The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The 10th Sunday after Pentecost
John 6:35, 41-51
I’m still getting used to our new lectionary, which assigns the readings we use for Sunday worship. This year, for 5 weeks in a row we listen to the 6th chapter of the gospel of John, and today we’re on week number 3. This whole chapter is about bread, so you’ll be hearing about bread for some time. Luckily we have 3 different preachers on these 5 Sundays, but I’m doing 3 of them. Not that I’m complaining.
As chapter 6 begins, Jesus feeds 5,000 people bread and fish. He then tells the crowds that he is the real bread that gives eternal life - that when we believe in him, we will never be hungry again. We are to eat his flesh as bread from heaven.
In John’s gospel, this is a turning point. Feeding people bread is one thing; but claiming that his followers would eat his flesh and then live forever – that’s another thing altogether. Many took offense, even some of his own disciples.
What is all this about? Why so much emphasis on bread and feeding on Jesus’ body? On one level, and most obviously to us, this chapter is a statement by the early church about the importance of the sacred meal they shared that came to be known as the Eucharist.
But on another level, John’s gospel is borrowing all this language about eating divine food from a portion of the Bible that was well known to its audience, if not to us. It is the Wisdom literature, those late Hebrew writings that were the most recently composed prior to and during the New Testament period. To the early church, it was the freshest, newest part of the Bible. The Wisdom writings include the book of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and some of the Psalms.
In these writings, “Wisdom” signifies far more than what we think of by the word. For us, wisdom means good judgment that comes from experience. But in the Bible, Wisdom is actually a personification of God. She is feminine. God uses Wisdom to create all things, to call people to harmonious ways of living, to reveal the truth. She is a divine force that gives life and order to all creation, and she helps those who seek her to know God intimately. As it says in the book of Sirach:
I [Wisdom,] came forth from the mouth of the Most High
and covered the earth like a mist.
I dwelt in the highest heavens…
over every people and nation I have held sway.
Wisdom teaches her children and gives help to those who seek her.
Whoever loves her loves life,
and those who seek her from early morning are filled with joy.
Those who serve her minister to the Holy One;
the Lord loves those who love her.
Now one of the remarkable things about Wisdom is that she tells those who seek her to eat her. Hear what she says, again in Sirach:
Come to me, you who desire me,
and eat your fill of my fruits.
those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more.
and from the book of Proverbs:
Wisdom has built her house….
She has prepared her meat, she has mixed her wine;
[she says] “Come, eat of my food, and drink of my wine.”
And so when in John’s gospel Jesus says to the crowds “come to me, eat and drink of me,” the people knew what he was saying: that he was the Wisdom of God in human form. Jesus, in whom there is no male or female (according to Paul), is the feminine force of Wisdom that has emanated from God from the very beginning. So when we eat of Christ, we take into ourselves the Wisdom of God.
Right about now you may be thinking “This is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with me?”
Last week Fr. Daniel preached about how God will not be objectified, God will not remain separated from us as a static thing. God breaks through the glass that keeps us apart, and offers a real relationship to us.
This is what the Wisdom writings and the Jesus of John’s gospel are saying. They use the metaphor of eating to say that we can go beyond a formal, distant relationship where God is frozen behind the glass of piety and proper forms of worship. We can take God into our very being, we can ingest and absorb God’s own Spirit internally, just like food. We can get out of our heads and into our hearts, into a more physical, emotional, intuitive, intimate way of knowing God.
The greatest defense against God is belief in God. By acknowledging that there is a God out there somewhere to whom we are accountable and from whom we can ask favors now and then, we can leave it at that. God remains in the glass case, locked into whatever objectified form we settled upon at some point in our lives. God is a harmless little thing that confirms our opinions and makes us feel comfort once in awhile. God is domesticated for our purposes.
But God, the real God, is wild. The Spirit is a living force who will not be easily understood or safely contained. And if we dare to go beyond our easy assumptions about God and enter into a real relationship, everything changes.
As the 14th-century preacher and mystic Meister Eckhart said, “Man’s last and highest parting is when, for God’s sake, he takes leave of ‘God’.” Let me give you an example. It is from my experience, which is not necessarily yours. I don’t promote this.
For many years, I cultivated a spiritual life. I read all the classics, I took time every day for silent prayer, I went on long retreats to monasteries and into the desert, I wrote books and led retreats, I started the Contemplative Center here, I taught you about techniques and practices.
It was a very good and necessary time in my faith development, when I was undergoing training in our spiritual tradition. But at some point spirituality had become a thing for me. At some point it became a way of keeping God safe inside in the glass cabinet of spiritual practice.
I felt called beyond spirituality. I felt called - for God’s sake - to take leave of “God.” I felt called into life itself, where God lives, to leave behind formal practice, and instead, to follow my hunger and my thirst: to experience the Spirit directly in my relationships with those I love, in the work and worship I share with you, in this amazing landscape we live in, in movies and art and music, in the times that I feel lost, in the emptiness that opens up once I remember that I don’t have to fill it.
There was a new sense of eating God’s fruits, ingesting what God has to offer in life. Somehow God became more mysterious and unpredictable, but at the same time, more near, more emotional and more physical in my body, in others, in my food and in my breath, in the world around me, in my daily activities.
Now I may understand God less, but I feel God more. I’m more inclined to pray simply, in the middle of things, asking for guidance, for Wisdom, and to give thanks. This is food enough.
Have you experienced anything like this? You may not have taken the same path that I took to get there, but that’s not what is important. What is important is whether you have learned to ingest God. If not, what might that be like for you? Are there ways in which you might take leave of “God” for God’s sake, to break through the glass and get real with God? Would it be somehow a physical feeling, more devotional, more expressive? How might you get out of your head and into your heart with God?
In today’s gospel, Jesus calls up the divine feminine force of Wisdom and says that he is she. She says come to me; eat my bread, and you will be satisfied.
I can’t tell you how to do that. Nobody can. We are each too individual for a prescription to be useful. I can’t even adequately express my own experience of it. But I can tell you this; as it says in Sirach:
Wisdom teaches her children and gives help to those who seek her.
Seek her in the life you live. Follow your hunger, your thirst; trust it. Eat what is served to you, everything on your plate. She will feed you, and you will enter into eternal life.