Saturday, August 22, 2015

Spirit and Life

"This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" - John 6:60
For five weeks now we have dwelt within the sixth chapter of the fourth gospel, an extended meditation on bread, manna, spirit and life. Those of us in the preaching trade wonder why it is the lectionary insists on our taking in the entire chapter week after week, ever challenged to find something new, something fresh, something relevant to proclaim. Yet, here in the waning verses of the chapter we hear even the disciples admit that the teaching on bread is difficult; who can accept it? Jesus replies to their frustration, our frustration, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” John 6:61-63

One has to admire this about Jesus, even if you don’t choose to follow him: whenever he senses we are beginning to “get it” he turns it up one more notch – he finds some new way to challenge our already challenged hearts and minds with the next “what if.” After nearly 60 verses on the essential efficacy of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he goes on to say that “the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” It turns out there is more to eternal life than Eucharist.

Archbishop William Temple in his seminal look at the fourth gospel, Readings In John’s Gospel, teases out the essence of what is being said here. Why not, after all, talk about receiving the Sprit in the first place? Why all this extended metaphor on bread – on body and blood –  if after all is said and done, the flesh “is useless”?  Temple’s argument suggests it is as if the compilers of John could foresee our own time when the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble and are crammed with facile books on the “spiritual life,” and urgings to simply contemplate the beauties of nature, as fine as that may be, instead of accepting the ascended Spirit and Life of the crucified one through eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

But, says Temple, we are not only to receive him in some general way, and recollect the scenes from his life which we already prefer to remember, but we must “receive him in the fullness of his self-sacrifice, that we may be united with him in the self-emptying of his obedience unto death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:8).” That is, we can easily fall into the delusion that mere taking by mouth the consecrated bread and wine is in itself to receive eternal life. The flesh and blood, even of the Son of Man, is not all of it. The flesh and blood of the Ascended One, though, are plainly not just matter, for the Ascended One is not seated somewhere far-off, but rather is here in the midst of all human suffering, for He has suffered Himself.

To give in to mere materialism, then, is not our calling, but rather to become Spirit and Life, his Spirit and his life, a life of self-sacrifice and self-emptying. The temptation, however, is always there to depend solely on our selves rather than out of the radical dependence of manna season as exemplified in the wilderness and the early church. Manna season, typified by everyone getting enough, no one gets too much, and, as in the Book of Acts, all resources are allocated for the good of the whole community. This is the Biblical world view.

The Bible goes to great pains to make clear what happens when one holds back resources that are meant for the good of the whole community. In the book of Joshua when a battle is lost the special prosecutor determines it is because one man, Achan, has held back in his tent some of the booty of a previous battle for himself; material that was meant to sustain the whole community. In chapter 2 of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira withhold the profits of selling their property from the early Christian community and, as they are found out they drop dead when they admit to the Sin of Achan. No wonder the disciples regard this teaching on bread as so difficult!

Today we call this Sin of Achan and Ananias and Sapphira the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, a sad little woman who imagined a lonely life of isolation, one individual pitted against all others, competing for the stuff of the world, stuffing one’s tent for one’s own self-interest. It is a kind of radical materialism. You can read all about it in her 1957 book Atlas Shrugged. Rand magically transforms the western canon when she turns the Sin of Achan, Ananias and Sapphira into a Virtue with a capital “V”.  Some believe this to be “the American Dream.”  Oddly, she seemed to have believed this kind of radical materialism would somehow combat the materialism of Totalitarian Communism.

The Objectivism of Self-Sufficiency is in direct conflict with a Biblical World view of collective dependency on what the Lord seeks to provide on a daily basis. Even Jesus, when asked how to pray, suggested that we pray for “daily bread.” Jesus imagined a return to Manna Season and radical dependence on God’s daily bread. Jesus lived among us as an example of self-giving and self-sacrifice.

Contrast Ayn Rand’s vision, one which is proclaimed loudly by some members of congress to this day, with the life of Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Daniels, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, valedictorian of his class, entered Episcopal Theological Seminary to study to become a priest and disciple of Jesus. As a seminarian he went south to join in the Civil Rights movement. He and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) went to Fort Deposit, Alabama to protest some stores that only allowed white customers, were arrested and placed in a jail in nearby Haynesville. A few days later they were freed without bail, but left in the streets of Haynesville without transport back to Fort Deposit. As Daniels and some others, including a 17 year-old African American girl, Ruby Sales, went to buy a Coke at a nearby store. A man with a shotgun took aim at Ruby, Daniels pushed her aside and took the blast himself which left him dead and saved her life. She has gone on to live a long live as a civil rights activist. Spirit and Life, self-sacrifice and self-giving.  Johnathan Myrick Daniels gave his life on August 20th, 1965, fifty years ago this week, and just eight years after Atlas Shrugged.

Two worldviews: Objectivism vs The Gospel of Spirit and Life. The relevance of all of this needs no explanation. Just ponder the news every day. We live in the sixth chapter of John for more than one month every third year because it would be too easy to forget just what it is Jesus is talking about. This teaching is difficult. It takes time for us to take it in. We live in a world that is driven by the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, a world driven mad by markets and visions of self-sufficiency.

Maybe a world that has lost touch with the kind of collective spirit imagined in the Bible drives people to extreme acts of violence. Maybe self-sufficiency is not all it is cracked up to be. Maybe a world that has walked away from Manna Season has crushed our spirit. Has it ever occurred to us that in our drive for self-sufficiency we actually create evildoers? It is worth thinking about as we ponder what we need as a vision moving forward from what looks more like Mass-Murder and Violence Season than Manna Season.

Temple concludes that the purpose of this long and sometimes strange discourse on bread is meant to remind us of our total spiritual dependence on Christ, to guard against any sense of materialism or magic in the Eucharist which is our main means of effecting our spiritual dependence on Christ, and to secure that our dependence on Christ is inseparable from his redeeming sacrifice and life of self-giving and self-emptying. No wonder it is so bewildering. It is patently counter-cultural. And yet, it is the life of the Biblical worldview of some 3,000 years, oft maligned, but infrequently adopted and lived. God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk. When will we be moved to return home? Amen.  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Eternal Life Is Now

John 6:54 – “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…”

Eternal life. The one who says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” promises that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood “have eternal life.” Not “will have,” but “have.” Yet, we tend to think that eternal life is something far off, something conferred after life, after death.

In the words of William Sloan Coffin, chaplain at Yale and then pastor at Riverside Church, New York City, “We are on the road to heaven now if today we walk with God. Eternal life is not a possession conferred at death; it is a present endowment. We live it now and continue it through death.” William Sloan Coffin, Credo, p170

Or, as another theologian puts it, eternal life has nothing to do with “timelessness and death, but is full-filled life here on earth that makes us yearn it will never end. Living life to the fullest as disciples brings great joy in the present and a hope for the future.” Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, p 291

Eternal life is life lived with, in and through God in Christ here and now – this is eternal life. I suspect it comes about only as we savor the meal. I suspect it only comes about if we savor the Word of God. I suspect it only comes about if we take the time to sit down at the table with Him and linger awhile. We need to savor His flesh and savor His blood if He is to live in us and we in Him.

Christian faith would be so much easier if it were a matter of mere belief or intellectual assent. Our rather scandalous, carnal and incarnational gospel reminds us that Jesus intends to have all of us, body and soul. He intends to course through our veins, be digested fully, and nourish every nook and cranny of our hearts, bodies and souls! He wishes to consume us as we consume him. We Christians are a bloody bunch!

He wants all of us. He wants us to have all of him.

Like the manna in the wilderness, those who sit at table with Him, those who linger and savor each moment, there will be enough. For every one there is enough to go around. Everyone gets enough, no one gets too much, if you try to store it up it sours. There is sufficient bread and wine to give eternal life for all of us, with baskets and baskets left over.

We moderns are not usually inclined, says John Booty, to give thanks for that which is sufficient. But this is exactly what Jesus has in mind.This is why we call this Eucharist – literally Greek for Thanksgiving.

The real question for all of us is whether or not we are willing to take time out of our daily lives, even on our Sundays, to linger with the Word of God? To savor the fullness of life He means to give us? Are we ready to accept this eternal life right now? Are we ready to begin here and now to commit to “living life to the fullest as disciples?” Eternal life is a present endowment.

What does this present endowment of eternal life look like? Our Baptismal Covenant gives us a sort of job description as to how we as a community of disciples are to live life to the fullest as we answer five questions.

Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? More simply put, will we read the Bible, get together with others, take communion and pray. Discipleship is not a life for loners – we are companions in the Way – literally “those who share bread.” Jesus does not send his disciples out to do the work he gives us to do on our own – he sends us out in pairs.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? The Chinese Book of Wisdom, the I Ching, frequently counsels, “Perseverance furthers.” We are to be those people who persevere in resisting evil – which means first we must recognize evil. And, we are to acknowledge our “manifold sins and wickedness” as we used to say, say we are sorry, and move on with our eternal life lived with God in Christ. Not a lot of public role models on this one. We as a people repeatedly are forced to spend millions of dollars to investigate and coerce people to say, “I am sorry, I did it, I won’t do it again.”

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? That is, does everything we say and do proclaim the Good News of God in Christ? What is that Good News anyway? As I read the gospels it is that we are God’s Beloved – each and every one of us. That’s it. God could have said something else: If you’re very very good I will love you. Or, if you are very very sorry for not being very very good I will love you. Or perhaps worst of all, I love you, now get back in line before I change my mind! God says quite plainly, “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Once we accept and embrace and embody this news eternal life really begins!

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? This is, believe it or not, the most controversial of our promises we make. Underlying this question is the assumption, the belief, that there is in fact something of Christ in all persons. This should not shock us since the whole story begins by saying male and female we are all made imago Dei – in the image of God. So we are to recognize this and serve this in all persons, not some persons, not most persons, but all persons. All. We truly need to spend time contemplating just what “all persons” really means.

And then comes the real kicker: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? There it is again: all people and every human being. Note the verb, to strive: to devote serious effort or energy, to work, to labor, to go all out for justice and peace for all people. If there was ever a time in the world, in our country, in our major cities, in our neighborhoods in need of people who strive for justice and peace the time is now. Now is the time for eternal life lived with God and out of this job description we call our Baptismal Covenant. To this we all say, “I will with God’s help.”

Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” – our manna – His flesh and his blood. The daily bread he offers us is the opportunity to strive for justice and peace for all people; to respect the dignity of every human being; to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to make sure that everything we say and do will proclaim the Good News of God in Christ.

It is a tall order, this eternal life we are given. It is a gift for which we give thanks. We need only accept eternal life to have it right here and now. After our prayers will we give God in Christ – the Word of God – the necessary time to give us the daily bread we need to satisfy our deepest hunger and deepest thirst? Will we linger at the table and savor His presence? Will we seek God’s help to fulfill the promises of our discipleship? Not even God knows the answer to this question – only we do.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream

Christ Church, West River - I am the bread of life part 2
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal …Ephesians 4:30
John 6: I am the living bread that came down from heaven

This week I find myself thinking about and singing this song by Ed McCurdy, a folk singer, who wrote it in 1950 in the early days of the Cold War and the aftermath of WWII which concluded once and for all with the dropping of nuclear weapons over two cities in Japan.  McCurdy’s song has been recorded by countless musicians from Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio to Simon and Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Mason Proffit, John Denver, and artists all around the world.  It is probably one of the least known most recorded songs in music history.

I never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again

And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing round and round
And guns and swords and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground

Last night I had the strangest dream
I never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
Music and words: ED MCCURDY
Performed by Johnny Cash

An historical note: as the Berlin Wall was finally being dismantled in November 1989, Tom Brokaw directed the NBC cameras to focus on a group of school children on the East Berlin side of the wall singing, Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.

We come from love, we return to love and love is all around. All of life is a homecoming, a coming home to God. We are God’s Beloved – signed and sealed by water and the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever.

This of course is directly related to the immutable fact of our creation: imago Dei – in the image of God.

So if we are imago Dei, and we are God’s Beloved, perhaps some time spent contemplating just what this means about who we are, whose we are, and what, if anything, we ought to be doing.

Our Baptismal Covenant asks us to make two key promises: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace for all people, respecting the dignity of every human being?

To which we respond, I will with God’s help.

To serve Christ in all persons we need to truly accept that all people, not some people, not most people, but all people have something of Christ in them already. This is a bold assertion, and one not without controversy. But if, as John’s gospel has it, the Word, the logos, was with God and is God “in the beginning,” and all things came to be through this Word, and the Word is Jesus, God who became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood, there is no one and no thing in all of creation that does not have some of the Word, the logos, the Christ, within them. All people are imago Dei.

We are those people called to recognize that, accept that and serve that in all persons. We do that by striving, not simply being in favor of, but working, striving and bringing about justice and peace for all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.

This week we stop to reflect on three very important anniversaries. August 6 commemorated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act into law – thus fulfilling the promises of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution which were enacted as a result of the Civil War. I watched a film clip of President Lyndon B. Johnson urging congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in the wake of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. As part of his speech he concludes, “We shall overcome….we shall overcome.” A song Pete Seeger adapted from the labor movement, who in turn had adapted it from a Negro Spiritual. Pete Seeger and Martin King had a dream, fueled by the Word of God, that one day all the people of the United States would be free, participating citizens.

August 6th was also the 70th anniversary of the US dropping a nuclear weapon on the city of Hiroshima. Today, August 9th commemorates the dropping of a second nuclear weapon over Nagasaki. Under orders by President Harry S. Truman, the US became the first and only country in history to use a nuclear weapon, and to use it to kill over 120,000 men, women and children, non-combatants, and to level two entire cities, leaving thousands more to live with the consequences of radiation sickness and what today we would call PTSD.  
In a blinding flash of white light, two cities and the people therein were incinerated. Most, if not all, were non-combatants.

It is perhaps an irony of history that August 6th is also the Feast of the Transfiguration – commemorating that event on a mountain top in which Jesus was seen by Peter, James and John to be blindingly white, dazzling in the sunlight, talking to Moses and Elijah. These events are forever linked.

The further irony, pointed out by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon in their book, Resident Aliens [Abingdon Press, 2014 25th Anniversary Edition], is that President Truman was considered by many to be a faithful Christian, a faithful Baptist – the man who on the Feast of the Transfiguration inaugurated the threat and actuality of Nuclear Holocaust.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” We have been incorporated into the Body of Christ. We are to become the bread of life for the world. Jesus urges us to love our enemies. Jesus urges us to respect the dignity of every human being – not some, not most, but all human beings. Jesus says we cannot live on bread alone, but on every Word that comes from God. The bread of life that comes down from heaven that we need to hear this 9th day of August come from Isaiah, a fellow prophet in the tradition of Elijah:

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

How are we to be people of the Word of God as we reflect on these words of Isaiah and the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth?Paul in his letter to the Ephesians urges us, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal.” It is very difficult to imagine that what happened in Japan in 1945 does not grieve the Holy Spirit.

Digging around the internet I discovered that Ed McCurdy’s original lyrics concluded this way:

Last night I had the strangest dream, I’d ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war
When I awoke, ‘twas but a dream and peace a dirty word
I tried to tell them of my dream, but not a word they heard

And then I got me fighting mad, and I knew just what I’d do
I’d fight non-violently for peace, until my dream came true

Ed’s dream is the dream of God for all people – a world of justice and peace and dignity for all people.  This is the essence of the living bread that comes down from heaven. This is the daily bread God wants us to have, to accept as gift from the one who calls us to be his beloved. This is the daily bread we are to become – living bread for the whole world. It’s a complex world, we all get that. But the bread we are given to shape all that we do and all that we say promises that we can live up to our belovedness, we can act as if we truly believe we are imago Dei, created in the image of God. There is much that can be done non-violently to make the dream come true. Together we can make a world in which everyone is closer to God, closer to one another and closer to themselves.

Where have all the flowers gone…..
When will we ever learn,
When will we ever learn