We are what we eat
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33 ESV)
I’m not sure that we live to eat but food and its consumption plays a very big part in our lives. Whether at a subsistence level where the effort between meals is spent in getting the next meal or we are so spoilt for choice that our left-overs would huge meals for other people, food is a vital part of life … and family … and culture … and the economy … and even religion. It would be a rare religion that ignores food – whether dealing with feasting or fasting. Food can be about calories and taste and nutrients but it also can be about priorities and fellowship and piety.
So we come to tonight out of Lent with its man-made traditions of fasting or giving up something (often food) to a night that has a meal that was very important for Jesus and so is important for us. The Passover meal – still observed in Judaism today – was that meal that blurred time – you were never really sure whether you were back in Egypt or you had dragged those people gathering behind the doorposts smeared with lamb’s blood into your dining room as unseen guests and witnesses of your meal. Remembering isn’t just a cerebral act but food activates the senses and the participants eat, dressed ready for action, saved by God himself when death is striking the neighbours’ houses – those without the blood – because this meal means me and God are part of the story, part of the event.
So Jesus in the Upper Room observes the Passover ritual – its food, its sequence, the 4 cups to be drunk and just before the 3rd cup is lifted up, Jesus takes hold of the bread and we’re no longer in Kansas anymore – or Egypt – though we’re still slaves but to sin – for Jesus changes the meal – irrevocably – it’s like changing the sequence at a Mess Dinner or the words and actions at a birthday party – there’s shock here – a sense you can’t do that – Judaism strongly rejects this change – the one who did it should be strung up! – blasphemy! – for this is now a new meal – a new covenant – take and eat this is my body, take and drink this is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
This meal is now something new. Do this in remembrance of me said Jesus. And because a person is where their body and blood are – just look around – so Jesus makes this meal – with its minimal nutritional substance – an echo of the cross – full of sacramental substance for Jesus is physically present to come, commune, sup with you, fellowship with you, in the intimacy of your heart and mind and soul and spirit and bring you what you need – forgiveness, healing, and strengthening of faith.
Jesus fulfils what God promised through the prophet Jeremiah that he would make a new covenant with his people – one that wasn’t made of stone tablets to see, learn, and take into one’s being and behaviour – but one that was written inside – a new creation comes into being in a relationship with God. God is making new from the inside out – not from the outside in.
Jesus pointed out that what defiles us doesn’t come from outside – it isn’t this or that food – or even this or that deed but what defiles a person is what is inside of us. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mark 7:21-23 ESV)
And we can’t get to our hearts without surgery! That’s what made Jeremiah’s new covenant a strange mixture of hope and dread, joy and terror. You don’t make a covenant – you cut a covenant – and usually an animal is cut and sacrificed to show how serious is the relationship and how terrifying the consequences of disobedience. So what is God doing to us with a new covenant – write it on our hearts?! – no thank you! I like my heart where it is!
Jesus understood biology and when talking about clean and unclean food and declaring all foods to be clean and thus wiping away all the dietary rules and regulations of the Old Testament, he knew that food doesn’t make us clean or holy – though it might affect our cells – but it passes through with no spiritual blessings and judgements. It is physical thing.
And yet at this meal nearly 2000 years ago and at every meal instituted as he instructed because Jesus comes to people in morsels of bread and sips of wine he defies biology – for now what goes into the mouth affects the heart, and the mind, and the soul, and the spirit – indeed our life and our behaviour. Jesus says: I know you really as you are – and I give myself to you – I am cut so that you no need longer fear and dread God – I died so you can live.
This meal is situated under a cross. Jesus left the Upper Room and by mid morning of the next day he was on a cross saving the world – creating a new exodus to the heavenly Promised Land. We still eat under the cross, because of that cross where we see sin and grace and where we learn as the catechism teaches us that we should fear and love and trust in God above all things. If we are what we eat, then may we never stop coming to this meal!
It’s always, ever, only the cross
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people? (Isaiah 53:7,8 ESV)
Earlier this month it was announced that Britain’s highest honour for gallantry on the battlefield – of which only thirteen have been given since World War 2 – was going to be awarded. So at some stage the media will cover the presentation of the medal known as the Victoria Cross.
My question then is why isn’t it the Victoria Circle? Or Star? Or Triangle? The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal is a circle. Why is this one different? A cross?
My guess or hunch is that for mid 19th century Britons the shape of a cross best fulfilled the intention of Queen Victoria in honouring exceptional valour in the Crimean War – valour that often resulted in death and a posthumous award. How has the cross achieved such a status or leads us to associate it with sacrifice and death? Because for nearly 2,000 years the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter, have made the bold and lunatic claim that he is God who has sacrificed himself for us by suffering an execution that was feared and loathed in the ancient world – and they’ve done it for so long and so often that the scandal, the shock is muted and today we morph it into sacrificial symbolism and wear it as jewellery.
We are a long way from the ancient world with all its crosses – testimonies to agonising suffering, humiliation, and finally the welcomed relief of death – because life for those hours – or days! – was hell. Today we have crosses everywhere and we rarely shudder – unless we’re watching a film – but away from the screen, crosses are so commonplace – usually as markers of death – that they are almost invisible.
Of course I don’t want real crosses and real crucifixions to return so that we might have a real appreciation of today! But I find it fascinating that the one item, the one message, the one topic of Christianity – of today – that right from the beginning was challenged, questioned, even rejected – because it was so shocking, repulsive, visceral – like coming across vomit or worse – was the message that Jesus died on the cross. It was bad enough if he was only human – a terrible tragedy to be sure – but it is incomprehensible, if Jesus is God!
I think we understand why. We say ‘Gods don’t die!’. Not that way. And you’re right – if gods die, they do so heroically but they simply can’t die on a cross – not just because of barbarism or its secret appeal to mob violence – but because in Judaism the scandal isn’t just with society and your family tree being tarnished – but involves God and curses and judgement. Paul wrote in Galatians: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” – (Galatians 3:13 ESV). That’s why we find God on the cross so hard to understand – why from the very beginning the church had to fight any watering down of the horrors of it and who was on it – because deep down, we are minimising our sin, trying to dodge what the punishment for sin looks like, and secretly (or not so secretly) saying in our hearts, ‘I’m not that bad!’.
I was asked recently why today is called Good Friday when it wasn’t good for Jesus. I waited for what I considered ‘the next line’ to come but it didn’t … and the questioner seemed genuinely surprised – as if it was a new thought – when I said ‘But it’s good for us’. And I went on to explain what Lutherans (and others) call the ‘great exchange’ – that we receive Jesus’ righteousness because he gives it to us and takes our sin and death onto himself.
Jesus’ cross isn’t the only one to have ever existed. His crucifixion wasn’t a unique execution – there were two others at the same time!. We need words to help us see what is happening with this one. The Ethiopian eunuch was reading the prophet Isaiah and God directed Philip to run alongside the chariot and eventually get in and explain who the suffering servant was – no, not the prophet himself, but another – one who was like a sheep to slaughter – one humiliated and denied justice – let me tell you about Jesus. And you can’t talk about Jesus – or you shouldn’t – without mentioning his cross.
The Word made flesh came to this world he made and the world did not see him or hear him and instead rejected him. That is the perversity and folly of sin – the sort of stuff that only a cross can
bring to our attention. Isaiah doesn’t mention a cross in his prophecy but a cross fulfils that prophecy so completely that no one can listen to it and not think of Jesus if they know of Good Friday or see the prophecy fulfilled when they hear that it is about Jesus and his death on the cross.
All the words said today around the globe that bring the cross into focus and proclaim that Jesus – truly human and truly God – was crucified for sinners – for you – points out that we are trapped and condemned by our sins – every day. And God knows and understands that fear and dread of the reckoning to come – the shame we don’t want exposed – better than we and speaks to it and declares ‘It is finished!’ and he sets the prisoners free!
What a dénouement!!
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,
and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labour in vain or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord,
and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.
(Isaiah 65:17-25 ESV)
A satisfactory conclusion of any story, film, drama is one with no loose ends, unanswered questions, or unsolved mysteries. We like to see a sense of closure as the curtain goes down – the good guys living happily ever after and the bad guys getting their just desserts. And you can do that on the written page, screen or stage – it is called a dénouement – a resolution – more easily than in real life. Still it is a noble sentiment to have one’s affairs in order and to exit this world with no regrets. If we could write our own scripts, I’m sure we’d have such endings.
But life is not like that. Despite our longing to be god – to have things always go our way – life is messy, circumstantial, reactive as well as planned and attempted according to our wishes. The only place where we can be ‘gods’ is on the written page where we use words to create literary worlds and lives. Since what we say happens on the page – even if we’ve had arguments with an editor – so we similarly are aware that in real life we can control very little – not our spouse, our children (whether 2 days, 2 months, 12 years, or at any age), work colleagues, friends, enemies, neighbours, the person driving their car towards you, the professionals you seek services from, politicians, and so on. We quickly realise that controlling others doesn’t exist in any healthy relationship – that we have to negotiate our way through life – and even the one person we have most control over – ourselves – does and doesn’t do things that mystify us. We echo the Apostle Paul – using our own words of course – the good we want to do we don’t do, the bad we don’t want to do, that we find ourselves doing (cf. Romans 7:14-25). And it all ends in death and even if we were to write a dénouement for ourselves, we know that we don’t have the power to bring it into existence. In Ecclesiastes attributed to Solomon we read: I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14 ESV).
Anything we write – a last will and testament perhaps – are instructions for this world not the next. Last year I read (The Week, 24/11/12 p.6) that there now exists at least one company to whom you can entrust a ‘digital will’ so that as your ‘digital executor’ they can tidy up your ‘digital legacy’ as per your instructions which most commonly seems to about removing Facebook photos and deleting accounts you don’t want discovered. Vanity.
Our first reading this morning from Isaiah is part of the 65th chapter (out of 66) and is certainly part of a dénouement with God talking about a reckoning – a day of vengeance and a year of redemption, punishment and mercy (Ch 64), judgement and salvation and the creation of new heavens and a new earth (Ch 65) and then humility, rejoicing, final judgement and God’s glory (Ch 66).
This new world and also Jerusalem are almost one and the same – a city or world of God is characterised by life and joy – long life especially – meaningful lives – families have descendants also long living – work produces results that endure and can be enjoyed – God will not be remote but quick to answer in ways that they can hear and rejoice – and even creation is now at peace with no violence – the wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox (Is 65:25a).
Fairytale delusions – wishful thinking – unsubstantiated nonsense claim much of the world. In fact this is even worse than writing your own dénouement because you are not taking responsibility for your own life, nor getting the best from it. Happy endings like that are only for fairytales.
To which Christians reply ‘Christ is risen!’ (He is risen indeed!) We didn’t write this story. We never would have authored it. We’re not creative enough. Who would have seen that a cross was our rescue? No one. It was – and still is for many – foolishness – we’re too smart for that!
Similarly the world has never been able to put Jesus back in his grave. It is a colossal embarrassment for the world that Jesus’ grave is empty. And no rejection of this fact or worldly explanation for it – such as the women went to the wrong tomb or the disciples stole the body – deals with the whole account of what happened next after Friday’s execution. The resurrection is the only explanation that deals with all the evidence and tells us that something has happened way outside of our control. God has raised Jesus from the dead! Jesus is alive and death can no longer hold him captive. In fact it is death’s power that is broken! It is our wisdom that is shamed. It is our power to control that is revealed to be the delusion.
The Word made flesh, Jesus, said that he would be crucified and rise again on the third day. God has been saying that he has plans to rescue us throughout the bible. And that’s all well and good perhaps but what about us – can we find our name written in the book of life? Not in the printed pages between Genesis and Revelation for there we read the promises – the plans and the story of what God has done. But we do hear our names with our ears – audible voices – saying our name – at baptism, Holy Communion, in the absolution, at a blessing. But we know these voices! It can’t be true – George has no power – he’s useless. True. But what happens when he speaks in Jesus’ name – when the words we hear are authored by the Word of God himself?
Then our dénouement will truly be unbelievable! And our lives will never be the same again! We live with hope and faith and trust in the living God known to us in Jesus.
There is a new app out called LivesOn which analyses your online behaviour so that, according to the tagline ‘When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting’ (The Week, 23/2/13, p.4). What a brilliant attempt by humanity at immortality?! Regurgitated algorithms!
For Christians, life with Jesus, in the light of the empty tomb, is rich and full and dynamic for as we hear God’s Word, as we interact with others while keeping our eyes on Jesus, so our life becomes one that knows love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, mercy, self control for we’re not scribbling at our own attempts at life or control but we’re listening and engaging with the Lord of life who says ‘follow me’ and gives us the freedom to do so.