Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Isn’t it interesting that when we are called to imitate God (Ephesians 4:30-5:2) most of us think of behaving like God does as requiring some awesome feat of power. Elijah in our present story (1 Kings 19:4-8) had just been very pro-active in the slaughter of the 450 prophets of Baal; a piece of trickery by which he convinced people to turn back to the God of the Jews. Knowing through observation the likely time for the occurrence of violent thunder storms, he was able to convince his followers that ‘God was on their side’. Faced however with the threatened revenge of Queen Jezebel, he was far less sanguine. He ran away and asked God to let him die. So preoccupied was he with his own schemes, that he failed to notice God’s help in his need. God’s ‘angel’ provided food and drink, and it was only on the second occurrence of this provision that he noticed and acted upon it. In so doing it becomes clear that he has allied himself to the great deliverance moment of Israel’s story, the Exodus, for he travels 40 days and nights to Mount Horeb. Now the Exodus story speaks of 40 years in the wilderness, a period in which the travellers got to know God, and Mount Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, so we can understand Elijah’s trip also as one of education and learning. One, like Israel’s, with its many ups and downs.
I notice also that in Ephesians it is the little things, things we just take for granted as a normal part of daily life, that we are called to work on so as not to grieve God’s Holy Spirit. Grudges, loss of temper, shouting at others or derogatory remarks against those we do not like, and spitefulness. Paul thinks that such common little faults destroy us and our relationship with God, and the antidote, our putting on the new man or the new nature formed in Christ, is something so obvious as to bypass our imagination, fixed as it is on the superhuman and the impossibly great things we think will win us eternal life. “Be friends with one another, and kind, forgiving each other as readily as God forgave you in Christ.” It is an awesome message isn’t it?
Just recently we watched a DVD called ‘In Darkness’, about Polish Jews who hid for 14 months in the sewers of their city to escape the Nazis. The Catholic Pole who enabled them to survive initially did this to make money; he charged them for their food and help every week. He was neither a particularly good man nor especially bad, just a common fellow on the look-out for a fast buck. But as time went on and he had rescued their hidden jewels and converted them into cash and this money too was spent, the day came when the leader told him they had no more money. Unwilling to lose his image as a hard man, our unlikely hero gave the leader the cash each week so that he could be seen to hand it over. When the Russians liberated Poland he suddenly realised how proud he was of ‘his Jews’, for they had become his, his salvation project. What started as something dirty and venial had become a vehicle of grace.
In our Gospel (John 6:41-51) we find Jesus striving to teach the Jews (those in Judaism who were his enemies) that he was uniquely sent from God. Just as our reading from the book of the Kings had appealed to the Moses/Exodus epic, so too Jesus reminds his enemies that God has revealed himself and taught them through his prophets, men inspired by God and loyal to him, people who despite their faults were attuned to his teaching, and he insists that he too is part of this great unveiling of the divine. What was promised by those prophets has been fulfilled in himself. “Not that anybody has seen the Father, except the one who comes from God; he has seen the Father.” Not that this is presumption on his part, but that this is the Father’s manner of acting, just as he had previously worked in Moses and the prophets. His appeal to them relies precisely in their coming to see that the Moses/Exodus epic was but the start of the journey, a journey which continued and progressed through Israel’s prophets, and that he is the end point to which all those previous revelations of the divine were leading. Just as the bread given in the wilderness was not an end in itself; just as the baked scone given to Elijah twice was not the end but given to lead him onwards, so the bread which Jesus gave in feeding the 5,000 was not principally about food for the here and now, but a pointer to the giver, to God’s ultimate presence in Jesus. The tragedy for ‘the Jews’ was that they could not see beyond the ‘sign’, and in particular they could not contemplate doing so because they already knew Jesus’ common earthly origins – or so they thought.
Jesus labours to get them to see that the Exodus story was but the beginning, even just a metaphor, for their far greater journey to God himself. “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh (sarx) for the life of the world.” The bread was and always is God’s great metaphor for himself, handed-over, crucified, smashed to bits in Jesus for the world he created in love, and loves to the end. It is the extraordinary story of God’s love, God’s being. Not the testosterone fuelled imagery to which we are so addicted, but God’s autobiography: “Try, then, to imitate God, as children of his that he loves, and follow Christ by loving as he loved you, giving himself up in our place as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God.”