Tag Archives: flesh

Status – or Grace?

There is a comment on the gospel for Lent 5c here.

What is your standing? Or I might ask, What is your status? Are you important? Are you good? Should people take notice of you? Perhaps its not the sort of question we ask very often – at least, not as bluntly as that. Yet some people do seem to be more important than others, and we all have some idea why we might matter.

It’s significant when we look at our 2nd lesson (Philippians 3:4-14), part of Paul’s letter to a church he was fond of, at Philippi in Greece. While he was on good terms with the church and its leaders, it seems there were other teachers – perhaps travelling ones – wanting to insist that Christians lived fully as Jews, and kept the Old Testament law.

Paul gets quite worked up about it. He, of all people, could claim importance in traditional Jewish terms:
no adult convert, he had been born into Jewish faith, a member of a significant family. More than that, he had kept the tradition in its strictest form, as a Pharisee, and even worked against the Church in his enthusiasm.

But see what he says “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ”.

What makes Paul important? Why should people take notice? Nothing about his background, nor his life achievements. He uses that phrase “confidence in the flesh” – not literally his medical status, but the human point of view, the one which rates people as “important” or “not worth the time of day”. He will have no compromise with these “teachers” who want to boast of their lifelong achievement in Jewish good behaviour. Nor will he let the Christians in Philippi adopt this way of thinking.

What does he say? “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” Paul knows that his hope of heaven does not rest on his record of good behaviour, but on forgiveness won by Christ, and on grace – God’s gift. That is so important he will not compromise, or let any forget it.

He goes on to talk about persistence. “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”. There should be changes in our lives for the better – but the transformation we have to allow, and continue to allow, is by God’s power through the Holy Spirit. It is not an achievement we can boast of.

I don’t know how you think about yourself, or other members of your community. I do know that Christian faith offers a big challenge to the way most people think. For Christians, lots of achievements others rank highly are really not that important, while faith, and a life of obedient service are vital. The Holy Spirit should be seen working on improving us, but that’s God’s achievement, not ours to boast about.
I wonder what the Philippians made of it all. I wonder if it makes sense to you, and whether you will be able to keep it in mind.

Being part of one another.

What does Jesus mean when he says, “ I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever.” (the first verse of this week’s extract from John 6 – John 6:51-58).  It is obviously important (and, incidentally, one of the sayings that mean you can’t just take Jesus as a wise teacher. This is either a madman, or someone – really important!)

It doesn’t help that Christian tradition has divided into 2 very different ways. Some take this, admitting it has something to do with the eucharist / communion, as little more than a visual aid. Jesus tells us we ought to eat together, and this is a picture of fellowship and a reminder of the story of the Last Supper, which leads on to his sacrificial death.

On the other hand, others will give almost magical significance to the bread of communion, seeing it as the guarantee of Jesus’ presence in power, and the celebration of the eucharist as the answer to all problems, and the only real way to worship. And rather than just scratch our heads, we ought to go back to the text and see what Jesus is saying and John recording for us:

6:49 “Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died.
6:50 But the bread that comes down from heaven is of such a kind that whoever eats it will not die.”

On the way out of Egypt, the Israelites learnt to rely on God, who gave them manna to eat. The crowd who enjoyed the feeding of the 5,000 know that story, but Jesus wants them to look beyond a free lunch. What else is available? Life – real, lasting, quality life. But how is it to be had? (Their big question, and ours!). The answer is not complicated, though some will not see it.

It is neither just a question of how you think and form your opinions. Nor is it a matter of doing the right rituals. It is – Jesus. He will be / has been the sacrifice. We will live if we feed on him. But how? Some of the crowd seem to suspect cannibalism, or at least a very un-Jewish drinking of blood. It is symbolism – but more, sacrament (“the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”).

We feed on Jesus as we hear, understand, and put into practice his teaching. We feed on Jesus as we come, perhaps tired, or preoccupied, or doubtful, and make ourselves a part of his people, his body. We feed on Jesus when we do what we think he wants, or directs us to.  It means we recognise our need of him, and asking for his help, become committed to learning and following.

We feed together in the service we call “eucharist” (thanksgiving), (or “Holy Communion”, “Lord’s Supper”, “Mass”, “Liturgy”, “Breaking of Bread”). Publicly gathering and admitting our need to be fed, strengthened, livened up. Tiny quantities of bread and wine; eaten, absorbed, becoming part of us. We are no longer independent, our own masters. It is not the physical act of eating that is vital – we remind those “nil by mouth”, the coeliacs and the alcoholics of this. Yet it helps to go and take, with empty hands, in company of others who need Jesus too.

This text is simple, and yet difficult. It makes clear that it is never enough to be impressed and influenced by Jesus. We must make a closer identification, so that he and I are linked, even mixed. On the other hand, the dependence is on God / on Jesus (yes, the two are very close here) – and not on having a priest available, or getting yourself ordained.

It is easy to see how tradition has sometimes distorted the meaning, because the challenge of letting Jesus in so that he becomes part of us, and we of his body, is always great.