Bread From Heaven

THE MOTTO OF RADICAL FAITH always is “now—or never.” If we can’t find divine grace reaching out to us in the here and now, just where we are, then we will never find it. We won’t find it by merely dwelling on the stories and legends of divine interventions in the past. For centuries, the fourth gospel has made people uneasy because it heightens the tension between those who think of religion as loyalty to what has been handed down for us to repeat and those who are prepared to see God right before them and with them now. This month we are asked to immerse ourselves in the very tense sixth chapter of John’s gospel, in which Jesus provokes bafflement and resentment by daring to appropriate to himself the mystique of the manna, the bread from heaven given by God to sustain the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness.

Everyone knew what the bread from heaven was. It was something miraculous embedded in legends of yesteryear, wasn’t it? Quite apart from being scandalized by Jesus’ apparent delusional egomania, the people are unsettled by the way he wrests the whole theme of being fed by God from its safe mummification in legend and miracle, and plants it in the immediate here and now. He forces the question about whether we dare acknowledge our own pangs of hunger for the eternal, and whether we are prepared to receive—eat and drink—the living person of Christ as the gift that will satisfy that hunger.

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ August 5 ]
Growing Up in Every Way
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13; Psalm 78:23-29;
Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

Our engagement with scripture today takes place against the background of noisy attacks on religion itself by prominent cultural critics who denounce it as toxic, superstitious, and irremediably intolerant. We may hear our neighbors say “Jesus is okay, but ‘organized religion’ is bad or unnecessary.” The popularity of the viral YouTube video “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” is an index of this cultural mood. In response we will need a deeper appreciation for scripture’s own internal critique of religion, such as the one we find in this reading from the letter to the Ephesians. Here is frank recognition that there’s widespread religiosity that traps people in immaturity and makes them vulnerable to exploitation. “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). Religion is riddled with charlatanry and manipulation.

But there is religion that promotes a collective maturity inspired by God, who is “above all and through all and in all” (4:6). Collective, because religion is essentially about the arduous forging of a community of interdependent equals, never merely the private inspiration of individuals. The church in Ephesians is envisioned as an evolving organism dedicated to “speaking the truth in love” and to “grow[ing] up in every way” (4:15). Jesus is no mere past prophet. He is the Coming One, the Christ who is the catalyst, core, and embodiment of a new community, a new humanity coming to birth. The church is not as much an institution we join as a process in which we participate through collaboration and mutual love, building up the body of Christ, knitting together a community in Christ, “from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (4:16).

[ August 12 ]
Imitators of God?
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 34:1-8;
Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love ...” (Ephesians 5:1-2). The most typical attacks on religion voiced today assume that it consists largely of rules imposed from above by an all-seeing deity armed with various penalties for infractions. This grotesque caricature holds up in front of conventional Christianity a distorting mirror, but a mirror nonetheless. Our faithfulness to scripture takes on a fresh urgency as a measure of our task in countering this repulsive image of our faith with a true presentation of the Christian ethical vision. The new covenant is not about us obeying divine laws; it invites and incites us to imitate God’s actions, expressed in practices of forbearance, compassion, mercy, mutual nurture, upbuilding, and reverence. This passage from the letter to the Ephesians is one of the most eloquent and passionate expressions of that invitation.

Notice also alternative metaphors for sin that deserve to be in the forefront of our preaching and spirituality, so that the rhetoric of law and obedience can take a back seat. “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). Sin is not the infringement of a rule imposed by a god poised to display anger. It is our pushing against the inner presence of the Spirit of God in our hearts, a self-destructive resistance to the love that has made its home in us. Our resistance grieves a suffering, indwelling God. Sin is wounding the tenderness of God.

If we are to reinvigorate the language of imitating God, imitating Christ, we might ponder these wry words of Charles Péguy in “The Mystery of the Holy Innocents,” reminding us that this way of talking is only warranted by the humility of God in taking on our humanity in Jesus, even to death on the cross: “For before this perpetual, this imperfect, / This perpetually imperfect Imitation of Jesus Christ / Of which people are always talking, / There had been that very perfect imitation of [humanity] by Jesus Christ, / That inexorable imitation, by Jesus Christ, / Of the mortal misery and of the condition of [humanity].”

[ August 19 ]
Our Beloved Hero the Traitor
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; Psalm 34:9-14;
Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Our tendency to idealize leaders and turn them into heroic models seems ineradicable. Whether it is a Reagan or a Roosevelt, a Kim Il Sung or a Mandela, we find ways of airbrushing away their flaws so they can bear the bright light of adulation. Then we can use their gilded images in our own political games. The Hebrew scriptures display examples of this tendency in their handling of the figures of David and Solomon. Yet they also bravely include countermeasures, attempts to be realistic, even brutally honest, about them. Solomon, in 1 Kings, is held up as an example of a ruler who sought wisdom and discernment for governing a state that had become highly complex almost overnight. No doubt Solomon was a hero to the educators and civil servants that he trained and cultivated, whose catchword was “wisdom,” and who ran the schools where these books were composed.

But they disfigure their icons, incorporating the king’s fatal flaws. “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places” (1 Kings 3:3). Here is the other side of the picture. Later passages will lay bare Solomon’s fatal policy of cementing alliances by acquiring wives and concubines from foreign dynasties, and his corruption of the temple itself by installing a range of chapels for the various pagan cults practiced within his harem. Solomon becomes an oppressor of his own subjects, compelling the tribes to supply gangs for forced labor in his grandiose construction projects. It’s all a mess, and the consequences of repeated compromises are dire. Eventually God decrees that Solomon’s united realm will split down the middle as soon as he is dead. Read on, the scriptures seem to urge us, to get the other side of the picture. Can these stories from nearly 3,000 years ago still speak to us of the terrible risks inherent in power, and the spiritual imperative of strenuously honest critical thinking about leadership?

[ August 26 ]
To Whom Can We Go?
1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 34:15-22;
Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

In recent years we have gotten better at reading between the lines of John’s gospel to understand the painful situation of the churches for which it was composed. John 6 hints that communion was one of the most controversial practices of Christian believers and contributed to their expulsion from the synagogues, making them exiles, even religious pariahs, in their own neighborhoods. In this part of the gospel, Jesus is heard in the synagogue at Capernaum asserting the essential meaning of communion without any qualification or caveats: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me ... whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:56-57). Many who were drawn to the teaching of the Christian believers must have come to feel that this kind of teaching went way too far. It would be hard to imagine language more offensive and provocative in a religious tradition that canonized every conceivable precaution against consuming animal blood, let alone human! No doubt there were those who gave up taking part in the church’s own gatherings and committed themselves to the synagogues that were shutting the Jesus-believers out. The church faced rejection by neighbors and kin, and defection from its own ranks.

Imagine the emotion that vulnerable believers must have felt when they read this gospel again in their meetings for communion. Tempted to waver, there was only one thing keeping them in the church—their own experience of the spiritual vitality and truthfulness of the message of the Son of God. There was nowhere else to go, no turning back. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:68-69).

Perhaps there was another issue. There may have been believers who were going overboard in attributing automatic effectiveness to the communion ritual itself. Sacramental worship always has this potential to turn into ritualism, where the physical ceremonies are enacted almost as if they worked magically. The gospel writers have embedded a warning against this too in the same passage, when Jesus asserts, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (6:63). What extraordinary resources there are for reflection on the current life of the church in this chapter of John, when the tools of gospel scholarship provide us with a kind of CT scan to see what is going on under the surface!

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