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Sermon – August 23, 2009

Sermon for Sunday, August 23 , 2009 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Dwelling Place

Psalm 84; 1 Kings 8: 1,6, 10- 11, 22-30, 41-43; John 6: 56-69

In the most recent “Harry Potter” movie we learn that the evil wizard bent on supreme

power has used dark magic to divide his soul up into tiny bits and store those bits of his life in

ordinary material objects, so that if any part of him is destroyed he may restore himself with the

others. The great project for Harry is to find which things hold these fragmented parts of the

evil wizard’s life and destroy them, in order to get rid of him a little at a time.

I’m counting on the books’ and movies’ popularity to help me here with a theme in

today’s scriptures. In the Harry Potter story it is a bad spirit which preserves its life and its

potential in ordinary physical things. In today’s scriptures, by contrast, it is God’s divine and

holy spirit which resides in something material. Solomon’s building of the Temple has the

substance of divine participation in its conception and establishment, so there is a premise that

God really is especially available there. The communion meal, to which Jesus confusingly

refers in John’s gospel when he says his followers need to eat his body, is a ritual made by

Jesus. There again, divine establishment of a physical means of access to the Almighty

makes the bread and cup much more than a matter of eating and drinking.

We all understand physical objects as storehouses of spiritual reality with regard to

things like wedding bands, which, from one perspective, are only metal, but by participation in

the ritual signify invisible things like love and loyalty and identity. Again, a flag is a piece of

cloth, but it is more to the person for whom it represents homeland. Keepsakes from

deceased friends and relatives convey to us not only past connections, but seem to satisfy a

human intuition that there is continuity between life and death and life.

This connection we make between physical things like grandpa’s watch and our feelings

about our grandfather seem to reside entirely in the individuals concerned. Even if there were

something like a fingerprint still on the object, made by the loved one, no outsider would say

that there was a real presence of the person there. A generation or two later it would be

regarded as old junk. If you go to the Street of Shops flea market you see offered for pocket

change some objects which once were kept for sentimental reasons.

I began the sermon with the world of magic, and here’s another example from that. In

tales of sorcery, an old oil lamp resting on the shelf among the clutter of stuff at the flea market

might have a genie inside. It makes sense in a magical world for living spiritual presences to

inhabit inanimate things.

We sometimes imagine that people began to doubt that Roman Catholics at Mass

really were eating the flesh and blood of Jesus because education improved. Forces in the

world and the nature of things were understood on more scientific principles. Magical ways of

thinking, typical of a primitive mindset, gave way to more enlightened inquiry.

Of course Protestants like us tell that story because it makes us seem less like heretics

and more like reasonable, up-to-date people. Conceiving skepticism about Catholic doctrine

and violence which accompanied the Reformation.

It is more true that the Bible itself wrestles with the way that physical things can be the

location for authentic spiritual communion. When the scripture asserts that Solomon’s Temple

or reenacting the Last Supper give special opportunities to experience God, it tends toward

views like the sanctity of shrines or the real presence of Christ in the bread and cup. When, on

the other hand, Solomon’s prayer acknowledges that the Temple doesn’t contain God and

pleads with God to be attentive there, or when Jesus refers to his words about being the

Bread of Life and makes a pointed distinction between flesh and spirit, it seems more like what

we call a “modern” view.

One of the things people will say in frustration when they hear people quoting the

Bible against this or against that is that you can make the Bible say anything. Well, there are

many views expressed in scripture, which makes sense since it is a large number of books

produced over a long period of time. But the point is not so much that you can make the Bible

support any point of view. What is true is that complicated things are complicated in the

scriptures, too. This disappoints persons expecting one right answer for every question, but

today’s scriptures about how places of worship or rituals in worship include God are a good

example of differing perspectives being offered in order to reveal complexity. The Bible is

unafraid of paradox, and that sometimes confounds human desires to be orthodox.

The gospel selection has a lot going on. It contains Peter’s confession of Jesus as

Lord, which occurs under different circumstances in the other three gospels. It establishes the

Christian practice of worshiping Jesus through taking communion. In the other gospel tradition

that occurs at the Last Supper but it isn’t in John’s last supper account, which instead includes

foot washing, enacting the commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved. Today’s

gospel also, and typically in John’s gospel, presents a division between would-be believers

in Jesus because of something Jesus says which can be understood in more than one sense.

This is a big motif in the gospel of John and because I am referring to it in order to argue

for a Baptist approach to the communion meal, I’ll elaborate. Jesus tells Nicodemus that one

must go through a birth to recognize who he is–Nicodemus hears it in human terms as “born all

over again,” which doesn’t make sense, while Jesus means it in spiritual terms, as “born from

above,” or having heaven put the right spirit into one. Jesus tells the woman at the well that he

can provide water so that she’ll never thirst again. She asks whether she’ll never need to return

to the well, taking the remark in human terms, and Jesus tells her that he’s not speaking in

human terms, that he’s saying something instead about spirit and truth. Later in the gospel, at

the crucifixion scene, the evangelist relates that the Roman governor puts the charge against

Jesus over his head on the cross, reading “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” In

human terms, as a pretender to the throne from which the governor ruled, it was not so, but in

spiritual terms, understood as a title for the Messiah, it is.

I read the encounter in today’s verses in the same light. Jesus insisting that those who

are to belong to him must eat his flesh is an anticipation of the practice of communion. I don’t

in those terms is a way to ridicule Catholicism, and the desire to do that resulted from the anger

blame the ancient church for concluding from this scripture that communion-takers are required

really to eat Jesus and therefore that the ritual really must feed them Jesus. I don’t believe that

God quibbles over doctrinal points like human beings do, so I’m not sure it makes much of a

difference to God how disciples conceive communion. I only want to say that since it happens

frequently in John’s gospel that Jesus provocatively declares something which separates

those accepting him from those rejecting him, revealing two mindsets, it is reasonable to read

this as another instance of the same thing. Jesus appears to be speaking about cannibalism, it

disturbs not only his doubters but his followers, and creates a crisis. It is hard to accept. The

terms on which it must be accepted, however, as with the statement about being Water

welling up to eternal life, are spiritual terms. Trying to understand things in human terms won’t

get you anywhere; there’s something behind and beyond the evident which is the key to

connection with God.

This reading of scripture, which I think is more than defensible, supports our skeptical

anti-magical Baptist forebears’ insistence that communion achieves the incorporation of Christ

entirely in spiritual terms: in remembrance, imagination, and intention. Christ is available by

faithfully sharing in the communion meal, in a spiritual sense. Jesus’ ordaining this practice for us

is what gives it its authority. The individual believer intuits a connection with Christ in whatever

way God gives grace to know.

The other matter raised in today’s texts is the presence of God at a place of worship.

Baptists tend to lean on the verse “where two or three are gathered together, there I am in the

midst of them,” and Jesus’ teaching about praying in one’s closet, to question whether God is

more available in a big, fancy building. We’ve built big, fancy buildings just the same, but on

some level we understand that as a way of making it easier for us to adjust our spiritual radar,

so that what happens in a lovely sanctuary is not owed to God imbuing the furnishings, but to

God inhabiting our hearts.

As I mentioned earlier, the Temple dedication and Solomon’s prayer say two things.

One is that God has declared that this place of worship should be built as a dwelling-place for

God. The other is that God is too far beyond human powers of evoking that any human work

reliably can fix God to a particular place or time. It is by God’s mercy and kindness that God

will attend to prayers offered in the place of worship, not because God is only available there.

Here again the point is not materialism, as though we only can believe in physical things on

physical terms. The point is that we believe we cannot make physical things contain divinity–

that’s the idolatry always rejected by the Bible. We cannot understand how God establishes

places, like worship experiences and rituals, in which God’s being alive becomes more clear

to us. We know there is a connection, because it is part of who we are as believers.

And it is believers, always, who are God’s location. Talk of the Temple insists, both in

Solomon’s prayer and in today’s psalm, that strangers who have faith are not strangers to

God, that “our place of worship” is not limited by our culture or customs, but that God’s desire

to bless the world will take place when anyone seeks God in the ways God has consented to

be present.