― Elizabeth Goudge, Green Dolphin Street
Yesterday, August 16, it was my privilege to give the reflection on the readings at my parish, St. Anne in Barrington. This is, more or less, what I had to say to my friends and neighbors at church.
As I was reflecting on the readings for this weekend, I thought it would be interesting to look at the "bread of life" discourse, and what Jesus says about the himself in John 6, through the lens of the psalm we have been singing for four weeks now. Just in those very short verses of Psalm 34, there is a lot to ponder as we "address one another in psalms and hymns and inspired songs, singing and playing to the Lord" in our hearts, as Ephesians said. But before I do that, I'd like to briefly look at some repeated words in those first two readings, and how they suggest a way to think about the word of God today.
Did you notice that both Proverbs and Ephesians start off with exhortations to "forsake foolishness"? What do they mean by that? I suspect we'd have a wide range of meanings for "foolishness." If there were a political debate, say, between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and each used the word "foolishness," they would probably mean almost universally different things, probably pointing to the other as they said it. But what is foolishness to the writers of today's readings?
It would help if we looked at all of Proverbs 9 today, because there are two women inviting people into their houses. Lady Wisdom's invitation is here, but Lady Folly's invitation doesn't begin for a few more verses. The whole of chapters 1-9 in Wisdom speak of the tug-of-war between wisdom and foolishness. The call to the simple and uncomplicated in today's first reading is an open invitation to experience the bounty of Lady Wisdom's house by obedience to the Torah, acting with justice toward the neighbor. Folly, on the other hand, does what it wants to do, without regard to the law and prophets. The path to each house and the outcomes of living in them are clear. They are the result of choices that we make in life. They are not rewards and punishments. They are consequences of our choices. Good choices, symbolized by the covenant or Torah, are made possible by God's invitation.
The teaching of Jesus is much the same, though Jesus also reveals for us the love behind the law. Jesus preached in Galilee, a Jew in a nation under the rule of the Roman empire. Rome, like every empire before and since, embraced a view of civilization that used military violence and threats to keep a version of peace. As long as people accepted Rome as their master and paid their taxes, they would have a measure of peace and security. And Rome had a god—Caesar—Octavian, later called "Augustus," the "majestic," who also had titles like "son of God," "God" "savior of the world”, LORD, and "prince of peace." Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, passed these titles on to his adopted son, Tiberius, and so on while the Caesars lasted. (Footnote: the word evangelion, the word we translate as "gospel," was a word used by the regional governors of the empire to commemorate the victorious Octavian's military victories which brought "peace" to the world. They used the word in the plural; the Paul and the NT writers use it in the singular to refer to the gospel of Jesus Christ: that is, his death and resurrection which are the peaceful "victory" over Caesar.)
That was the "gospel" of Rome; but Jesus, and later the church, preached a different way. He knew people knew that things weren't working, that people weren't happy, that they were suspicious and often jealous of each other, that they worked too hard, and were afraid of what terrors the next day might hold for them and their families. Of course, that was then, and this is now, right? Jesus wanted people to remember who they really were: God's chosen people. So we might hear his message as, "How's that Roman empire working out for you? How is that god 'Caesar' working out for you?" And he reminded them, and he reminds us, about who we were before Caesar and the rest of the civilizers showed up: Jew or non-Jew, we are the sons and daughters of a God who wants us to act like a family that takes care of each other. To make this as obvious as possible, he called this God "father, abba"—the head of the household of creation. He called for a world organized not by violence and threats but by justice, equality, and love.
Rome disagreed, and executed him as a disturber of the Pax Romana. But we know the rest of the story. Abba raised him up, the beloved son, the servant, on the third day. And his disciples continued to preach the message of the empire of the Father, a world organized by love and justice. So when the Church called Jesus “Lord,” or "Son of God" or "Prince of Peace," it was as a clear alternative to the "Lord" of Rome. At the heart of this new movement of healing, love, and reconciliation was a meal shared in equality in memory of Jesus. As Jesus had shared his table with everyone, the infant church gathered around a meal to remember Jesus and spread the word of the empire, the kingdom of God.
I want to say that this is what Jesus means by the "bread of life." Do you remember that these gospels began four weeks ago with the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and that the whole event took place "near the time of passover"? The "bread that came down from heaven" is part of the passover story. Manna, the bread of exodus, the bread of freedom, is the bread that came down from God. Now Jesus says, "I am the bread that came down from heaven. I am the bread of life." We're meant to hear "I AM" as the name of the God of the Exodus, the god of freedom. Wisdom, freedom, joy, equality, and God are life. Whatever is not like this God, whatever belongs to the other god, Caesar, the one who civilizes by threats, violence, and force, that god is death. To choose that god is to choose death, to taste and see death. Just like the two women in Proverbs, there are two calls into two houses. Each comes with consequences. But only one call comes from God.
So when our psalm sings, "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord," we should try to keep in mind which Lord the psalmist is so enthusiastic about. It is the paschal God, the God of passover. We can taste and see that God because God created everything out of God's own goodness, so that everything created shines with the freedom and love that made the universe. This is the God who doesn't even cling to divinity, but pours self out to come among us when we lose our way to show us, in an utterly human body and soul in Jesus of Nazareth, what the real God is like. In Jesus, I AM shows us how to live with compassion and healing, and how the walls we put up between each other with money, power, property and greed are nothing but illusions that will dissipate when we just turn around from one god to the other, when we turn from death to life. So, in the words of our psalm,
When we bless this Lord at all times, the "lowly will hear and be glad."
When we seek this Lord, the paschal God, the god of freedom and love, then this Lord will answer, and deliver us from all our distress.
When we look to this God, the paschal God, our faces will not be ashamed.
When we cry out to this God, the paschal God, then the poor are rescued from distress.
It is this God whom we taste and see in the Eucharist. It is this God who says, in Jesus Christ, I AM. I AM the bread of life. I AM the living manna. And it is into this God, in Jesus Christ, that we are baptized, and whose life we share not through any good we do or any merit of our own, but because of the loving kindness and the call of God. It is this God whose spirit, in baptism, makes us into the body of Christ, to keep proclaiming by our lives the gospel of compassion and service. It is now our vocation to ask one another, to ask the fearful, jealous, unhappy, overworked world, "How's that other empire working out for you?" It's for us show by our lives a different way, not reinforcing "civilized" threats of force and violence, but demonstrating a way of living together based on service, compassion, freedom, invitation. That is the goodness that we can "taste and see" when we encounter this Lord in the body that is this church and in the body that is the eucharist. That is the goodness that we are, that enables us, that inspires, in-spirits us to sing,
I myself am the bread of life.We begin to taste and see the goodness of the paschal God, of one another, of a world that God is bringing to be, when we live as the daughters and sons of Abba, and come together around the supper table of the Passover lamb.
You and I are the bread of life,
Taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ
That the world may live.
So at communion today, let us say "amen" to who we are, the beloved children of God, committed to God's empire of peace, justice, and freedom, and "taste and see the goodness of the Lord," both at the table of the Eucharist, and at the table of the world.