Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Harvest Thanksgiving 2013

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Philippians 4:4-9
John 6:25-35

Our first reading today, from Deuteronomy, is an order of service, rather like the ones we have in our hands this morning. There are things that we say and sing together, prayers, answers and responses. And so there are in Deuteronomy. It is a liturgy which tells a story, calling to mind the history of Israel. It dates from around the 6th Century BC when the worship of the temple in Jerusalem had become quite formal and codified. And it is of course a harvest thanksgiving, which is what we are doing too.
But the harvest thanksgiving in Deuteronomy is in a very specific context. It is not thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth in general, or prayer for all human labour. It is a thanksgiving linked intimately to the land, the ground, the earth. And in Deuteronomy it is specifically the earth of Israel, the land of promise. The land that the Jewish people had entered and settled in after a history of exile and affliction. 
So it is a land of promise, and its fruits are part of God’s providence, the fruits that you enjoy when you are where you truly belong, deeply rooted on your own soil. And that frames the questions in this liturgy. Where did you come from? When did you come here? And the answer is made, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien... The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm... and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”
And this is very much in the background when Jesus teaches the crowds in John’s Gospel, in the reading that we heard just now. But Jesus gives a different perspective. This scene is just after the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus is asked, “When did you come here?”, which sounds a bit like the question from that harvest liturgy in Deuteronomy. But Jesus does not give the old response. Instead he tells them not to work for the food that perishes. 
The food that comes from the land, the earth, even from the land of Israel, it seems is not the most important thing. Because it is food that perishes. Every year, you must sow new seed, reap a new harvest, in order to feed yourself. But even then you are feeding a body which is mortal, formed from the earth, and it too will perish when its time comes. 
No, there is another food, not food that perishes, not earthly, but heavenly, and that is what Jesus has come to bring. That indeed is the meaning of the miracle of the loaves and fishes feeding those thousands of people. It is a sign of something new entering the world, but the crowd can only think in the old way, of the the bread they need for this life that is passing away. The bread that God gives does not come from the earth, from the land, but from heaven. It nourishes for eternal life, the life that God lives.
In the Greek of John’s gospel two different words are used for life, and they mean very different things. Psyche, which for John means the life of the body, earthly life which is passing away, and zoe, which is always used by John of the life which God lives, the life which Jesus brings and gives to his disciples. Now in English those tend to get translated as “life” and “eternal life”. 
The problem with that is that we can think that “eternal life” is just like the life of the body, earthly life, only indefinitely prolonged. But that is not what it means. It is something different altogether, a new kind of life which can only be received “from above”, from God. The life that God lives is life without limit, endlessly rising up from the creator like an inexhaustible spring, always new, and yet always entirely present in the eternal “now”. Not the life of the earth indefinitely prolonged, but the life of the Spirit. And it is this life that Jesus gives.
And yet, we are bodies formed of the earth. How are we to receive this new life? Jesus says, I am the bread of life, the bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world. Eat my flesh, drink my blood, and this will be for you Spirit and life.
These words of Jesus cause scandal and are incomprehensible if seen only from the perspective of earthly life. Eating flesh and drinking blood are revolting from that perspective - signs of death, not of life. But in the life of the Spirit, these words speak of the risen Lord giving himself to us without limit, feeding us without being diminished or consumed, because what he gives is not earthly life, but the life of God.
The Eucharist we celebrate joins the life of the earth with that of the Spirit, raising it to God. Like the incarnation, where mortal human nature was joined to the Divine nature and taken into God. There is nothing more earthy than the stuff we need for the Eucharist. Wheat grown from the soil, watered by the rain, ripened by the sun, then harvested by human labour, ground and baked into bread. Grapes carefully tended, ancient root stocks deep in the earth bearing clusters of sweet fruit, gathered, crushed, fermented, strained, laid down to age and mellow.
In the Eucharist, by the power of the Spirit, this earthy nourishment of our earthy bodies is transformed, filled with the Divine and life-giving presence of Jesus. Beneath the appearances of bread and wine we truly receive the Body and Blood of the Lord, the Bread of Life who comes down from heaven. Through it we are nourished by the Spirit, so that eternal life, the life of God, takes root and grows in us.
Earthly life is good, blessed by God in creation, which is why we must care for the earth, protect its resources, ensure equitable distribution. This is why we must feed the hungry and care for those in need. 
But earthly life is not all there is. In itself it is passing away, bound to death and decay. But it awaits the new creation, when all will be transformed by the indwelling Spirit of God. In the New Testament the harvest of crops is used as a metaphor for the harvest at the end of time, when all will be gathered into God’s Kingdom. 
But it would be a mistake to think of that world as something that will only happen later, after this present life or this present universe has passed away. The life of the Spirit, the life of God’s kingdom, is already present to us now. We glimpse that presence in our hearts and in the world as the Holy Spirit dwells in us and transforms us, opening the gates of our perception. We taste the life of the Kingdom in the Eucharist.
The kingdom of God is present already, growing in secret like a hidden seed buried in the ground of our hearts. Nourished by the bread of heaven and by the life giving water of the Spirit, that seed will grow and bear fruit to eternal life. 
So we give thanks for this earthly harvest, the fruit of human labour, these gifts we offer from the abundance with which God has blessed us, so that our brothers and sisters can eat.
But we also give thanks for the gift of the Spirit, of the Bread come down from heaven which nourishes us to eternal life. We give thanks for the harvest of God’s kingdom, of which these gifts are a sign, which even now is growing in secret, and which will be fully revealed in the life of the world to come.

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