The Voice of My beloved

Song of Songs 2:8-17

8 The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. 9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. 10 My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 13 The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. 14 O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. 15 Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards—for our vineyards are in blossom.” 16 My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies. 17 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains. (NRSV)

The Voice of My Beloved

I admit it. I’m a sucker for, what are generally known as chick flicks. I like to curl up on the couch with my wife and watch Jane Austen movies like Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. I liked How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and even silly movies like Enchanted. If I get to sit next to Joy for 90 to 120 minutes, I’ll watch anything.

Why? Because I’m in love with her. I am all-in, head-over-heels, nothing-held-back in love with her. Those so-called chick-flicks (and I really do despise that gender bias as if guys like me aren’t supposed to enjoy them because we’re guys) they remind me, with their vastly divergent story arcs, how differently and how uniquely love touches the hearts, souls, minds, and bodies of people.

It’s when I read love stories like Ruth or love poetry like Song of Songs that I’m reminded that the love Joy and I share is one of the most incredible, perfect, blessed gifts God has ever given us. Sometimes, love itself is worth celebrating—just for love’s sake—because love is a gift to us. Love between two people is beautiful. It represents something good and hopeful in the world.

Love stories are the most powerful stories available to the human imagination. Whether it’s a modern-day love story, or Greek mythology, that holds to be true. To the Greeks, Aphrodite was one of the gods of Olympus. But she had a different parentage than the others. She was older than the gods. She existed before any of them, and as a consequence, Aphrodite was the most powerful among them.

The books I write have a subplot of love that adds tension to the story. I just finished reading a Young Adult High Fantasy book that had a love subplot, but it just kind of got dropped at the end. The author gave us two possibilities, and the one I didn’t want to see happen seemed to be happening, so I shrugged and thought, Eh, I guess I can live with it if she wants to end up with that guy. But then, at the very end, that guy suddenly up and leaves, and the thing with the other guy (that I wanted to see happen) just gets dropped like a brick. I wanted to throw the book across the room! I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me! I want the love story!” Instead, I got nothing. It made the end of the book feel unsatisfactory and incomplete.

Love matters to us! Even in stories like Romeo and Juliet where—spoiler alert—everybody dies, it’s the tragedy of their love that rends our hearts. When Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan get together at the end of You’ve Got Mail, it’s the triumph of their love that makes us sob like smitten idiots. Love matters, and it’s a gift. It’s such a powerful, beautiful gift from God!

Those who don’t think romantic love is a God-thing obviously haven’t read far enough into the Bible. It’s splattered all over the Bible’s pages from Genesis to Revelation. I would say God created human beings out of a need to love a creature that is like God’s self. After all, we are made in God’s own image. God imbued women and men with the power to love each other because it’s a reflection of God’s deep and abiding love for us.

In this text, we hear the woman’s voice. It is she who speaks. We only hear the man’s voice through the woman’s as she recalls his words and shares them with us. The image of the garden in spring calls to mind the creation accounts from Genesis. In this text, the woman and the man act as equals in the love that they share.

As a side-note, equality is not how men often think of women, and it is not how many women think of women compared to men. We even have these texts from some of Paul’s letters that suggest women are not equal to men. But I would argue that’s a cultural bias. If you consider the matter from a Biblical and theological standpoint, when women and men were created (c.f. Genesis 1:26-31) they were created as equals in God’s image. They were given equal authority over all things. They shared power, authority, and responsibility. There was no suggestion that the man had authority over the woman.

In fact, it isn’t until Genesis 3:16 that we see a difference in the balance of power between men and women. God says to the woman, “I will make your pregnancy very painful; in pain you will bear children. You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you.” (CEB). Men throughout history have used this text to justify patriarchal misogyny. But the problem is that the balance of power shifted as a result of sin. It is not the way things should have been or were designed by God to be. It was a result of sin.

So every time a woman is treated as less than a man, by either sex, whoever is doing that is choosing to live out the result of sin instead of the result of Christ’s salvation. The problem is disparity between men and women was NEVER in God’s plan, and the power of sin is exactly the thing Jesus Christ came to save us FROM! Christ died for us so we could be restored to a righteousness even greater than the original righteousness of creation. Jesus died for us so that we could see each other as equals again. God took our human flesh into the Godhead. God united God’s self to us. Misogyny is sin, and there is no excuse for it, ever! It is absolutely contrary to the nature of what love is. If we are to truly live out the Gospel, then everyone will treat everyone as an equal because that is what God made us to be.

We are made to love and to be loved, and love never puts down. Love isn’t arrogant. Love doesn’t seek its own advantage. Love isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28 NRSV). Love seeks equality. In fact, love seeks the well-being of the other over the well-being of the self. That’s what Christ did for us. The pain and suffering of the cross was real, but it was for us. We are the beloved of God, not because we deserve to be, but because God chooses to love us, to lift us up, and to seek our well-being no matter the cost to God’s self.

Love, as it is depicted between these two lovers in Song of Solomon, is a mutual giving of one’s self to the other. When I do premarital counseling, one of the things I say to couples is this: “Marriage isn’t about you, it’s about your betrothed.” What I mean by that is that marriage is about the one you love. When you find the person whose happiness, joy, and fulfillment mean so much to you that you want to invest the rest your life giving of yourself so they can achieve those things, when you find happiness in that person’s happiness, when you find joy in that person’s joy, when you find fulfillment in that person’s fulfillment, that’s when you know you’re ready for marriage. Marriage isn’t about you. It’s about them. But when your spouse has the same realization and spends the rest of his or her life doing the same thing for you, that’s when love flourishes. It’s mutual giving and receiving.

Love is unassuming mutuality. And it’s not only romantic love. Love is when parents invest themselves into their children so they can thrive as responsible and faithful human beings. Love is when friends care for each other no matter what. Love is when children care for a parent who can’t live on their own anymore. There are innumerable examples and expressions of love. There are at least four Greek words for love, but they’re all nuances of the same idea.

Yet, this text is more than about love. This is about love and play. Love and playfulness are woven together here in a way that’s almost embarrassing. The poem is full of playful intimacy. There’s a sense of utter delight in the poem’s flirtation, invitation, and joy.

We know God is love. But have you ever thought about God as playful? Have you ever imagined that God takes delight in our playfulness with each other? Have you ever imagined God laughing along with us at the sheer joy we share with each other, whether it’s with our friends, our children, or our significant other?

Love and play mingle in a way that touches every part of human life, even the different seasons of life we experience. For these two lovers, love is blooming as with the coming of spring. Before this time, their love was frozen in winter’s icy embrace. It lay dormant beneath the snow and ice. But now, as winter gives way to spring and their love for each other blossoms, there are all kinds of new possibilities. Their love isn’t fully ripened, but it’s intoxicatingly new, enticing, teasing, and full of potential. It’s the playfulness of their love that causes the changes in each of them to take place. It’s the risk they’re willing to take with each other, the risk and the desire they have for one another in these playful interactions that makes us smile.

Throughout Judeo-Christian history, Song of Songs has been interpreted as a love story between two people or as an allegory about God’s love for us. The church is described as the Bride of Christ. The interpretations have often been thought of as exclusive of each other, but I don’t think that’s the case. If we are created in the image of God, then the playfulness of love between two people is a reflection of God’s love for us.

The man’s speech begins and ends with the same words, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” It gives him a gently pleading-yet-insistent tone. The man desires the woman. She knows it. She repeats his words, and she celebrates his love and desire for her. That is exactly how the church celebrates God’s love for us. This is about loving and being loved. It’s about how we love and are loved by one another. It’s about how Christ loves us, and how we love Christ.

The thing is, when we love and are loved, whether it’s love of God or another person, we can see ourselves not as perfect, but as perfect for someone, wanted, sought after, desired. It’s a cause for singing, for joy, and for play. But love has a way of reaching out much further than we can imagine, like ripples in a lake that reach the further shore. Love can transform everything. God invites us to love and to be loved, to see the world in the light of God’s playful grace, and to participate in the new creation as winter gives way to spring. New possibilities burst into glorious bloom, and hold the promise of a bountiful harvest.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted).

Advertisements

Spirit and Life

John 6:56-69

56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 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.” 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (NRSV)

Spirit and Life

My son asked me, just the other day, “Daddy, which is closer, Christmas or my birthday?

Christmas,” I replied.

Well, then, I want the LEGO Ninjago Epic Dragon Battle set for Christmas.

It took me a little by surprise that he’s already making his Christmas list, but I guess it shouldn’t have. It seems Christmas is always on the minds of children. It’s something every child looks forward to because of the possibility that they might get everything their little heart desires. It’s not only children, but most adults look forward to Christmas, too. Every retail store in the country looks forward to Christmas. That’s when business booms.

Christmas is the single most scandalous holy day of the Christian Faith. Oh, not because we’ve muddled the celebration up with material consumption and made it more about consumerism and commerce than about Jesus. My guess is we make such a big deal of buying and giving gifts so we can hide the scandal that Christmas is. Honestly, why would we want the truth to get out? Why would we want this word to spread beyond these walls? It’s somewhat ridiculous, after all, what we believe.

You do know what we Christians celebrate at Christmas, don’t you? It’s embarrassing isn’t it? I wish you were all sitting closer so I didn’t have to say the word too loudly. I mean, if a non-believer hears this they’ll think we’re crazy. It’s such a humiliating word. If you know what I’m going to say and you want to cover your ears, go ahead. Ready?

Incarnation.

It’s mortifying, right? There’s a reason why the Church has described Christmas as The Humiliation of the Son. No wonder we sweep Christmas under the rug of consumerism. Who wouldn’t want to hide this doctrine? How can we claim something as ridiculous as incarnation with a straight face? The word literally means to take on flesh. God, who is Spirit, became human? Seriously? The Word of God, the Eternal Son, became a human being? God, took our human flesh upon God’s self and forever united human flesh with the Godhead?

This is where Christianity parts company with every other major religion. Islam says the very idea of the incarnation is beyond scandalous. God would never become human. God would never plant God’s self inside of a woman’s body and condescend to be born in humiliation. God is great! God would never humble God’s self like this. God nursed? God pooped? God was completely helpless as an infant? God has his diaper changed? Are you kidding? Incarnation, indeed! It’s scandalous! It’s offensive! Who can believe it?

Then this idea of incarnation gets drawn out even further. Here in John chapter six, this Incarnate Word is telling us that we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The Word made flesh offers his flesh as food. It’s no wonder the disciples balked. They responded by saying, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?

Then Jesus asked his own question. It seems almost impertinent, cheeky. “Does this offend you?” The word translated as offend is σκανδαλίζω, from which we get our word scandalize. Jesus is asking his disciples if his teaching scandalizes them. Another meaning of the word, other than offend, is cause to sin in the sense of accepting a false teaching. Does this scandalize you? Are you afraid this is a false teaching? Are you fearful I’m leading you into sin; that I’m causing you to stumble?

Even Jesus knew the incarnation is a scandalous idea. With no more than a few words, Jesus manages to offend and alienate almost every person in the crowd. It was so offensive, so scandalous, that many of the disciples stopped following Jesus because, yes, it scandalized them. Pagans ate flesh with the blood still in it, not the children of God.

In order to understand the meaning of the flesh Jesus will give for the life of the world, we need to consider what appears to be a contradiction. In verse 63, Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” The problem is that this feels quite the opposite of what Jesus said in verse 53, “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.” So at the same time, we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood or we don’t have life in us, but at the same time, it’s the spirit that give life because the flesh is useless, literally, profits nothing. But how can two seemingly contradictory statements both be true?

His words clearly point to Holy Communion. We are told clearly that he is the Bread from Heaven and the bread he will give for the life of the world is his flesh. We’re told those who eat his flesh and drink his blood have eternal life.

At the same time, participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist doesn’t guarantee eternal life. Something else is required, something of the spirit. What is required for any of it to profit is believing. It’s interesting that the word faith never occurs in the Gospel of John. Instead, he uses the word believe.

For John, faith isn’t something you have, but it’s something you do. It’s something we live out. Believing in Jesus means that we accept, we believe in, the Good News of the incarnation, as scandalous as it might appear. If we don’t believe that the Word of God became flesh and made his abode among us, then we don’t believe in Jesus as he presents himself. We have to believe, which is a gift of the spirit. Remember, it’s the Father who draws us to Jesus. That’s the gift of prevenient grace. It’s a beautiful idea that we’re all here, not because we chose it but, because God has drawn us.

There’s something scandalous even in that idea, that we should be so touched, so loved by the God of all creation that we should be drawn anywhere or considered at all. It’s incredible, truly incredible, to think about what God has done for us.

And yet, so scandalous is the idea of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood that we often miss what is, perhaps, the most important point of this eating and drinking. Did you pick up on it? “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We eat and drink so we can abide. Jesus invites us to be at home in him.

It makes us ponder the question of what home really is. The world is full of fears and fearful things. Soldiers in warzones long for home. Elderly in nursing homes long for home. College students might not admit it, but they long for home. The homeless long for home among people who won’t walk by, pretending they don’t exist. Abused children long for home where they are safe and loved, because sometimes home is not the place where we lay our heads down for the night.

We have to fend for ourselves in the world. And it’s often a hostile arena. Our culture tells us we’re in control of our lives. If we work hard, we’ll reap the rewards of that hard work. We’ll feel good about ourselves when we’re successful. Yet, we compete against each other for limited resources, and we’re all afraid we might come in behind and not have enough. The world is where fear often reigns. The world tells us we need more than what we actually need. We’re taught to never be content because no one should be happy with what we have.

And we treat each other unfairly, we treat other people with such utter disregard for their God-given personhood, worth, and dignity. If a person’s race is different from ours, or their sex, or their economic status, or their age, if it’s different from ours, we fall into the sin of disregarding them as less worthy than us.

Fear rules this world. Fear grips us in ways we can hardly identify.

The reason we long for home, no matter who we are, is because home is the promise of safety and security. Home is the place where fear doesn’t have the upper hand.

One thing I’ve learned is that home isn’t a building. Home is a community of people, whether it’s nuclear family, extended family, friends, congregation, club, or school. Home is a community. We’re at home with people who love us and take care of us as we take care of them. Home is where we abide.

When we eat his body and drink his blood, believing that he is the Word of God made flesh, the Incarnate One, then we have eternal life. In that moment when we choose to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood, believing in him as the Incarnate One, it’s then that we abide in him, and he in us. It’s then that we find our home in the Christ who came to give his flesh for the life of the world. That’s when we choose life. That’s when we recognize that we are no better than any other child of God because of our life situation or the circumstance of our birth.

But this teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?

The thing is, this is where our choice matters. God has dragged us to Jesus. We must choose to turn away or to follow. When the Twelve chose to follow, even as droves of disciples turned away, they were drawn together as a community of faith. Being a community of faith isn’t about rules, creeds, mission statements, budgets, or styles of worship. It isn’t about looking alike, talking alike, dressing alike, or conforming to the majority opinion. It’s simply a willingness to follow Jesus Christ. That’s what makes a community of faith. It doesn’t matter who we are or how different we are from one another. When we abide in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us, we, as a community of faith, abide in each other. The root word of Communion and Community is the same. Holy Communion is more than a meal of bread and juice. It’s what we become as a community of faith. It’s something we live into when we find our home in the Word that became flesh. It’s what we are when we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus Christ and abide in him, together, as he abides in us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted).

Flesh Eaters

John 6:51-58

51 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.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 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. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 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.” (NRSV)

Flesh Eaters

I usually try to start a sermon with a hook of some kind. It’s like any story. You have to hook people or they quit listening. But I don’t know how to do that here. I don’t have any really interesting cannibalism stories in my back pocket. Honestly, if Jesus’ words aren’t shocking enough to hook you, nothing I say will be either.

This is one of those moments where I’m tempted, where any preacher would be tempted, to tone Jesus down. I want to say it’s just hyperbole, it’s allegory, it’s metaphor, it’s anything but what he says. Never fear, Jesus is waxing poetic. He doesn’t really mean what he’s saying about the whole flesh-eating and blood-drinking thing. It’s just symbolic language. Very graphic, gross, disgusting symbolic language. Right?

Our Bible translators tone things down all the time. I could tell you some things Saint Paul says that aren’t nearly as pretty as the way translators smooth it out. He was crass and sarcastic. It’s why I love Paul. And this text is no exception to translators’ attempts to smooth things over. It’s the reason one of my seminary professors called Bible translators, “Spineless weenies.” Sometimes they domesticate the Scriptures instead of letting them say what they really say. They, and we, want the people in our Bibles—these characters whom we love—to sound holy in speech.

It ain’t always so.

One of the challenges of this text is that Jesus really does seem to mean exactly what he says about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. The fact that he gives us a very hard teaching which is difficult to understand doesn’t give us license to dismiss it, make excuses for it, or smooth it over. The Greek text makes it very clear what Jesus means. It’s still not easy to understand, but at least we know he’s not speaking poetically.

Our English translations use the verb EAT throughout John 6. And up through verse 53, that’s a good translation. It’s the correct translation. The Greek verb there is φαγειν meaning to eat. Jesus says, “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.”

Then, in verse 54, Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” But this is where Jesus changes verbs. This is where to eat is a weak translation. Jesus makes it more graphic. It’s visceral. It’s like he wants us to understand, he wants us to be clear, that he’s not talking about something that’s merely symbolic. The verb here is τρώγων. It means to bite, chew, gnaw, crunch.

This is not dainty eating. This is sitting in a room full of children who are enjoying Cap’n Crunch cereal. This is what it would look like and sound like if you sat next to me while I was eating a rack of baby back ribs. This isn’t just the idea of eating, this is the physical act of chowing down. Jesus says, “Those who gnaw my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”

This is annoyingly literal. This is bringing the yuck factor to a whole new level. So of course we ask questions. In this text, it’s the Jews who ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” In verse 60, many of Jesus’ disciples question Jesus. They say, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” It is NOT unacceptable for us ask the same questions. How? How can Jesus give us his flesh and blood to eat and drink? What does he mean by this stuff?

What makes this difficult is that Jesus doesn’t give us an answer. He gives us the teaching, makes a few reference points, and leaves us wondering how to make sense of it all.

One of the things that fascinates me about the Gospel of John is that there are always layers of meaning. It’s like the book is written on two levels at the same time. There’s what’s happening, and there’s what is meant. There are stories about people, but there’s always this spiritual meaning that subtly crowds its way into each story. It’s really incredible how people’s misunderstanding in the story leads to insight for us. When people get tripped up over something Jesus says, deeper layers of meaning open up for us.

Here, it’s obvious why the people stumble over Jesus’ teaching. You don’t eat human flesh. The very idea that Jesus could give anyone his flesh to gnaw on is disgusting. And blood? You don’t drink blood. In Leviticus 17, God commands that all blood has to be drained from slaughtered animals because blood is life. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” And then a few verses later God says, “You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.”

Then Jesus is telling us we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood—his life—or we don’t have life in us.

This is why those who questioned Jesus balked at his words. They knew these texts. The teaching of Jesus seems to fly in the face of the teaching of Moses. It’s a continuation of Jesus’ teaching not fitting in with what they already know.

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says this, “Since Jesus in this passage is talking to unbelievers and not to disciples, his motives are worth considering. Is he confounding them on purpose…? Is it because he does not want them to understand, or is it because he wants them to understand that what he is saying will not, by any stretch of the imagination, fit into their previous categories? Whatever they thought they knew about God, it is time to think again. It may even be time for them to give up knowing anything for a while, so God has room to do a new thing in them.

The most popular verse of John’s Gospel is, by far, John 3:16. But the most significant verse for the whole of the Gospel is probably John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and took up residence among us, and we have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only child, full of grace and truth.” God pitched a tent on earth. God moved into our neighborhood. God tabernacled here. God resided among us. God may have descended into Israel’s Tabernacle in a cloud, but in Jesus Christ, God has become a human being. Eternity has broken into time, and won’t stop working until time becomes eternity.

This is about abiding. God chose to abide among us, and the depth of that abiding, the significance of it, is upped dramatically when Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Our feasting on the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the flesh and blood of Jesus, joins us with the living Christ who lives forever. Only when we are joined to Christ can we live forever.

The Word of God became flesh for us. Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven so that we might eat and live. We are told to eat his body and drink his blood so that we will have life and be raised up.

When we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, we do that. The bread and juice become for us the body and blood in a way that is a mystery. But God is really and truly present. So we eat. We chew. We gnaw. And we take God into ourselves.

But this eating is different from our everyday consumption. When we eat, our food is absorbed into our bodies and becomes us. We’ve heard the phrase, You are what you eat, but really it’s the other way around. What you eat becomes what you are. When we eat, we destroy what was eaten. For me to live, then, the form of another life must end. When I eat turkey, I don’t become a turkey. (Though I’ll admit that may be up for some debate). In reality, the turkey becomes me. My body destroys and absorbs it. We don’t abide with our food because when we eat something we destroy it.

But that’s not what happens with the body and blood of Jesus. This eating somehow becomes abiding. This is part of the holy mystery. When we eat Jesus, we are also consumed. We are taken up into the life of God and receive that life. Saint Athanasius said, “God became human so that humans might become God.” What he means by this very provocative statement is that the Word of God took on flesh because God intends for us to share fully in God’s life. God wants all of us, and God wants us to have all of God. Jesus came down from heaven with the intention of taking back everything that belongs to God. That means us.

It sounds scandalous that God would be so intimately available to us, that God would desire to abide with us, or that we should be invited to abide in God.

We are flesh eaters and blood drinkers. When we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus, the Word made flesh, we abide in him, and he abides in us. This mutual abiding is both the invitation and the goal of God: to be so perfectly present with us that we can’t see where we end and God begins. When we share in this holy meal of flesh and blood, God’s life becomes our life as our mortality is consumed by the eternal and we abide in God, and God in us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted).

I Am the Bread

John 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 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.”  (NRSV)

I Am the Bread

I’m an author. I’m not a published author, but I’m confident I’ll get there someday. I’ve written a confirmation book, a children’s book, two Young Adult High Fantasies, and a New Adult High Fantasy. I have ideas for other novels, too. They’re percolating in the back of my mind. I’ve got a contemporary fiction idea, a Young Adult Historical-Magical fantasy idea, a New Adult Contemporary fantasy idea, a New Adult Science-Fiction idea, and a Middle Grade fantasy idea. And I’ll get to them, eventually.

I love to write. I love that I get to design these worlds, these characters, and these stories. I get to build these things from the ground up. And it feels awesome when people read them and say, “Wow, that’s really good!

It might not seem like it, but writing is hard work. I didn’t know how hard it could be until I experienced writers block. I had churned out two rough drafts of a series totaling about 170,000 words in six and a half months. I thought I was doing pretty well. So on to book three. It started off well enough. I got several thousand words written. But, quite suddenly, it all came to a crashing stop. Writers block had set in. I didn’t know where to go next. I didn’t know how to proceed. I poured over my scene notes, but I was stuck.

At first, I was frustrated. I kept sitting down to write, but nothing would come. I started to wonder why that was. I got curious and started asking questions. I examined my manuscript. I looked at the threads of plot and character, tension and conflict. And I realized something wasn’t right. There wasn’t enough tension to carry the story forward. My main character, as she was written at that time, was almost too perfect.

She’s a warrior. She’s talented. So she always won, except for the one place I conveniently needed her to lose. There was very little flaw in her character or vulnerability in her personality. She beat everybody up. She was awesome! But awesome is boring. The story needed tension, and the way to do that is to add conflict. I needed to give her some internal and external struggles that she would have to face.

So I went back to the beginning of the story and started adding those elements of tension throughout the first two books. It added depth and beauty to the story. When I had done this, my writers block was gone. I picked up where I had stopped writing in book three and knew where to go. I finally finished the rough draft on May 24, seven months after I started the book. It took a long time.

What I learned from this experience is that my writers block was not result of a lack of ability to write. Rather, it was from the assumption that I had the story all figured out. The writers block made me stop to reconsider the whole thing.

This is a lot like our faith… And our doubts.

You may have heard the saying that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Instead, doubt is faith that is looking for a deeper understanding. I actually like the way Anne Lamott put it better. She wrote, “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

That’s counter to what we’ve always thought, though, isn’t it? We’ve always thought, perhaps even been taught, that certainty was faith in its most perfect form. But I don’t think that’s true for the majority of Christians. Sure, it may be true for some, but certainly not for all. I would assume that most of us struggle with faith. Some of us might prefer to be somewhere other than here on a Sunday morning. Some of us might think Christianity is too implausible to believe.

It isn’t always easy to believe this stuff. Especially when we read this text and find a Jesus who won’t answer our questions, but instead answers a question we didn’t ask.

Look at how Jesus teaches here in John 6. The people are murmuring about something they don’t understand. Jesus had said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” But that statement didn’t match the reality they had seen with their own eyes. They knew Jesus’ parents. Some of them probably knew Jesus as a little kid. How could he say that he came down from heaven? It didn’t make sense.

And so they grumbled. They complained.

Instead of clarifying things by answering the people’s concerns, Jesus muddies the waters even further. He chooses not to answer the question about how he could be both human and divine. Instead, he addresses the relationship between God’s grace and human free will.

Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” The thing is, that word in Greek which our Bible translators often render as “drawn” is actually a much more forceful, if not violent, word. This “drawing” of God is no gentle taking of the hand in order to woo us to Christ. In the truest sense, the word means “dragged.” This is a hog-tying. This is Mom, on a Monday morning, throwing back your covers and dragging you out of bed by your ear because you’re going to school whether you like it or not. This is compulsory. This is Captain Hook telling Wendy to walk the plank with a sword at her back. God the Father is going to drag our rear ends to Jesus. In some cases, God has already done so. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.

In saying, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me,” Jesus discredits any notion that we have come to him because of something we’ve done: our religious or philosophical insights, our economic or social status, nor—most of all, God help us, our choice. According to Jesus, this is how it works: God the Father dragged us to the feet of Jesus, bound and gagged, kicking and fighting, then threw us down and said, “I caught another one for you, Son. Teach it and give it a home.” The only choice we make is after God has dragged us where we didn’t want to go. We’re left blinking half-blind and confused by God’s overwhelming grace. We are saved by grace alone.

Think about what that means. Our doubt and confusion can seem like a mist or thick fog. It can feel foreboding. It can be downright distressing. It’s annoying. It makes us feel weak, even inadequate. Kind of like writers block.

But doubt can also force us to slow down and think about things. It can cause us to examine ourselves and our priorities. We can look at our story and see where we might need to tweak things. Tension is the thing that allows a story to move forward. Maybe our faith requires a little conflict, a little struggle, a little doubt, hesitancy, and tension, in order to grow beyond its current state of self-perceived perfection. (The thing with self-perceived perfection is that it’s usually very far from perfect).

So, in a sense, the very fact that the people were complaining because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” the fact that they’re asking Jesus questions, pressing him for answers to things that make no sense to them, is an odd proof of God’s grace. They wouldn’t be there at all if God had not dragged them to Jesus. The people found Jesus’ words to be incomprehensible, but it’s actually a reminder of how God is actively drawing them—dragging them—closer to Jesus.

There will always be things that we don’t understand. I’ve been reading the Bible since I was in elementary school. I’ve served as an appointed pastor since 2003. I minored in Religion in my undergraduate degree. I earned a Master of Divinity for my graduate degree. There’s still a lot I don’t understand. There will always be stuff I don’t get. But Jesus reminds us of what the Prophet Isaiah says, “And they shall all be taught by God.”

The thing is, we don’t have to see God to receive God’s grace. We don’t have to understand God, or comprehend the mysteries of the universe. In fact, it could be that the things we don’t understand, the complexities we fail to grasp, and the mysteries we question are the very evidence of God at work in us.

Jesus claims to be the living bread that came down from heaven. Then he says, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The teaching of Jesus takes an uncomfortably carnal turn.

Martin Luther once told his congregation, “I wish I could get you to pray the way my dog goes after meat.” It sounds crude, but it’s pretty funny if you think about it. When we read a story like this text, one of the problems we have with understanding it is that we think Christianity is spiritual. We long for spirituality, a spiritual experience. We want to transcend this earthly muck and mire. We want to ascend to some numinous, mystical plane where we can experience spirituality.

And let’s admit it, we like that idea. We want our God to be high and lofty, up there, in heaven. We want our religion to be spiritual.

The problem for Christians is that our faith isn’t about that. Our faith claims odd things like resurrection. We say in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe this piece of meat, this bag of flesh and bones, will be raised from the dead to live again. We eat bread, claiming it’s the body of Jesus. We drink wine saying it’s blood. We should roll in glitter and go to Twilight Saga conventions because we sound more like a bunch of cannibalistic vampires than anything else.

Spirituality? Christianity is a fleshy religion. We don’t need to climb up to the divine because the divine has climbed down to us. Our faith is incarnational. God took on the same flesh of our bodies and became one of us. God came to us through a birth canal. Have you ever heard of a God who would do that? That’s how much God loves us. God condescended to become human, to be with us, to live this human life in all of its carnal, fleshy grossness, all because God loves us.

So we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ our God. We taste, ingest, and digest. And in the process, we become recipients of grace. We exist in God’s presence. We abide in God’s never-failing love. Jesus is the bread we need, even if he’s rarely the bread we seek. “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.”

You see, this is one of the reasons why I, as a pastor and as a person in desperate need of God’s grace, I wish we could celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday. It’s actually more Methodist to do so than to not. We need it, but not for the reasons we think. We think Holy Communion is special. We think it’s supposed to be a deeply spiritual moment. But the thing is, it’s not meant to be special or spiritual. We’re chewing up the flesh of Jesus and swallowing it. We’re chugging his blood. We’re supposed to go after Holy Communion like Martin Luther’s dogs going after meat.

Holy Communion is supposed to be the common, every-day food of Christian people. We need the flesh and blood. We need the bread and wine. We need the carnal, fleshly presence of God With Us. We need to be able to taste and see.

Even in the midst of our doubts, confusion, and questions, we can eat the living bread, and receive Jesus into ourselves. It isn’t very spiritual. It’s not mystical. But I would call it a mystery. God is a mystery. God’s action and activity are mysteries. Mysteries, by nature, can’t be explained. That’s why we end up with doubts and questions. But those doubts and questions don’t mean our faith is failing or faltering. They mean God is dragging us to Jesus, and we’re so overwhelmed by the gift that we can hardly believe.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted).

Repentance

Psalm 51:1-17

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  (NRSV)

Repentance

Psalm 51 is normally the Psalm that we read on Ash Wednesday as a way to kick Lent off with a penitential bang.

To read Psalm 51 aloud is nothing short of an experience of worship with those who hear, and that experience of worship leaves us with a powerful sense of wonder at God’s deep and abiding love for us.

While the superscription of the Psalm relates it to the incidents recorded in 2 Samuel 11 & 12 where David either seduces or rapes Bathsheba, then murders her husband, Uriah the Hittite, and is finally confronted by the prophet Nathan, the language about sin is so universal that it speaks to everyone. Psalm 51 is composed of three movements: verses 1-9 are a request for personal cleansing; verses 10-17 are a request for personal renewal and right sacrifice; and verses 18-19—which I didn’t read—are a request to restore the city of Jerusalem and the liturgy of the Temple.

The careful way in which the poet has crafted the psalm in Hebrew is something that we easily miss in our English translations. In the first movement God is mentioned only once, and it’s in the very first line. The Hebrew word for sin is mentioned six times and other words relating to sin are also mentioned six times. In the second movement, the word for sin is only mentioned once, and another word related to sin is only mentioned once, whereas God is mentioned six times. So throughout the whole of the poem, God is mentioned seven times, and sin—including related words—is mentioned 14 times. While the image of sin is highly present in the first movement, it gradually gives way to the image of God in the second movement. Sin actually disappears at the same ratio that God appears in the Psalm. It’s an extraordinary literary and theological move as the poet is emptied of sin and filled with God’s grace.

Of course, such emptying of sin and being filled with grace comes through confession and repentance. Just as there is a literary turning from sin toward God in the psalm, true repentance requires a literal turning from sin toward God in our lives. There is something sacramental about repentance in that it is as much something which God accomplishes in us as something we do, but our own view of sin generally prevents us from seeing it in this way. We tend to think of sin predominantly in terms of action: things we either do or don’t do. And we view righteousness also in terms of action: by not breaking the rules or by how many time we pray in a day. If the Psalmist were writing this poem today according to our understanding of sin, it would probably look more like a list of petitions, “please forgive this, and please forgive that” rather than “let the bones you have crushed rejoice.” As one theologian put it, “In the popular approach to sin, we choose to address symptoms rather than endure surgery.” Sin isn’t merely the things we do or don’t do, but a condition, an illness, of the human race. Our sins of action or omission are symptoms of our sinful human condition. Our actions or omissions are more like a runny nose, which is merely a symptom of the fact that we are sick.

The language of Psalm 51 speaks to something that is deeply seated within us; a distorted part of our very nature that we—at all costs—keep hidden away in our secret heart. The psalmist is less concerned with specific actions or omissions and more focused on this condition of sinfulness that pervades each person’s very existence. It isn’t asking God to forgive this or that sin, but it’s a desperate plea for re-creation and the reordering of one’s life.

There are twenty-one imperatives in the psalm that speak to this re-creation: a few examples are, have mercy, blot out, wash, cleanse, teach, purge, let me hear, create, put a new, restore, sustain, and deliver. This concern for multiples of seven in the poem, including the seven mentions of God, the 14 mentions of sinfulness, and the 21 imperatives for restoration, literarily shows that the poet desires a complete reordering of life. The poet seeks to be thoroughly purged. The poet wants to turn toward God and away from sin.

This turning is the true meaning of the word repentance, which is meta,noia in Greek. True repentance, true turning away from sin toward God, is impossible without God’s grace. And because it involves the dreaded “C” word (change) we Church people are prone to avoid it every bit as much as the rest of the world. In our relationship with God, we act much more like our pet dogs and cats.

You guys are going to get tired of my pet comparisons.

Three years ago, at my son’s 5th birthday celebration, Joy had made a cake that looked like a Mario Kart racetrack with the little Mario Kart racing figures on it. It even had the little mushrooms, and stars, and clouds that you find in all of the Super Mario Brothers games. We had a great party. And then after we had all moved to another room our dog, Ignatius, had a little party by himself and finished off James’ cake. And, of course, when he gets caught doing something like that, he lowers his head, makes his eyes look all droopy, and wags his tail as if to say, “Love me, love me, love me, love me!”

But he didn’t repent. He just ate another cake two days ago.

In another recent event, I was having an evening snack on my couch. I had a plate of golden tortilla chips covered in melted sharp-cheddar cheese and I was dipping them in delicious Picante sauce. Then Joy came over to talk to me, so I set my plate of chips and salsa on the ottoman (the better to pay attention to her, I thought). Just as Joy and I began our conversation, her large long-haired cat—whose name is Monk but she acts more like Friar Tuck—jumped up onto the ottoman and started eating the few cheesy chips that were left on my plate. When I asked Joy what her fat cat thought she was doing, Monk looked up at me, and licked her lips as if to say, “What? Is there a problem here?”

Neither Ignatius nor Monk really ever really confessed to their sins, so they never truly repented. Oh, they paid for their sins in other ways. Have you ever fed a cat cheese? Nobody could go near Monk’s litter box for days. And it seemed like Ignatius had to go outside every 10 minutes after his cake-eating caper. They paid for their sins alright, they suffered the temporal consequences, but they never confessed or repented in such a way to fully restore the master-to-pet relationship.

On the one hand, Ignatius tried to restore the good feelings of our master-to-pet relationship by looking as innocent and pitiable as possible with his “Love me, love me, love me” eyes and wagging tail. Monk, on the other hand, tried to keep the good feelings in our master-to-pet relationship by completely ignoring the fact that there was even a problem, not that she would ever acknowledge a human being as her master anyway. Even today they both act as if everything is fine between us, and they probably think that it is, but I know better. I don’t trust either of them around food today any more than I did after their first incident of eating my family’s food.

For repentance to happen there has to be—at the very least—an acknowledgement, not just that we have sinned in some particular way, but that we are sinful. The psalmist has a profound understanding of their sinful nature, not merely individual deeds of wrongdoing or failures to do good. Verse 3 says, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” That’s a profound confession. And the psalmist further recognizes in the confession that all sin is an offense against God when he says, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.”

Now, what this does not mean is that when we commit a crime or other sinful act against a neighbor we aren’t really causing that person any harm because sins are against God alone. If we look back to the events of 2 Samuel, David did Bathsheba and Uriah real harm. I would doubt Bathsheba ever forgot that David either raped or seduced her, and then murdered her husband. Real harm, real violence, real pain was done to Uriah and Bathsheba, and the psalmist isn’t minimizing that fact. But the psalmist is speaking poetically. God is the author of our human relationships and any sin against a neighbor is an offense against God. In the psalm the author is not confessing individual acts, but the human condition of sinfulness.

Many of the ancient baptismal fonts in the Holy Land are cross-shaped, and large enough to accommodate more than one person at a time. A priest or deacon would often be in the font with the candidate for baptism, and the candidate would be facing west. Then, as the candidate was baptized, they would be turned to face the east. The turning from west to east, from darkness to dawn, was symbolic of our desperate need to repent.

True repentance comes from turning away from sin—not just turning from this deed and that deed—but turning away from the deep seated nature of our sinfulness by reaching toward God. True repentance comes from the desperate cry, as the Psalmist gives, for the recreation of our selves. When we cry out in repentance to God, God graciously helps us make the turn from west to east, from darkness to light, from death to life, from weeping to rejoicing.

In Psalm 51, the poet doesn’t appeal to personal efforts at penitence, tears, or remorse, but the appeal is to God’s abundant mercy and loving-kindness. The poet doesn’t turn inward to wallow in self-pity, regret, or guilt. Instead, the poet turns toward God and reaches for the fountain of grace. The poet recognizes that the condition of sin is beyond human ability to repair. This kind of heart surgery requires the Great Physician. Verse 10, which begins the second movement of the psalm, opens with the word “create.” This is a word that, in the Old Testament, is only used in regard to what God does. Only God creates. We might make things, craft things, build things, but only God creates. The request for God to create a new heart is a request for God to bring something into existence that wasn’t there before. This is no simple reshaping or retooling, it’s not an upgrade, but something totally new.

This is one of the places where worship is supposed to lead us: to an acknowledgment of our sinful nature and a desire to be made new, to be re-created into the image of God. Worship is, in fact, where Psalm 51 takes us. Through this worship, we are called to see that grace is not cheap. It does not come without grief.

Even God paid a price so that we might be healed. Yet, for us to heal, we first have to be honest about the fact that we are sick, that we are broken, that we are sinners, that our lives are not what they ought to be.

So in the liturgy within Psalm 51 we begin with a plea for mercy. We follow our plea with confession of sin. Then we ask for renewal. By the time we get to verse 15 we’re able to proclaim, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise!”

As it happens in the Psalm, when we offer our worship, the image of sin gradually gives way to the image of God. And as God’s grace enfolds us, fills us, and covers us, we can only feel a sense of wonder and awe that the Lord would give so much for us.

This is where our relationship with God is—by God’s immeasurable grace—set right. True repentance is nothing short of being created anew.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted).