Trinitarian God is, existing at the very center of our being, from where we find nourishment to become faithful followers of Jesus. But we can’t stop there. Something needs to be said about the why of it all.
With this teaching about eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood, many disciples turned back and no longer followed him. As is so often the case with human nature, they simply could not consider exploring this teaching which contradicted what they had always known. They could not embrace this teaching which ran contrary to everything they had ever known about the laws forbidding the consumption of blood.
But the twelve chose to remain… In time they falter, but in this moment they remain firm. When Jesus asks the twelve if they do not want to leave too, Simon Peter responds with a question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” As we reflect on the place of the Eucharist where we are nurtured and fed, and intimately linked to the God of heaven and earth, we must also ask the question, “… to whom shall we go?” In other words, once we have been fed by this Eucharistic meal, empowered by this Sacred meal, where are we called to carry on the work of Jesus?
In light of the great hunger of our world – for justice, for dignity, for real bread – we dare not let the Gospel call us only to a particular theory regarding the nature of the bread and wine we share in our Eucharistic meals. A truly ‘realistic’ theology of the Eucharist, the realism John’s Gospel contemplates as Jesus offers himself for the life of the world, is an eschatological realism… that is, based upon a shared memory of what God has done bodily in Jesus and upon a shared hope for what God will do through us… If Jesus truly offers himself “for the life of the world,” if he offers the Bread that shall end our hunger, then we are called to share in Peter’s confession and allow ourselves to feel and know and respond to the hunger of this world in which we live.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, “for they shall be filled.” (Matt. 5:6)