Sunday, August 30, 2009


Thirteenth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 17) – Year B (RCL)
Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Sunday, August 30, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

I find it interesting how some things stick with us, despite seeming to be insignificant or inconsequential at the time we learned them. Yet, despite the seemingly insignificant nature, they continue to come back, periodically popping into mind – proving they are not so insignificant after all. One of those things for me is the Greek word adiaphora, which literally translates as “things that do not make a difference.” I first heard this word during my second year of seminary. The infamous Windsor Report, the Anglican Communion’s rather harsh response to The Episcopal Church’s consenting to the election of an openly gay and partnered priest to the episcopacy, as well as to the Diocese of New Westminster (Canada) approving rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. As soon as it was released, our theology professor required that we read the Windsor Report in preparation for a class discussion on its theological implications for The Episcopal Church and the entire Anglican Communion.

My first encounter with the term adiaphora came a mere 11 pages into the reading assignment. But I would become much more familiar with the concept, as this term popped up periodically throughout the document. In fact, the Windsor Report eventually devotes nearly three full pages of single-spaced, 10 point text to discussing the finer points of adiaphora as related to the disagreements on sexuality that were and continue to plague the Church. Those finer points are gone from my memory, and besides, they are not germane to my point. Or, if you will forgive me, those points are adiaphora to my point. What is important is the broader concept. In Christianity, adiaphora refers to matters not regarded as essential to faith. This does not mean such matters are not permissible, they are just not essential. They are not absolutely necessary to who we are as Christians.

This week as I have reflected on Professor Wondra’s explanation and our class discussion of adiaphora, I kept coming back to the thought that the concept of adiaphora is not as insignificant as I had originally thought. In fact, the concept is hugely significant. I kept coming back to the fact that the Church has taken on so much stuff that is not really essential to what we do. And for many Christians, we have taken on so much stuff in the development of our personal faith perspectives that is not essential. But it was obvious from reading the Windsor Report, there is not always agreement on what is essential and what is not. What one person views as adiaphora, another may view as essential. So, rather than attempting to define what does or does not constitute adiaphora, as does the Windsor Report, it seems to me the more valuable exercise is to approach it from the other direction, to define what is essential. What is essential to living a life of faith? What is essential to being Church?

And that’s precisely what today’s scripture lessons are about – attempting to address the tension between what is adiaphora and what is essential, defining what is essential to our lives of faith, and what is not.

We see the beginnings of this in the Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy. In this lesson, we have Moses talking to the Israelites, who are about to enter the Promised Land. Moses is reminding them that their identity as a people is based on their relationship with God, that they are God’s Chosen People. This is based on the Covenant established between God and Abraham, and continually renewed through the Patriarchs, up to Moses. And a critical part of that Covenant, of what it means to be God’s Chosen, is to live according to the Torah, to follow the Law. This is what was essential. This is what continues to be essential to this day for devout Jews.

Pretty cut and dried. But when we get into the New Testament, we start to see the tension between essentials and adiaphora coming to light. And this tension is, in part, because as Christians we believe that there is a new covenant between God and his people. The old covenant, the Covenant between God and the people of Israel, has been superseded. Through Jesus Christ, the covenant has been extended to include all of humanity. And the terms of the covenant have been re-written. The New Covenant is no longer based on the Law, but rather, is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that means not just for Christians but for all humanity. The only problem is, at the time of the covenant being re-negotiated, it was a little unclear as to what conditions were being placed on humanity. Sure, we have such key provisions as the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31), and the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37a-40). But how those key provisions get fleshed out, how we live into them, is another matter. And there are other provisions that seem important, but on which we are not entirely clear if they are essential.

We see this most readily in the gospel lesson from Mark. In short, the scribes and the Pharisees, the leaders of the Jews, are calling into question the devoutness, the religiosity, of Jesus’ followers, merely because they didn’t wash their hands before supper. For the Jews, the purity laws were very important. You had to follow them to be a good Jew. They were essential. They were, in fact, as we noted earlier, a way of identifying who was Jewish. The purity laws, as well as other legal requirements, were, if you will, a boundary, set up to identify the Jewish people. Ever since the Exile in Babylon, the Jewish people were faced with how to maintain their identity as God’s Chosen People in the face of encroaching political, social, cultural, and religious ideas from the advancing Greco-Roman world. Such purity laws, such boundaries, were seen as a way of protecting who the Jewish people were.

But Jesus saw these boundaries as a way of limiting, as a way of keeping people out. If you did not follow the proper laws, you were on the outside. You were not one of the Chosen. The Jews withdrew from that which they saw as unclean to avoid contact with those who were not like them. Jesus sought contact with the “unclean,” sought to include them within his own circle, within his loving embrace.

So, Jesus challenged the established purity laws. He saw what was essential. Was it essential to have clean hands when you eat in order to be a devout and faithful person devoted to God? No, of course not. Washing your hands before supper is adiaphora. (Unless your mother tells you to, but that’s a whole different matter, completely unrelated to faith). In challenging this one purity law as adiaphora, Jesus was, in effect, challenging the Jewish leaders to stop and consider what is essential to their life of righteousness, faithfulness and devotion to God. Was it following a bunch of laws, or was it something else, something more?

He goes on to tell those assembled that it is not eating with clean or dirty hands that determine if a person is good, righteous, and faithful. Rather it is what is in their hearts. It is what people do with their lives. It is how they chose to act that determines if they are good, righteous, and faithful. It is what they do to live out their faith, it is what they do to show their love for God that really demonstrates if they are good, righteous, and faithful, or not. For Jesus, this whole encounter was about stripping away what is adiaphora, what is non-essential, and focusing instead on what it truly means, what is truly necessary, to be a follower of God.

James, in his epistle, takes Jesus’ general thoughts about stripping away what is non-essential one step farther. James, instead of attempting to discuss what is adiaphora, goes for the jugular, laying out, from his perspective, what is absolutely necessary. James provides his assessment of what is the absolute essential for a faithful life in Christ – works, as he terms it. Now this whole notion of works can be a thorny issue. Since the Reformation, James has been viewed with suspicion, equated with “Popish” works righteousness. But I think James is, at times, taken a bit too literally. The central theme of his entire epistle is that faith requires visible expression. In other words, it does not do anyone any good to keep our faith to ourselves.

For James, our faith is an integral part of who we are. He says, “welcome . . . the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (James 1:21). The implanted word – the Word of God that is innate, inborn. The word of the gospel is an inborn reality. It is a gift from God given to all of us. But having the gift of the Word, having faith, is not enough, as far as James is concerned. As he says, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). I don’t think that he means that we have to be doing good works in order to “buy” our way into heaven, to buy our salvation, as is sometimes argued. That is already assured through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather, I think, for James, works are an organic process, the results of faith, the manifestation of a life faithfully lived. Or put another way, actions speak louder than words. Our actions add value to our words. They establish truthfulness to what we profess to believe. Our actions, done from that deep place of faith, lend credibility and authenticity. Our actions reflect what we truly believe.

An essential, as far as James is concerned, our actions, the way we live out the Gospel message in our daily lives, the way we share it with those we encounter, is the corrective to the adiaphora, the non-essentials of our life of faith, which can bog us down and prevent us from focusing on what is truly important –loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. It is up to each of us to determine, to discern with the help of the Holy Spirit, how we are called to manifest those essentials in our daily lives.

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

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Spiritual Warfare

Twelfth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 16) – Year B (RCL)
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
Sunday, August 23, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:10-11).

Today’s lesson from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is a well-known passage among Christians, but is, at the same time, a very confusing, and I think, an often misunderstood one. Particularly so for us contemporary Christians. In our modern world, the imagery of armor, breastplates, shields, and helmets do not have much meaning. We don’t see people dressed as such in our daily lives, unless you happen to be at the Renaissance Faire. For us, more apt imagery might be that of modern military personnel, with helmets and flak jackets; or riot police, with helmets, clubs, and shields; or football players, with helmets, faceguards, and shoulder pads. Regardless of the specifics, the imagery is the same – wearing of safety equipment to provide protection from whatever may assail the wearer. But even so, this is not equipment many of us wear. It is the equipment of trained professionals. But this is not the cause of the confusion.

What I think is the potential cause of confusion is the nature of the assault one is protecting him or herself against. Paul talks about the armor being protection against “the wiles of the devil,” about struggles against rulers, authorities, “cosmic powers of this present darkness,” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Some Christians, and particularly some allegedly Christian governments, have latched on to Paul’s words as a way of justifying going to war against those viewed as enemies of God, against those viewed as being forces of evil bent on destroying our Christian way of life.

But even more generally, many Christians have latched on to this discourse from Paul, and the entire Letter to the Ephesians, in an attempt to address the question of theodicy – why bad things happen, or more specifically, how, despite an omnipotent, omnipresent God, evil and suffering exist in our world. The explanation that is seen in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is that such evil and suffering exist precisely because of dark and evil forces bent on tempting humans and preventing the reign of God. And more specifically, the passage we have today is an attempt to explain what we as Christians can do about it all – how we can take on the forces of evil and do our part to insure God’s continued reign. The term that is used by many contemporary evangelical Christians, particularly some of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, is “spiritual warfare.” The concept is that we as Christians are engaged in a battle between good and evil, a war between God and the forces of darkness. And these forces of evil use all sorts of tricks, tempting us, possessing us with demons, in an attempt to prevent us from following Christ. Paul’s words to the Ephesians are seen as a military operations manual for use in this ongoing war.

Lest you get the wrong idea, I am not advocating such views. I am merely explaining how some interpret Paul’s words. Within the Episcopal Church, you do not generally hear talk of spiritual warfare, at least not in the classical sense. If anything, the term is used by the radically conservative break-away elements as a call, a battle cry, for taking the Episcopal Church back to their way of thinking. But in general, we Episcopalians do not place a great deal of emphasis on the traditional notion of spiritual warfare. Now, that is not to say that individuals may not hold such views. I know a number of Episcopalians, whom I love and greatly respect, who do hold such views. And if that is their understanding, I respect that and will not argue.

But I think Paul’s message is a bit misunderstood. There is much debate among biblical scholars as to the real meaning of this section of Ephesians. Several interpretations have been put forth. Most of this centers around Paul’s statement, “take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day.” What “evil day” is Paul referring to? Some scholars think that Paul is referring to the evils of the time to come before the end, as allegedly foretold in the book of Revelation. Some feel that Paul is referring to specific instances of temptation. Others feel that Paul is merely referring to everyday life in the present age. While all have valid arguments, I think the important thing is to look at the overall scope of the Letter to the Ephesians and to the social and historical context in which it was written. While seemingly apocalyptic in nature, similar statements elsewhere in Ephesians are generally mere descriptions of present reality. Paul relates such seemingly apocalyptic statements to what is going on in the life of the Church at Ephesus – to their current circumstances. And the early Christians in Ephesus, as well as elsewhere in the Roman Empire, had a lot to worry about. At that time in history, Christianity was still essentially an illegal religion, often operating underground. This was a time when Christians in the Roman Empire faced daily religious persecution, harassment, and discrimination, just for being Christian.

This being the case, I tend to be most persuaded by the view that Paul is not addressing “warfare” against nebulous cosmic forces of evil out there bent on destroying the church, as much as he is talking about those very real, everyday things, everyday life events, that challenge our faith. Why do I believe this? One simple fact. In the broadest of terms, the battle to which Paul refers, the war against “cosmic powers of darkness,” against “spiritual forces of evil,” is a war against two things: sin and death. These two, sin and death, are the results of work of the powers of darkness, the forces of evil. When we are tempted by and give into the forces of evil, whatever those may be, we sin. And the death that we talk about in such instances is the permanent end of our existence. A death in which life comes to an end and there is no more.

But you know what? We don’t have to worry about these, about sin and death. That war is over. Through Jesus Christ, the incarnate son of God, who lived among us, walked with us, ate with us, taught us, healed us; who was crucified for us, and resurrected for us, all of this, the ravages of sin and death, are inconsequential to us. We don’t have to worry about them. As we extol at our annual celebration of Easter, through his death and resurrection, Jesus has done two important things. First, he has broken the bonds of sin. By the very act of taking our place, by taking our sins, all our sins, upon himself and presenting them to God on our behalf, all our sins have been forgiven. Through Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, our sins are no more. We have been forgiven once and for all. Sin no longer controls us. Sin no longer determines our fate.

And second, through his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death. Death no longer has dominion over him. And we, by being incorporated into the Body of Christ, by following him, by abiding in him and he in us, we are likewise not limited by death. Death no longer has dominion over us. Death is not the end, the final word. Death is merely the beginning. Death is the transition to new life, to a new and eternal life made possible through Jesus Christ.

So the good news is the war is over. At least, as far as we are concerned. It may rage on at some cosmic level, between God and the forces of evil. But we have been removed from the war. We have been shipped home from the front. Jesus Christ has seen to it that we don’t have to face the horrors of this war – the tortuous results of sin, the permanent end of our lives. He has broken the bonds of sin, conquered death. For us.

Now that doesn’t mean that there is not still evil in the world. That sin does not happen. It does. We see it every day in the news. All around us we see chaos, dehumanization, corruption, oppression, crime, war, threats of war, genocide, poverty, disease, degradation of our environment, degradation of our society. We live in a broken world. These things are, unfortunately, a part of our reality. They may not touch us directly, but we still feel their effects. But what does touch all of us directly, that which is most pervasive, is fear. I think this is the twenty-first century equivalent of what Paul was talking about. This is what we are called to do battle against – the fears we cannot help but have because of all that is going on around us. There’s no denying their existence. There’s no sweeping them under the rug and pretending they don’t exist. We’re human. Our fears are part of who we are. But being people of faith, we have ways of even dealing with these fears.

That’s where Paul’s words of advice to us come in handy. In amongst the imagery of armor and breastplates and helmets, Paul provides us with the virtues that are needed to help us deal with even our own fears. “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” To illustrate his point, Paul uses the image of putting on the armor of God to illustrate basic Christian virtues.

Armor is just another set of clothing. Changing into new clothing is sometimes used as a sign of conversion, of new life. In one of the rites for private confession, the penitent acknowledges, “Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness.” At our baptisms we were given new clothes, or armor, if you will to symbolize our new life. Unlike the ancient church where the newly baptized got a new white robe, today, the clothing is more metaphorical, just as Paul implies. As Paul notes, this new clothing consists of a number of Christian virtues – truth, righteousness, proclaiming the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God. This may sound like a lot to take on. But we already have. We’re already doing it. Through regular attendance at worship, and particularly partaking of the Eucharist. Through reading of scripture. Through regular prayer and other spiritual practices. Through proclaiming the gospel and living it out in our lives. Through acts of compassion and mercy, in reaching out to others. And even in fellowship and being part of this community of faith and support.

These provide us with the hope that we need, the assurance that the war is out of our hands and in the hands of the only One who is truly equipped to do battle against sin and death. All that is asked of us is that we be faithful. That’s what all of this is about. All of this, all of what we do here on Sunday, what we do in our private devotions and practices, the works of compassion that we do in the community during the week, are the armor of God. This is what will protect us from sin and death. This is what will protect us from the fears that plague each and every one of us. This is what allows us, as is Paul’s challenge to all who follow Christ, to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.”

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

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

You Are What You Eat

Eleventh Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 15) – Year B (RCL)
Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
Sunday, August 16, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

The Romans of the first century often thought that the early Christians were downright savages, that they were cannibals. After all, their religion required that they eat flesh and drink blood. While the Romans may have been a bit misguided in their understanding of Christianity, it is certainly easy to see where they got their notions when we read the sixth chapter of John’s gospel – the portion we have been examining for the last few weeks.

Over the last several weeks, we have been looking at Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse. At first glance, it may seem rather tedious that we keep having Gospel lessons with the same imagery week after week. And I warn you, we get even more of it next week. But it is important to realize that the reason John portrays Jesus making such lengthy and seemingly repetitive discourses is twofold. First, what is being said is incredibly important to John’s Christology, to his understanding of who Jesus is. That being the case, John gets somewhat repetitive to allow the concepts being presented to fully sink in, rather than just wash over us. And second, such discourses are lengthy precisely because the concepts being presented are complex and need a systematic explanation in order for us to begin to fully comprehend both the meaning and the implication for our lives of faith. Hence our protracted Gospel readings for the month.

To recap, two weeks ago, we had Jesus merely saying that he is the bread of life. Last week, he provided more explanation – that this bread of life has come down from heaven, and that whoever eats of this bread will live forever. We are beginning to see a slow and systematic building of intensity – in the nature of the imagery and in the depth of its meaning. So, not surprisingly, this week’s portion of the on-going discourse has Jesus taking the imagery to a whole new level – “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” While this statement was included in last week’s lesson, it provided this somewhat cryptic statement without exposition. But today, more of the total image is revealed, and we receive more explanation as to what it all means.

The explanation is facilitated by the fact that the gathered Jews are obviously grossed out by the image of eating flesh. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” And rather than try to ease their discomfort, to say nothing of their disgust, Jesus only serves to make matters worse. “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.” Unless you are a cannibal, this statement on first glance is an affront to anyone's human sensibilities. But such a concept is particularly repugnant to Jews. Kosher dietary laws specifically prohibit observant Jews from drinking the blood of slaughtered animals. This is because blood is the essence of life – life is contained in the blood. They believe that the soul is contained in the blood. To drink the blood of an animal would be to take in its life essence, its soul, to have it comingle with one’s own soul. While I have not found any specific explanation of why this would have been viewed as being so bad, my educated guess is that in so doing, the person would take on the soul of the animal, take on the life essence of something lower, more base, something impure, thereby corrupting the person and rendering him or her ritually unclean.

In using the imagery that he does, and all the accompanying connotations for devout Jews, Jesus is for all intents and purposes likening himself to a slaughtered animal, as an animal placed as a sacrifice on the Temple altar. This side of the crucifixion and resurrection, we Christians see that this is somewhat appropriate imagery, foretelling what would happen to him. But for those involved in the scene, it was quite inappropriate, if not downright heretical.

If we keep with the imagery of Christ as a slaughtered, sacrificial victim, we begin to see that such action, if truly come down from heaven, if truly ordained by God, recasts the imagery and the antecedent Jewish dietary restrictions in a completely new and different light. By his implied imagery of eating the flesh of the slaughtered animal and drinking its blood, Jesus is, in effect, overturning the old dietary laws. Not with respect to the physical food that is eaten, but certainly with respect to spiritual nourishment. Eating the flesh and drinking the blood of this new sacrificial being, of Jesus, would no less entail the taking in of the life essence, the spirit of Christ, than would drinking the blood of a slaughtered animal entail taking in the soul of that animal. But instead of taking in the soul of a lowly creature that would taint and render impure the essence of the one partaking of it, taking in the flesh, the blood, the life-giving essence, the spirit of Christ, would result in taking in something even more pure, something more divine. By Jesus being fully human and fully divine, eating his flesh and drinking his blood would mean ingesting and sharing in a touch of the divine, of that which is given by the Creator to provide life to all humanity. The one who eats Jesus’ body and drinks his blood would share in God’s Spirit, would share in eternal life. The Spirit of God and of Jesus becomes inextricably linked with our spirit. God and Jesus become part of us, and in so doing, we become part of Jesus. This is what Jesus means when he says “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

I think further explanation of this is provided in the Old Testament lesson from Proverbs. Today’s reading from Proverbs talks about Wisdom. To fully understand and appreciate the message of this lesson, it is important to understand that Wisdom is often used in Old Testament writing as a personification for the Spirit of God, what we call the Holy Spirit. And while God the Creator is always personified as masculine, Wisdom as used for the Spirit is always personified as feminine.

So, in today’s Old Testament lesson we have Lady Wisdom, the Holy Spirit personified, preparing a banquet, a festive meal, just as Jesus provides on numerous occasions. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus centered much of his activity around meals. Jesus provides a meal for his disciples prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus promises that we will ultimately share in a heavenly banquet. Wisdom, in preparing her banquet, even uses the same primary elements that Jesus uses. She invites us, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Note that this imagery was written some six centuries before Jesus lived in the flesh, before Jesus used the imagery of bread and wine to describe his banquet, to describe himself.

When combined with the Gospel lesson, several things become clear about this banquet. First is that this banquet is definitely ordained by God. The Spirit of God provides a banquet in which all are invited. And then, the Son of God provides greater clarification about the nature of the banquet meal. The bread is not just any old bread, but is the bread of life, the flesh of the Son of God. And the wine is not just any old wine, but is the blood of the Son of God.

And the second thing about this banquet, foretold in the Old Testament, in the history and wisdom of our Jewish forebears, and brought to fulfillment in an earthly sense through Jesus Christ in the giving of the bread and the wine, his body and his blood, and yet to be brought to its ultimate fulfillment in the heavenly banquet in celebration of the victory of the Kingdom of Heaven, all of this points to the fact that the ultimate goal of salvation history is the heavenly banquet, for which Jesus will provide the bread and the wine - his flesh for the bread, his blood for the wine.

And this banquet is to be life changing. We talked about drinking Jesus’ blood as resulting in the taking in of his life essence, of his Spirit. While the Old Testament does not use this imagery, it certainly indicates that the banquet is life-changing. Proverbs tells us that Wisdom’s invitation to her banquet is an invitation to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” The banquet provides transformation, the opportunity for new life.

Jesus’ invitation in John provides the same thing – the opportunity for new life. Not only new life, but eternal life. And that life is embodied in us, as we live in Christ and Christ lives in us. This life is embodied in us as we share in the intimate relationship with Christ, only made possible through partaking of his body and his blood. Through the Eucharist, Christ becomes part of our very being. As one commentator puts it, “today's rather scandalously carnal, incarnational gospel reminds us that Jesus intends to have all of us, body and soul. His truth wants to burrow deep within us, to consume us as we consume him, to flow through our veins, to be digested, to nourish every nook and cranny of our being” (Willimon, 361). This is only made possible through the partaking of the Eucharist, the foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

And for us, the most important thing is that this intimate relationship that Jesus talks about, this abiding, is not something passive, that we just let happen. Abiding is active, current, here and now. It requires something of us. It requires determination. It requires action. It requires that we boldly walk up to that altar rail, that we joyfully hold out our hands to receive the bread and the wine, that we confidently claim our share of the heavenly banquet. And in so doing, we take our place at the table, and are not only given bread and wine, body and blood. We are given, we are assured, new and eternal life. That is Lady Wisdom’s invitation to us. That is Jesus Christ’s invitation to us. That is Christ’s promise to us.

So come. Let us partake of this banquet, this holy meal of bread and wine, of body and blood, that Christ may nourish us, may abide with us, may give us the gift of eternal life he yearns for all to have.

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

Willimon, William H. “John 6:51-58, Homiletical Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

NB - The title of this blog post was not my idea, per se. During the Peace at the 8:00 service, one of my LEMs said, "I guess your sermon just shows that you are what you eat." I couldn't help using Roger's comment as the title for the sermon.

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Sunday, August 02, 2009

Spiritual Nutrition

Ninth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 13) – Year B (RCL)
Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
Sunday, August 2, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

In recent decades, our nation has undergone some paradoxical shifts in our perception and awareness regarding the food we consume. By this I mean that, as a whole, the shifts we have made are downright contradictory. On the one hand, we have become a nation increasingly dependent on fast food and junk food – things we can eat on the go because we are just too busy to sit down and have a proper meal. On the other hand, we are increasingly concerned with what we eat – the nutritional value of the food, whether it’s organic or raised using growth hormones.

The government has established Recommended Dietary Allowances for certain nutrients, as well as maximum recommended levels of such things as fat, sodium, etc. These requirements are now collectively referred to as Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). In addition, they have established the food pyramid, which gives us guidelines for eating the proper amounts of certain types of foods to promote growth and to maintain healthful living. We are provided with additional guidance through the nutrition labeling that is provided in most every food product sold in this country.

When we are young, we tend not to pay too much attention, if any at all, to such things as food pyramids, DRIs, and nutrition labeling. Except when we have to learn about such things in school. When we are young, we are invincible and can eat whatever we want, at least that is what we think. And many have metabolisms that permit them to eat as much of whatever they want with no apparent problems. But as we get older and our bodies and metabolisms change, we have to be more conscious of what we eat. Our bodies require certain things, and certain amounts of those things, not to mention less of other things, in order to maintain, or to at least try to maintain, some semblance of health. As a result, we become more aware of what we eat, or at least, our doctors tell us we should be. We find that we do more research on nutrition. We read those nutritional labels more carefully.

In a way, today's scripture lessons, taken in total, could be viewed as the scriptural equivalent of the food pyramid and the DRIs. Today's lessons could be viewed as nutrition labeling, of sorts – nutrition labeling for the health of our spiritual lives and for proper nourishment of the Body of Christ, of which we are a part.

All three lessons are about the giving of gifts. Specifically the giving of gifts, of nutritional elements, that promote some aspect of health. As we move thought the lessons, not so much in the order read but in the order in which they appear in scripture, in which they chronologically recount the story of God’s people, we find that the nature of the gifts, and the type of health they promote and maintain, shifts from the physical to the spiritual.

In the lesson from Exodus, we have the account of how God provided for the physical health and wellbeing of the Israelites as they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land. In this story, the people are hungry. Without food, they will not be able to continue on their journey. So God provides for their physical needs. He provides quail and manna –physical food to sustain the Israelites on their journey, to allow them to fulfill their mission and enter into the Promised Land, to fulfill their destiny and become the Chosen People from whom the fulfillment of salvation history would proceed.

In the Gospel lesson from John, we find Jesus beginning to make the transition from, the connection between, physical sustenance and spiritual sustenance. He does this when he says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” At this point, we don’t know what this “food that endures for eternal life” is. I find it interesting that the disciples immediately respond with “What must we do to perform the works of God?” While we aren’t told what led the disciples to do so, they seem to connect this spiritual food that Jesus mentions with the work of God.

In response, Jesus tells them that “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he sent.” The work that they, that we, must be about is the work of faith. The work of God is to believe in Jesus Christ, and not only to believe it, but to live into it. The work of God is to be the Body of Christ in the world, to all those whom we encounter, day to day.

And Jesus begins the transition from physical nourishment to spiritual nourishment when he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This statement links Jesus with the manna, with physical sustenance needed by the Israelites to carry out their journey. This statement proclaims that Jesus is the spiritual sustenance that first the disciples, and then we, require in order to carry out our journeys of faith.

And finally, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul completes the transition from physical to spiritual sustenance and provides us with more definitive guidelines to help us achieve what Jesus has asked of us – to do the work of God. In writing to the church at Ephesus, Paul discusses the gifts, talents, and graces that the people need for their journey – not just the people of Ephesus, but all who follow Christ. Paul provides us with a clear statement of our goal. He says, “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body . . . is equipped.” Paul has moved completely away from the physical journey to the Promised Land where God’s Chosen People will establish their earthly home, and on to the spiritual journey involved in the building up of the Body of Christ, of preparing for the Kingdom of God, the eternal home of us all.

Paul goes on to state that in order to achieve this goal, “each part [must be] working properly, promot[ing] the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” This is the result of proper spiritual nutrition. Earlier in the epistle lesson, Paul tells us that what is needed to achieve and maintain this spiritual nutrition, that which promotes the growth of the individual and of the Body as a whole, are humility and gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, and maintaining unity in the bond of peace. In some respects, these are the equivalent of strong bones and teeth, the skeleton on which the body is built, on which the muscles and ligaments that allow us to do the work of God are attached.

Paul then goes on to give the spiritual equivalent of the food pyramid and the Dietary Reference Intakes required to promote spiritual growth, to allow for the development of our lives of faith, and in so doing, to promote the growth of the entire Body of Christ. Just as in the human body, each part needs different nutrients to maintain proper health and functioning, so too in the Body of Christ, do we need different attributes, different nutrients if you will, to make for a healthy body. Each of us plays a different part. Each of us has a different purpose that contributes to the overall functioning of the Body of Christ. Paul tells us that “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Each of us is given the gifts, the nutrients, that we need to contribute to the Body. Paul goes on to spell out what these gifts are. “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” Through these gifts, these nutrients, we have what we need to achieve the goals established by God through Christ – “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

Paul uses very broad categories to describe the gifts required to nourish the Body of Christ – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. This is like the general categories for nutritional elements needed by the physical body – vitamins, minerals, amino acids. But we know there are much more specific functions, much more specific gifts that provide for the nourishment of the body. Just as we have various types of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that serve very specific functions, so too are we each given very specific gifts to provide for the nourishment of the Body of Christ. Just as no nutrient can provide all of the needs of the human body, Paul implies that we are not called to be all things for the nourishment of the Body of Christ. We are each called to specific ministries that promote the health and wellbeing of the Body of Christ.

We see that here at Trinity. Not all are called to be clergy. Not all are called to engage in outreach work. Not all are called to be teachers. We each have our specific functions, our own unique way of nourishing and building up the Body of Christ and of ministering to the world. Some are called to be on the Altar Guild. Some are called to feed the hungry. Some are called to visit shut-ins and those in the hospital. Some are called to work to educate our children and youth. Some are called to be Eucharistic Ministers. Some are called to be lectors. Some are called to be on the Vestry. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. The bottom line is that what you are doing for the parish and in the world is just what God is calling you to do. What you are doing is integral to providing nourishment for and thereby building up the Body of Christ in this place.

In the Old Testament, manna is a sign of God's presence in the wilderness. In the New Testament, Jesus is a sign of God's presence in our lives. In our own time, we as the Body of Christ are a sign to the world of God's presence through Jesus Christ. Each of us, no matter what we are doing, as long as we are doing something, is providing for the health and maintenance of the Body of Christ, for, as Paul said, “promot[ing] the body’s growth in building itself up in love,” for helping nourish the Kingdom of God, here and now.

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

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