by David Baer, August 26, 2018
Text: John 6:56-69
My family has this habit of returning again and again to the same vacation spots. The gift and curse of doing this is that you discover that those places that you love, that you visit time and again are never really the same places. In the back of your mind, you always have a sense that things change, over the years, even though it’s sometimes hard to say precisely how. Sometimes the restaurant or ice cream place you looked forward to going to closes. Sometimes you discover something new. But I was struck when I came across two photos taken in exactly the same spot, decades apart. In one of these photos, I’m riding in a backpack on my father’s back as a 1-year-old, and in the other, I’m standing with my wife, more than a quarter-century later. The photos were taken in a state park on the Oregon Coast, on a headland jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. In the background you can see water, and behind it a modest-sized mountain (modest-sized for Oregon, anyway). But what was shocking to see was that in one photo, the mountain was covered in lush, dense trees. And in the other photo, the whole mountain was bare, the trees entirely gone.
We human beings change the landscape, and not always for the better. Perhaps you can tell your own stories of change, stories of woods and farms gobbled up by shopping centers and housing developments. That seems to be the story around here. And neighborhoods that never used to flood get inundated again and again, now that the wetlands upstream are filled in or paved over. It’s not a new problem, either. Here’s what someone from New Jersey wrote about the Meadowlands, back in 1867:
Swamp-lands are blurs upon the face of Nature; they are fever-breeding places; scourges of humanity; which, instead of yielding the fruits of the earth and adding wealth to the general community, only supply the neighboring places poisonous exhalations and torturing mosquitos. They are, for all practical purposes, worthless; and the imperative necessity for their reclamation is obvious to all, and is universally conceded.1
In other words, he says, these Meadowlands are no good. They’ve got to be obliterated and replaced with something more useful to human beings. We know where that mindset led, don’t we?
Living in the mode of consumption, where the value of resources like land or trees or minerals is only seen in terms of their immediate benefits, harms nature, and it ultimately harms us too, when we human beings act without regard for the complex interrelatedness of the natural environment and living things, including ourselves.
Because this has a personal dimension too, doesn’t it? You probably know what it feels like to be used or exploited. I hope you also know what it feels like to be appreciated, valued, and nurtured. But the way we relate to other people—whether we treat one another as images of God, or as a source of benefits for ourselves—mirrors the way we live with nature.
This attitude isn’t a new problem. At the very beginning of the human story in the Bible, when Adam and Eve saw the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit God had forbidden them to eat, they didn’t think about what eating it would mean for their relationship with God, with the creation, and with each other. No, the story says that they “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). They saw a resource that could yield an immediate benefit, and they took it, without considering the long-term costs. And ever since then, we human beings have struggled with our tendency to consume—to consume God’s creation, and to consume our neighbors—in order to sustain our life.
Now, when I say that we human beings struggle with consumption, I don’t mean that we never create or protect or rebuild anything, because we do. The story I began with, about the mountainside with and without trees… I never told you which photo was which. It turns out that the mountainside had been fire-cleared through most of the twentieth century to provide pasture for sheep and cattle, but by the time I had become an adult, the forest had been allowed grow again. That was an achievement—it took a group of human beings saying, collectively, we’re not going to continue doing things this way. But that takes effort and sacrifice. The pull toward consumption, like the pull of gravity, is always there.
Had God left us alone in our all-consuming ways, we probably would have burnt out by now. But instead, God sent Jesus. In our passage today Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” This is strange language, isn’t it? It sounds cannibalistic, and maybe that’s how some of the disciples in the story hear it, when they describe this as a hard teaching, and they stop following Jesus. But in John’s gospel, as we’re learning, there is always a second level to the meaning of Jesus’ words, and there is always something for us to learn when the characters in the story misunderstand what he is saying. For the first readers of this gospel and for modern-day Christians, words call up the image of a Communion Table. What Jesus is talking about is not consumption. He doesn’t offer us his body and blood in such a way that they will be used up. He doesn’t imagine that he will be destroyed by those who feed on him. Instead, he’s talking about a life-line that carries God’s inexhaustible, life-giving power. Jesus says, “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” Like a baby in the womb receives nourishment through the umbilical cord, feeding on the flesh and blood of its mother, so to speak, we receive nourishment for a life that is meant to be sustainable for all eternity from God through Jesus.
In Jesus, we receive what we cannot give to ourselves. Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” The literal translation of that last bit is, “the flesh yields no profit.” When Jesus talks in John’s gospel about flesh and spirit, he’s talking about the difference between life that’s connected to God, and life apart from God. Elsewhere Jesus talks about being born again, or being born from above—being born of water and the Spirit, instead of flesh. Apart from God, we try to build ourselves up at the expense of others. We exploit our neighbors and God’s creation. But the foundation of the kind of life that goes on forever is nothing we can ever receive in this way. Eternal life is rooted in receiving unconditional love, and it’s only from God, who loves freely, who doesn’t depend upon us for anything, that we can receive this kind of life. “I forgive you, I accept you, you are my beloved child,” God says. These are the words that Jesus speaks to us. These are the words that are spirit and life.
In Jesus, we receive a blessing that does not diminish God’s creation or our neighbor. In the life of the flesh, we seek to consume others, but Jesus lays down his life for us freely and willingly, with the power to take it back up again. In fact, Jesus blesses us with a gift that is meant to build up and give life to God’s creation and our neighbor. To recognize that God is the ongoing source of our life, that God is where the nourishment that sustains us comes from, means that we no longer have to live as people who consume life, but as people who give life. We can be the life-line that reaches others with God’s life-giving power, as Jesus was.
Maybe the best way to understand this is: hurting people–and that’s us, when we haven’t received God’s forgiveness and love—hurting people hurt others; but beloved and forgiven and blessed people love, forgive, and generously bless others. That’s what Jesus means by the life of the spirit. Eternal life doesn’t just mean life that goes on forever. It means a life that has the quality of eternity, life that is real and lasting and durable. And if you look around, you can see it…
I’ve seen it in the generosity here at Highlands, where we put together over 25 full backpacks of school supplies for families served by the Center for Food Action.
I’ve seen it in the relationships of so many of our older couples—not perfect relationships, but ones conditioned by generosity, forgiveness, and enduring care.
You’ve seen it too, haven’t you? Do this—take some time today to think about the ways you’ve seen eternal life breathed into this world, in ways great and small, through the words or actions of those around you. Think about what you’ve received. How is God calling you today to turn away from a mode of life that consumes, and to turn toward a mode of life that builds up, nourishes, and gives life to others and to God’s world?
Jesus blesses us with a second birth from above, with spirit and energy that transforms and renews life in this world, with the gift of his body and blood, and with his example of self-sacrificing generosity that brings God’s lifegiving power. To whom shall we go, O Lord? You have the words of eternal life. Amen.
“The new system of reclaiming lands.” (1867, November 16). Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, pp. 36–37. Quoted in Stephen Marshall, “The Meadowlands Before the Commission: Three Centuries of Human Use and Alteration of the Newark and Hackensack Meadows.” Urban Habitats. December 2004. Brooklyn Botanic Garden. 24 Aug 2018 <http://www.urbanhabitats.org/v02n01/3centuries_full.html>.