Sunday, August 20, 2006

Eleventh Sunday in Pentecost
Proverbs 9:1-8
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

Leave off, ye simple ones, and live; And walk in the way of understanding.

Some of my favorite devotional writers might be considered mystics. Mysticism has, unfortunately, taken on a negative connotation in our world and in the Church today. For many, the word mysticism is identified with new age practice or pagan ideals. It is about a strange connection to the spiritual realm, not only non-Christian but perhaps even anti-Christian.

Yet, mysticism is defined as "having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence" or "involving or having the nature of an individual's direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality." While there are mystics that are non-Christian or anti-Christian, there are also mystics who are Christian. These Christians look to the aspects of the Christian faith that are beyond our intellect, beyond our understanding. They focus more deeply on the unknowable and they believe with their hearts even though some things can't be explained with their minds.

I suppose that's why we have difficulty with mystics – there is even biblical evidence to be wary of the things we can't grasp with our heads. Our hearts are easily swayed. If we are not like the Bereans, proving everything we hear with the scriptures, we can be lead down a wrong and destructive path. I have known too many people who have followed mystical paths who have gone far from a true and honest orthodox faith. They are blown by every wind, rejecting Christian doctrine that have long been establish and proven right while following new ideas and new practices that seem to be more right than what is presented by the hypocritical and "religious" Church.

So, to counter those who would follow any path, we avoid any semblance of faith that is mysterious or beyond our understanding. We approach our faith, our life in Christ, our Christian practice from an intellectual perspective. We feel the need to have answers to all the questions, explanations for all the uncertainties and responses to all the attacks. All too often, however, our answers, explanations and responses leave no room for the greatness of God. We limit our faith, we limit God, by keeping everything rational.

Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, a Cisterian monk, was a man of deep spiritual depth. He is known for his devotional writings and his concern for the spiritual welfare of Christians. He established the house at Clairvaux and dozens of other houses were established out of his leadership. He had the authority to choose between competing popes during a schism in the church and he was able to convince the secular authorities to honor his choice. He fought against heresy in the church, preaching against a number of theologians and religious leaders who were leading Christians down unorthodox paths.

Peter Abelard was one of the theologians he tried. Peter taught preached modalism, which is an incomplete understanding of the trinity as understood by orthodox faith. Bernard's criticism of Peter was that his approach to faith was too rational and did not provide enough room for mystery. Peter's intellect stood in the way of his willingness to believe in the Trinity. The three-in-one is not a concept that we can grasp with our brains. It is something we have to believe.

Several weeks ago we began reading a story of Jesus revolving around bread. In the beginning, Jesus was surrounded by a great and hungry crowd of people. He asked the disciples to feed them. They had only five loaves of bread and two fish, but Jesus blessed the food and it fed more than five thousand people. Though this miraculous event is beyond our physical explanation, the people grasped the idea of Jesus filling their bellies. They wanted to make Him king so that they would never be hungry again.

When Jesus told them to work for the imperishable, they asked Him, "What is the work we are to do?" He answered, "Believe in the One whom God has sent." That is the point of the sixth chapter of John, for us to believe in Jesus, the bread of life. Yet, as this story continues, Jesus' get progressively difficult for us to believe, and it would have been even worse for those who were listening to Him that day. Jesus compared Himself to Moses, and while they wanted to make Him king, He was no Moses. Not even King David, most certainly the greatest king of Israel, was Moses. Then He compared Himself to the manna. How could He compare to the manna? The manna came and fed them for forty years! He said He was the bread "that came down from heaven." This was not only beyond belief – it was blasphemy. He was identifying Himself with God. Finally, in today's passage, Jesus tells the people that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life.

Not only is this difficult for us to understand, it is too disgusting for us to even consider. How a Jewish rabbi who preached peace even suggest what could be seen as a cannibalistic practice as the way to the promise? Of course, we look back on this event through the lens of the cross and resurrection, so we understand that Jesus was pointing toward the Sacrament of Communion. Yet, there are many Christians who still have difficulty with Jesus' words and they are much too rational when trying to understand some of the more mysterious aspects of faith.

They do not want to accept that there are some things about God that are mysterious – mystical. They would rather understand with their brains than believe with their heart. We just can't comprehend what happens at the Table. It is there that we step outside of time and space and join with the entire body of Christ to receive the body and blood of Christ. This means that when we receive the bread and wine, we are doing so with all Christians who have ever lived and will ever live. How can this be? It can't if we rely solely on natural explanations. However, if we accept that God is bigger than nature and our imaginations, we can believe that Jesus is truly giving us His flesh and His blood and the eternal life that He has promised.

The trouble is that we want to live according to the wisdom of the world, a wisdom that is founded on intellect. However, we learn in today's Old Testament lesson about a different sort of wisdom. The Proverb offers a personification of wisdom as a woman who has established a place of comfort and grace. She has set a table with good food and drink and invites all those who hear to come to eat. She does not invite the intellectually superior, but rather she calls the simple. It is not that she desires to have only the stupid at her table, but rather that many so called intellectuals are in reality not very wise. She seeks those who are humble, those who are willing to learn and grow, those who fear the Lord. She seeks those who believe, even when we are asked to believe the unbelievable. We are invited to that table each time we receive Communion.

The psalmist writes, "The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger; But they that seek Jehovah shall not want any good thing." When a male cub reaches the age of three, he is either kicked out of the pride or he leaves on his own. He wanders alone until he is strong and powerful, then he fights for a pride. Lions begin to weaken when they are about eight years old, so a powerful, younger male is able to defeat the dominant male and win the pride. Until that time, however, the young male lion is alone. He lives a nomadic life following the herds, which is a very difficult time. Some young males never grow strong enough, so they suffer hunger and even die.

It is interesting that those who choose to live by this rational faith are often those who also choose to live apart from the body of Christ. They are those who will wander like those people who have followed mystical paths and gone far from a true and honest orthodox faith. They are blown by every wind, rejecting Christian doctrine that have long been establish and proven right while following new ideas and new practices that seem to be more right than what is presented by the hypocritical and "religious" Church. They do it alone, as if they can be part of Christ while rejecting the body. This is an image that says, "I'm number one. I'm independent. I do not need anyone." When we wander alone, we are like those young lions that suffer hunger and die. We fear nothing and do whatever we think is necessary to ensure life. But God has called us to a different life. We are to fear God and to live according to His Word. We are to seek peace and pursue it. We are to seek God, even in ways that may seem mystical or mysterious.

In this psalm the saints are not the dead but the living, those living in the kingdom of God in this world. It is for those that the call to seek God is given. Though Christ has found us, it is by His grace that we can find God. A life lived well is the life that seeks God day in and day out – in prayer and study, faithful living and giving, in fellowship with other believers and through the sacraments that Christ has given to His Church.

Paul writes, "Look carefully how ye walk, not as unwise, but as wise." Once again we hear a call to wisdom, and again it is a call to wisdom of God not wisdom of the world. Paul tells us not to waste our time, but to spend it well, doing what is right. He says, "Wherefore be ye not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is." What is the will of God? The will of God is "to believe in the One He has sent." The life well lived is not only the life that seeks God day in and day out, but it is the life of one who lives in communion with God and His people. Paul says, "Be filled with the Spirit." The spiritual life is found in the body of Christ as we speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, as Paul writes, "singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord."

I think perhaps the hardest thing Paul has to say in this passage is that we should be thankful always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. How can we be thankful at all times? How can we be thankful for all things? Even amongst our brethren, in the body of Christ amongst believers, there are differences that cause us pain and suffering. Our differences might stem from a numerous reasons – age, gender, race, cultural upbringing and heritage, geography, educational background or financial circumstances. We see the way others walk and we don’t like what we see, so we complain. Yet all the while we do not recognize our own failures.

So, we are encouraged to walk wisely, knowing our own faults rather than pointing out the faults of others. We are called to live out our faith with our whole hearts, filled with the Spirit of God, which leaves no room for foolish ways. We are called to use our time wisely, speaking words that will edify and inspire our neighbors rather than beat them down. We are not only to live without hurting others, but to also live in a way that will raise them up. This is the life of thanksgiving – the life that takes God’s grace and passes it on.

This life of thanksgiving is found most clearly in one place – at the table of the meal which Jesus commands us to eat. It is at the Eucharist, the meal of thanksgiving, where we are closest to God and closest to our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we eat the body and blood of Christ, we are given a glimpse of the eternal life we will have fully in God's time and God's way. This experience is beyond our human explanation, but God calls us to believe it anyway, knowing only that He is faithful to His promises and that He is in the midst of it all.

At the Eucharist, the Communion, the Sacrament of the Altar, the Lord's Supper – whatever you call it – there for that brief moment, you can be thankful at all times for all things, for there you see a glimmer of the eternal life we will have one day. Received not with the intellect, but with the heart, the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ that we eat together and live. This is not something to be understood, but to be received and believed as a simple person of faith. Thanks be to God.

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