Consider how you would answer the following questions:
Who are the five wealthiest people in the world?
On what date did the Berlin Wall come down?
Who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine?
A few of us might be able to pull some of these answers from the breadth of general knowledge that we have. Most of us, however, would immediately begin itching to pull out the Blackberry or head for the nearest keyboard and search engine. We know that whatever we need to know can be found in only a few seconds.
We are awash in a sea of facts and can access information through ever-multiplying technologies, but how do we distinguish what is important and what is only “interesting?”
Now, consider these questions:
Who was your favorite teacher?
Where did you learn to drive?
Who were your best friends in grade school?
Those answers are easier, because they are part of our lives. Our experiences stay with us. They are the framework of who we are and who we are becoming. Experiences can lead to wisdom.
Knowledge is different from wisdom. Knowledge is concerned with facts, information, data. Wisdom has less to do with facts and more to do with having a sense of what really matters. It involves integrating our experiences into the persons we are becoming—seeing ourselves as finite, but as part of a greater whole, seeing ourselves as only human, yet part of humanity, understanding a portion of “the big picture”—this is the beginning of wisdom.
The ancient Hebrews honored Divine Wisdom, personifying her as a female figure. Lady Wisdom was present with God from the beginning—even before the earth was created. Wisdom is the reflection of the eternal light of God who is to teach people about God, tell the truth, and lead people to life.
“Wisdom sets her table… and calls, “You
that are simple, turn in here! …Come, eat of my bread and drink
of the wine I have mixed…. live, and walk in the way of
The person of Lady Wisdom resonates in the today’s reading from John’s gospel, for one of the writer’s themes is that Jesus is the incarnation, the culmination of divine Wisdom (Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the Gospel of John, p. 263). The first chapter of John introduces the idea:
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with
God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him…
What has come into being in him was life.”
References to Jesus as the personification of Light, Life, and Wisdom float in and out of John’s gospel, which makes Jesus’ statements in the reading today the more shockingly unwise.
For four weeks the lectionary readings have deliberately led us through the sixth chapter of the fourth Gospel. We began with the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 with only five loaves and two fish. The next week we found some of those 5,000 people asking Jesus asking for more bread, more miracles, just MORE! And then, last week Jesus announced to the crowd that he is the bread that gives eternal life.
This week, Jesus goes over the top:
“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….Very truly, I tell
you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you
have no life in you.”
Some years ago, I was attending a parish church that included many small children, and this was the reading for the day. As the priest read the Gospel and dramatically paused for reflection, a very loud, very young voice rang out: “YUCK! Mommy, I don’t care if it’s church, I’m NOT going to eat that!” Who doesn’t instinctively cringe at these words, even if we don’t dare voice our reaction so openly?
The feelings of the crowd would have been even more intense. Not only did the cannibalism reference horrify the hearers, but the idea of drinking blood was explicitly forbidden in Torah. In Genesis, after the flood, God tells Noah, “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Blood and life were synonymous, and the Israelites understood that life belongs to God; it is not for human consumption.
Why then would Jesus be so offensive as to direct us to eat his flesh and drink his blood? At best, it’s foolish and certainly not the way to win disciples and influence religious leaders. It’s way outside normal human experience.
And then Jesus goes further:
“…my flesh is true food and my blood is true
drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in
them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the
Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
For centuries, these words have been analyzed and interpreted, debated and discussed by fathers and mothers of the church, bishops, theologians, professors, and preachers. There are multiple layers of inference, symbolism, and implications in this passage. Perhaps the wisest course is to hold the many layers of meaning together in our hearts and minds.
The Eucharistic symbolism is clear. We speak of the body and blood of Christ as we partake of bread and wine. The Gospel of John, unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, has no story of Jesus taking bread and wine and telling the disciples to remember his sacrifice and love for them as they eat bread and drink wine together. The passage today is as close as the writer of John’s gospel gets to a Eucharistic description.
Or, perhaps, Jesus is telling us here that an intellectual acceptance of his teachings, a nod of the head to Christ’s wisdom is not sufficient. God, as revealed through Jesus, seeks a total relationship with us, a flesh-and-blood faith that is incorporated into who we are and what we do.
God desires to become part of us, to abide with us—to be integrated in us, to expand our ideas of who we are and how we experience the world. We cannot have that kind of relationship with God, that kind of experience, without being eternally transformed.
Many of us have seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire—and if you have not, I recommend it to you. The movie begins as Jamal, a poor, uneducated young man from the slums of Mumbai, is only a question away from winning the astounding sum of 20 million rupees on a TV game show. He has reached this point by answering an astounding series of difficult questions correctly. The police are brutally questioning him, trying to determine how he was able to cheat the system, because they cannot believe that a “slumdog” could know the answers honestly. As Jamal tells his story to the police, we come to understand that each question’s answer had been part of a significant experience in his life. He knew the answers because the experiences were incorporated into the person he had become.
It is wise for us to remember that the full revelation of God is not found in a body of knowledge, or a set of doctrines, or in church policy, or in a creed. The full revelation of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ: a person of complexity, a person who experienced joy and grief, frustration and friendship, compassion and betrayal; a person who still seeks our friendship.
We are challenged to incorporate our faith, our relationship with God into our very being. We are challenged then to become God’s flesh and blood in the world, doing God’s work each day: feeding the hungry, comforting the distressed, forgiving others and ourselves, loving our enemies, seeking and serving Christ in all persons.
The table will soon be set. Hear the call from the highest places in the town: Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine. Come, experience God revealed in Christ. Let this experience become part of you and who you are becoming.