Saturday, August 19, 2006

The "Medicine of Immortality"

The heart of today’s gospel reading is a contrast. “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.” In other words, your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and died, but those who eat “the bread that came down from heaven” will live forever. What is astonishing about this promise is not just the assurance of eternal life, but the fact that Jesus joins the promise of eternal life to the most mundane of human activities – eating.

I would like to look at both the promise – eternal life – and the means to achieve it – eating the bread that came down from heaven.

First, the desire for life after death seems to be fundamental to human nature. The eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume once said, "It is a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever,” but I am not sure that many people agree with him. Indeed, in 21st century American culture there seems to be an almost desperate need to believe that there is life after death. Suddenly there seem to be a half dozen new TV shows that deal with the idea of life after death and the possibility of communicating with the dead.

Eternal life is not an “unreasonable fancy;” it is at the very heart of the Christian faith. To divorce eternal life from the Christian faith is to render the faith anemic and puny. In today’s gospel reading Jesus reminds us that “the living Father” sent him. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about life, both here and hereafter. To accept that death has the last word is to accept that God’s power is limited, but that is not what the Bible teaches. Jesus promises that he will raise up those who are nourished by his body and blood.

It is just as true, however, that the Christian faith is about more than life after death. It is just as much about life in the here and now. Indeed, there is a continuity between life in this world and life in the next. As priest and poet John Donne put it, “… all the way to heaven is heaven… so that soul that goes to heaven meets heaven here… the true joy of a good soul in this world is the very joy of heaven…” (“Sermon LXVI” in Herschel Baker, ed., The Later Renaissance in England, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin (1975), p. 561.)

The promise that eternal life belongs to those who eat and drink Christ’s body and blood grounds us in this world. The promise of eternal life is not annexed to some elaborate ritual; we are not asked to bathe in a sacred river or to offer sacrifices or to repeat a magic formula. Instead, we are invited to a meal.

But (I imagine someone asking) can it be that simple? Can we really receive eternal life by eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table? To answer that question, first imagine how we come to the Lord’s Table. In the world of Jesus, bathing was relatively uncommon, but if one was invited to a dinner party, one bathed and anointed oneself with oil. Similarly, before we come to the Lord’s Table, we are washed in the waters of baptism. Also, to sit down at table in first century Palestine implied that the guests were at peace with the host and with one another. Jesus admonishes us to be reconciled with one another before “offering our gift at the altar.” (Matthew 5.23-24)

The 16th century Protestant Reformers condemned the mass because the consecrated bread and wine had become isolated from the other parts of the liturgy; they had become ends in themselves. However, when we properly celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, then we will have met Jesus all along the way. We will have been baptized into his death and resurrection; we will hear him speak in the voice of scripture; we will be reconciled with those we have sinned against; we will be nourished on his body and blood; and finally, we will hear him command us to go into the world to do his will.

The late 2nd century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons called the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, “the medicine of immortality.” Jesus did not employ the metaphor of medicine, but he did promise that if we are nourished on his body and blood we will have eternal life. The meal we share with believers on earth is the heavenly banquet in earthly guise. Saints and angels gather around whenever we set the table, whether the sacrament is celebrated with all the pomp and ceremony they can muster at St. Peter’s in Rome or with loaf bread and jug wine at summer camp, because it is the earthly extension of the marriage feast of the Lamb.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Being "pushy" for justice's sake

My sermon for Sept 10 is available at the Episcopal Church's website.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

In a New Light

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... and God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light”. Have you ever thought about the fact that God created light before God created the stars, the givers of light?
A thread of light connects all three texts this meditation is based on: There was the mysterious light shining from Moses’ face that frightened the Israelites. In 2 Peter the author speaks of the “prophetic message” he delivers as a “light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”.
And finally, there is the story of the Transfiguration, the story of Jesus’ journey to the top of a high mountain, accompanied by Peter, James, and John. While there the disciples saw Jesus transformed into a being of light: “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white”. And they saw Jesus talking with the long-dead prophets Moses and Elijah.
I am inclined to think that the transfiguration of which we speak today was not so much in Jesus as it was in Peter, James, and John. The light that they saw pouring from Jesus had always been there; they just had not seen it before.
The life of Jesus had already shed a radically new light on the world. The poor had been regarded as unloved and unwanted by God, but in the light that Jesus brought they came to be seen as special objects of God’s favor. “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Tax collectors and prostitutes were shunned, but Jesus cast an entirely new light on their status when he shared meals with them. “He receives sinners and eats with them”. (Luke 15.2)
To the learned Pharisee Nicodemus, who came to him “by night”, Jesus brought light. “Very truly, I tell you, Nicodemus, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3.3). “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light...” (John 3.19) Jesus saw that Nicodemus’ real need was not a theological discussion but a radically new way of seeing. And Nicodemus, who arrived in the dark, left amidst God’s blazing light.
And then there was the “man blind from birth” (John 9.1) that Jesus and his disciples encountered in Jerusalem. But even the disciples were in darkness, for they saw this sightless man as nothing more than a theological dilemma: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2)
However, Jesus saw the man and his blindness as an opportunity to do the work God has been doing ever since the first chapter of Genesis: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”. (John 9.3) And taking the dust from which God had made Adam and the water with which he makes the new Adam, Jesus gave that man blind from birth God’s first creation and gift to the world—light.
Today’s gospel retells the story of a moment when Peter, James, and John suddenly saw Jesus for who he was—a man filled with God’s light, the light that God created even before he hurled stars and moons and planets into the inky void.
The New Testament speaks of a world hovering between light and darkness. According to 2 Peter we are in that dim moment just before “the day dawns and the morning star rises” (2 Peter 1.19).
According to John’s Gospel Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 9.5). The darkness has not overcome the Light, but neither has the Light quite overcome the darkness. There are still those who, like Nicodemus, prefer to do their business by night. There are still those who saw not a great and wondrous miracle when the blind man was healed, but merely a sinner violating the Sabbath code.
The light of which the New Testament speaks is not so much about heavenly bodies or luminous filaments; it is about opening our eyes and stepping out of the shadows. It is about taking the risk of adopting a new perspective.
There is darkness in every life. There is an unwillingness to see in each one of us.
A child who awakens from a nightmare may see the face of a monster on her wall, but when Mother switches on the light, it becomes the laughing face of a clown in a picture.
The Bible tells us of Saul who became Paul, blinded on the road to Damascus, who had seen the followers of Jesus as enemies, but suddenly came to see them as brothers and sisters.
By eerie and unsettling coincidence the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, is also the anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. The overwhelming light generated by that nuclear explosion was quite different from the light that shone from Moses’ face or the light of Peter’s message, much less the light that frightened Jesus’ disciples atop the Mount of Transfiguration.
My father served in the Pacific, and I am deeply grateful that the destruction of Hiroshima prevented an invasion of Japan in which he would have fought. But even though the bombing of Hiroshima brought a terrible war to a quick end and probably saved the lives of thousands of troops, both Japanese and American, nevertheless it took the lives of thousands of men, women, and children.
For over forty years men and women saw the world in the light of nuclear destruction. The light that Jesus brought invites us to see the world in a radically different perspective.
Years after hostilities between the U.S. and Japan and its allies ended American veterans of World War II returned to the sites of mighty battles and so did their German and Japanese counterparts. Men who once saw each other as enemies, now see each other as neighbors.
A little over a hundred years ago here many in this country saw black people as slaves. But now we have learned and are still learning that black and white people alike are “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...”
According to the Talmud, a Jew must pray at dawn. But that begs the question, when is dawn?
It is said that a young student came to his teacher and asked, “Rabbi, when is dawn? Is dawn the moment when the last star fades from the sky, or is it when the sun creeps above the horizon?”
The wise old teacher replied, “No, my son. Dawn is the moment when you can look at the face of another and see not an enemy but a friend.”
In the light of Hiroshima we came to see half the world as our enemies, dedicated to our destruction. And we saw ourselves as their enemies, and dedicated ourselves to their destruction.
But in the light of the Transfiguration God invites us to see the poor as heirs of heaven; to see sickness not as divine punishment but as an opportunity to do God’s work; and to see each other as sons and daughters of God.