Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Downward Mobility of God

Last month I wrote about the movement referred to as the “new monasticism.”  Central to this movement’s identity are twelve “marks of the new monasticism.”  I think of them as marks of mission: a set of instructions for following Jesus.  They focus on the “doing” of Christianity.  The conviction that the truth of our faith is demonstrated in action underlies these twelve marks.

The first mark is “Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.”[1]  What might this mean?  How is it consistent with following Jesus?

Think of it as an admonition to embrace downward mobility.  We live in a culture that places a premium on the values of Empire:  control, domination, accumulation, and excess; more is better.  The emphasis is on moving out and up: continually relocating ourselves until we are at corporate headquarters, usually in a cosmopolitan city at the center of the networks of Empire.  This is what it means to be successful – to rise above it all. “It all” meaning the deprivation experienced by the vast majority of the earth’s people.

There is a kind of spiritual upward mobility as well.  It sees spiritual progress as an ascent to God, an increasingly blissful disengagement from the material and bodily realities of life and the suffering that accompanies them.  This kind of upward mobility is certainly found with the Christian tradition.  It developed along with the movement of Christianity from being a marginal, oppressed movement within the Roman Empire, to becoming the exclusive religion of the Empire. 

Spiritual “upward mobility” that seeks to escape from the world offers little in the way of critique of the “upward mobility” promoted by Empires old and new.  Upwardly mobile spirituality abandons the world, much as Empires abandon the people and places they exploit for profit.  Jesus invites us to move in a different direction.

It is not we who ascend to God; it is God who descends to meet us in the Incarnation of God’s Son, Jesus.  The downward mobility of God redirects our attention to the abandoned places of Empire where Jesus appears:  not Rome or even Jerusalem, but the backwaters of Galilee.   Jesus teaches his disciples, “Whatever you do to the least of these (the hungry, the sick, the naked, the prisoner), you do to me.”[2]  The resurrected Jesus tells his disciples, “I am going ahead to Galilee – meet me there.”[3] Jesus is found among all the “wrong” people in all the “wrong” places. 

The downward mobility of God was understood well by St. Paul:  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”[4]  Obedience to God places us in opposition to the values of Empire, choosing solidarity with the poor rather than exploiting our privilege. 

The Letter of James is even more pointed, quoting Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount as it warns:  “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor.  Is it not the rich who oppress you?”[5]

Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire recaptures the practice of the primitive church in its embrace of the downward mobility of Jesus.  God is not the cosmic justification of earthly Empires that exploit inequality and reward the few at the expense of the many.  God is instead found in solidarity with suffering humanity and the struggle for justice. 

Solidarity begins with intercessory prayer for the poor and vulnerable.  It moves into relationships of mutual service with people on the margins.  It can mean physical relocation to abandoned neighborhoods and rural areas.  It always means placing our dollars, our energy, our votes, and our bodies on the line so that those abandoned by Empire will know that God never abandons them.

This past summer, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention passed a resolution calling upon its members “to begin every meeting in calendar year 2013, whether at the parish, diocesan, or church-wide level, and no matter what the purpose, with this agenda item: ‘How will what we are doing here affect or involve those living in poverty?’”[6]  This is one small step we can take to redirect our attention toward the abandoned places of Empire, and consider how we will respond to what, and Who, we discover there.

[1] “Empire” is understood here as referring to systems of domination that stand in opposition to God’s desire for the well-being of creation.
[2] Matthew 35:31-46.
[3] Matthew 28:10
[4] Philippians 2:5-8.
[5] James 2:5-6; cf. Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20.
[6] Resolution B008 “Focusing on Those Living in Poverty” accessed at

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Eating Jesus

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 12, 2012
by the Rev. John Kirkley

“Nothing is more practical than 
finding God, than 
falling in Love
 in a quite, final way.
 What you are in love with,
 what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
 It will decide 
what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings,
 how you spend your weekends,
 what you read, whom you know,
 what breaks your heart,
 and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
 Fall in Love, stay in love,
 and it will decide everything.”[1] 

These words, attributed to the Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe, capture the essence of Jesus’ teaching in John chapter six.  It is a very practical teaching about that which determines the quality and direction of our life.  It is an invitation to experience eternal life by falling in love with Jesus in an absolute, final way.  This intimate communion with Jesus, eating his flesh and drinking his blood, gives us a share in God’s own life. 

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me . . . the one who eats this bread will live forever.”[2]

This is a strange and even shocking teaching.  The Jewish authorities were scandalized by it, both for the intimacy with God that Jesus claimed and for the way in which he described sharing it with us:  by having us munch on his flesh like a cow chewing her cud.   The language Jesus uses here is rather graphic.  He meant to offend his interlocutors, purposely switching midway through the conversation from using the standard verb for “to eat” with reference to humans, to using a more vulgar form that connotes an animal munching or gnawing on its food.[3]

What is Jesus up to here?  Why the need to offend?  I think Jesus is pushing his hearers to grasp more deeply what it means to share in God’s life, and how Jesus makes this sharing available to us.  Earlier in John chapter six Jesus invites the crowd to believe in him, to trust him, to embrace the risks and challenges of intimate relationship with him.  He doesn’t want them to simply follow him, or just imitate him, but to participate with him in the very life and love of God.

Now, as the focus of the narrative switches from the crowd to the Jewish authorities, Jesus presses this invitation further.  He invites them to embrace both the light and the shadow revealed when we are vulnerable to love.  He does so by underscoring the sacrificial nature of love, in both its negative and positive dimensions: how love’s vulnerability can nurture and how it can consume. 

Think of it this way.  When we first “fall in love” with someone we see in the other only what we want to see.  We don’t fall in love with the person, but rather with our image of the person.  We idealize them and are drawn to that ideal because of the needs within us that it fulfills.

This pseudo-love, if you will, is really about me.  It isn’t about the other person qua person at all, but rather about what he can provide for me.  This pseudo-love stage is akin to the experience of the crowd following Jesus.  He makes them feel better, he heals them, he feeds them, he is Mr. Wonderful, Mr. Right – “let’s make him our king,” they say. 

They want to give themselves to an ideal that serves them.  To become someone’s king in this way is to actually become their slave; and when you are no longer able to live up to the ideal – which is inevitable – then watch out: it is “off with his head” before you know it.

Jesus’ disciples have moved to a somewhat more mature form of pseudo-love.  They actually try to imitate Jesus.   They want to reflect back to him the good they see in him.  This is a familiar experience for many lovers.  We want to mirror back to the beloved the good qualities that we see in him.  We want to become more like her.  We want to be the ideal for her that she has become for us. 

Here, the projection may at least be mutual, but it remains superficial.  We only want to see the beloved as evoking our good qualities and vice-versa; we aren’t interested in seeing and integrating the shadow side of ourselves.  After a while, trying to be the beloved’s ideal becomes a burden.  It leads to resentment.  Recall that the disciples weren’t really feeling it when Jesus told them to share their food with the hungry crowds.  They resented mimicking a compassion they didn’t feel. 

It is funny how just when we start to resent the “demand” to meet the expectations of others, we begin to notice how little they manage to meet our expectations.  Suddenly, we project our shadow side on to them and notice very clearly in them the very failings we fail to acknowledge in ourselves (but that they manage to see without any trouble).  Who does he think he is?  What makes her think she is so special?

It is here that we find the religious authorities in relationship to Jesus.  The Jesus idealized by the crowed and mildly resented by the disciples is treated with contempt by the religious authorities.  For them, his invitation to trust, to intimate relationship, feels like a threat.  They fear vulnerability and what it might reveal about them, so they harden their hearts against the very thing that could open them to love.  They are unwilling to embrace a mature love that allows them to see themselves whole, shadow side and all.

Mature love moves through and beyond these idealizations, projections, resentments, and fears to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of the beloved.  We are no longer interested in making them our king or imitating them, but instead become willing to internalize their perspective and thereby expand our conscious awareness. 

We allow the beloved to enter into our subjectivity if you will, creating a kind of mutual indwelling or coinherence.  We begin to think and feel with the other from the inside out, while maintaining our own personal integrity.  Such vulnerability can be painful.  We don’t always like what we discover about the other or about ourselves.  And it can be risky.  The knowledge gained can be used against us:  those who know us best can hurt us worst.  And it can be healing:  allowing us to live a more aware, integrated life with a greater capacity for compassion.

This is the double-edged sword of Jesus’ invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  On the one hand, it is a profound image of the kind of intimacy Jesus wishes to share with us.  It expresses his desire to make himself vulnerable to us so that we can enter into his subjectivity and he can enter into ours:  so that we can have the mind of Christ and become imitators of God from the inside, out. 

On the other hand, it is a troubling image of our own capacity to eat each other alive.  We participate in the scapegoating and sacrifice of others quite as readily, if not more so, as we practice sacrificial love for the sake of others.  As painful as it may be, we can only become whole when we are willing to acknowledge our complicity in chewing on the flesh and blood of others. 

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”[4]  With these words, Jesus looks back to his Incarnation and forward to the Cross.  In eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we acknowledge both our capacity to share intimately in the life of God, and to live atop pyramids of sacrifice.

It is only by participating in the subjectivity of Jesus, by falling in love with him in an absolute and final way, that we can heal our desire to feed off of others and instead “give life to others out of our inner being as if we were bread.”[5]  This falling in love is a process.  We come to share the mind of Christ as we open ourselves to Jesus through prayer, Holy Scripture, the grace of the Sacraments, and through patiently discerning the will of God with others in Christian community.  Falling in love with Jesus takes time.  It is messy.  But it is worth the cost.  Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

[2] John 6:56-57, 58c.
[3] Andrew Marr, OSB, “On Being Bread from Heaven:  The Way of Mimetic Participation” accessed at on August 8, 2012.
[4] John 6:51.
[5] I’m grateful to Andrew Marr, OSB, op. cit., for this insight in the last paragraph of his essay.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Salvation is Participation

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 5, 2012
by the Rev. John Kirkley

Beginning with last Sunday’s Gospel lesson and continuing through the last Sunday of August, we will be hearing almost all of John chapter six.  Since we celebrated the feast of Saint James last week, we didn’t hear the first section of John six, which is the story of the feeding of a crowd of 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish, followed by the story of Jesus walking on the water.  The feeding story provides the context for an extended and increasingly complex dialogue between Jesus and the crowd, then between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, and finally between Jesus and the twelve disciples about the true bread that satisfies our deepest hunger. 

You may recall that when Elizabeth preached the Sunday before last, she noted that the lectionary reading from Mark’s Gospel omitted a good chunk of Mark chapter six.  What was omitted was Mark’s version of the miraculous feeding and stroll across the sea of Galilee, so that we could explore John’s version last week.   Let me briefly recap the feeding story we missed, since it gives rise to the theological discussion that follows.

It is interesting to note the differences between Mark and John’s versions of the story.[1]  In Mark, we are told that Jesus had compassion for the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  They were lost and couldn’t find their way.  So he began to teach them.  When it drew late, his disciples urged him to send the people away so that they could get something to eat.  Jesus responds in the imperative mode, “You give them something to eat.”  They push back, arguing that it would be too expensive to buy bread for 5,000 people. 

Jesus then instructs them to share what they have, which turns out to be a measly five loaves and two fish.  They disciples obey, though I think we can safely infer that they were not happy about it.  Then Jesus took the loaves and fish, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to distribute.  All ate until they were full, and there were still twelve baskets full of leftovers. 

It often is noted that Jesus’ action of taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing the bread is replicated in each celebration of the Holy Eucharist.  We imitate Jesus in our sharing of communion, at least, in an external sense.  But there is another dimension of imitation, an internal participation that is missing in this story.  The disciples go through the motions of imitating Jesus in feeding the crowd, but their hearts are hardened.  They aren’t feeling it.  There action remains at the level of imitation rather than an actual participation in the flow of compassion. 

Later, when Jesus walks on water and calms the storm, we are told that the disciples were amazed – a stock phrase in Mark that ends many miracle stories.  But the miraculous feeding doesn’t amaze them.  Mark underscores this with a second miraculous feeding story later in his narrative, in which Jesus is again moved by compassion and the disciples still resist sharing with the crowd, even though this time they have seven loaves and there are only 4,000 people!  They remain unmoved by pity or awe.   They obey Jesus, but their relationship remains at the level of merely outward imitation.

John’s version of the story is very similar to Mark’s: a crowd of 5,000 people, five loaves and two fish, twelve baskets left over.  But in John’s telling, the gap between imitation and participation, between following orders and being in the flow of compassion, is exacerbated.  The disciples do not even share from their own resources; the loaves and fish belong to a boy in the crowd.  But even more telling in John’s version is the crowd’s response.

Unlike the disciples, the crowd is amazed.  They take Jesus to be a prophet, perhaps even the promised messiah.  They want to force him to become king.  Rather than imitate Jesus in his compassionate response to human need, they wish to harness his power for purposes of political domination.  Their relationship to Jesus, too, is completely external.  They want their situation to change, but they do not wish to be changed themselves.  They want a king, but Jesus has something else on offer.

Cut now to the day after the miraculous feeding, where today’s reading from John picks-up.  The crowd is relentless and follows Jesus to Capernaum.  They try to make small talk, but Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.  For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Like the crowd, we come looking for Jesus too.  But what is it we want to find?  The crowd sought Jesus because they were impressed by his capacity to heal the sick and feed the hungry.  I suppose there are a lot worse reasons to follow somebody around.  But they are missing the point.  These are but signs of a far greater possibility for transformation. 

The crowd sees the sign, but miss what is signified by it.   They are like someone who sees a yellow light and accelerates through the intersection.  They saw the sign all right, but missed it’s meaning: slow down!  Sometimes, even when we know what the sign means, we choose to ignore it because to pay attention to it would require us to change, perhaps even to be inconvenienced in the short-term.  We sacrifice the long-term benefit to ourselves and others for the sake of immediate gratification.  

The crowd follows Jesus, but they miss the deeper invitation signified by his work in favor of immediate gratification.  Jesus offers them eternal life – life lived with wide open awareness of and participation in the very life of God – but they just want to feel better and eat some bread; oh, and make Jesus king so that their enemies can get what is coming to them.  They settle for so little when Jesus wants to give them so much more: himself.

The crowd begins to catch on a little bit.  They want to know how to imitate Jesus: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they ask.  The response that Jesus gives is somewhat curious:  “This is the work of God, that you trust God sent me to you.”  The word “believe” would be better translated here as “trust” – it is an invitation to a relationship with Jesus and not simply assent to a theoretical proposition about Jesus.  What Jesus is asking may seem easy on one level, not really doing anything at all.  But the work of trusting another, of becoming vulnerable to another, is in many ways the most difficult work because to trust another is to open ourselves to being changed by our encounter with them.

The crowd quickly backpedals.  They aren’t interested in what is signified here: intimacy with Jesus such that we share in the very life of God.  They remain stuck at the level of the signs themselves:  “Do another miracle!  That’s what Moses did!”  They want Jesus to prove himself again, as if the signs already performed weren’t enough.  But no one, not even Jesus, can prove herself trustworthy outside the risk of relationship itself. 

The crowd backpedals, but Jesus will not let them go.  He reminds them that all experiences of awe and compassion come from God.  It is God who provides the true bread, which satisfies our deepest longing for eternal life.  The response of the crowd echoes down through the ages and expresses our own profound desire: “Sir, give us this bread always.”  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever trusts me will never be thirsty.”

“I am the bread of life.”  Here we find the very center of the Christian Gospel:  the claim “that salvation is to be conceived as an ongoing sharing in the life of God, in a deeper and deeper way, where to share in the life of God involves, among other things, sharing in and exercising the virtues of faith, love, and righteousness that are in God.”[2]  The doctrine of the Atonement simply states that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection makes participation in the life of God available to us.  

That doctrine does not specify how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection accomplish this, though many theories have been proposed to explain it.  John chapter six gives us a clue, however:  trusting Jesus, opening ourselves to being in relationship with him.  This relationship is the door through which we enter into life with God, a deeper and deeper capacity to perceive and respond to reality as held in love. 

As we listen to John chapter six in the coming weeks we will explore this Mystery more deeply.   Following Jesus may be more than we bargained for.   There is something in us that would rather hold Jesus at a distance, keeping the relationship purely external and instrumental.  But Jesus wants to get under our skin.  He wants to feed us with himself, with the very life of God.   

Imitation is not enough.  Salvation is participation.  Nothing less can satisfy our desire for God, or God’s desire for us.  Amen.

[1] Andrew Marr, OSB, “On Being Bread from Heaven,” accessed at
[2] Robin Collins, “The Incarnational Theory of the Atonement,” p. 5, accessed at

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Community Is Abundance

I must confess that I am very suspicious about the way the language of "abundance" gets thrown around these days, as if the point of human life were to have a lot of stuff or that material wealth is in any way correlated with divine blessing (it isn't).

Parker Palmer has helped me to reframe my understanding of "abundance."  In Let Your Life Speak he writes,
Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them - and receive them from others when we are in need . . . abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole and, in return, is sustained by the whole.  Community doesn't just create abundance - community is abundance.  If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed. (p. 108)
There can be no abundance apart from community, from the shared endeavor of sustaining the common wealth for the common good.  This is the political dimension of the spiritual truth that we gain our life by giving ourselves away in love for the sake of others.  It has implications for everything from tax policy to public health to our response to global climate change.

Of course, the correlate to "abundance" is "enough."  It is our failure to recognize when we have enough, and thus our obligation to redistribute what we have for the sake of those who do not have enough, that is destroying community.  This isn't "class warfare."  It is the teaching and practice of Jesus.