Sunday 22 August 2021
1 Kings 8.22-30, 8.41-43
Following the energy of Spirit ©Suzanne Grimmett
I don’t know of you have ever had that experience of being at a party or picnic or conference and been part of a group conversation which had become heavy or difficult, and you excuse yourself and head off somewhere else, maybe to think, maybe to relax, maybe to find a new conversation partner. After a considerable time you come back to the group, and discover that the same conversation is still going on. I feel a little like this today as we return to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. We took a detour last week for the Feast of Mary, Mother of our Lord and return today to find Jesus still with the same Capernaum crowd who had followed him from the other side of the lake, and still talking about bread.
But the conversation if anything, has become more difficult. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
The Gospel of John’s primary claim about the nature of God, is that the divine life is eternally communal. John’s claim about the person and work of Jesus Christ, is that the Christian belief in Jesus as the Christ is based on the principle of incarnation, the divine indwelling among the human. And in and through it all we have a truth being revealed about the new creation where the Spirit indwells our embodied life on this earth and our shared life together; a life sustained by love and not held together by power or force but by one unifying Spirit of mutual indwelling.
The Collect for today tells us that it is “by the Spirit that the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified.” Not by the forms of religion, not by moral codes, not by money, might nor colonising power, but by the Spirit. And through this Spirit we are invited into becoming ever greater incarnations of God through Christ. The Gospel of John is pointing, with this gruesome imagery of eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood, that abiding in Christ is nothing less than enfleshing spirit. Small wonder that Jesus’ audience who likely thought the task was about raising their sights to become more spiritual, were shocked at such physical language. What if the move was not the expected one from flesh to spirit, but from spirit to flesh? A God who would become part of the very substance of earth and then indwell creation by the Spirit that we may be part of the body of the divine here on earth. A long conversation is required to make the kind of massive consciousness shift involved in the idea that God would entrust Godself to everything material to such an intimate degree that we can eat God and live.
So if they were shocked, the twelve disciples closest to Jesus at least did not turn away. “Lord, to whom can we go?” is Peter’s plaintive question. The disciples have experienced the fulsome life and love of God through their friendship with Jesus. They do not understand what these difficult words mean, but they know what they have already tasted, and they can never walk away.
Yet what Jesus offers is not easy to accept. No wonder it is the subject of so long a conversation in John’s Gospel. Religion is so easily co-opted into rules to live by because rules can be controlled and so easily harnessed to serve the will of the powerful. Scripture can be used to oppress in the same way and those who challenge the labels and structures with which we order our lives can be punished. Sometimes I think we prefer religion to God. Sometimes I think we end up serving and maintaining structure rather than Spirit. It is all so much easier than the work of love and forgiveness – of ourselves and those around us. Ultimately we have to give up the notion that we are in control…give up the idea that we have our own life in order and it is those other people who need forgiveness. When we turn to God it is in accepting that we are no better than any other child of God and yet trusting that we too are forgiven… and so beloved.
Bishop Stephen Pickard this week described one of the moves of spirit in the incarnational life of the Church as from structure to energy. He gave the example of iron filings on paper under a magnet- they gather according to the magnetic energy, not according to lines on the page. Jesus says that his words are spirit and life and we need to attend to where that spirit and life is welling up in us both individually and communally. Structures are necessary to any life and community, but they need to be recalibrated around where this life-giving energy can be found rather than simply following habit or the dictates of the powerful. How might we recalibrate our structures around the incarnational energy of love, acceptance and forgiveness? How might your personal patterns align with that energy and your way of being with others surrender to the transformational power of Spirit?
The reading from Ephesians reminds us of the centrality of “praying in the Spirit”. Some might think this is going too far and such language is not found in any good Anglo-Catholic practice but reserved for those charismatics or Pentecostals. However, it is central Trinitarian understanding that whenever we pray, we do so through Christ, to the Father, in the Spirit. In so doing, we participate in the self-giving love of God; the one who gave up the very nature of God to become the bread from heaven. Paul writing to the church in Ephesus speaks of the necessity of such prayer against what he describes as “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Such language may be foreign to us, but what is sadly not foreign is our familiarity with the truth that there are forces in this world that deal in chaos, dehumanisation and violence. Part of our prayer may be that we can discern where such death-dealing powers are at work in our world, our society, our religion and in ourselves. When we recognise the shift from spirit to flesh, we see the whole world and every being in it as full of divine presence- one giant sacramental loaf. Therefore, we are called to pray in the spirit wherever we see the face of God being dehumanised or defiled or destroyed- whether that be close to home in friends or family, in the tragedy and terror unfolding in Afghanistan, or in the devastation and suffering of the planet and its changing climate.
We share our life with God so that we too can participate in the same self-offering to others in our life together. But this is not the kind of sacrifice that leads to death or diminishment, but the kind of surrender that acknowledges that not only is our life not our own, but it is made richer by being shared. We live in an anxious world and through anxious times, but the move away from such paralysing fears can only be made if we resist the culture of individualism that reigns, particularly in the West. Part of our recalibration is away from the myth of independence and to allow our lives instead to reflect the abundance found in mutual self-giving.
So we come shortly to share around the table- a ritual where the energy of self-giving love and forgiveness has created and sustained the practice down the millenia. Though we are many we enact the truth that we are one body- for we all share in the one bread. As we gather and bless, break and receive the body of Christ, the bread of heaven, we experience the life that multiplies and expands where it is given for others. The Jesus conversation we have entered is long and our understanding is not yet complete. But we can trust the goodness of the life we have tasted and lean in to the presence of a humble God who makes the move from spirit to flesh- incarnate in the Son, glorified in creation and even embodied in you and me.
 Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 12689-12694). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.