One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother’s bread. Flat round loaves of brown wheat. Out would come the large bread board, wooden bowls especially for the dough to rise in, and of course, the big cast iron stove would be fired up. Later, there they would be—hot, crusty loaves, ready to be broken open. And the smell! You know it; I know it. One of the most compelling aromas in the world — wherever it may be – is that of fresh bread. And the way that the fragrance of warm baked bread draws us to special times and places; so does the fragrant offering of Jesus Christ draw whom it will into relationship and life with God.
On these Sunday’s in August, we’ve been reading from the 6th Chapter of the Gospel of John, from the part of the Gospel known as the Book of Signs. Jesus has fed the multitude, with the bread and fish from one young boy’s lunch. The people have followed after him, ready to make him their king. After all he does appear to have an endless supply of food. They perceive Jesus as the bread giver, and they want more bread. The crowd, for the moment is held captive by the literal interpretation of what they have just experienced. But they are missing the point. Straight away, Jesus addresses their thoughts, their misconceptions, and exposes the truth. “You are looking for me for all the wrong reasons” he tells them.
The religious authorities also don’t get it. They are even more incredulous than before, and as their ancestors in the desert complained, so do they.
“Who does he think he is?” “We know his mother, and father.” “You know, I’ve heard tell . . . “ And, more importantly as they would say back home in Brooklyn — We know where you live.”
How can a person whose name and address are well known claim to be from God? Their response to Jesus is blocked by a common sense logic that takes on the character of certitude. Instead of being open to the divine claim, they judge it by human wisdom. What they know (or think they know) keeps them from the only knowledge and relationship that really matters.
In all their murmuring, they too have missed the point.
This past week the Episcopal Church was again in the headlines. For only 2.5 million of us that seems like a lot of attention, but we seem to have a knack for it. This week history was made with the consent of the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson as Bishop Coadjutor of New Hampshire; and with a compromise resolution which allowed local dioceses to permit the blessing of same-sex unions, even thought the Church itself wasn‘t ready to authorize formal liturgies for the same. Both of these seem quite extraordinary on the face of it. But, if the truth be told, Gene Robinson isn’t the first gay person to be consecrated bishop, and I’m sure he won’t be the last. And same-sex blessing have been taking place in some dioceses with the Bishop’s approval for neigh on 30 years. What was different, what is different today, is that we are telling the truth. Funny, that the truth, which we hold so dear, should cause such controversy. It is unfortunate that these issues should so overshadow the important work of world hunger, poverty at home and abroad, the moral issues surrounding a stance of preemptive strike in matters of war; but if you forgive me the pun—they just aren’t sexy. So while work went on, they passed by unnoticed.
What was noticed however, was the way in which we conducted ourselves at convention. We were prayerful, we were respectful, and we were able to voice our concerns in open and fair dialogue. That hasn’t always been the case. But in trying to live as the writer of Ephesians holds up for us this day we have gone a step further in attempting to live more fully as the body of Christ where no part can say to the other “I need thee not” to quote Richard Hooker.
This is both the joy as well as the challenge for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion for the days and months ahead. There has been much talk of the Episcopal Church abandoning Holy Scripture and separating itself from the Anglican Communion. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the events of the past week, and months, and in fact few hundred years, points to the rather counter-cultural position in which classical Anglicanism finds itself and along with it the Episcopal Church in the United States, with its own special cultural and theological history.
As Bill Countryman, Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of Pacific, has written, “classical Anglicanism did not expect the church to have a detailed and certain knowledge of the mind of God. For doctrine, it was and is content with relatively simple and ancient formulae.” Christ with us, Christ died, Christ risen, Christ will come again. “We focus less on perfect orthodoxy than on maintaining the community of Christ with its life and conversation. We believe that no one will ever possess a complete and detailed account of God’s will, but it is enough that the Spirit will work with us in the unity (not uniformity) of the church to guide us toward truth.
The predominant cultural religion of America is, to use a broad term, that of the Puritians. It expresses itself particularly in a certain way of reading the Bible — a presupposing that the Bible is a well-camouflaged book of rules,” or that as some have said “it is a fax from God.”
Many of us grew up with this very same certitude about the Bible. This is true even among Americans who are not Christian or have no real contact with Christianity itself. It is assumed that this book of rules is the scriptures original norm. “Well, its not. And it’s certainly not the Anglican norm,” says Countryman.
Well, what do we see in scripture? Again, quoting Countryman, “Our classic approach to scripture is to read it not so much for detailed rules as in the context of prayer, expecting that God will encounter us in its pages. We expect not a divine blueprint for life, but a constantly renewed and renewing conversation with God and with one another. The prospect of intimate relationship with God and God’s creation is, for us, the center of the scriptures; and their purpose is that we should hear God calling us into such relationship.” We believe in a complex God who continues to relate in love to a complex world. To deny the complexity of our world is to diminish creation, and to diminish God is to put God into a box. And, surprise, this is what is counter-cultural.
“Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away, for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but he will of him who sent me.” In today’s gospel Jesus tells us that He is the bread which came down from heaven, a bread that satiates not just the short term needs of hunger, but those eternal longings of the soul as well. Jesus, the one from Nazareth, whose mother and father are known, calls us into the most intimate of relationships with him—“he in us, and we in him” — Jesus our food, his flesh our bread. Not only are we invited into relationship with him, we are indeed moved, drawn, compelled into that relationship by God’s very self.
Throughout these texts the Evangelist recognizes the mysterious paradox of believing. On the one hand, invitations are given to which humans can respond. On the other hand, those who respond are drawn by divine power, for nothing else can produce faith. This gift of faith is open and free to all. Who and when God will call is in the hand of God. Just like the fragrance of fresh baked bread draws us back to hearth and home; the holy fragrance of God through Christ draws us into God’s very self.
So what do we do in the coming days ahead; when members of our body are hurting as well as rejoicing. I believe that it is our duty to continue to affirm the diversity of God’s creation. Seeking and serving Christ in all persons; seeing Christ seeking and serving us in people who may seem the most unlikely (at least to us); and in all things being open to the power of the spirit. Like those who gathered with Jesus, we too yearn to be fully known, fully fed, and fully allowed to respond to the power of the spirit in our communities of Faith. Too often we ignore the ministry of our young people, ignore the ministry of the aging, ignore the ministries of those on the fringe; settling instead for ministry which may keep all the rules, but which is hollow and stifling at its heart. I believe that like the disciples of yore, we too yearn for the fullness and wholeness that relationship with God in Christ brings; and this will only happen when we allow the Spirit of God to move in us and through us, in both new wine skins and old.
This week the church affirmed openly and truthfully the diversity of God’s creation. We affirmed that in the power of the Spirit all things are possible. We acknowledged the gifts of faith and ministry that God freely bestows, on those whom God has freely called. And, we are reminded that in scripture one finds the true and living Christ who draws us, one and all, into his love, and who are we to stand in the way?