Monday, August 31, 2009

Inside Out

What do an old book, a ramshackle building, and a broken leg have in common?

SJF • Proper 17b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”+

There is an old story — you have probably hear it — about three women who departed this life on the same day. All three were active in their respective churches. And one was a Southern Baptist, and one a Roman Catholic, and the third an Episcopalian. And as they were waiting in line at the gate of heaven to find out if they would be admitted or not, all three of them looked very nervous and unhappy. Finally the Baptist, who was first in line, turned to the other two and moaned, “I don’t think I’ll be let in to heaven. I was the treasurer of the Shiloh Baptist Ladies Club — and I embezzled the proceeds from the church fair.”

The Roman Catholic woman then sighed and shook her head, and said in a resigned voice, “I’m not looking for any better treatment. When my husband was on a business trip I had an affair with the cable guy.”

Finally, the Episcopalian, who sounded as if she might have perished from a case of what they call “Scarsdale Lockjaw,” looking back and forth and lowering her voice, confided, “I’ve been hiding this secret for years, and I know it will come out now that Saint Peter opens the book and reviews the ledger of my life. Once, at a dinner party, I ate my entree with the salad fork!

+ + +

That may seem a far-fetched joke, doesn’t our gospel today looks just as odd when you read it seriously and carefully. Here are the Pharisees and scribes getting all upset about Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands before dinner. And it isn’t sanitation that they’re worried about. The Pharisees, following the traditions of the elders, believed that washing your hands, and following all of those complicated rules for washing cups, pots, and metal vessels, were not just matters of cleanliness, but literally of Godliness. For them, failing to wash before eating wasn’t just bad manners, or poor hygiene; it was downright immoral. For the Pharisees, eating with unwashed hands, as for our poor imaginary Episcopal Churchwoman eating her entree with the salad fork, was a deadly serious matter. And for the Pharisees it was serious enough for them to come to Jesus and say, “Look at what you’re disciples are doing!”

And Jesus, well, he had little patience with that sort of attitude. He laid it right on the line, and called their concerns lip-service and hypocrisy, abandonment of God’s commandments in favor of mere human tradition. That is strong language. And if any doubt remained, Jesus called the people to him and spelled it out. What comes from outside people and goes in cannot defile them. There is no sin in eating with dirty hands or dirty dishes. Hands and silverware and porcelain have no moral value, and have nothing to do with sin. It’s what’s inside people already that is the problem.

The problem is those inside “devices and desires of our hearts” that creep out when we are off our guard, the roaches and rats of the fallen human nature that come out of hiding, scurrying about when the lights are turned out. These are the things that defile; things that are the substance of sin: not dirty hands but dirty thoughts.

For it is from within the fallen human heart that evil intentions come, and Jesus gives us a whole laundry list or the soiled linens of sin hung out in the light of day for all the world to see — fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. These are the things that come from within, and these are the things that defile a person.

How easy it would be to purchase salvation just by washing your hands and your cup and your plate and your bowl. Even wiping your mouth is not enough: as Proverbs says, “This is the way of an adultress — she eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’” No amount of scrubbing the outside will make the inside clean. The stain of sin remains when the evil that is inside spills forth, and it cannot just be washed away.

Do you remember Lady Macbeth? After she murdered the old king she went quite mad — no matter how much she washed her hands — rubbed raw — they always looked bloody to her still, spotted and stained with the blood of a guest, and not just any guest, not just a any good and righteous man, but her king, murdered in his sleep. Lady Macbeth went mad, haunted and pursued by the evil she unleashed from her own prideful and ambitious heart, haunted and pursued until she took her unhappy life with those same hands, hands scrubbed raw in the futile effort to remove the stain of her guilt.

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So is there any hope? If washing our hands or our outside is of no use, and our inside is chock full of terrible and nasty things, what are we to do? Have you ever had an old favorite book that you’ve read so many times that it is starting to fall apart? When it reaches that state, the only thing that can be done to care for it, to save it, is a new binding: not just cleaning the outside, but putting on a whole new outside: a spine and covers, rebinding it carefully. Or what do you do when a building is in such bad state that it is in danger of falling down? You put up scaffolding and set to work on the walls and the roof! You know we went through that here five years ago: replacing our 143-year-old slate roof with a brand new one. It was tempting to just want to patch up the inside, to plaster over the holes where the rain came through, and then give them a lick of paint. But a lick of paint would not have solved the problem. We had to start on the outside first, and even there not just putting down a new layer of tar, but stripping off all that old decaying slate and wood and starting afresh. And we also had to build a scaffold so the workers could get to the roof and do their work.

So too when we look to our own moral and personal renovation, we need to do more than just try to think happy thoughts to drive out those darker thoughts in our hearts. There is nothing we can do on our own to change our inner human nature: it is part of our heritage, whether you want to look at it from the religious angle as the legacy of Adam and Eve, or take the secular view that the drive to self-preservation, the source of success and survival, is also the source of selfishness and competition, and all the evils that dwell within.

But we can get a whole new scaffolding outside to help this feeble and sin-weakened body stand up against the wiles of the devil; not just a cleaning, but a renovation, becoming a new creature.

Saint Paul calls this new outside “the armor of God.” It goes on the outside but it helps the inside to stand up. It’s like the cast that goes on the outside of a broken limb to help it heal from within. And it is healing we need. We will never overcome our inner evils just by washing our hands: we need the armor of God to mend our broken hearts. We need the scaffold of God’s support to rebuild our ramshackle selves, to make them whole and fill them with the love of God so that there is no more room for all that nasty stuff that hid there.

If we are willing, God will fasten the belt of truth around us, the truth that acknowledges our weakness and casts its whole dependence upon the one who alone is the living Truth.

If we will let him, he will put his righteousness on our chests like a breastplate, the sign of a righteousness not our own, but loaned to us to protect us and give us confidence to stand tall and proud with our chests out and shoulders square.

If we let him, he will give us shoes of readiness to proclaim the Gospel for our feet, shoes to protect our soft soles — that’s s-o-l-e-s — from the ruts and rocks and broken glass on life’s road.

If we let him, he will put a shield of faith on our arm, not our faith in him, but his faith in us, strengthening us by this act of confidence, as the presence of any proud parent in the bleachers will spur on the child to greater efforts in the game.

And he will crown us with a helmet of salvation — and remember that helmets in Saint Paul’s day didn’t just cover the top of the head, but came down over the nose and the cheeks, with eye-holes to look out of: so the helmet of salvation doesn’t just protect us, but it directs our view straight ahead towards the prize for which we are competing.

Lastly he will put the sword of the Spirit in our hands, which is the living Word of God, living and active, cutting both ways and searching out the inner realities and secrets of our human heart.

Clothed from above like this, given a whole new outside to support us by the Lord of Glory himself, we need fear no evil from without. Strengthened to stand in the armor of God, we need fear no evil from within. Like a fragile old manuscript newly bound, we can be put back into circulation. Like a damaged building given a new roof and walls, we can then open our doors in hospitable welcome. Like a person with a broken limb that has been healed and strengthened, we will be able to stand and bear witness, clothed with the armor of God against all evils, with confidence that nothing from within our now-
cleansed and rehabilitated insides will ever be able to do usor others any harm.

To God who has thus remade us and armed us in his spiritual power against all evils from within or without, to him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.+

Monday, August 24, 2009

Union Troubles

SJF • Proper 16b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus asked the Twelve, Do you also wish to go away? Peter answered him, Lord, to whom can we go?+

Has anybody here ever played the board game Scrabble? One thing that often happens in a Scrabble game is that somebody will put down their letter tiles to spell a word that no one else recognizes. And one of the players will challenge the spelling — especially if it’s a triple word score with lots of Z’s and X’s. Someone will pipe up, “That’s not how it’s spelled!” or “That’s a proper name!” or “There’s no such word as that!” And when this happens, the person who advanced the word will either say, “Yes it is” or “No it isn’t” according to the challenge. In short, there is a division of opinion.

And according to the rules of Scrabble, there is only one way to solve the problem: the dictionary! Pages will be flipped, and if the word isn’t in the dictionary, or if it is spelled differently, or if it turns out to be a proper name — well, then the player must pick up his or her tiles off the board, and lose the points. Or if they are vindicated and the word is correct, they get to smile a little grin of self-satisfaction to tote up that score. But however it turns out, once the dictionary is appealed to, a decision is reached. The dictionary is the court of last appeal and final arbiter.

+ + +

Today is one of those unusual days in which all three of our Scripture readings point to the same theme: fittingly, the theme of unity versus division. In the reading from Joshua we witness an ancient covenant liturgy, as Joshua, the successor to Moses, challenges the tribes of Israel to make a choice between following the Lord as a unified people or going after other gods as a scattered collection of tribes each following its own god.

Then Paul’s letter to the Ephesians describes the unity of husband and wife in terms that reflect Christ’s love for the church. And the Gospel shows the disciples wavering in their faithfulness to Jesus, as he concludes his teaching on the bread of heaven — a teaching so difficult for some of them to understand that many of them turned back and forsook him, and one would go on to betray him.

In each of these passages the tension between unity and division is placed before us. And in each of these passages we are presented with a clear message that true unity cannot come from within the group of individuals. There must be some external and overarching power and grace to bring true and lasting unity to a divided group — or a couple — of people.

In short, people cannot achieve unity on their own, any more than Scrabble players can settle their disagreements over how to spell a word on their own, just by arguing back and forth. Scrabble players need a dictionary. And the people of God need God — whether the tribes of Israel, or a married couple, or the church of Christ itself. Without God at the center, any human institution will fall apart.

And we’ve seen it happen, haven’t we? If you know your scripture, you know that the tribes of Israel did fall apart, each going after its own gods, within just a few generations of Joshua’s effort to call them to a unified covenant with the Lord. And Joshua knew it, too, that the people could not serve the Lord, the holy one; he knew that the people would soon be tempted to follow the local gods of the local people among whom they lived: tame gods made of cast metal or stone, gods who would do nothing for them but who would ask nothing of them. And so the history of ancient Israel went, from division through fragmentation, and finally into dissolution and captivity.

We’ve seen what happens in marriages that try to survive just on the strength of the couple themselves, marriages that lack the holy quality that Saint Paul describes, the self-giving holiness that mirrors the very love of God, the mysterious love of Christ for the church. For although Saint Paul starts with the old pagan answer to all marriage problems: wives, obey your husbands, note that he doesn’t stop there. Simple one-sided obedience was the way to keep peace in the old days, before Christ came: wives were viewed primarily as first-class servants in the husband’s household, without personal freedom of self-determination, and peace was maintained through submission, because the wife had no other choice.

But Paul affirms that things have changed since Christ has come: now the husband is a subject too, a subject of Christ, and called upon to obey the law of love and sacrifice which alone makes him worthy of being a Christian husband: loving his wife as himself; loving his wife, the most intimate neighbor, as himself, according to Christ’s teaching. In this dance of loving and mutual obedience, with God in Christ as the true master of the dance, a marriage can survive and flourish. Without that love, without Christ’s presence, no marriage will ever be more than a marriage of convenience — or inconvenience, as the case may be.

Finally, we have also seen how the church itself can fall apart when it loses its focus on God and turns in upon itself, placing new idols on the throne of God. Like all institutions, the church can fall into the habit of exalting the particular and peculiar personality of its human leaders over against the universal and eternal personhood of our Lord and God. It is no irony that the Western church began to crumble, in a slow slide leading to the Reformation and the collapse of the Roman Church, just at the time the pope began to assert his supremacy as Christ’s personal representative on earth. And it is no wonder that many parishes and congregations have split and divided, or wandered off into schism, when they have focused all their attention on their priest or pastor instead of turning together towards God, the giver of every perfect gift.

And I don’t mean that just in terms of personal dynamics; I mean it physically. Upon my arrival in this church almost exactly ten years ago, I restored the ancient tradition of joining with you and together facing east towards the rising sun at the heart of the Eucharistic feast — as your leader — but also first and foremost as one of you. We are not turned in upon ourselves, We all of us turn together to face the altar, all of us are on the same side of the table — just like at the Last Supper! And if you don’t believe me, there it is [in the stained glass window on the north wall.]

We are not turned in upon ourselves, but all of us together turned towards the One who is, as the Psalmist says, “our Lord, our good above all other… our portion and our cup who upholds our lot.”

It is no accident that the Christian churches have suffered the greatest division and loss in membership since they foolishly decided in the 1960s that priests should face their congregations across the altar. This change transformed the worshiping church from a grand procession moving forward together in unity into a closed circle focused on itself. Or even worse, it focused the congregation’s attention on the priest behind the altar, who was cast in the role of a performer to be reacted to, rather than as the leader of a grand parade in which all are invited to join. But I’m glad to say the tide is turning, and many parishes such as ours are rediscovering that the church had it right for 1900 years after all, and that all of us together turning in our focus on the transcendent Lord of glory, joined in turning our gaze upward and beyond our own preoccupations, is the best way to find our true unity under one Lord and one God.

+ + +

Scrabble players know they need a dictionary. Joshua knew that he and his household would only find their identity in serving the One Lord, the God of Israel. Paul knew that a marriage that did not have Christ and his love at its heart would not survive. Peter and the apostles knew that only Jesus had the words of eternal life, that he was the holy one of God. And so it is that we too know that our true unity is to be found, not in pastors, priests, bishops or popes, nor even in ourselves as a gathering, but here at this altar where we gather, in Jesus Christ our portion and our cup, our good above all other, our Blessed Lord, who lives and reigns with his Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.+

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Surprise Package

SJF • Proper 14b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
They began to complain about him, because he said, I am the bread that came down from heaven. They were saying, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?+

Have you ever gotten a surprise package? They come, you know, in several forms. One kind is the grab-bag: sometimes a store or a mail-order company will dispose of excess stock by offering you a selection that you pay for sight unseen — and which, who knows, might contain a wonderful bargain. And then there’s the birthday or Christmas gift that you weren’t expecting, the carefully and lovingly wrapped package that contains a wonderful surprise. Have you ever gotten a package that surprised you — opened a gift you expected to contain one thing, and then been delighted to discover it was something else? something you never expected? There is a lot of fun in a good surprise package!

The common thing about all of these surprise packages is that you don’t know what’s inside; that’s what makes them a surprise. Either you can’t guess the nature of the contents, or you think it’s one thing and it turns out to be something else. In both cases, you’re in for a surprise.

In today’s Gospel, the leaders of the people have received a surprise package in the person of Jesus. He’s just told them something extraordinary: that he is the bread that came down from heaven. The problem is he doesn’t look like bread from heaven. He looks like Joseph’s son, like a man whose father and mother they know. How can he be bread from heaven? He’s just a carpenter!

+ + +

Many years ago, long before steamships and radios, there was a sailing ship in sore distress out on the Atlantic. The ship was in trouble because their supply of fresh water had run out. It was like that memorable line from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” The crew were perishing from thirst, because the saltwater all around them, however tempting as it might look, would if you drank it lead only to delirium and death. With hope almost gone, they sighted a ship approaching in the distance and hoisted their distress signal pennants: spelling out, “No water.” And as the captain looked earnestly through his telescope, the distant ship hoisted its pennants and signaled in return. But what the answering flags spelled out was not “We’re on our way,” but “Dip it up.”

“Dip it up?” the parched and weakened crew moaned. What heartless mockery, they said among themselves. To suggest that they dip up buckets of lethal salt water! They signaled again, “No fresh water,” but the very same answer a second time, “Dip it up!” Finally, in despair, they lowered a bucket and hoisted up some of the sea water To their amazement and joy it turned out that the water in which they were sailing, even out in the Atlantic Ocean, was fresh, sweet water. They hadn’t know it, but they were sailing through a current of water that flowed from the mouth of the mighty Amazon river, flowing out into the Atlantic Ocean fresh water flowing invisibly far out at sea. All the thirsty while, they thought for sure that the water surrounding them was useless, yet the means to save their lives was all around them.

+ + +

Yes, Jesus was a carpenter. It’s said he made good yokes; easy, light ones, as he said himself. And yes, he was reckoned to be the son of Joseph and Mary, well known to the folks in town. But he was also the bread which came down from heaven, to give life to the world. He looked like a man, and so he was — but he was also the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the bread of life, whom to eat is to live for ever. He was and is the surprise package for the world’s birthday, the unexpected miracle that looks so ordinary, and turns out to be beyond our dearest expectations.

We are here in this church because we have accepted the surprise package. We’ve bought the grab bag. We’ve been presented with the greatest gift ever given. And when we open it up, what do we see? What do we see when we come to this altar to receive communion. Bread! And skeptical folks today like the skeptical folks from Jesus’ home town might say of us, as they said of him, How can they believe that is bread from heaven?! Don’t we know it comes from Vermont Church Supply, shipped by UPS in cardboard boxes. Don’t we know how much it costs and how it’s baked? How can we imagine it to be bread from heaven? How can we imagine that it is the Body of Christ, given for the life of the world, that whoever eats of it will live forever?

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There was once an elderly woman who made her living by making and selling artificial fruit. One day a potential customer came into her shop and after looking around with a frown, complained that the artificial fruit she made was not realistic enough — it was too perfect. She pointed to an apple sitting there on the counter. “Look at that,” she said. “It is far too red, it’s too round and it’s too big to be a real apple.” The old woman nodded thoughtfully, picked up the apple (which happened to be her lunch) and proceeded to take a nice big bite out of it!

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You see, there will always be people who will never understand that things are sometimes exactly what they appear to be; that sometimes you find a perfect apple it looks too good to be true — but it is — and is it ever good! And on the other hand, there will always be people who will never understand that some things are not what they appear to be, that our wrong understanding of a thing can make us believe it is something other than what it is. People can go off the road of understanding on both sides.

Anger, for instance, can so preoccupy us that we miss the new opportunities offered to us. People can get so angry at things not going their way that they fail to see how much better things are going than if they had gone their way. Fear can make an old hollow tree on a dark road look like a monster. Simple ignorance — just simply not knowing — can make us think that clear fresh water is deadly poison. Pride can convince us that we know more about apples than an apple grower, or more about art than an artist. Familiarity can make us miss the marvelous hidden in the people and places we think we know through and through but who contain wonderful surprises for us. Contempt for the ordinary can cause us to miss wonders — or worse. For remember that when the king wanted to come among us to see what we really thought of him, he took the distressing disguise of a poor man from the Galilean hill country, son of a working family and a working-man himself!

God has enriched this world with surprise packages so numerous that life can be a perpetual birthday party if we’ll only allow ourselves to look for the mystery and the surprise instead of being happy with the obvious, or missing the depths of reality as our limited senses skim only the surface appearance. The stranger you pass by on the street, the person you neglect to greet, may have some wonder to show or tell you, or a smile that could light up your days for a month of Sundays.

There will always be people who will tell you that bread from Vermont can’t possibly be bread from heaven. There will always be unbelievers who will say that Jesus was just a poor misguided human being, the son of quite ordinary small-town folks, who got himself into trouble with the law and suffered the consequences. There will always be sober and serious people whose lives contain no surprises, who pass up the grab-bags because they don’t want to risk losing out — and consequently never have the pleasure of a surprising bargain. There will always be angry people so bitter that things don’t go their way that they miss the sweetness offered to them; unhappy, angry people who frown ungraciously at the gifts they receive simply because they aren’t what they expected. There will always be people who will die of thirst because they will not dip their buckets into the living water that surrounds them. There will always be people who die from hunger and pass into oblivion because they won’t take and eat the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

But sisters and brothers, thank God that we are not among them. Thanks be to God that we have seen the signal pennants aright, we have heard the words, life-giving words from the mouth of God and his son Jesus Christ: Dip it up! Take and eat! And isn’t that a wonderful surprise! +

The story of the fresh water current is adapted from Donald Deffner, “Seasonal Illustrations,” Resource 1992

Monday, August 03, 2009

True Bread

SJF • Proper 13b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”+

When I was a child one of our local bakeries in Baltimore installed what must have been one of the first automated systems in any kind of factory. Their slogan was, “The bread untouched by human hands.” They had a grainy black and white TV ad that showed robot hands at work kneading the dough and shaping it into loaves before it was baked. One of the local Baltimore TV personalities who was kept busy doing many different things at the TV station — he hosted “Dialing for Dollars” in the morning, he was the weatherman in the evening, and, in the after-school hours in between, he played Bozo the Clown on the kiddie cartoon show. It was there, I think, that he made fun of the bread company and its slogan, “Untouched by human hands,” by cutting to a grainy black-and-white film of a chimpanzee dressed in a baker’s costume furiously pounding on the dough! I hope he didn’t get fired for offending a sponsor.

In any case, clearly, there is bread, and then there’s bread. And where and who it comes from makes all the difference.

+ + +

In our Scripture readings today, we hear about three different kinds of bread. First of all, there is earthly bread — and let’s not ask about who it was that baked it! This is the earthly bread that the Israelites in the desert have run out of, and the bread that Jesus multiplied to feed other Israelites in a different desert. One might observe that the touch of his human hands worked wonders!

Then there’s that miraculous bread from heaven — the bread that God showered on those Israelites coming out of Egypt in a form that at first they did not recognize as bread — who, after all, would recognize that a light dusting of frost on the ground is something you might gather and eat. And so they called it manna — which means, basically, what’s it? So it was that God fed them withwhazzit scattered through the camp every morning, through those forty years.

Finally there is a third kind of bread, and it appears in John’s Gospel. It is neither bread from an earthly oven, nor some previously unknown dusting of a mysterious substance on the ground, appearing with the morning dew. This third kind of bread, Jesus says, is the true bread. This true bread, the Bread of God, comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

The people who followed Jesus still didn’t understand what he meant and they ask to be given this bread. And then Jesus tells them that he is that bread. In many ways they were like the Samaritan woman who appears a few chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, and she’s right there in our stained glass window. You will recall that Jesus tells her that he has a source of living water; and thinking this is literal water she asks him to tell her how to get it so she won’t have to go to the well with a bucket. And then Jesus reveals to her that he is the source of living water, the Messiah, “the one who is speaking to you.” That moment is preserved in our stained glass window there, as Jesus reveals himself to her and she looks up, in that instant of being startled and amazed, before she turns to go back to tell the rest of the people in her town the miracle that has happened.

Both she and the people who came to Capernaum looking for Jesus are like a third character in John’s Gospel — this is a consistent theme in John: Martha. Remember how after she affirms her belief in the resurrection, telling Jesus she believes her brother will rise again at the last day. Remember what Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

In all three of these instances Jesus proclaims himself to be what the people are looking for; he proclaims that we who also seek him, we who bear the name of Christian, through faith, believe him to be: he is the son of God, he is the source of light and life, he is the satisfaction to all our earthly hunger and thirst. He is resurrection and life. Just as I said last week that we cannot have unity and peace in this boat we call the church without Jesus being on board with us, so too we cannot have eternal life and release from hunger and thirst without him: the One who is the true source of life and nourishment.

+ + +

So it is that we have been told what the true bread is. It is not the bread we bake ourselves, nor even the earthly bread that Jesus multiplies when the people turned it over to him. Nor is it even the miraculous bread that nourished the Israelites for the years of their wanderings, but which ceased upon their arrival in the land of promise. No: it is Jesus himself: the true bread who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world, such that whoever comes to him will never be hungry and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty.

As I’ve tried to show, this is a particular angle of John’s Gospel — whether living water, or the life of the resurrection, or the bread of life — it is all about Jesus. He, John says, is the answer to all our questions.

But I would like for a moment to relate this to what I said about our Gospel from Mark from last week: Mark’s account of that rocky boat ride, stabilized only upon Jesus’s arrival. For it seems to me that the message for the church is the same in this case, in Mark and John: it is only in Jesus that we will find our peace, our life, our nourishment.

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And yet, how many appear to spend their time whining about the lack of bread, like the Israelites in their hunger in the desert? Or how many scan the ground seeking some other miracle than the one God offers? Or how many think that they can make do with merely earthly bread — bread that grows stale and fails to satisfy even as it eaten?

Paul writes of this latter sort, who try to turn back or away from the Lord, or cling to their former way of life: the life that did not give them life. They are like the Israelites who longed for the fleshpots of Egypt, and who were ready to turn back to slavery rather than to accept the freedom God offered them through Moses. It was bad enough to live that way when they had not heard of Jesus — but once they had, how much worse to turn away and go back to that former way of life, that old self, corrupt and deluded. When offered the opportunity to be clothed in a new self created according to God’s own likeness in righteousness and holiness — who would turn back to the disorder and disaster of merely human life, a life untouched by divine hands?

Unity and peace in the church will not come about through our doing — neither our bread nor the bread we gather from the hillside (even when it comes from God) will unite us. Unity and peace in the church is rather only through God himself in Jesus Christ, true bread come down from heaven and given for the life of the world. Our unity is in Jesus Christ — and he has given us the means to share in that unity by his own everlasting promise: when he took bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.” That bread: his Body.

Unity and peace in the church will come through our participation in the holy meal at this holy table, and all the other holy tables set up throughout the world and consecrated to the unity for which Christ gave himself, and gives himself: Unity through communion. This is a miracle greater than the manna that fed the children of Israel; this is a miracle greater than the broken bread that fed the multitudes that followed Jesus in the wilderness; this is the greatest miracle — that Jesus Christ should come to be with us in, with, and under the form of visible and edible bread, bread we take into our hands, place on our tongues, and eat, in fulfillment of his commandment: take, eat. He is the bread of life, the Bread of God from God’s own hands, and it is here at God’s table that we unite with him, and become one with him, in communion with each other through communion with him.

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, give us this bread always, the bread of your Son Jesus — bread which earth has given, and human hands have made, but which through your gracious gift has become for us the bread of life; for it is in sharing this bread that we are both nourished and built into his Body; so that at the last we shall hunger no more, and thirst no more, but sit at your table in your heavenly kingdom for ever; through Jesus Christ our Lord.+