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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Final thoughts 2—Bread of Life: Sign and foretaste of heaven

Rethinking our idea of God, learning God’s ways based upon the Jesus of the gospels and not upon Baal or Zeus or the human emperors whose wealth and power we crave, will necessarily cause us to rethink our idea of what heaven is. It can help us get an idea of how the eucharist is a “foretaste of heaven,” since heaven, we imagine, describes the dwelling of God, or the realm or sphere of divine presence and influence. And I keep coming back to that hymn in Philippians that Paul quotes near the outset of that letter, “Though (Christ) was in the form of God, he did not imagine that equality with God was something to be hoarded. Instead, he emptied himself, and took the form of a slave.” Whatever else we say about God, it must include this central notion of our faith that God empties himself, does not cling to divinity, in order to love and serve. Clearly, already, heaven must be more like the kitchen than the banquet hall; more like the servants’ quarters than the throne room; in the image of the venerable British drama, more like downstairs than upstairs.

The god for whom Jesus was mistaken in the narrative of John 6 and in the other multiplication gospels enters history on a white horse to disrupt it, breaking the laws of physics, casting aside the harsh reality of laboring for daily bread, setting things right by giving everyone a winning lottery ticket and free meal pass. But Jesus had rejected that sort of messianic mission, as the stories of the temptations in the desert suggest. The God of Jesus is not like Pharaoh or Caesar, nor a magician who produces abundance by legerdemain. The true God enters history with all its unfairness, violence, and ungodliness, subverting it from within through solidarity with us, and showing us by example how the greedy and violent dynamics of history can be overcome by agape, the selfless solidarity of other-centeredness.

There is a familiar metaphor for heaven that works for me here. It’s an image in which heaven and hell are exactly alike, with people sitting across from each other at great banquet tables laden with rich food and drink. Angels bring plate after plate of wonderful dishes to the center of these tables. The trouble is, the forks are all three feet long. The people in hell are starving, the food is turning, because they can’t reach from their forks to their mouths to feed themselves. Those in heaven, on the other hand, are laughing and full, because they are feeding each other. They’ve learned the lesson of the kenotic Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve.” He is the image of the invisible God.

In the letter to the Ephesians we heard during these Bread of Life weeks, St. Paul asks believers to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us.” To “live in love,” we have been shown by Jesus, is to serve the other person, to “enter history on behalf of the poor,” in Nathan Mitchell’s phrase, and not to cling to our correctness or status or imagined “goodness” if it gets in the way of solidarity with the other and putting the other’s needs above our own. Within the community, this means we ought to remove from our lives “all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling...along with all malice.” Imitating God means living in agape, which is focused upon the needs of the other at our own expense: “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” To St. Paul, it doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong, it only matters who does right, and doing right is a matter of imitating God, emptying ourselves into history “as Christ loved us and handed himself over to us.”

Solidarity with others at this level, being-like-God when God is a servant and not a despot, is a dangerous business. The food that strengthened Elijah in the desert came to him because he was in flight from the persecution of Queen Jezebel and her husband, Ahab. Jesus and his disciple Paul both experience capital punishment at the hands of the empire. That having been said, this political nature of eucharistic life and solidarity among us is not a coercive or violent movement, but a movement of people who choose life. It surrenders rights, rather than claims them; this is how God is, not even hoarding the status of divinity, but surrendering divine right and rightness to be God-among-us. I say this as a way of countering any claim that the Eucharist is essentially a “spiritual” exercise: it is, quite to the contrary, a sign of the integrity of humanity, body and soul.

Maybe that’s why we have the Eucharist, finally, as a meal. It is God emptied into bread and wine, but it remains real food for real people, bodies and souls, confronted by and then surrendering to a divine presence that transforms us into someone we could never become on our own: Christ. In Christ, humanity becomes divine. But this is not to say that we rise to some new kind of superiority or splendor: it is to say that we are more and more transformed by agape into servants of the world in the image of the God by whom we were created. The sign and foretaste of heaven brings us ever closer to the dwelling place of God: with the human race. We arrive at the beginning, in Eliot’s phrase, and discover it for the first time. Christ, as he did with Zacchaeus, has come to stay in the house of a sinner. Our house. Heaven, the dwelling-place of God, is with the human race.