August 19 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 20
Texts: Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
Theme: The "bread of heaven" motif continues this week, so some variation on that could apply. But the connecting link between our readings seems to be wisdom, divine and human. So I'm going with "The Wisdom of God".
Introduction. In our first lesson Wisdom personified calls the simple to come to her and receive understanding. In the second St Paul cautions us against foolishness; and our journey through chapter 6 of St John's gospel moves ever closer to next week's dramatic climax, with the familiar theme of misunderstanding. The wisdom of God confronts the wisdom of the everyday world, and at the heart of this clash is the sacrament of Communion.
Background. In the weekly posting from the Diocesan Office, the Bishop's Chaplain, John Franklin, has drawn attention to the lessons that we people of faith can learn from the Olympic Games, as St Paul so often did in his writings. (I particularly liked John's image of the great Communion of Saints cheering us on as we run our race of faith!) If you listened to some of our returning athletes this week you may have detected a common theme: they were all looking forward to sleeping in their own beds, catching up with family and friends, having a party, or simply a good feed. In other words, they were looking forward to the simple pleasures of life that most of us take for granted, but which top athletes have to deny for themselves as they prepare for the Games. Success can only come to them through single-minded determination, backed by onerous training regimes. And human nature being what it is, the darker side of Olympic competition also threw up another lesson. There are no short-cuts to physical excellence.
When we turn from the "super-physical" to the "super-spiritual" we find the same pattern of single-minded determination backed by onerous training regimes, years spent in solitude and enclosure, hours of every day taken up in prayer and worship, extreme hardship willingly suffered, and so on. Many of the "all-time greats" illustrate this pattern well, including St Francis, St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross and St Ignatius of Loyola.
But just as only a very few become Olympic champions so a very few are called to be "spiritual giants". The rest of us are called to a life of health, wholeness and joy – in short, a life in Christ. A life of balance – a life somewhere between the Olympic champion and the couch potato. There is a difference between being self-aware and self-obsessed: there is a need to pray and care for ourselves, but not to the exclusion of praying and caring for others. If there is one caution that comes from the example of our athletes it is surely this: the pursuit of personal glory must never come at the cost of turning away from the glory of God. The true life of faith is like the tide, it comes in and goes out, as we receive the love of God and give it out to others.
The great champion of the balanced life is St Benedict, and it is no accident that his great Rule of Life has lasted for centuries as the pre-eminent rule for monastic communities. He insisted that the physical needs of the monk must be met if he is to lead a holy and productive life. The Rule provides for 8 hours sleep a day, a sufficiency of food and drink, a considerable period of physical labour, and about 3 hours a day in formal prayer and worship.
Of course, few of us could follow even that timetable in our everyday lives; but the challenge is still there for us. What is a reasonable training regime for us if we wish to be the best we can in our chosen event, the walk with and to God? How best can we develop what John Franklin has called our "spiritual muscle"? Following the completion of the London Games, all the talk is now of their "legacy". Can our personal legacy from the Games be a new commitment to improve our spiritual fitness, through prayer, worship, Bible study and reflection, ministry to others, and so on? The crowds may have gone from the Olympic stadia but we are still surrounded on every side by a great cloud of witnesses, countless as heaven's stars, cheering us on to the end of the race!
Back to the Fourth Gospel. If Raymond Brown is right in his belief that this gospel (and the epistles) came out of a deeply divided community (probably along the Jewish-Gentile fault line), then we can understand that one of the great issues in dispute was the need for Communion. One of the peculiarities of this gospel compared to the other three is the absence of the "institution narrative" in its account of the Last Supper. St Paul, as well as the other three gospels, are all clear that Jesus instituted Holy Communion At the Last Supper, and we recite that fact every time we celebrate the Eucharist. But no such account appears in St John's gospel. Why not?
While some scholars dispute this, it seems to me that the clear answer is that John has already addressed this issue here in this chapter 6. If he is not now talking about the Eucharist, what on earth are we to make of today's passage, last week's passage and next week's conclusion? If eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking his blood is not to be understood in sacramental terms – in terms of the bread and wine we receive in Communion – what possible sense can we make of the text at this point? To me, the whole tone here is polemical; St John is clearly pressing an argument, and doing do so unflinchingly. He is pulling no punches, leaving himself no wriggle room. Just how controversial this still is was brought home to me in one of my former parishes when a staunch member of the church, clearly furious with me, accused me of saying that her dear friend (who had excluded herself from the church over some real or imagined grievance) was destined for hell because she no longer received Communion. I did not say that: what I did say, quoting this passage, was that its meaning is clear: if we do not receive Communion we do not have eternal life. [Hey, don't shoot the messenger!]
And if Evelyn Underhill is right, this whole gospel is written by a mystic trying to convey spiritual truths to people who are still blinded by their literal, mundane blinkers. People who may be full of human wisdom find it particularly difficult to understand the wisdom of God, as today's readings make clear.
Proverbs. This is not one of my favourite books of the Bible, but this chapter is worth reading if only for the wonderful verse 17. In opposition to the Person of Wisdom we have the Person of Folly. She calls out to the same people as Wisdom has called (verses 4 and 16 are identical), but her lure is wonderfully enticing: "Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious." We'll leave the first bit to our politicians to argue over, but who among us cannot recall the pleasure of a secret midnight feast? Wisdom, of course, is offering her own food, but with a very different menu. Verse 5 is very similar to the opening invitation in Isaiah 55, which underlies Jesus' own call in John 6:35. But verse 6 is the key here. The invitation is to be transformed: we are called (from "the highest point": verse3) to leave our "simple ways" and "walk in the way of understanding". And notice the little phrase in between: "and you will live". The way to have "life" is to abandon our simple ways (our present mindset) and grow in understanding (God's wisdom, spiritual truth). And all this is in the context of table fellowship: we are invited by Wisdom to eat her food and drink her wine.
Taking It Personally.
· As you prepare to receive Communion next, ask God to grant you greater understanding of his wisdom.
· Reflect on the contrast between the free feast offered by Wisdom and the stolen water and secret food lauded by Folly. Does that say anything to you about your own attitude to the spiritual way?
Ephesians. This passage also draws a distinction between the wise and the unwise, and between being foolish and understanding what the Lord's will is. As Paul continues to guide us in our everyday lives he is very much down to earth. We are to be "very careful", and to "take every opportunity". He doesn't spell out what we are to be very careful about or to take every opportunity for, but in the context it must be to exercise our faith, to be constantly aware of our calling, and to remember we are in the presence of God. The 'days are evil" so every day we have the opportunity to resist and overcome evil: we are not separated from the real world, but immersed in it as people of faith. And then verse 21 is the sting in the tail: how different our Church would be if we followed this approach, rather than insisting on our democratic right to push our own barrow as hard as we can!
Taking It Personally.
· A brief daily "examen" is a good spiritual practice. Before going to sleep, look back over the day. With the benefit of hindsight, what "opportunities" did you have, which ones did you take, and which ones did you miss?
· On the "wisdom-foolishness" spectrum how did you rate? Were you "careful" or "careless"?
· End with a brief reflection on verse 20, and give thanks.
· Oh, and what about verse 21? How did you go on that?
John. Temperatures are now rising towards boiling point! It is hard to think of anything more provocative to Jews than verse 53. They would not eat the flesh of animals until the blood had been drained from it, and now they are confronted with a demand that they eat human flesh and drink human blood! Only so will they have life in them. It is impossible to think of Jesus in his bodily life saying this: it would have been outrageous nonsense and probably led to his immediate death at the hands of the crowds. If you have not been convinced by Evelyn Underhill's approach up until now, this surely is the clincher. This is pure mysticism; this is the attempt of a mystic to convey something of the inner experience of Communion. His experience is that in Communion he is enlivened, revitalized, energised, strengthened and empowered. Just as we feel more alive physically after we have eaten a healthy meal, so John feels more alive spiritually after he has received Communion. Therefore, he concludes that this quality that he calls "eternal life" is conveyed to us in the bread and wine of Communion, and without that we will not have this life. Of course, in worldly terms the whole idea sounds as ridiculous as it does outrageous. Hence "the Jews" (representing all who operate at the worldly rather than the spiritual level) explode in uproar (verse 52). As we shall see next week, some believers find this a bridge too far and turn back.
Taking It Personally.
· Spend some time in silent reflection on this passage. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into ever deeper understanding of its meaning.
· How important to you is Holy Communion? Do you sometimes "drift off" during The Great Thanksgiving? Would you just as soon have a non-Communion service?
· Has Communion become more important to you over the years? Is it a "real" experience for you, or just something we do in church? Does your experience of it vary from week to week?
· What do you do to prepare yourself to receive Communion? Read 1 Corinthians 11:23-32. Is there something there you need to take on board?