Monday, August 20, 2012

Going for the eats

At a Vacation Bible School program some years ago, I overheard a mother telling her child to sit down and to be quiet because the program they had come to see was about to begin. “After all,” explained the mother, “that is why we are here.”

“Not me,” objected the child, “I’m here for the eats.”

Most American politicians act as though voters are interested only in “the eats,” that is, in benefits for themselves, perhaps for their loved ones. Some popular preachers on TV presume their hearers share that motivation. Concern for self and for those whom we hold dearest is far from antithetical to Christianity. Indeed, in the Lord's Prayer, an integral element of worship in our Book of Common Prayer, we ask God, Give us this day our daily bread.

Last Sunday’s gospel reading (John 6:51-58) declares that Jesus is the answer to those prayers, that Jesus is the bread of life, given for us.

For many of us, this declaration immediately points to the Eucharist. In every Eucharistic prayer, the priest repeats Jesus’ words, “This is my body. … Do this in remembrance of me.” From the beginning, as the reading makes apparent, Christianity has had to defend itself from allegations of cannibalism. In truth, our theology sometimes veers dangerously close to cannibalism, simplistically identifying host and wine with Jesus’ body and blood. Alternatively, Christianity has generally insisted that the Eucharist is more than a symbolic or memorial ritual, a position ironically held by many of the Christians who interpret the Bible most literally. Instead, healthy Christianity flounders in the middle. Somehow, in some mysterious way, we really do commune with God as we share in taking bread and wine, giving thanks for it, breaking it, and eating and drinking it.

But Jesus’ declaration that he is the bread of life has a far broader meaning than Holy Communion. Nobody can subsist, let alone really live, on a small wafer and a sip of wine, even if they receive daily. The flower children of a previous generation insightfully called money bread. Our petition asks God not only for food but also for all of life’s necessities. Jesus becomes our daily bread when his path becomes our path, when we seek to live as he did in, communion with God.

Roman Catholic priest and bestselling author on the spiritual life, Henri Nouwen told the story of a Lutheran bishop imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II. A German Officer relentlessly beat the bishop, seeking to extract a confession about the bishop’s political activities. The beatings increased in intensity as the bishop remained steadfastly silently. Exasperated, the Nazi shrieked, “Don’t you know that I can kill you?”

The bishop looked his torturer in the eyes and replied, “Yes, I know. Do what you want – I have already died.”

Instantly, as though paralyzed, the Nazi officer could no longer raise his arm. All his cruelties had been based on the assumption that the bishop’s physical life was his most precious possession and that he would do anything to save it. With the grounds for violence gone, torture was futile.[1] Walking the Jesus path, we develop this type of spirituality, one that embraces the totality of our being. At its best, the Church provides guidance, encouragement, and strength for our life and works to establish a just society that ensures the well-being of all.

Finally, Jesus taught his disciples to pray for our daily bread. Today’s gospel reading, like most of the Bible, emphasizes the plural rather than the singular. Neither the Eucharist nor walking the Jesus path is primarily about individualism but about people collectively becoming God's beloved community, a community that ultimately encompasses all of creation.

The individualistic premise of politicians and popular TV preachers represents a distorted and incomplete analysis. We do come for the eats. We can’t survive without them. But genuine community is an essential part of the eats, for only in relationship to other people do we live most abundantly. Healthy congregations intentionally build community through fellowship and service as well as worship.

The cross offers a helpful metaphor for charting our interiority. The horizontal reminds us that God created us in God's image; hence, the centrality of language, imagination, and self-awareness in the spiritual life. The crosspiece reminds us that our interiority must accommodate others – the capacity to love and be loved is central to the human spirit.

I hope that you go to Church for the eats – in all three of its meanings:

·         The bread and wine of Holy Communion, our spiritual food;

·         Wisdom and encouragement for walking the Jesus path, growing in love for God and others, and life abundant;

·         Experiencing accepting, healing love in an inclusive, welcoming radical community, the in breaking though not the fullness of God's kingdom.

[1] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, p. 84.

No comments: