Monday, 17 August 2009

Manna from Heaven

Preached at Trinity URC and MCC North London, both Camden Town, on Sunday 16th August 2009.
Ephesians 5:15-20

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.

So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

John 6:51-58

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Parent sent me, and I live because of the Parent, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."
I have a small confession to make. It’s taken me a long time to learn to love the Bible. I grew up in a non-Christian household for most of my life (although we went to church when I was small, and I have never forgotten the most important lesson of Sunday School – how to make a palm tree out of a piece of old newspaper!), and became a Christian at the grand old age of fifteen.

Eight years later, I still sometimes wonder if I’ve quite got the hang of this Christianity malarkey. I’m sorry if that’s not what you want to hear from a preacher so bear with me and I’ll try to make up for it! The thing is; I’m not always that keen on the Bible. I spent a lot of time having pretty negative encounters with Scripture. To paraphrase the fabulous Kit and the Widow, I was convinced that Leviticus was just written a bigot having a bit of a rant. I dismissed all of the writings of St. Paul, thinking that they fell into a broadly similar category. A lot of the Bible didn’t seem to agree with my view of, and experience of, God. So many of the rules seemed irrelevant – I don’t know anyone who seriously has concerns about wearing wool-linen mix, and it’s been a while since I saw anyone attempt to stone an adulterer or buy a slave. It seemed as though there was too much time given over to long lists of don’ts, discussions of out-moded gender models and contradiction.

And it seems that this is a lot of people’s view of the Bible. I recently read a fantastic memoir by a man named A.J. Jacobs. He is agnostic but was brought up in a Jewish household, decided to spend a year living “Biblically”. That is that he attempted to follow every commandment laid out in the Bible, beginning with the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, that are found in the Old Testament. He invited an orthodox man into his home to analyse the fibre content of all his clothing – apparently it’s only mixing wool and linen that’s forbidden, by the way – wore a white tunic, grew a beard so unruly that people avoided him in the street and painted scripture on his door frame. (Incidentally, there’s a picture here showing him on the last day of the project.) He even had his sons circumcised and approached an adulterer in Central Park to gently throw a couple of pebbles at him. All in the name of research. The response to his project from other people was fascinating. The beard and while robes – not to mention the wooden staff from eBay – made him look more religious. People avoided him on the subway, and every waking moment was spent wondering if he had accidentally broken any rules in the last five minutes. He spent so much time following rules it begins to look like he has no time to live. I’ll come back to him later.

Take tonight’s reading from Ephesians; it just reads as a telling-off, the author sounds like a kill-joy, something of a puritan. Don’t drink, don’t be stupid, don’t act up, don’t make a fool of yourself. It reads like one of the tedious etiquette guides from the last century that are endlessly reprinted as novelty gifts. It stands in sharp contract to tonight’s gospel reading. In Jesus’ teaching, there is nothing that sounds like traditional Jewish law. Nothing, in fact, that sounds like any contemporary law. Jesus’ world, an area of the middle east that is now, broadly, Jerusalem, the West Bank of Israel and Palestine, was ruled over by the Roman empire, under the jurisdiction of King Herod and the local Roman governor. Cultures converged on Jerusalem, Latin and Aramaic were spoken equally, and the learned were literate in Greek. But no religion, no philosophy, could ever prepare those present to hear what Jesus had to say. Listen to the words of Jesus again, imagine hearing this for the first time.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world…
Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

It’s just surreal. Firstly, there is someone who is very clearly flesh and blood claiming to be “living bread”. What does that mean? He also claims to be the Son of God, so who is God? Have we unknowingly eaten God every time we munch on a sandwich? Was the heavenly manna actually the flesh of God? More to the point, is he asking us to eat him? And drinking his blood? There must be a law against that – is Jesus kosher? Does he have self-renewing flesh or something? This is science-fiction stuff, really, the stuff of nightmares.

And if that’s what was perplexing those present who accepted Jesus’ divinity, what on earth must the people around have been thinking if they didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God. It is almost impossible to understand this from a modern perspective, but even today there are scores of polemical essays claiming that Christians validate cannibalism by the very act of Communion. But that’s not what’s going on here. Jesus in John’s gospel spends a lot of time discussing His nature and pointing to His death and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. This discussion is a clear precursor to the first communion at the Last Supper, the following Passover. It also begins to point to the idea that we call the trinity, Jesus is talking about taking in an aspect of God as today we call upon and take in the Holy Spirit.

So, to contrast the two texts again, we have two contrasting images of Christianity. The first is a traditional, almost puritanical view. The emphasis is on law, the laws of Moses in Leviticus, the book of Deuteronomy (Greek – the second law), the laws cited by St. Paul and by Jesus himself. But that is a very one-dimensional view of Christianity. If I could return for a moment to A.J. Jacobs and his tremendous beard, he set out only to follow the law. He was interested in the motivations of those who followed the laws, and unsure whether he would feel any spiritual connection. He was particularly challenged by the commandment to “love the Lord, Your God”. Loving your neighbour, yes, he could do that. Have no other gods, well, yes, being agnostic is helpful there. Not making graven images was a challenge on family holidays with his wife and a camera but on the whole it was fine. Until he discovered the commandment that makes the Bible more than just another rule book. The Bible points us to a connection to the divine; it leads us to Christ, to God and the Holy Spirit. Law is not distinct from a connection to God. It is an important part of our connection to God. Jesus, who brought the spirit, also re-affirmed the law. In the opening of John’s gospel, in the very first verse, Jesus is referred to as the logos, which is a wonderfully ambiguous Greek word. It means word, meaning and has even been translated as law (although we don’t ever see it used as a term for secular law).

The joy of this passage in John, for me, is the connection between the spirit, the law / text of the Bible, and the body. Like the Law, the body is often separated from the spirit. Since the middle ages, we have been taught that the tangible, the ‘real world’ is base and ugly and distinct from the glorious realm of God. St Paul, in one of his other letters, complains that his body doesn’t do as his spirit wants to, that he is unable to live up to the way he wants to live. It is one of the perils of being human that we can’t live up to who we want to be, and being Christian doesn’t change that. We are used to associating the body with the Law, not the spirit. The desires of the body are associated with sinfulness, from overeating to sexual immorality. And the world confirms this. A glance at a television or at a magazine cover will tell you that your body is all wrong. That you aren’t eating the right things, aren’t exercising properly, aren’t the right shape for this season’s fashions. The body has become associated in the secular world with guilt and shame.

But we know that we are made in the image of God (Ps. 139 – “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made). Of all God’s creations, humans were made in the image of God. Everything about us is sacred and cared for. This gospel passage follows on directly from John’s telling of the feeding of the crowds – it is so important to be fed by the Word of God, but Jesus cares for our physical wellbeing and nourishes those present in a clear nod towards what was to come. Jesus also alludes to the Exodus, when the Jewish people were isolated in the desert, between Egypt and their promised land. During this time of isolation, when they were wandering in exile because they had turned against God, their bodies were still cared for when God sent manna from heaven. Not just a little bit of dry bread and water that would sustain them, but the most wonderful, sweet manna that tasted of honey and enough every 6th day to give us a feast. That’s not a God that sees out bodies as vehicles, or our earthly life as a base precursor for a glorious afterlife. That’s not a God that views desire and pleasure as sinful.

So the call to feed on Jesus’ body is fulfilling both a spiritual need and a physical one. In Communion, there is a spiritual experience that connects us to Jesus and also instantly to Christians throughout history and to the Jewish commemoration of the Exodus. The word Eucharist is from a Greek root and translates as “thanksgiving”. In taking the Eucharist we are giving thanks for the life of Christ, as well as reaffirming out commitment to giving our lives and spirits to Christ in the here and now. Communion is a time to take stock of our lives and a reminder that we have a shared humanity with each other and with Jesus. It is a reminder that our lives and our bodies belong to Christ, and that God is the one who protects and feeds our souls and our bodies. Jesus, the logos, fulfils the law, embodies human perfection and leads us to be one in the name of God who sustains us. So when you come to take Communion, stop and think about what you are doing. This is not an empty ritual, but the very embodiment of the Christian faith and a reminder of God’s love which is given lavishly to each of us.


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