Saturday, August 22, 2015

Where Shall We Go? Reflections on John 6.56-69 (RCL Proper 21B 23 August 2015)

RCL Proper 21B
23 August 2015

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

         One of the obligations of earning a Ph.D. and then taking an academic appointment is that of helping other emerging scholars earn their post-baccalaureate credentials.  During the years I served on the faculty of Vancouver School of Theology I had the privilege of working directly with six students and serving on the examination committees of three others.

         Two of the theses I directed are permanently fixed in my mind.  The first was a master’s thesis on indigenous forms of music used by aboriginal Taiwanese Presbyterians.  The second was also a master’s thesis on why Anglo-Catholic spirituality was accepted more readily by Melanesian Christians than Evangelical spirituality.  Both theses explored their topics from perspectives that were truly unique.

         It turns out that some indigenous Taiwanese Christian music was based on melodies and patterns used during head-hunting rituals in the pre-Christian times.  This tradition had deep roots in the culture and were more meaningful than the European tradition brought by the missionaries.  Melanesian Christians came from a culture in which ritual cannibalism was practiced and they found the image of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ quite meaningful.

         What has this to do with today’s Gospel?  More than one might immediately think.  Over the past five weeks our gospel readings have all been taken from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John.  This is one of the more difficult chapters in all of the New Testament.  In it Jesus makes constant reference to offering his body and blood to his believers who, when they eat and drink, will come to share in eternal life.  His words are so offensive to his listeners that both his opponents and some of his earliest followers find new reasons to question Jesus’ sanity and faithfulness to the God of Israel.

         We’re all familiar with the saying, ‘We are what we eat.’  Melanesians ate their enemies as an act of honouring their courage and hoped that by eating some of their flesh they would share in that courage.  Aboriginal Taiwanese hoped that by taking the head of an enemy they would also share in that enemy’s character and strength.  So when Jesus, in the sixth chapter of John, links the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine with his body and blood, he asks his listeners and us this question:  ‘Do you want to share in the mission and ministry God has entrusted to me?’  For Jesus sharing in this mission and ministry is not an abstract commitment; it is committing all of one’s heart, soul, mind and strength.  It is to become one with Jesus and to participate in the fullness of life Jesus shares with God.

         I think that there are no more important words in all of the New Testament than Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question at the end of today’s gospel:  “So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’  Simon Peter answered him, ‘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.’” (John 6.67-69)  And so, today, I want to offer you some reflections on why, after sixty-two years of being a baptized Christian, I still choose to identify myself with Christ, to eat the bread and to drink the wine to share in the body and blood of Christ and to acknowledge that I have no where else to go for only here to I find the words of eternal life.

         First, it is within this community of faith that I have learned that all that is, seen and unseen, is not an accident but the result of a choice made by a personal God.  While I respect the insights of modern science into how the universe came to be and how life emerged on this earth, these insights cannot answer the most important human question, “Why does anything exist?”  Pure materialism has no answer to this question and finds its spirituality in the exploration of the ‘how’ of the universe.  But I am not satisfied with only the ‘how’; it is the ‘why’ that intrigues me as well.

         Second, it is within this community of faith that I have learned there is a pattern to all that is, seen and unseen, that is counter-intuitive.  This pattern is one of sacrificial self-giving:  When we are willing to give all that we have, we actually receive more than we can ask or imagine.  We give all we can to our children and to our community and, in doing so, we reap a harvest of new life as well as form communities that care for young and old, rich and poor, women and men, wise and foolish, weak and strong.  One of the tragedies of human misuse of creation is that we are destroying many communities that sustain not only the life of other creatures but our own as well.  Selfishness is ultimately self-destructive.

         Most importantly, it is within this community of faith that I have learned that the pattern to all that is, seen and unseen, can be found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a real human being who lived in a real place during a real time.  To hear the story of Jesus told in the midst of his disciples is to come into the presence of the living God, the One who gave life to this universe and who continues that self-giving eternally to all who choose to follow that same path of self-giving.  To share in the bread and wine of the eucharist is a concrete sign of one’s commitment to following this way.  Each time I share in the eucharist I offer myself, all that I am and all that I have, to this great work begun by God at the very beginning of creation.

         It is within this community that I have learned that all things, seen and unseen, are guided by a wisdom that shuns conquest, coercion and fear.  The wisdom that guides the universe rewards cooperation, chooses persuasion and engenders hope.  One of the tragedies of our times is the growth in religious movements fuelled by conquest, coercion and fear; no religious tradition in the world is immune from this deadly virus.  A consequence of this tragedy is that reasonable people, compassionate people, hopeful people often turn away from religious faith because the voices of our demons seem louder than those of our better angels.

         But here, my friends, in this small community we hear the words of eternal life and share in the feast that unites us with the Holy One who brought forth all things, seen and unseen, in love.  Where else should we go?  Where else shall we learn about the pattern and wisdom that shapes the universe?  Where else shall we find communities who are committed to a path of sacrificial self-giving for the true life of the world?

         And so we stay.  Not because of inertia or custom or habit.  Here we gather around word and table for strength and for renewal so that we may be one body, one spirit in Christ, in order to serve the universe God has made.  Not a bad choice to make, I think.

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