August 16, 2015, Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost, RCL Year B



Lections:  Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:20-25; John 6:51-56

The challenge of the Methodist is to be perfect.  Indeed, this challenge can be understood as the distinctive contribution Methodists make to the universal Church.  The deification of man, theosis, is a doctrine that originates in the Eastern Church, and was rejected in the West by the Reformers, because of its works emphasis; nonetheless, John Wesley made it a center point of his theology.

In today’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us to be careful how we live.  We are Christians, and we must hold ourselves to a standard that is not shared by unbelievers.  We must be worthy of our calling in worship and in our household, and in our daily walk we must be holy and not fall back into worldly patterns of thinking and behaving.  We are to walk in love and behave as children of the light. Paul gives us three exhortations:  1) We are not to be unwise, but wise; 2) We are not to be foolish, but understanding of what is the will of God; and 3) We are not to get drunk on wine, but be filled with the Spirit.  

When I was in college, which was quite a few years back, we learned in anthropology class the so-called garbage heap hypothesis of how agriculture was discovered.  Seeds were discarded at temporary campsites, along with whatever else no longer had any use value, until people noticed that the discarded seeds would later sprout.  According to this hypothesis, the initial motivation for cultivating the sprouts came not from the desire to make bread, but to make intoxicating drink.

Today, in America, we have a love hate relationship with alcohol.  We watch people ruin their lives, because they would rather drink than do anything else.  We watch people ruin other people’s lives, because when they drink, they get drunk, and when they get drunk, they transgress.  When they’re drunk, people quarrel, they get angry, they fight, they drive their cars into other cars or bicyclists, they sleep around, they vomit, and they black out.

Meanwhile, we like to think its ok for us, after work, at home, to kick back with a beer, or relax over cocktails, have wine at dinner with our spouse and family, get a little high and go early to bed.  What do you think?  Can any indulgence be harmless?  Our lives are not, after all, irreproachable; in fits and starts, they are more or less flawed and tarnished.  Our figures of perfection cohabitate with monsters, sharing the self’s identity.

Sometimes, in the depths of our being, we catch a glimpse of ourselves, looking our very worst.    At such moments our appearance is so thoroughly hideous that we no longer resemble a human being, and we recoil in horror – from ourselves!

How are we to be rescued from this vision?

Debauchery is just as wicked but less widespread than it was in the evil days of the Roman Empire, when it was a common and acceptable public behavior; the Emperor’s circuses, theaters, amphitheaters, and wrestling competitions were spectacles of madness, immodesty, cruelty, and vanity.  When we wake up with bloodshot eyes and a headache after drinking too much the night before, we have perhaps been foolish, but we have most likely not been degenerate.  The modern arenas of debauchery have undergone a facelift, and were we to call them out by name, we would discover that their crowds and revelries have also been sanitized.

Still, we are shadowed by ghastly, ghost-like creatures from the Coliseum, as light is shadowed by the dark, and Wisdom by foolishness.  When we are debauched, we consign ourselves to the death shroud we draw over us.

The mystery of God’s will, which is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph 1:10), is safeguarded by the church.  The churches are to be wise, Paul says, “to make the most of their days.”  A sense of urgency, like a river’s strong current, runs through the churches’ difficulties.

“Before the creation of the world, Paul says, “God chose the church to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph 1:4).  The church is to go off from the world and put foolishness behind it.  Removed from worldly lusts, the church is to be transformed by its joy in the Spirit.  The church is to be clear minded and “filled with the Holy Spirit” “singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs among ourselves…and in our hearts” and giving thanks to God at all times and for everything.  Paul instructs us to replace the selfish desire of habitually becoming intoxicated through excess and self-indulgence with the lasting joy of being filled by the Spirit.  “Men do but vainly flatter themselves, when they seek to reconcile unholy lives with the hopes of future happiness.”[i]

The Wesleys took Paul’s message to heart.  John Wesley organized believers into small groups for holding each other accountable, and John and Charles Wesley wrote and published hymns for singing among the groups.  The Wesleys kept the size of their hymnals small enough to fit in a pocket, so persons could walk carefully.

The joy of being Spirit filled breaks out into heart-felt song, and singing is joined to “giving thanks to God at all times and for everything.”  A thankful person has left the scandal of the world in his dust and is subject to salvation; gratitude is uniquely human, proceeding from a complex of thoughts and feelings that is not naturally developed.  Gratitude is imparted; gratitude moves us away from our personal focus on what we would like to change in the world – and ourselves – along with the pessimism and despair that this focus allows –  and turns our attention to the joys and delight of creation.

“The primary means by which Christians …[as the body of Christ]… offer their thanksgiving to God is the Great Thanksgiving. This is why Christians have gathered at least weekly for most of the history of the church, East and West, not only to hear the word and sing hymns of praise, but also to celebrate at the Table of the Lord.”[ii]  Receiving the very body and blood of Christ each time we celebrate Communion is a source of life and hope.  We rely on the word and promise of God, believing that we are given the grace “to chew upon” the real food of Jesus and drink the real drink of Jesus, and by so doing we abide in him and he in us (John 5:56). “Believe, and thou hast eaten,” Augustine of Hippo says, and Bernard of Clairvaux explains “he who eats my flesh” is the person “who reflects upon my death”.[iii]   We live because Christ raises the dead to life, and we will live into the age to come (John 5:57-58).

The harshness of the communion language, its sense of cannibalism, does not mean we should explain away the literal meaning of what Christ says. John Chrysostom says, “Either [Christ] means to say that the true food was he who saved the soul. Or, he means to assure [the crowd] that what he had said was no mere enigma or parable, but that you must really eat the body of Christ.”  Christ is really present in our midst, as we offer the food and drink to God and pray for the Holy Spirit to be poured out “on us gathered here and on these gifts of bread and wine.” When we pray, “Make them be for us the body of Christ,” we receive what we have asked for, “that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, when we come to the Lord’s Supper, we truly receive the gifts Jesus promises us.  And so we affirm that the bread becomes for us the body of Christ, and the wine becomes for us the blood of Christ. We do not need to insist upon any particular explanation about how this occurs.

When our response to Jesus is to reject the life of the Spirit – and the enabling grace which Christ offers –  we become unable to recognize God’s will for us. The darkness that ensues paralyzes us.  However, “It is only before we act and take the plunge of [belief] that Satan can paralyze us with his lies of fear and self-protection.”[iv]  Once we believe in Jesus, we are subject not to sin but to salvation; our sins are forgiven and we live eternally. Ignatius of Antioch called the communion gift of bread “the medicine of immortality and the the antidote against death.” Irenaeus said, “As the bread that is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly, so also our bodies when we receive the Eucharist are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection.”[v]

The wisdom that is nurtured in us from psalms, hymns, spiritual songs and thanksgiving refines our perception of the Way of Jesus.  As we are first enabled by God’s grace to believe, and then justified through faith by grace, so we are perfected by grace. Sanctification begins with repentance, a change in direction made possible by God’s forgiveness of our sins.  Gratitude is the engine that drives us to do the will of God, and the Lord’s Supper is the rudder that keeps us going in the right direction.  We are refreshed, not by the food and drink of the world, but by the body and blood of Christ, and by co-inhering, he in us and we in him, we discover what it means to be loved and to love. Our salvation finds its fulfillment in the unity of all things, where we are transformed into the likeness of Christ.  Amen.


[i] Origines Sacrae: Or a Rational Account of the Grounds of Natural …, Volume 1

by Edward Stillingflee

[ii] GBOD website

[iii] quoted in F.F. Bruce, The Gospels and Epistles of John, Eerdmans, 1983, p. 159

[iv] Ellen Vaughn, Radical Gratitude, p.95

[v] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, John 1-10, p. 239-40

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