~ Psalm 84/I Kings 8:22-30/John 6:56-69 ~
These harmonious chords are from one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written: Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place) from Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem.Ever since I first heard it at the age of 18 it has been about my most favorite piece of choral music. It is based on the psalm for this Sunday – Psalm 84. Brahms, who was not a churchgoer, knew how to touch the soul in profoundly spiritual ways. The music evokes the sentiment of the psalm most poignantly, echoing feelings of comfort and longing.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O God of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed, it faints for the courts of God;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars,
O God of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.
This psalm is called a pilgrimage hymn expressing the joy of the pilgrim traveling to Jerusalem, perhaps for the festival of booths. It borders on the mystical as the worshiper describes the great longing to reside in the Temple, in the proximity of God.
Of course, God doesn’t live in a Temple. King Solomon, the builder of the great temple, said as much in his prayer to God at the dedication service of that temple. “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” Regardless, many devout Israelite worshipers came to see Solomon’s Temple as the place where God dwelt. Indeed, many thought that God actually lived in the strange box known as the Ark of the Covenant that now sat in the inner sanctuary of this grand and very costly temple. And, of course, no one actually lived in the temple. But the desire of the devout worshiper to be close to God led to such sentiments: “Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.”
For us here we just might resonate with these words. We are glad to be in God’s house. We are comfortable with the notion that to be in God’s dwelling place is a good thing. Indeed, echoing the words of the psalmist, our souls long for the courts of God. We do feel at home in church; indeed, in this particular church. But for many in our culture that is not true. They do not feel at home in church. To them church is a foreign place. They do not long for this place. Indeed, even those who might have a longing for God in their lives do not look to church as a place to find God. They are more inclined to look to nature for communion with God or merely in the privacy of their own hearts. Coming to church to be with God is not in their experience. For many in our world today they do not see church as home.
How can we, we who do see church as home, communicate with those who don’t? Does our affinity for church get in the way of being able to talk to people who have no affinity for church? Does Jesus have anything to teach us about this? Of course, we already know that this building, as lovely as it is, is not where God lives. God lives in our hearts and in the life of this and many other congregations. The presence of God is in the warp and woof of our relationships. Yet even as we do come together to be the church and celebrate God’s presence with us, we do it in a particular way, in a “church” way. And we are comfortable with these “church” ways. Maybe if we take a look at what Jesus is doing here in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel we can see, in fact, how incredibly uncomfortable his ways were. Maybe that will help us in addressing a world that doesn’t think about church the way we do.
Now, food was a source of tremendous symbolic power in 1st century Israel. How one ate, with whom one ate, what one ate were terribly important issues for any devote and observant Jew. The dietary laws from the Torah and subsequently from the traditions of the elders were very carefully followed. What one put into his mouth was equivalent with what one put into his heart. Eating was not taken lightly at all, symbolically speaking. Everyday people had to deal with the symbolic meaning of eating. Thus, in the gospels it is a constant theme. We will be dealing with the same issues next Sunday.
It is a constant theme in the gospels because Jesus clashed with the established symbolical meaning of eating at every turn. In John’s gospel Jesus is seen as an iconoclast, blasting away at the perceived notions of spirituality and food. And so throughout this sixth chapter of John Jesus has been saying some absolutely crazy things, from a 1st century Jewish perspective. Instead of saying, “make sure you eat the right food in order to be right with God” he says, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Now for us, the abhorrence of such a statement is softened because of the practice of communion. But to those who heard Jesus say these words they would have responded in utter disgust and indignation. First of all Jesus is using terminology that depicts what animals do. Vultures and wild animals eat flesh. Now our text says “those who eat” but grammatically it is really “those who keep on eating” continuously. And the word used here for “eating” primarily means “munching.” So Jesus is saying that those who keep on munching my flesh will have eternal life.
Likewise, Jesus says, “keep on drinking my blood.” How ghoulish is that? Again, for us our understanding of the symbolic act of communion mitigates the ghoulishness of such a thought. But for those in Jesus’ hearing the idea of drinking any blood whatsoever, let alone Jesus’ blood, was absolutely abhorrent. Drinking blood was forbidden by the law, as was even eating meat with blood still in it. Yes, Jesus’ words are quite scandalous. “Keep on munching my flesh and drinking my blood,” he says and you’ll be part of me and I’ll be part of you. Because of these words many turned away. As the disciples themselves said: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
Now for us we have come to understand Jesus words by way of the Eucharist. And so did the disciples known as the community of John understand them. It’s interesting that John’s gospel does not have the story of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper as do all the other gospels. Instead this sixth chapter is John’s dealing with the Eucharist. And in dealing with it this way John highlights the dramatic significance of the act of eating and drinking Christ’s body for those early disciples. To those early disciples the Eucharist meant cutting off all ties with their former religion centered in the temple and joining the community centered in the person of Jesus. To munch on Jesus’ flesh is to make an unequivocal choice to take the risk of openly joining Jesus’ community that lives in the Spirit. To participate in the Eucharist of the community is life-giving, as Jesus said, but paradoxically life-threatening. This open participation might result in being rejected by the Judeans who were persecuting Jesus and by extension the community of Jesus. The symbolism of eating and drinking Jesus couldn’t starker. To those outside the community, Jesus urges cannibalism. Yet in the terms of the community, to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood is synonymous with the words to welcome, accept, receive, and believe into.
To put it another way, according to John’s gospel, God is no longer to be found in the practices and traditions of Judaism. God doesn’t live in the Temple. Rather God is to be found in the person of Jesus. God lives in Jesus. Or as Peter responds to Jesus’ inquiry about whether they, the disciples, will go away with the others, he says: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
And just as importantly Jesus is found in the community of faith. That is John’s whole purpose for telling this dramatic account of Jesus’ declaring himself to be food. For the community of John, participation in that community meant complete separation from the life of Judaism from whence they came. The community of faith follows Jesus by eating and drinking his body and blood in the form of the Eucharist despite the misconceptions of cannibalism those on the outside may have. To the follower of Jesus this community is home. This is where God lives.
This (gesture) is also where God lives. We are where God lives. The life that we live together is God’s home. And I think we know that. We know that God does not live in this building called a church. We are the church. And we feel at home here.
But what I want to have us think about this morning is about those who don’t feel at home here. What does the drama of munching Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood have to say about them? Well I think the times have changed enough since then that the scandalous nature of Jesus’ words don’t have the same effect. Back then, Jesus’ words caused sharp divisions in the culture. Back then, “keep on eating my flesh and drinking my blood” caused scandal and outrage. Today, out there, these same words result in indifference. For us, in here, the body and blood of Christ are words of life. For them, out there, these words are practically irrelevant. In the first century participating in the Eucharist of Christ meant leaving a religious system centered on the temple and openly joining a community centered in a person. It meant being ostracized from the dominant culture and even persecution. For many today the Eucharist of Christ means really nothing at all. There are seemingly no consequences in choosing or not choosing to participate. For many in our world today, even for those who sense they are spiritually homeless, church is not a factor. Church is not home.
The challenge before us is to help those who might be looking for home, to find it here. I believe this means going out there to encounter those who are spiritually homeless. I believe it means engaging them in respectful and meaningful ways; to be able to talk about our faith in ways that are relevant to what is going on in their lives. And it also means inviting them to come home with us; that is, here in the life that is this church. Of course, we would want our home to be a place where they could feel at home. Allowing them to participate fully in the life that is our church. Letting them explore and ask difficult questions and be different than us. Welcoming with open arms all that they are, even if they don’t behave properly, say the right things, or put every thing away like they’re supposed to. And maybe the most significant, demonstrate with our lives (the way we treat each other with respect, they way we respond to disappointments, the way we care for each other) the grace and forgiveness we have experienced in being a disciple of Christ.
We are the dwelling place of God. May it be that people who encounter this dwelling place will, with the psalmist and Brahms, echo these words: “Happy are those who live in your house.” Amen.