Archive for November, 2016

JOHN 6:51-58

51 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.”

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.58 This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”

The psychologist Sigmund Freud proposed the theory that primitive religion was inspired out of the Oedipal urges of boys for their mothers, the satisfaction of which urges was frustrated initially by the presence of the father. When at last the frenzy of their lust overtook them, the gang of young males conspired to kill their father, and, if that’s not reaching far enough, consumed him in what later became modified into the ritual meal of our Christian Eucharist.

While the theory has not solid evidence to support it, we can see in it an imaginative attempt to explain certain rituals that were found among the so-called mystery religions that flourished just before and during the rise of Christianity. Texts have been found of litanies speaking about group members ‘eating the flesh and drinking the blood’ of their cult founder, thereby assimilating his very essence into themselves. Again, there is no evidence that actual cannibalistic consumption was performed, and the strong suggestion is that this language was symbolic of something intended to occur within the hearts and minds of the disciple community.

If we can allow for the possibility that early Christianity incorporated and reflected some of what was going on in the surrounding culture, then the invitation of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel to ‘eat my flesh and drink my blood’ may (if we look through the literal image) carry a profound meaning. What Jesus is saying is that eternal life – liberated, abundant, authentic life – is on offer for anyone who is willing to receive completely and with full commitment all that he is and stands for.

JOHN 6:51-58

51 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.”

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.58 This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”

The Christian sacrament of Eucharist or communion has its origins in the practice of Jesus, of hosting a simple meal of bread and wine for any and all who accepted his invitation. It is very likely that Jesus took his inspiration from the ancient traditions regarding Wisdom, personified as a woman (Sophia) who spread her table of bread and wine for the earnest seeker of truth (see Proverbs 9:1-6).

Importantly, Wisdom is yet another name for the will of God at work in the creation and governance of the universe. On the social level, her bounty was enjoyed in a life of moral integrity, temperance, and compassion for others. The disciple of Wisdom was promised fulfillment in this life and an honored memory in the generations to come.

The opposite of wisdom in the Bible is foolishness, following the lure of countless temptations and indulging the lower impulses. A fool lacks moral vision and is forever baffled or embittered over life’s apparent meaninglessness. As he moves across the surface from one attraction to the next, his spirit gradually expires.

To eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus sounds grotesque and repulsive to us, but when we see the symbolism – blood=wine=joy; flesh=bread=sustenance – Jesus as Wisdom (his principal identity in the Fourth Gospel) is inviting us to make him and his way our life’s devotional purpose.

EPHESIANS 5:15-20

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit,19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 20 always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

There must have been a problem with drinking in the Ephesian congregation, seeing as how the author singles out this vice from among all the others. ‘Don’t get drunk with wine … but be filled with the Spirit,’ he admonishes. There is something about drunkenness, and about addiction in general, that makes it stand out in the list of harmful behaviors. Research into the so-called diseases of addiction has revealed that the ‘cure’ lies less in successfully breaking the habit, than in recovering a deep faith in reality as a whole – or perhaps discovering that faith for the first time.

What the addict first found in the seductive power of the addictive material was an experience of rush, exhilaration, and release from their usual inhibitions. The person psychology of the addict is characterized by high levels of anxiety, abnormally high in many cases but not in every case. In their attempts to cope with or defend themselves against this paralyzing insecurity, these individuals become as it were tense and ‘clenched’, emotionally as well as physically, which is typically displayed in nervous and compulsive behaviors. Use or performance of the addictive material releases the tension, opens up the constricted channels of energy, and makes the user feel free and alive.

Underlying the addiction itself, then, is an issue of spiritual concern. Anxiety arises when we feel isolated and estranged from the ‘will of God’ – or, in other words, from the deeper principles and gracious support of a holy presence.

EPHESIANS 5:15-20

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit,19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 20 always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

‘Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.’ Wise people therefore are careful people – or, remembering the psalmist’s proverb, who live their lives in the ‘fear of the Lord.’ Again, this does not mean that the wise are anxious or scared, or that they are afraid of what God will do to them if they should displease Him. To be full of care is the opposite of being indifferent or negligent or reckless. It is rather to be concerned, responsible, and deliberate in the choices we make and how we live.

The wise men and women of every generation are those who have sought the eternal and universal truths in life, and who seek to put their own lives in accord with the deeper principles that guide and govern all things. In the language of the Bible, these deeper principles are referred to as the ‘will of God’ – not some fickle and changing impulse in the divine life, but the current of destiny and fulfillment underlying, animating, and carrying forward the grand adventure of existence itself.

Our human sense or perception of that deeper force of God’s will is what stands behind the constant arrival of best-selling titles on the seven habits of this, the ten laws of that, and the four agreements that will improve our odds for success and happiness in life. Beneath the particular prescription of a given author, in other words, is an awareness open to everyone – that life is most meaningful and rewarding when we find a focus, keep our balance, and direct our energies to the things that truly matter.

PSALM 111

Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
    in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Great are the works of the Lord,
    studied by all who have pleasure in them.
Full of honor and majesty is his work,
    and his righteousness endures for ever.
He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered;
    the Lord is gracious and merciful.
He provides food for those who fear him;
    he is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works,
    in giving them the heritage of the nations.
The works of his hands are faithful and just;
    all his precepts are trustworthy,
they are established for ever and ever,
    to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
He sent redemption to his people;
    he has commanded his covenant for ever.
    Holy and terrible is his name!
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    a good understanding have all those who practice it.
    His praise endures for ever!

The ‘fear of the Lord’ near the end of this poem of praise to God is not about being afraid of God, unless we are willing to expand the notion to include the kind of respect and cautious attention we give to things in life that are dangerous enough to do us in, should we lose our focus or balance. Driving a car, for instance, requires what we might call a ‘fear of the road’, which means that it is wise to have the big picture, follow the law, and drive defensively if you want to reach your destination in safety.

Before the religions of modernity domesticated the Holy and began to enclose the divine inside inerrant scriptures and dogmatic orthodoxies, God was revered as the origin and end of all things, the deepest source and highest reality, encompassing yet involved energetically in the world of time. The ‘will of God’ was more than a reference to the ethical commandments; it was thought to be the providential power moving all of creation to its fulfillment.

If you want to come into the fulfillment of your own life, then you need to put yourself into alignment with God’s will. Be careful though, because if you thoughtlessly stumble off the path or intentionally leave it in pursuit of your own glory, you are likely to end up in a ditch. When you respect your place in the order of things and look for the signals of God’s will in your life, you will be given true understanding.

1 KINGS 2:10-12; 3:3-14

10 Then David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David. 11 And the time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. 12 So Solomon sat upon the throne of David his father; and his kingdom was firmly established.

Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father; only, he sacrificed and burnt incense at the high places. And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings upon that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said, “Thou hast shown great and steadfast love to thy servant David my father, because he walked before thee in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward thee; and thou hast kept for him this great and steadfast love, and hast given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.And thy servant is in the midst of thy people whom thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude. Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people?”

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. 14 And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”

Solomon’s choice of wisdom from among all the things he might have preferred provides us with yet another moral lesson. His particular station in life, serving as his father’s successor to the throne of Israel, set upon him the special obligation of being responsible for the governance of his people.

While the self-indulgent side of Solomon might have rather had riches and power, the other side of him, the side that humbly acknowledged his own inadequacy and dependency on God in the face of such a daunting task, admitted him need for a wisdom far beyond his years.

In fact, wisdom as a virtue is not the same as having expertise in a given field. It is not so much about the expanse of one’s knowledge or the focus of one’s specialization. You can have all the information at your fingertips, but if you can’t discern what is the right thing to do in a critical moment of decision, your knowledge is practically useless.

Wisdom, then, is about the application of what we know to the situations of life, guided and inspired by the moral values we hold in highest regard. Our values, and ultimately what we value most deeply, steer our decisions along the path of the greatest good.

1 KINGS 2:10-12; 3:3-14

10 Then David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David. 11 And the time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. 12 So Solomon sat upon the throne of David his father; and his kingdom was firmly established.

Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father; only, he sacrificed and burnt incense at the high places. And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings upon that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said, “Thou hast shown great and steadfast love to thy servant David my father, because he walked before thee in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward thee; and thou hast kept for him this great and steadfast love, and hast given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.And thy servant is in the midst of thy people whom thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude. Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people?”

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. 14 And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”

Talk about hitting the jackpot! The young King Solomon asked only for wisdom, and was granted wealth, honor, and the prospect of a long life as well. Solomon’s name is derived from the root-word meaning “peace,” and his reign from the throne of Israel was indeed the most peaceful on record. This particular version of the “Three Wishes” that is common in the folk traditions of world cultures is intended to help the reader, and not just Solomon, sift through our mixture of urges and desires for that one thing (or three) we hold in the highest priority.

In most all of the stories the world round, wisdom does in fact top the list, with honor next in descending order, followed by wealth and personal gain, with pleasure at the bottom. There is obvious wisdom in such a hierarchy of life aims, and so it’s perfectly understandable that wisdom itself should be the highest of them all.

We would do well to pause for a moment and consider what our personal hierarchy of life aims would be, or is. Is our value system centered on hedonism, or the experience of pleasure? Or is it centered on capitalism and the accumulation of wealth? Perhaps our values turn around a life focused on moral achievement and social acclaim, what we might name heroism. Finally (staying with the list of four) do our aims in life orient around a deeper wisdom of how our lives fit within the greater whole?

Hedonism, capitalism, heroism, and holism: where are you?

JOHN 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 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.”

Jesus was perceived as a threat to theological security by those who had anchored themselves inside the fortress of religious literalism. It may be helpful to define more carefully what we mean by this term. There is a time in psychological development when the stories of scripture and tradition are not so much interpreted as simply accepted as descriptions of the way things are, were, or will be. This is the period that James Fowler names the “mythic-literal” stage of faith.

A child must not be faulted or criticized for taking the stories literally. At this stage the imagination is just coming alive and the dividing membrane between fantasy and reality is magically flexible and porous. Religious and cultural narratives are implanting the young mind with the information, moral values, and world perspective deemed necessary to live functionally as a member of the tribe. Most importantly, they are shaping the developing personality around deep principles and universal truths.

Sometime in early adolescence the capacity for symbolic thinking is awakened, and the stories that were taken literally in childhood begin to open up to new insights and discoveries. Narrative portraits of God, for instance, can now be appreciated more as metaphors than literal descriptions, and the reality they name can be more readily acknowledged for the genuine mystery it is. It is possible at this stage for the individual to grasp and entertain such notions as ground of being, universal spirit and unconditional love in his or her contemplation of the divine mystery.

It is possible, we need to emphasize, because it is precisely at this developmental moment, on the threshold of a breakthrough to higher awareness spiritually, that the orthodoxy of anxious and dogmatic leaders slams shut the window and pulls down the shade. This is where religious literalism takes hold: It’s this way, and only this way.

Jesus was a threat to such literalism because in his teaching, his parables, his manner and his very person, he mediated a mystery that no theology can manage or contain.

JOHN 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 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.”

Once again, the writer of the Fourth Gospel is exposing our human habit of taking things too literally. From the Christian mystical perspective, existence itself points as a sign to the divine transcendent reality energizing and upholding all things.The material universe is radiant with the glory of God, the revealed Law declares God’s deeper intention for the human being in community, and Jesus embodies in flesh and personality l’amour che muove il sole e l’altre stelle, as the poet Dante says: the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

The problem lies with the blinders of our fixed habits of mind, deep cultural assumptions, and the dogmatic orthodoxies of religion. These obscure our spiritual vision and would tie our attention to the pointing finger rather than the moon to which the finger points.

When Jesus identified himself as the bread of life come down from heaven, his benighted audience could think only in terms of what they knew – common table bread and ordinary family origins. But perhaps we let them off the hook too easily when we make it out to be mere a matter of ignorance. Frequently, in those who strongly reject the notion of a Truth higher than their own familiar traditions and orthodox belief systems, there is a corresponding deeper fear of losing their grip on what provides them some measure of certainty, comfort, and control.

EPHESIANS 4:25-5:2

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

What does it mean to be an ‘imitator’ of God? Well, it all depends on whose concept of God you are consulting. In ancient imperial societies where military sovereignty was all the rage, the patron deity of a people was typically imaged as a dread warrior and blood-drunk tyrant. Even after the revolution initiated by Jesus, the so-called Christian civilization that ensued still represented God conceptually in terms of vengeance for sin, condemnation of outsiders and heretics, and justified violence against unbelievers.

If that’s your concept of God, then imitating him is merely a matter of carrying this divine wrath and aggression into the affairs of your daily life. How should you handle the person who has done you wrong? Take God as your model: He couldn’t be appeased until finally His own son was killed and his blood offered up for divine satisfaction. (You may find this language offensive, but that is the prevailing theory in Christian orthodoxy today.)

Jesus revealed God in a new way, not as vindictive and hard to please but as gracious and forgiving. He found this view of God so compelling and inspiring, in fact, that he gave every ounce of his energy and his very last drop of blood in pursuit of its realization in the midst of our dark and violent world. One who is truly a disciple of Jesus is thus also an imitator of the God revealed in his gospel and life. We can forgive others freely, repeatedly, and without conditions because we have been forgiven in the same radical way by God.