The Trouble with Omnipresence

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©nakedpastor 2014

While I’m away on a research break please enjoy the work of one of my favorite bloggers, the challenging and constructive religious deconstructivist, David Hayward, “nakedpastor, graffiti artist on the walls of religion.” http://www.nakedpastor.com/

I’m not the entertainment

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

For the past five weeks[1] the Sunday readings from the Lectionary have taken a detour from the regularly scheduled gospel of Mark to focus on Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse found in the gospel of John, chapter 6. When I read scripture, it is always with an ear toward discipleship, so for me this “interruption” is almost as if Jesus is saying, “Look, you can’t just tag along forever and marvel over my great works, I’m not the entertainment. It’s time to put some skin in the game.” Well, alright, then.

With the miraculous feeding of the 5000 Jesus tested the faith of his disciples [JN 6:1-15]. A short time later, Jesus identified himself as the true bread from heaven and presented the crowd with the requirements of discipleship:

  • First, anyone wishing to do the work of God must believe that Jesus was sent by God [JN 6:24-35];
  • Second, not only must Jesus’ identity and mission be accepted, it must be internalized like a hearty meal, [JN 6:41-51];
  • Third, along with this consumption of Jesus’ identity and mission, those who accepted Jesus must then open themselves to a complete change of consciousness and radical lifestyle which carries risks but ultimately leads to eternal life with God [JN 6:51-58].

Finally, after witnessing the departure of many in the crowd, Jesus turned his attention to his disciples. Did they understand? Did they have what it takes to fulfill the requirement of discipleship? Would they stay or would they go? [JN 6:60-69]

Jesus’ teaching made the crowds very uncomfortable. It ran counter to their understanding of the divide between human and divine life. He blended physical life with spiritual life in a way that derailed traditional concepts of a transcendent, omnipotent God. Not only did Jesus claim intimate knowledge of God’s nearness and the existence of eternal life with God, Jesus said that HE was the way to God and eternal life.

The concept of an intimate God is as challenging today as it was then; it flies in the face of classical theology which stresses our abject unworthiness. Yes, we are sinful, but are we really unworthy? Would the invitation have been offered to us in the first place if we were unworthy of it? Entering into Christ’s consciousness opens us up to this truth. Jesus shows us what human perfection looks like, and invites us to strive to be like him and share in his glory. In doing so, we are transformed.

Some of the disciples found Jesus’ words hard to swallow and returned to their ordinary life. [JN 6:66] Those who remained with him understood, or at least the text tells us they did. “Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” [JN 6:68-69]. We know that is not the end of the story for Peter; we know his faith was not yet as rock solid as it would one day be. But the transformation of Peter and the others had already begun.

No doubt, this is hard stuff. We prefer our Jesus patiently awaiting us, perhaps standing in a fragrant meadow with his hands extended towards ours. I know I do. The truth is the cost of discipleship is dear. Jesus is pretty firm on the requirements (see above). Discipleship means loving God and neighbor in a radical way. It requires us to be servants, to behave a certain way, to detach from the idea of self-sufficiency, to make sacrifices, to do the hard stuff and be prepared to do it again and again until like the crowd of 5000, everyone is fed. Discipleship entails accompanying Jesus to the cross, and taking up the counter-cultural task of changing the world one step at a time. And we do this not because we are stained, we do it because we are beloved and worthy of the task.

Look around you. Can you see all the good disciples quietly at work in the world?

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] 17-21st Sundays of Ordinary Time, Year B. Although John 6 is read in weekday liturgies the second week of Easter, their proclamation on Sundays occurs just once in the three-year lectionary cycle. It is important to pay particular attention and discern how the message applies to your faith life.

A Blessing (for all that is new)

The late John O’Donohue is one of my favorite writers for a reason. O’Donohue’s words open my eyes. I am posting this blessing for the benefit of anyone starting something new: students, newlyweds, young parents, employees and employers, homeowners, life circumstances, lovers and friends, it’s all here. Relish it.

Blessed be the longing that brought you here and that quickens your soul with wonder.
May you have the courage to befriend your eternal longing.
May you enjoy the critical and creative companionship of the question “Who am I?” and may it brighten your longing.
May a secret Providence guide your thought and shelter your feeling.
May your mind inhabit your life with the same sureness with which your body belongs to the world.
May the sense of something absent enlarge your life.
May your soul be as free as the ever-new waves of the sea.
May you succumb to the danger of growth.
May you live in the neighborhood of wonder.
May you belong to love with the wildness of Dance.
May you know that you are ever embraced in the kind circle of God.

—John O’Donohue, from Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong.
New York. NY: HarperCollins, 1999. 50

 

Born around the table

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

“Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink”. [John 6:53-55]

Eww… Forgive me, Jesus, but that is kind of disturbing. “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” [John 6:52] No matter how Jesus’ words are re-framed or explained in the context of God’s gift of manna from heaven to the Israelites, and God’s gift of Jesus as the bread from heaven to the world, many of us are still left with the feeling we don’t get it. Unlike simple (and unsatisfactory) examples of 4-leaf clovers, pretzels, and trefoils employed by some to explain the Trinitarian doctrine of three persons in one God, this third part of Jesus’ bread of life discourse defies imagery and abstract language.

Still, in order for us to advance in our understanding we really need to stop being so literal and focus on what Jesus is saying about how eating the bread of life will transform us.

Jesus utilized the food analogy for spiritual purposes. Recall that analogies compare one thing to another in a way that is “like” but “not like” the reality being described. Analogies are never intended to be literal. Phew! Thank you, Jesus! The key here is to identify the traits of the one thing that hold true (food and drink satisfy physical hunger) in the context of the teaching (unlike manna from heaven which temporarily relieved physical hunger, Jesus is the bread from heaven who satisfies spiritual hunger for all of eternity).

Food and drink have the power to transform us from within. To that end, two foodie films came to mind as I prepared this reflection. One is King Corn, a documentary exposing America’s corn-based food supply. The film is described as “a humorous and touching documentary about two best friends who decide to move to Iowa to grow an acre of corn after finding out through laboratory hair analysis that their bodies are primarily made out of corn.” If you doubt this is true, please search for and watch this movie, and get back to me. http://www.kingcorn.net/the-film/synopsis/.

What we put in our bodies, be it food, drink, or outside influences including opinions, art or media really, truly does impact the health of our mind, body and soul [Eph 5:15-20].

The second film, and one I have seen many times, is Babette’s Feast, a culinary drama set in 19th century Denmark in which a renowned Parisian chef takes refuge as a housekeeper/cook for two aging spinsters. Much like Wisdom dressing her meat and mixing her wine [Prv 9:1-6], Babette spreads a table for the townsfolk. Each time I see this film, with its emphasis on the preparation of a final meal and the eventual transformation of the characters from a kind of death to life, I note deeper themes of Eucharist: service, sacrifice, forgiveness and reconciliation. You will want to experience some authentic French cuisine with friends after watching this film. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092603/.

Babette's feast

© 1987 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

It has been said that the church was born around the table. It has also been mentioned that the prominence of meal sharing in Jesus’ ministry points to the humorous conclusion that Jesus ate his way through the gospels.[1] But as the bread of life discourse reveals, the real meal is Jesus’ ongoing and unconditional sharing of self.

Jesus’ flesh and blood represent his life; Jesus’ life discloses his  consciousness of being one with God. His flesh and blood refer to his earthly ministry and willing sacrifice, his union with God, and what he continues to do through his church, the body of the living Christ [1 Cor 12:27].

This consciousness of Jesus, this oneness with God, and mission to reunite God and creation is the “this” which Jesus at the last supper refers to when he says “do this.” It is the meal, the mission, the union: all of it. The whole loaf. The doctrine of real presence is more readily consumed with this understanding. Christ is truly present.

When we receive Eucharist, we give our fiat, we say “yes, please” to taking Jesus’ consciousness and all that it entails into our bodies. In this way, we become the host. Imagine the transformation of Christ’s church today if every person stepping forward to take communion was attentive to this point.

We have many ways to be aware of God: in nature, in human relationships, in worship, and in prayer, just to name a few. But Eucharist is different. It is the one act in which we physically eat what we profess to believe.

The communal act of receiving Eucharist runs the risk of becoming a meaningless ritual, a symbolic reenactment that tells us the mass is almost over. But when it is properly understood as taking in Christ’s consciousness it is impossible to remain unchanged, and even more impossible to deny the requirements of discipleship.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Particularly in Luke’s gospel. Robert J. Karris, O.F.M.’s book Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel is a good read on the topic. (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2006)

Traffic Jam Spirituality

19th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

The other day I was tailed and then passed by a heavy-duty pickup truck with a message. It told me from its bumper, in large bold caps, to TRUST JESUS! I have never been a fan of bumper stickers. Not only do they (in my opinion) junk up a car’s appearance, certain bumper stickers foist religious (or not) beliefs, push moral and political stances, and crow children’s accomplishments in the faces of disinterested strangers in a way that is, well, obnoxious.

Bumper stickers that tell others how to act are particularly boorish in traffic. They speak to the popular notion that whatever we think must be proclaimed publicly. Perhaps we are headed for a dialogue-free society in which everyone just blurts out their opinion using the nearest technology and then disappears in a plume of exhaust.

Maybe I make too much of it.

In all fairness, I knew nothing about the driver of the TRUST JESUS! truck. He was just like every other person on the Turnpike who simply wanted to get from one point to another. But he happened to be in front of me for several miles and having this command in my face started to bother me. What exactly did this driver mean by “TRUST JESUS!” and who did he think he was, anyways?

Jesus said “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” [John 6:51]

Although their bellies were filled, the crowd did not see God’s hand in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. And while they recognized Jesus’ teaching authority and wondrous deeds, they were blind to his true relationship with the Father. They found his claim, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” [JN 6:41b] to be preposterous. After all, everyone knew Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, so how could he claim to have come down from heaven? Their opposition mounted and yet the crowd remained in his presence, grumbling and murmuring  within earshot of Jesus. These people, his opponents, were limited by their partial view of life, and of God. They trusted God, not Jesus.

It has been said that if you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus. Jesus is the revelation of God made visible in the world. However, as theologian John Shea says, “One who is not in touch with the inner light of God cannot see it in the outside world.”* For this reason, Jesus’ enemies were not capable of seeing Jesus for who he was, and they did not see God’s doing in Jesus’ mighty works. Neither could their hunger be sated, because they refused to ingest Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus is talking about transformation. He offers his unconditional gift of self as food for the world to all of humanity. It is an invitation to the table. “And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” [JN 6:51b]. This goes back to why the TRUST JESUS! bumper sticker bothered me. Of course we should trust Jesus. But there’s more. Discipleship requires active and ongoing participation in Jesus earthly mission, here and now. Jesus did not say trust the bread, Jesus said eat the bread, all of it. Eat the entire loaf, take it in completely and be transformed.

EAT THE BREAD. Now there’s a bumper sticker I would not mind following.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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*John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 204.

It’s a miracle!

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

In August, 2013 a news story circulated about a mysterious roadside “angel” who appeared at the scene of a head-on collision where the victim was trapped inside her crushed vehicle. The man, described as wearing priestly garb, prayed with and anointed the 19-year-old woman, provided calming reassurances to the rescue workers that all would be well, and then disappeared from the scene without a trace.

This story took off and gained international attention. The Missouri miracle, as it was called, was intriguing. Who was this man who emerged from the corn fields with anointing oils? How was it possible for anyone to come and go when the road was blocked in both directions? And why did none of the photos taken at the scene include this person? News reports and the internet buzzed with speculation. Even Diane Sawyer wanted to know.

Who doesn’t love the idea of a miracle? Miracles seem to point to a higher power’s participation in worldly events. They cause doubters to pause. Believers want to attribute these baffling life-saving events to divine intervention, and why not? But as well-known Jesuit priest and author, Fr. James Martin, said in a comment to the Huffington Post “Most likely the priest will be identified, and people will be able to thank him.” Spoilsport. Still, Fr. Martin’s point is that human acts of bravery and extreme kindness happen all the time. Oftentimes they point to God’s engagement in human history. But this kind of pragmatic response just pops the balloon of hope held out by many who hunger for a “real” miracle.

The multiplication of the loaves and fishes [John 6:1-15] was a real miracle. It was an opportunity for Jesus to teach the disciples about spiritual abundance, and the crowd enjoyed the miraculous result. The feeding of the 5,000 revealed that God does great things with just the smallest offering; the tiniest spark of faith was more than enough to work with. And after everyone had their fill, the disciples gathered 12 baskets of fragments.

Lesson learned.

But the next day the crowd was hungry again, and they went in search of Jesus and more bread. The crowd did not see the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as a miraculous sign of God’s care; they saw it as dinner.

Jesus knew this and in one of his most difficult teachings challenged the crowd to understand his identity as one sent to fill their lives, not their bellies.

“Don’t work for food that perishes but for food that endures for eternal life” [John 6:27a]. The double play on the word work referred both to the kind of work that provides enough to eat and the kind of work expressed through obedience to the Law given by Moses. The Jews in the crowd who heard the latter grew uneasy. They asked, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” and Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” [John 6:28-29].

Oh boy. Understand how outrageous this statement was to the hearers: “We have Moses, are you implying you are greater than Moses? If so, what can you do to prove it? Moses gave us manna to eat!”

Spiritual hunger: that universal human longing for the moreness of life. The myriad religious expression in human history acknowledges there is not a single civilization which has not attempted to satisfy the desire to know the higher power. But, Jesus says “Don’t work for food that perishes but for food that endures for eternal life.” In other words, Jesus is the bread of life whose presence makes God known in the world. A life nourished by and lived in imitation of Jesus is a life lived toward union with God.

And sometimes that union is expressed in miraculous events.

Many people hoped the Missouri miracle man really was an angelic apparition. Turns out Fr. Martin was right and Rev. Patrick Dowling, a priest of the diocese of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, MO, stepped forward a few days after the accident. In an interview with ABC News, Fr. Dowling said, “he was only doing the basic job of a priest and most of the credit goes to God.” He went on to add, “I have no doubt the Most High answered their prayers and I was part of his answer, but only part.”

Was the Missouri miracle a miracle? Absolutely. As Fr. Dowling stated, “the credit goes to God.”

Today’s readings can be found here.

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Still hungry? Gospel texts from John’s “Bread of Life” discourse [John 6] are read from the 17-21st weeks of Ordinary Time (B) [Lectionary for Mass and the Revised Common Lectionary], and will be explored with a view towards discipleship here on The Good Disciple blog..