Glynn Cardy 3rd September 2023
Our first reading today, the calling of Moses, offers us the metaphor of the burning bush – an image Presbyterians have appropriated. There are two types of fires. Firstly there are fires that consume and destroy. They burn until there is nothing left to burn. Then they go out, leaving a charred landscape and death. There are emotions like this fire – anger, drivenness. And some people have gods like this kind of fire – all or nothing, believe or perish, powerful (well, kind of). A real presence that can burn.
But then there is another type of fire. The peat fire in the hearth, that warms the home, cooks the food, dries the clothes, and is dampened down (smoored) at night, ready to be rekindled at dawn. This is the ‘kind fire that does not cease to burn’ as James Baxter said. An enduring fire, that lightens the heart, and settles the soul. There are emotions like this fire – love, compassion. And some people have gods like this kind of fire – gentle, warming, small but consistently there. A real presence that can heal.
I think the question of which fire, which god, Moses met on that day is still an open question.
Last week I began to introduce an important book called “Saving Paradise” by Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker who explain how a suffering Jesus hanging on a cross in order to forgive our sins was not the primary way of understanding salvation for the first ten centuries of the Church’s life. Salvation instead was about seeing, noticing, and then cooperating with the divine presence and energy in and through all planetary life. The seeds of paradise, to abridge Augustine, are hidden within the whole earth and await the light of justice and mercy to bloom.
So, the Eucharist (what we call Communion) was about giving thanks for life, rejoicing in life, and giving life to others. In the offertory procession lots of food and flowers were brought forward. Heaped on tables, the offering represented the community’s shared resources, its common wealth. Flowers were there because beauty is not an add-on. Beauty is at the heart of faith and life.
Red meat and usually wine were not there, probably reflecting a desire not to be misunderstood. For the Eucharist was not akin to Roman animal sacrifice, appeasing the gods with red meant, and wine stimulating joys or anaesthetizing hardships. Rather the Eucharist was a celebration of blessing, of divine life in our midst, a great thanksgiving. Kind of like a weekly harvest festival.
The Eucharist also encapsulated not only a vison of blessing but a vision of service and justice. If we only had the 4th Gospel with its bread and fish feeding miracle and its discourse about Jesus as the Bread of Life, and not the Synoptic tradition of the Last Supper and Paul’s 1 Corthinians 11, we would have a very different understanding of Communion. For the former says you literally bring (like the little boy with his five loaves and two fish), and bless (like Jesus did), and share (as his followers do) with all who are hungry – physically and spiritually. While the latter implies that Communion is a kind of comfort ritual connecting club members with a Jesus who died for them. The former is about publicly feeding the world in order to experience and share the presence of grace. The latter is about privately feeding the elect in order to experience the once-dead-but-now-alive Jesus’s presence.
To quote from Brock and Parker: “The ancient Eucharist was designed to capture the wholeness of beauty and to imprint right relationship to the world. Its design elicited greater capacities for truth, beauty, and goodness in the community, and it guided love to find expression in diverse relationships. The ritual feast initiated people into this world unveiled as paradise.”[i] It wasn’t about saving your soul from sin in order to transport you to an off-the-planet heaven while earth turned into a fiery hell.
Our second reading today, called the Beatitudes, comes from early Jesus groups, and reflects their upside-down understandings. Rather than the rich being blessed, it’s the poor. Rather than the powerful being blessed, it’s the persecuted. Rather than the strong and virile being blessed, it’s the meek and the mourners. When the Beatitudes are spiritualized, as they often are, this upside-down thinking is lost. When they are spiritualized, we all are somehow become poor, are mourning, are persecuted, and the like. And the Beatitudes become largely meaningless.
Yet we puzzle how the poor, persecuted, etcetera, are blessed. What, pray tell, is good about being poor? And what, pray tell, is good about mourning – wouldn’t it have been better for the alive to keep on living? And what, pray tell, is good about meekness when the mighty and greedy walk all over you? And what, pray tell, is good about any persecution?
Well, it’s like suffering. You don’t wish for it, you don’t want, you don’t need it, but it comes. Like a gale out of the South West it flattens you, flattens others you care for, flattens your life as it was, and the memory of it endures. But, despite the hurts, the wounds, some of which persistently endure, you keep on living and find, somehow, amidst the agony, a strength to go on. This is hard to explain. For words are inadequate. But somehow, in time, suffering leaves behind a gift (if you’re brave enough to call it that) of seeing the world differently. A gift of reassessing what matters. Of seeing life differently.
And this perspective of the suffering, this perspective of the vanquished not the victors, of life from below not from above, is the perspective of many in the early Jesus groups. An upside-down, topsy-turvy way of seeing the world.
One of the enduring metaphors of the early Jesus groups, a metaphor which is both a vision and a challenge, was that of a single human body. It was an understanding of themselves as a corporate entity vitally connected with each other. So one person was a fingernail, another a tooth, another a little finger, etcetera. All joined. All in need of each other. All different from each other. A body politic. Together powerful and purposeful, a movement. Separately weak and wasted, vulnerable.
And in their connection with each other in this communal body they understood God to be present. Indeed they called this connected body the Body of Christ. Not a dead body, but an alive body, them.
Later groups, like reflected in the book of Ephesians, corrupted this metaphor by making Christ the head of the body. The one in charge. Whereas the original Pauline metaphor had no hierarchy. The Risen Christ was the corporate whole, known in and through each member, none subservient nor expendable.
When we come to the Eucharist, the body of Christ is a description of all the gathered. And it is in and through all the gathered that God is present. So all the gathered are the host, welcoming, participating, and taking responsibility. A leader or elder or minister is not the host. Those who are given liturgical tasks do them on behalf of all the gathered.
The bread, that is shared and eaten at this Eucharist does not symbolise the dead Jesus, a symbolic crucified corpse who we consume, but rather the bread symbolises the alive communal host Jesus – who is known in and through all the gathered. The bread symbolizes who we as Christians are. This food therefore symbolises the vision and challenge of the Jesus community, to be ‘bread’ to one another, to be ‘bread’ to the whole world’, to bring, bless, break and share the goodness of the earth, the goodness of God, the seeds of which have been here all along awaiting the light of justice and mercy.
Justice and mercy are the real presence of God. The real presence is not scraps of consecrated wafer bread kept in an aumbry with a sanctuary light and brought out by the especially robed, ordained, and authorized for the faithful to bow to and cross themselves. Such pageantry must always point to justice and mercy, where lies the real presence.
And this is the perspective from below, from the vanquished, and those familiar with poverty. Real prayer isn’t talking to an invisible God. Real prayer is doing the work of justice and mercy. Real faith isn’t believing a whole lot of doctrines, formulas, and creeds. Real faith is joining with others in the body to feed the hungry, care for the afflicted, and cast down the mighty. Real communion is not huddling on a Sunday morning with like-minded others. Real communion is giving thanks for and celebrating the beauty, diversity, and interconnection of all things, through all of which God is known and is present, and challenging and empowering each other to do and keep doing works of justice and mercy.
Justice and mercy are the real presence.
[i] P. 158 Brock, RN, Parker RA, “Saving Paradise” 2008.