Monday, August 27, 2012

"Lord, to Whom Shall We Go?" (Reflections on Pentecost 13)

"Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them."
                                                                                             John 6: 56

So reads the opening phrase of the gospel lesson assigned by our Revised Common Lectionary for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost. For us  post-modern folk as well as for the turn-of-the-first-century audience for whom this was written, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? (Jn. 6:60)"

The Greek word translated here as "difficult" is skleros. According to Zerwick's Grammatical Analysis of the New Testament (1993), it can mean "hard to take" or "unacceptable." According to the German Bible Society's Greek Dictionary (and you know how smart those German guys are!), the word can also mean harsh or terrible. Basically, John's characters are telling Jesus that this flesh-eating, blood-drinking thing is offensive to them.

Granted, it sounds a little creepy to most of us, too. So how do we interpret this text? I can always take the academic coward's way our by pointing out that, according to the really smart fellas of the Jesus Seminar (and I don't know why there weren't any women in their little club), Jesus probably never said  anything at all like this. John's gospel was composed almost seventy years after the time of Jesus and seems to be prone to a little improvisation.

So, I hear you ask, if Jesus didn't say it, why is it in the Bible? Good question. Here's my best guess: By the time John was writing his gospel, everyone in the Christian community knew about the sacrament we call Holy Communion. But only those who were really in fellowship with the Christian community actively participated. Remember: at this time Christianity was officially an outlaw religion in the Roman Empire. Those who committed themselves to the faith risked being ostracized from their society, and, possibly, risked imprisonment or death. The ones who actively received the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament were the ones who had made a life-altering choice to be followers of Jesus.

The Judeans depicted in the sixth chapter of John take "bread" and "flesh" very literally. John's Jesus, however, uses the meal commemorating his physical sacrifice on the cross as a reflection of spiritual food. Jesus has provided a nourishment for this little group that no one else could. He's given them love for each other, faith in eternity, and courage. Those who who receive this spiritual food abide in Jesus and he abides in them.

John loves this word, "abide." It means, literally, "to pitch a tent with." That is, those who abide with Jesus are as intimate with his teachings, suffering, and resurrection as they are with the people who live under their roof. They live in the constant presence of Jesus, and everything they do is informed by sacrificial love (both God's sacrifice and our own willingness to give to each other), and the empty tomb promise of eternal life. Which, come to think of it, are not bad things to live with!

+     +     +     +
I kind of like the fact that the RCL has paired this gospel lesson with a reading from Joshua 24 in which Joshua, the successor to Moses who has led the people of Israel in victorious conquest of the Promised Land, confronts the nation and asks them to "choose this day whom you will serve (Josh 24:15)." He then rattles off a list of local tribal gods (folks in that time had not yet figured out that there is only One God). Both of these lessons sound a call for commitment. Personally, I often think the difference between those who claim to be "spiritual" but not "religious" is a simple unwillingness to commit.
But if we are not committed, not willing to abide with the God of sacrifice and resurrection, to what god do we commit ourselves? In what deity do we abide? In John's text, Simon Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, to whom shall we go?"
There are tons of tribal gods upon which we can rest our allegiance, but which has the words of eternal life? Do we abide in...
      ...our wealth and security? Great, until the economy tanks or we fall ill.
     ....our government or our free market? Please..!
     ...our job? Wonderful, until we're laid off or we retire.
     ....our intelligence? Until we make that stupid decision or until Alzheimer's strikes!
     ...our local sports teams? Not in Philly this year!
     ...the goodness of human nature? Only until a maniac opens fire in a movie theater in Colorado or a junkie in New Jersey decapitates her two-year-old child.
No. An old country/gospel song puts it like this:
          Living below in this old sinful world
Hardly a comfort can afford,
Striving alone to face temptation so...
Where could I go but to the Lord?
Where could I go? Oh, where could I go?
Seeking the refuge for my soul.
Needing a friend to save me in the end,
Where could I go but to the Lord?
(J.B. Coats)
Lord, to whom shall we go?
Thanks for stopping by, my friends.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Confessions of an Amoeba

"We're like Fort Apache," Wayne said. "They got us surrounded!"

Wayne is a faithful member of my congregation and a volunteer sexton. He and I often chew the fat over the future of our tiny little Lutheran parish--an island of Reformation theology adrift in a vast Roman sea. Faith Lutheran Church of Northeast Philadelphia is actually surrounded by six enormous Roman Catholic parishes, each claiming about nine thousand families. Additionally, we fall in the catchment area of at least two non-denominational evangelical mega-churches.

If the power and glory of Rome and the splash and flash of the megas isn't enough to pound us into insignificance, we have to deal with a rather unfortunate physical location. In a masterpiece of miscalculation, our founders placed us on a one-way street barricaded by a freeway and Interstate 95. We sit in full view of pretty much nothing at all, making our property an ideal location for drug deals, trash dumping, vandalism, and other assorted pestilence which plague the urban parish.

Now don't get me wrong. I love my parish, but I'll be the first to admit that the architecture--if you could call it that!--is a nightmare mixture of lousy fung shui and ghastly aesthetics. The upside is that the building is paid for, it costs relatively little to heat and cool, and it looks pretty full when you get about sixty people or so inside it (Our average Sunday worship attendance is in the low 90's). So, overall, I'd have to say that God has been very good to us. After fifty-two years, we've still kept the doors open. There are still kids in our Sunday School, and we still do the best we can.

Recently, our local non-denom mega-church, the Bethel Church of Franklin Mills, invited me to attend the Global Leadership Summit. This was a two-day satellite feed conference presented by Bill Hybel's Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago. I really enjoyed the summit, and I consider it one of the few continuing education events I've attended from which I actually learned something. However, being in the Bethel Church, a converted movie theatre with hundreds of seats which worships over 1,100 people each weekend, and watching the feed from the 7,000+ seat Willow Creek Church, gave me a bit of an inferiority complex. Who was I and how significant was my ministry compared to the fabulous success of these titans of the faith? I was but a pitiful amoeba, lost in the shadow of these behemoths of ecclesiastic grandeur.

Fortunately, Rob Tarnoviski, the senior pastor at Bethel Church and a very gracious host, reminded me, "We're not trying to build congregations, Owen. We're trying to build the Kingdom of God."

Okay. Good point.

Shortly thereafter, Cindie, a member of my parish and one of the cheeriest little Lutheran ladies one is likely to encounter, told me a story about a recent visit she had made to a new couple in our congregation. Jason and Doug live in South Philly, but they commute all the way up to the Northeast every Sunday to worship with us. Jason's brother, Cindie tells me, worships with a non-denominational mega-church and can't understand why Jason makes the journey to our tiny Lutheran parish. The brother boasts that his church is filled with hundreds of people, has a team of pastors leading small groups, a terrific and professional praise band, and three giant projection screens which make everyone feel part of the service.

To which Jason replied, "But my pastor knows my name."

Well said, my friend. Jason reminds me that even though some people will crave the excitement and energy of the mega-church (or perhaps the anonymity, too), there will always be those who will yearn for the family feeling only the small parish can provide. I think of Mother Teresa's quote: "We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less fat without that missing drop."

I will never be a Bill Hybels or a Joel Osteen or a T.D. Jakes. But then, I am not called to be. I remind myself that what I am doing is what God has intended me to do. Where I serve is where God intends me to serve. And who I am--to the best of my sinful ability--is who God intends me to be.

"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."
                               Romans 8:28

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"I Am the Bread of Life" (Reflections on Pentecost 11)

I dread it every three years when it comes around in the Revised Common Lectionary--that freakin' "Bread of Life" summer!I don't know what the folks who devised our Lectionary were thinking, but every third summer, in Cycle B, there are six--yes, SIX!--Sundays in a row when the gospel lesson focuses on Jesus as the Bread of Life. That's always a good time for either the pastor or the congregation to go on vacation. I mean, just how much can I think of to say about bread?

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." (John 6:51)

To non-Christians, the response to the above quotation might be, "Yech! Sounds like cannibalism!"And I have to confess that for some Christians, asleep in the pew, the question of what it means to eat the flesh of Jesus might not be something we really ponder. So I wrestle with the question of, "Why would you want to do something which sounds so disgusting?"

Glad you asked. Some years ago I stumbled upon a wonderful book titled Rabbi Jesus: The Jewish Life and Teachings That Inspired Christianity by Bruce Chilton (Doubleday, 2000). I recommend it highly. Professor Chilton made me look at the sacrament of Holy Communion in a new way.

He begins by describing Jewish ritual sacrifice at the time of Jesus. Animals were brought to the Temple of Jerusalem, their throats were cut, and their blood was splashed against the burning hot metal altar. Then, the flesh of the animal was thrown onto the fire. The sputtering steam of the blood and the smoke from the animal's body were seen to ascend--symbolically to God on high. To offer sacrifice in this way to atone for one's sins was one of the holiest things a Jewish man could do.

Unfortunately, not all men--and no women--were permitted to enter the inner court of the temple to participate in this ritual. Gentiles were forbidden, as were those deemed to be ritually unclean. Jesus himself, because of his questionable parentage, would not have been permitted full participation in the sacrifice of the body and the blood.

Mary and Joseph were not married when Jesus was conceived. Prof. Chilton notes that any question about who Jesus' father might be would automatically classify Jesus as a mamzer--one who could not be assumed to be 100% Jewish. Such a designation would have put Jesus on the margins of society.

So what does Jesus do? He institutes his own holy practice. He eats ritual meals from which no one is excluded. He eats with those who are deemed to be ritually impure: tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners of every kind. His followers will even share this meal with gentiles. Those forbidden to touch the body and the blood of the sacrificial animal in the temple will not only touch but eat Jesus' body and drink of Jesus' blood. And Jesus, by his death, will be the sacrifice for all.

What more intimate and necessary thing can we do than share our food? Think about it: you don't even have to know a stranger's language in order to offer him or her something to eat. In Near Eastern culture, to share food was to create family. If you eat of my bread, you become one of my household.

As a pastor, I love to preside at Holy Communion. I need to share the common hunger we all feel--for forgiveness, for wholeness, for community. And I need to ingest the man who loves with his whole body and soul and whose love knows no distinction of persons--young or old, married, single, divorced, re-married, gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, conservative, liberal. All human. All God's family.

If you come to my congregation some Sunday, we'll welcome you to our table. We simply can't let you be a guest in our home without feeding you.

God bless you, my friends!