I wasn’t supposed to preach this until next week, but with the Rocky Fire burning and Highway 20 closed, our priest, Mother Delia, could not make it to church
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
I spent some time as I prepared today’s homily deciding whether or not to talk about our Old Testament reading. If this story could stand on its own along with the story that immediately follows it, in which Elijah experiences God on in sheer silence after the wind, the earthquake, and the fire have passed, I wouldn’t hesitate to weave them into the greater story of our collective lessons for today.
We should all have a ministering angel. There have been times in all of our lives when we could identify with the burned-out Elijah. Wouldn’t it be grand to have an angel to tell us to take care, to offer us sustenance, to kick us in the butt when we’re feeling sorry for ourselves, and urge us to go on a retreat to restore our physical and emotional well-being? But, the back story to all of this is about retribution and revenge, and the commandments of a martial God that orders Elijah to kill his enemies.
Right before Elijah collapses, King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and their god Baal have just duked it out with Elijah and Jehovah. Jezebel has murdered a huge number of Jehovah’s prophets, and eye-for-an-eye, Elijah has just murdered 450 prophets of Baal in return. Ahab says he’s going to seek revenge on Elijah and kill him, so Elijah runs away. When we meet him today, he’s sorely afraid. So, the angel comes, offers Elijah nourishment, and he has a transcendent experience of the nature of God.
I wish the story ended here, but it doesn’t. God now wants Elijah to go back and slaughter most of Samaria, the stronghold of Ahab, leaving only the 7,000 Israelites who have not bowed down to Baal. The story continues and gets bloodier and bloodier. The worshipers of Baal sacrificed children, and a practiced a whole bunch of other nasty, horrible things. Many people today would say that Elijah’s war was just, and perhaps this is where the relevancy for our times, a lesson to meditate on, comes in. Reading this as history, tribal people appear pulled asunder by their differing visions of macho gods, and doesn’t so much of the conflict in the world still feel this way? Reading the story as religion, though, is, at least to me, disturbing.
Surely God wants us discern when we read the Bible. The only choice I can make is to go back to the two small threads that we can gleam that may point toward the cosmic vision Jesus gives us into the nature of God. God as compassion, offering sustenance to our souls, and God who inhabits not the storms and battles, but in the silence spaces we go to recover.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus mentions God’s provision of manna to the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness after the tumult of the Exodus. After the high they must have felt from leaving Egypt and slavery, they begin to doubt that this really is a good thing after all and murmured about their hunger and dissatisfaction. God answers them with the miraculous manifestation of manna, food that sustains them until their generation passes, the space God requires of the Israelites to make a complete separation between their past and their future.
The word manna may have originated from “man hu” which means, “What is it?” The Book of Numbers compares it to bdelium, a gummy resin related to myrrh. There are also speculations that manna was actually secretions called “honeydew” from certain insects that feed on tamarack trees, which to this day seem like frost in the morning and disappear by mid-day, just as manna was described to do. People, in fact, still eat honeydew and consider it a delicacy.
Whatever manna was, a supernatural miracle that God created on a daily basis, or a more natural one in which the Israelites, with God’s guidance, discovered something already in the wilderness that could sustain them, these people were provided for; but for all of its wonder and the good it did, Jesus points out that these people were long dead. Manna did not provide Eternal life.
The “Jews” whom Jesus speaks to, ask not what is it, but who is he? Before we go on, I want to share something I’ve learned that has helped me find peace with the Gospel of John. As beautiful written as it is, as foundational as it to the Christian faith, this gospel has been misused for generations to fuel hatred. The word “Jew” in the Gospel of John has been used to justify antisemitism throughout the history of Christianity, spurning hatred through vilification in passion plays, justifying Jews being forced into medieval ghettos, expulsions from Spain during the early Renaissance, culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust, and lingering resentments and prejudice that still haunt the world today.
But the word used in John was not translated as “Jew” until the 4th century, well after the gospel was written. The original word was closer in meaning to the word Judeans. John’s gospel was written by Jews, and the author contrasts those who challenged Christ as Judeans with the many people from Galilee who may have had a more intuitive understanding of who Jesus really was.
However, to make things a tad more complicated, in this particular scene the word Judean isn’t being literally associated with people from the geographical location; rather it refers to an over-arching world view, one that cast doubt on the fact that Jesus was indeed the incarnation of God. The author cleverly interweaves an allusion to the Jews in the wilderness. These Judeans are “murmuring,” casting doubts and aspersions. They ask, “Isn’t this man the son of Joseph? Don’t we know his mother? How could he claim he came down from Heaven?” These Judean-minded, skeptical, doubting Galileans have a certain intimacy with Jesus’ background.
Since they mention knowing both Joseph and Mary, these may have been some of the same people, maybe relatives and home town people, who tried to throw him off the cliff after he announced his ministry in the synagogue. At best, they are simply not listening, or, more perhaps more duplicity, they are deliberately twisting his words. Jesus actually says that the bread of God comes down from heaven and that he was the bread of life. He says the Father will draw people unto him.
From the cross, Jesus will have the same sort of attractive force, but Jesus threatened the religious establishment, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and many common people who simply could not see past their own preconceived notions. “Anyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me, not that anyone has seen the Father except the one being from God. This one has seen God.” The Greek word for “see” used here is all about impressions of the observer. The word has far more connotations than the simple English word “to see;” it implies “a new heightened perception of reality.” What the author of this gospel implies is that whoever is seeing Jesus, is seeing God. J
esus emphasizes this by saying “Amen, Amen,” translated as “Verily, verily.” This new reality is far beyond a simple acceptance with the mind of doctrine or even an affirmation we may tell ourselves of what we think is true of Jesus, what we believe or don’t believe of the Gospel stories. The original word was actually a verb, best described as “faithing”, a trust beyond words, an whole-hearted embodiment of following Jesus, belief in the life-eternal…in the present tense…life eternal beginning now and going on forever.
The bread that Elijah received from the angel, provided one man the nourishment to change the course of history of the Kingdom of Israel; but after Elijah ate it, it was gone. Manna was likewise a transitory thing. Jesus, though, speaks of his Christ nature that has been a part of Reality from the beginning of time. And how does this Reality change us?
In our short passage today from Ephesians, Paul tells us. We put away our resentments, the duality of our thinking, the separation that occurs because we think there must only be one way, the way our own little Judean ego wants to order the world. We listen and don’t go to war with each other. We bear with each other when we have differences of opinions and ways of seeing; we listen and encourage each other’s “faithings”. We share bread and wine and ask the Holy Spirit to show us what is eternal and true, in the light of Christ that burns in each of us.
I relied extensively on information about our Gospel reading today from (John 6:35, 41-51) John Petty through his blog PR0GRESSIVE INVOLVEMENT. Alethea Eason is a licensed lay minister at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Lakeport, CA To be commercial crass…my young-adult fantasy novel Heron’s Path is free through August 5 on Amazon Kindle.