holy cross sermon for proper 15 year b august 19 2012

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus said:

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6.51-52)

Interpreters from our tradition have typically expounded today’s Gospel reading as having to do with the mass, with the identity of the consecrated bread and wine with the body and blood of the Lord. That is as it should be. I find it strange that those Christians who most insist on keeping to the “plain meaning” of the Scriptures will jump through no end of figurative and allegorizing hoops to run away from the plain meaning of Jesus’ words here: “my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him…. he who eats me will live because of me.” (John 6.55-57).

And the import of Jesus’ words would be illuminated much more clearly at the Last Supper, where he would take bread and say “This is my body,” and where he would take the cup of wine and say, “This is my blood.” And so the bread and the cup which we take in obedience to the Lord’s command to “do this,” while remembering his suffering and death, is the means by which we eat his body and drink his blood, and so the way that we abide in him and he in us. It constitutes our hope truly to LIVE (v. 57).

“The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (v. 52). We often see in the gospels, and in the reactions of contemporary people to Jesus, an incredulity about him. Jesus himself often calls this incredulity among his interlocutors in the gospels a kind of “agnosticism” – a “not-knowing” him. And this not-knowing him obtains as much among his disciples as it does among his adversaries. For example, Peter denies three times that he “knows Jesus” before the cock crows. And when Philip asks Jesus a particularly ignorant question, Jesus asks, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip?” (John 14.9). By contrast Jesus characterizes the relationship that he has with his followers as one of knowing one another, the way that Jesus and his Father know one another: “…I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father…” (John 10.14-15).

In recent times, our ability to know things and people has been called seriously into question – along with much else. So-called “postmodern” thinkers have noticed that there is a dynamism to selfhood and to the “is-ness” of things, such that it can seem impossible for our knowledge to get a hold of them. This applies even to ourselves. The great jazz musician Charlie Mingus once said, “When I play, I’m trying to play the truth of who I am. The problem is that I’m changing all the time,” (quoted by NT Wright in “Paul in Fresh Perspective”). And it most certainly applies to our knowledge of other people. In a poem by Stephen Sandy (“Dealing (1928)”), the speaker tries to remember his father:

In the photo of my father dealing cards

five of him stare down at each other. They

are all the one man. Its done with mirrors.

I might have known the one, but which semblance

should I have chosen, each with starched collar

dapper moustache, and the same hand? Each covers

for the others. Whoever they were, if he knew.

A college classmate of Sandy’s wrote of this poem:

See how the question, Who was my father? echoes down the poem, down to the last line, and then, all at once, without warning, we are hit with a new and troubling thought: Maybe he didn’t know, himself. We are unsettled, for Steve, for his father, and for our own paltry knowledge of who our own parents really were.

The Enlightenment made much of our knowledge of people and of things. And this privileging of knowledge made possible huge advances in scientific discovery and scholarship more broadly. But the same impulse to thorough scrutiny that used to lead us to new insights and fresh perspectives is now as often used for exhaustive critique, dissection, and deconstruction, undermining the very possibility of objective knowledge.

One of the most alarming implications of this state of affairs is its seeming also to call into question the possibility of love – for how can you really love one whom you do not really know? Jesus foresaw this end of love at the end of time: in Matthew’s gospel Jesus says that in the last days, “most men’s love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved,” (Matthew 24.12-13). But here we, as his disciples, are well-placed to respond confidently that the world’s anxiety on this score comes from its having gotten things backward. It is love that undergirds knowledge, not the other way around. Indeed only love can make true knowledge possible.

We see this in the mystery of creation. Why did God call anything into being except because his measureless love boiled over (Meister Eckhart), seeking the very being, the is-ness, of a creation that God already loved “before” it was. And this is true not just of creation taken as a whole, but of each of us as well. The reason each of us is here at all, the reason that we exist, is because God “first loved us” (1 John 4.19).

The stability of individual selves, and therefore the possibility of authentic knowledge, emerges out of antecedent love. Notice that this is the pattern in the reading from 1 Kings. It begins by saying that “Solomon loved the Lord,” and the gift of an “understanding mind” for which Solomon is famous, was given to him in virtue of this antecedent love. Love precedes knowledge and makes it possible.

This applies as much to our dealings with God as it does to our dealings with one another. If you would know God, first love God. And remember what Jesus says about love: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” If the Lord feels like a distant and obscure reality in your life, take what he has said seriously: walk for awhile in the love of God, earnestly trying to obey him, and see if your knowledge of him does not deepen and grow more intimate in the process.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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