On Leaving behind Our Childhood Faith and Becoming Adult Believers.

Borg
Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

Recently, I had a long talk with one of my dearest friends in the world. After reading a book I recommended, he found himself in crisis.

“I don’t know what to believe now,” he lamented. “I have no idea who Jesus was or is.

I could sympathize with my friend. I even felt a little guilty that I had recommended that he read the book in question – Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. In laypersons’ terms, it acquaints readers with the search for the historical Jesus that has been in full swing for more than 100 years.

Borg concludes that the 4th century Council of Nicaea was correct in its assessment that Jesus was a divine person who was fully God and fully human. It just doesn’t say how that’s possible.

Borg’s own explanation is that Jesus was fully human before his resurrection and fully God in the faith of his bereft disciples after the event, whatever its exact nature might have been. That means that the pre-resurrection Jesus was in important respects very like the rest of us. He too shared our spiritual journey and grew (as the Gospel of Luke says) “in age, and wisdom and grace” (LK 2:52).

“Why wasn’t I told any of this before,” my friend complained.

Well, today’s liturgy of the word addresses my friend’s frustration. It highlights the faith quest that all of us share – even with Jesus.

For starters, think about Elijah from I Kings. At first glance, it seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread . . .

And then there are those words attributed to Jesus in the reading from John the Evangelist. There, Jesus claims that he is bread, and we’re supposed to eat his flesh?

It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. We’re told Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But, many of us find it harder and harder to believe even what we’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? It’s easy to understand how faith is threatened rather than strengthened by such readings. Spiritually it can be rather discouraging.

But my friend shouldn’t be discouraged by such thoughts. Neither should any of us. On the contrary, they can be seen as signs we’re growing up spiritually. Painful as it is, perhaps it’s time for reassessing our faith.

I mean (if we’re lucky) there comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reevaluated – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So, we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.

With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.

That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So, Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.

In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.

As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh. Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.

At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.

You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However, Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.

That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.

But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there, God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.

And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.

No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much subtler and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.

Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s evident that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the carpenter from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However, by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.

In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism, not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.

So, Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”

What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.

If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to recommend the book I urged that friend of mine to read. I’m referring to Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus again for the First Time. His The Heart of Christianity is similarly helpful.

Like my friend, you might find them initially disturbing. But they will deepen your faith and help make it more worthy of a mature adult.

(Sunday Homily) My Granddaughter’s First Communion: What Then Must We Do?

Eva

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter: ACTs 2: 14A, 36-41; PS 23 1-6; I PT 2: 20-25; JN 10: 1-10.

I’m here for the weekend in Westport, CT, at my daughter’s and son-in-law’s beautiful home. The occasion is the First Holy Communion of our 8-year-old granddaughter, Eva Kathryn, whom we all adore. I couldn’t be happier for her.

The event, along with the readings in today’s liturgy of the word, are causing me to remember my own first communion. I’m recalling how my faith has developed since that momentous occasion. It’s making me reflect both on the beauty of childhood faith, and on the challenge of its adult version. If the human race is to survive, I realize, that adult version must prevail.

The difference between early faith and later developments is underscored in today’s readings. They call us as adults to abandon childish understandings of God, to grow up and work for non-violence in a world threatened by the deceit, murder, and general destruction of “a corrupt generation.”

Do you remember your First Holy Communion? I remember mine quite vividly, even though it happened about 70 years ago. I can still picture all of us third-graders at St. Viator’s school on Chicago’s Northwest Side, lining up for procession to the church across the parish campus. The girls, of course were in white dresses with traditional sheer veils. We boys were wearing dark blue “Eton Suits” with short pants. The water fountains in the school hallway where our procession formed were covered with white sheets to prevent any of us from drinking. In those days before Vatican II, even that would have broken our fast and disqualified us from participating in the event we had prepared for so intensely.

I so looked forward to receiving Jesus into my heart. Didn’t you? I firmly believed (as Eva, no doubt, does) that Jesus was actually contained in that snow white wafer. He would enter my mouth and reside in my body until the “appearances of bread” dissolved. Later I would frequently “visit” Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I became a “Knight of the Altar” and on occasions like the feast of Corpus Christi, would spend an hour in adoration before the parish’s golden, bejeweled monstrance. As I knelt there, I firmly believed that I was looking right at Jesus as I stared at the white Host encased in the glass “pyx.” One day, during my assigned “holy hour,” I had something like a mystical experience. I felt a special unity with Jesus residing there. I don’t know how to describe it. But I was, for a few moments, transported by a sense of oneness with God. Obviously, I never forgot it. I’ll bet you’ve had experiences like that too.

I wish all of that for Eva Kathryn. My heart went out to her this morning as she spoke of her upcoming First Confession. In some ways, I wish her beautiful faith would never change. But, of course, that’s like wishing she would never grow up. Her faith will inevitably change. Doubts will come. And if she’s like most, she’ll probably eventually throw her faith in Jesus’ “Real Presence” into the same waste basket with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. It’s all part of growing up.

Too bad. And I don’t mean it’s too bad that Eva’s childhood understanding will someday prove inadequate to the challenges of adult life. As I said, that’s inevitable and good. What I mean is: it’s too bad that she’ll predictably probably stop growing in her understanding of the Christian faith she’s trying to learn about in her Sunday School classes, just as she’s trying so hard to learn her multiplication tables in Montessori school.

I mean, isn’t it shocking that the faith dimension of life – arguably the most important, since deals with life’s meaning –  turns out to be the only one where our 8-year-old understanding is supposed never to change?

That would be like letting Eva say: “I’m satisfied with addition and subtraction; don’t tell me about multiplication or division. And I never want to hear the words ‘algebra,’ ‘trigonometry,’ ‘calculus” or ‘computer science’ even mentioned. That would be shocking and unforgivably childish in itself.

Even more importantly, it would describe exactly what’s wrong with our world. There we’ve been carefully schooled not to think about life’s meaning, especially as it touches questions of social justice, economics, politics, war, peace, and adult spirituality. That’s meant ignoring the world’s most powerful teachers: the ancient priestesses of the Great Mother God, Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day . . .

The Donald Trumps of the world (and there are a lot of them) are quite content with our ignorance. They’re happy with our refusal to grow up – with our retaining childish understandings of life – especially if growing up would cause us mobilize for social change. They somehow realize that the Jesus story and others I’ve mentioned have revolutionary power. It scares the hell out of them.

Today’s readings remind us of all that. They summon us to answer the question addressed to Peter and his ten colleagues in today’s opening selection from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s what Tolstoy asked in 1888, “What then must we do?” Peter’s answer was the same as Tolstoy’s: “Repent! In the name of the crucified Jesus, save yourselves from this corrupt generation!”

Those words are profound, but so familiar that their challenge can easily be overlooked. They mean: change your consciousness – the way you think; the way you look at the world. Reject everything “this corrupt generation” tells you. Instead, follow the example of Jesus whom, by the way, you’ve just crucified as a terrorist. Reject imperial authority. It’s not Jesus’ Way. (None of that is a stretch. Peter’s reference to “crucifixion” is central. It reminds us that the cross was the method of execution reserved for rebels against imperial Rome.)

To repeat: all of that is pivotal to this day’s readings. However, in the light of Eva’s first communion, there’s a lot more about the way faith changes and develops in adults.

Listen again to Peter’s description of Jesus in the opening reading from Acts. He says, “God has made Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” When you think of it, that’s a pretty elementary understanding of Jesus. It clearly distinguishes God on the one hand and Jesus on the other. God elevates Jesus’ status from a crucified rebel to “Lord” and “Christ,” but only (according to this formulation) after Jesus’ execution. Again, that’s a very primitive “Christology,” probably the earliest we have. Scholars say it was formulated around the year 35 and retained in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles which was written much later – probably about the year 70. Here Jesus is a human being later elevated in status.

Contrast that with John’s Christology reflected in today’s gospel selection, written 30 or 40 years later. By that time (as we learn from the prologue to John’s gospel), Jesus has been fully identified as present from the beginning of time with God the Creator: “In the beginning was the Word,” John says, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . .” That seems to mean that by the time John wrote, believers were making no distinction between God himself and Jesus. Quite a change.

There’s still more to unpack here. In today’s reading, John has Jesus identifying with “the Good Shepherd” whom the author of the familiar Psalm 23 (today’s responsorial) had much earlier identified with Israel’s God, Yahweh. Think of the psalmist’s description. God is the original ecologist providing everyone with verdant pastures and clear waters. He gives everyone rest, refreshment, long life, abundant tables and cups overflowing with rich wines. God and (by John’s extension, Jesus) ends poverty (want); he provides shelter for all; he is good and kind. Those words are nothing short of revolutionary. Think of the world we’d create if the planet’s 2.5 billion Christians accepted that Jesus as our Lord and Savior!

Then in today’s second reading from First Peter, the author gets more specific. He identifies Jesus as a champion of justice (“He handed himself over to the one who judges justly”). Jesus (in contrast with John’s “false Christs” and our political “shepherds” today) is truthful. He doesn’t insult or threaten anyone.

And finally, in today’s third reading Jesus identifies himself specifically as non-violent. The false Christs, like the childish ersatz versions the world finds so comfortable, are warlike. In Jesus’ words, they are liars and thieves who slaughter and destroy. On the other hand, the Christ of adult faith is non-violent; he gives abundant life, rather than taking it away.

My prayer is that Eva Kathryn will one day discover that Jesus and accept him into her heart. That she and her post-millennial class of first-communicants will eventually do so, may be our world’s only hope.