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.

No comments: