For the life of the world

An enfleshed God unites us with the community of all creation and points us to urgent climate action. (Listen.)

There are two kinds of eating, says Jesus; two kinds of food. One, we eat of the created goodness, plants and animals which we rip into with our teeth, and chew and swallow; they are absorbed into us so that we might live. This is the food which perishes. The other, we eat of Christ, ripping in with our teeth, chewing and swallowing. Christ is absorbed into us that we might live beyond simply being alive: this is the food which endures. The first food provides vitamins, minerals, calories, fats; the second, transformation, wholeness, wisdom, healing. The first grants fullness of stomach, here and now; the second, fullness of life in time beyond time. These ways of eating are intimately related: and they point to the care of the whole earth.

For the gospel is all about incarnation. You know chilli con carne, right? That just means chilli beans with carne: meat, flesh. So ‘carne’ means ‘flesh’, and ‘incarnation’ means ‘enfleshment’. It means wrapping meat, muscle, sinew, bone around the Word which was with God, and which was God, and which is the source of all life. Incarnation, enfleshment, is how God chooses to come into the world: and we are told of this at the beginning of John’s gospel. As it says, ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14).

In fact, it’s a pillar of our faith that in the Word made flesh, that is, in Jesus Christ, we encounter the spiritual and the material, the human and the divine, heaven and earth perfectly integrated, perfectly whole; and that when Christ is our meat then we, too, become integrated; we too become members of a world made whole.

It sounds simple enough; but it’s difficult to get. The modern West has a flattened imaginative landscape, and we are all shaped by this. Not many of us expect to encounter Bunjil on our daily walk. Not many of us sing with the whales, or talk with the trees, or make offerings to water spirits. To many in our society, an eagle is just a bird; a sheoak is just a tree; a job is just a job; and the Bible can be explained in flat literal terms without poetry, symbolism, spirit or cultural knowledge. Any mysteries between its pages are ironed out, explained away, or simply ignored.

Paradoxically, when people do get religious, it can all become very ‘spiritual’. Worship becomes an eyes shut private encounter with the divine; while people outside the faith and even within it seem to spend a lot of time sending good vibes and thinking positive thoughts and visualizing themselves as radiant beams of pure energy: too spiritual to chomp on a fried chicken wing or to do a big stinky poo.

What I’m saying is that the modern West is an historically weird, strangely literal society, in which the material and the spiritual are largely divorced. Judaism has prayers for every moment of the day: waking up, washing, eating breakfast and yes, even having a bowel movement. But mainstream Christianity has largely uncoupled faith from the stuff of daily life: and so our experience of reality has become thin.

We can eat bread, and see only bread, and don’t even see that if we’re scrolling on our phone while we’re eating. We rarely sense the life force which germinated the grain; we don’t think about the winds and rain which caressed it; we forget the harvest and the milling and the baking. We forget that grain is given by the one who opens her hand at the right time and satisfies the needs of every living thing (Ps. 145:15-16). Instead, mostly to us it’s just bread.

Similarly, we can drink water, and see only water, and think nothing of it. We gulp it down, blind to the rain which fell in the Otways, running through mountain ash and tree fern, soaking the soil then forming rivulets which fill creeks and finally the river which is our water supply. We forget that water is always the gift of the one who opens the storehouse of the heavens to send rain in due season (Deut. 38:12). Instead, mostly to us it’s just water.

We can follow Jesus, and see only Jesus. We can admire him as a teacher, and tell his stories, and let his suffering become a model for our own. We can love diverse people, even our enemies, and we can reject violence, just as we see him do. But we can be heedless of the spirit which animates his life and triumphs over death; which was breathed into his disciples and into every one of us; and which surges through the world even now. We forget that he is the Word of life enfleshed: heaven and earth reconciled. Mostly, he’s just a storyteller, well worth a listen every now and then.

Friends, Jesus is onto us. He sees this unenchanted world that we live in, so flat, so grey, so lacking in awe and wonder and gratitude, so full of plastic packaged bread and processed chicken nuggets which we gobble down without paying the least scrap of attention; and he’s doing everything in his power to teach us, heal us, even shock us out of this great divorce of spirit and flesh, this separation of people from the rest of creation. He is calling us into the thick reality of incarnation, in which everything in this world is multi-layered, and even the most ordinary things radiate God’s presence.

He’s doing this in John 6. As we heard a few weeks ago, in Jesus’ hands, a small boy’s lunch is turned into abundance. Five loaves and two fish feed a hungry crowd, and the leftovers enable Sabbath rest. Later, Jesus introduces the two forms of eating: the food which perishes, and the food which endures. The bread which feeds only bodies perishes; but he himself is ‘bread’ which endures, as do those who eat of him. In this teaching, the two forms of eating are still somewhat separate: one physical, one spiritual.

But he’s trying to shock us out of our stupor, so then he links the two. He becomes ‘flesh’ that must be devoured as a wild animal tears at its prey; he’s ‘blood’ that must be drunk. He’s a steak cooked rare, dripping with juices, to be bitten, torn, chewed, swallowed, and digested. He’s the marrowbone of life to be sucked clean; he’s to become one with us, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, like the dinner we ate last Thursday. Through this vivid, visceral imagery, Jesus is saying he wants all of us, and he wants all of us to be integrated with all of him; for he came to heal and reconcile all things. Not just our ideas; not just our morals; not just our niceness or our goodness or our Sunday best; but every aspect and every action of our lives.

So if we want to know fullness of life, we can’t simply listen to Jesus’ teaching; we can’t simply agree with his ideas; we can’t even just follow his example, as difficult as that may be. Instead, we must consume him and be consumed by him. Our faith is not an intellectual or even a spiritual exercise divorced from bodies or material things. Instead, as his flesh and blood become one with ours, we are integrated body, mind and spirit with him, with each other, and with the world: we too become whole. For he offers himself as reconciling gift for the world (v 51)—not just for individuals, not just for humans—and so we are integrated into human community, and into the community of all creation.

Last week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a devastating report. Building on previous years’ work, hundreds of scientists across multiple countries examined thousands of research studies; the evidence is irrefutable. Significant warming is unavoidable, and unmistakably the work of human hands. Our way of life and the systems and structures which support it are irreparably damaging the web of life to which we all belong.

The sins of Eden have caught up with us: by which I mean, our refusal as a society to live within God-given limits, our rejection of right relationship with God and land, our warping of the calling to be stewards: for we have chosen instead to dominate. We ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil: then we chose evil; we chose death.

But we are not dead yet. There is still time to limit warming, and every fraction of a degree makes a difference. And the table beckons, and with it, the promise of fullness of life: a promise held in bread, wine, water, and in every living thing. For all life is sign and sacrament of the God who chose enfleshment; the God who continues even now to work through ordinary bodies and material things.

So in a moment we will move to the table, there to contemplate the mystery of incarnation. May loaf and cup, COVID cracker and wine and water, reveal to us Christ’s self-giving love, his flesh and blood given for the life of the world. As we consume them, let us be consumed by them; and may they lead us back to river and rock, field and forest, grain and grape and agriculture, and all that came into being through his infinitely precious Word.

And since Christ has dealt with sin once and for all, healing the disruption of Eden and righting our relationship with God’s good earth, let us again and again reject domination and choose servanthood in our relationship with the earth. Let us turn from lonesomeness to community with the earth, from fragmentation to wholeness with the earth, from isolation to belonging to one another and the earth; and, as we are called, let us keep taking action ‘for the life of the world’ (v 51). For in Eden, in Deuteronomy, and in every moment there are two paths: passivity or action; despair or hope; evil or good; death or life. Let us choose Christ; let us choose life. Our membership in the community of creation demands it. Amen. Ω

Afterword: This led into a congregational conversation around next steps for climate action, following a process of learn-pray-think-act.

Reflect: How could you reduce or seek the reduction of emissions in your household, your local community, your nation, and internationally? Why not invite a small group to join you as you learn, pray, think, and act together for the care of all creation. For resources, see Tearfund. Our pastor contributed to their recent Reset Faith prayer / action series here.

A reflection on John 6:51-58 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 15 August 2021 (Proper 15 Year B) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Karsten Würth on UnsplashWe mention Tearfund because members and friends of Sanctuary have a long history of working for and supporting it.

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