Wednesday, 19 August 2009

What I won't be preaching on Sunday

“It is the Spirit that gives life – the flesh is useless” (John 6:63)

You can read this verse on its own, and decide that it means that we should not care about this world, about our bodies... our flesh.  Because that's not important.  It's spiritual things that matter.  Why should we care about these bodies - that will only wear out after 80 years - or less if we decide "what the heck" and eat saturated fats and drink Theakston's Old Peculier or Harvey's Dry Sherry?  Why should we worry about a world that's gone to hell in a hand-cart anyway, where we raise the CO2 levels through the roof and watch ice sheets melt.  Why should we think that much about a world that's clearly doomed, and that will in any event one day disappear into the furnace of an exploding sun, before collapsing into the heart of a black hole?  What do pandas, the Arctic, the islands of the South Pacific have to do with us?

Because we're all right.  We're all going to live forever.  In a castle in the sky - where there is no hunger, or pain, and God keeps the spiritiual CO2 level just right for a climate where we can walk around in white robes, and raise our spiritual arms in worship for all eternity.  So much better than the rides at Thorpe Park, where you can't raise your arms in warm weather because it's sweaty... The Flesh, after all is useless - isn't that right?

That's the message that modern worship often gives.  Escapist, spiritual, without earthly content - "There is a day that all creation's waiting for.  A day of freedom and liberation from the earth" sang Phatfish.  From the earth?  So the Gnostics were right?  We need liberation from the earth?  "I'm coming back to the heart of worship and it's all about you" sang Matt Redman.  Well, it's all about something.  But if it's all about Jesus, then it seems to be all about a disembodied, spiritual Jesus who we only encounter in "worship".   Not the sweaty, dusty Jesus who hiked through Palestine for those three years.  Not a Jesus surrounded by the thrashing and smell of fish, down on a beach by Galilee. Not a Jesus covered in blood nailed to a tree on a patch of wasteland outside a city wall.

No - the Flesh is useless, we decide.  And we worship to lift ourselves away from all that.  All the drudgery of daily life; the washing up; unloading lorries; serving customers; writing computer programs - what have they got to do with God?  We want to be away from all that - we want to come to church to be free to focus on God and leave all that behind.  After all, one of these days that's what we're going to do forever isn't it?

So there are no choruses about finding God in a computer keyboard - or a loading bay - or a supermarket checkout.  And in our prayers it's easy to pray for bishops and clergy - and maybe even for teachers and nurses.  But when do we remember binmen, or fork-lift truck drivers?  We divide the jobs people do into spiritual and non-spiritual.  Doctor's surgery?  Caring.  God is there.  A warehouse on Brackmills?  Godless.  People moving clothes, or shoes, or radiators about.  What's that got to do with God?  

I think we've inherited a lot of this from the Victorians.  They wrote hymns like "All things Bright and Beautiful" -created a rural paradise- just as they were building their railways and their factories, and sweeping up people who were starving in the country so they could die in squalor in the towns.  We've built ourselves our spiritual wonderland, where no dark thing comes and we leave the rest of the week behind on a shiny Sunday that has no relationship to the rest. We've divided our lives up - and rush for shelter with our eternal nursemaid and fairy godfather, away from the nasty world out there.

Which begs the question - if that's the way we see it, what are we doing when we receive Communion?  Why is the most spiritual thing we could be doing - feeding on Jesus - concentrated into bread and wine?  Earthly things.  If the Flesh is useless in that way, then what could be more fleshy - more earth - more unheavenly - that "the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands"?  How is our most spiritual moment tied up in something so - so solid?  So material?  Something we can eat and drink - something we digest.  Something - something  we can chew, for goodness' sake?  
And if the Flesh is useless in that way, then why didn't Jesus appear to men and women in a spiritual form?  Why did he get caught up in all the blood and mess and pain of a human birth?  Why did he go through all the messy biological processes we all do?  Why did he eat and drink and sweat and excrete like all the rest of us?  Why cry when Lazarus died?  Why get rejected by his disciples?  Why go through all that stuff on the cross?  Why not just smile and wave sweetly from a cloud?

Because the Flesh may be useless - on its own - but it's very important.  Because the world is where we live. Because it's what we made of.  Because God likes stuff - the stuff of which we're made - so much he made a whole universe out of it.  Because where we are, and what we do - what we do in our daily lives, as much as what we do on Sunday mornings - matters for all eternity.  

On the wall of chapel by the sea in a little sea-port, I found the words of  Ps 107 - not surprising, in that place - “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.”  The people that worship under that text know that God is not just in a church.

Don't get me wrong - the Flesh is useless.  The Flesh is hopeless.  The Flesh is powerless.  On its own it can do nothing.  It's going to die, it's going to rot, it's going to burn up.  Without the Spirit, bread and wine are just bread and wine.  Human bodies are just a short-lived clump of protein and water.  Human society is, as Frankie Boyle put it, just a bunch of monkeys clinging to a dying rock.

But when God takes on Flesh, he raises it up.  When God comes to earth, he makes it holy.  When God works as a carpenter, and joins with fishermen, he makes work sacred.  When God dies on a cross, he gives even death a purpose.

So we're going to receive Jesus's body and his blood.  And we'll do that in something that looks just like bread and wine - because that's what it's made of.  And in doing that we offer back to God the world of farming - because farmers grew this - and the world of manufacturing - because someone made these.  And the world of distribution - because someone had to bring these here.  And the world of retail - because somebody sold these.  And the world of banking and finance and commerce - because somebody paid for these with money.  And we offer him the world of nature - because grapes and wheat are things that grow.  And this useless Flesh will be filled with the Spirit and our failing bodies will make up the body of Christ.

And we can go to our daily lives tomorrow morning knowing that even Mondays are special - because God is there as well as here. 

Beaker Holiday Club

Amused as I drove up the road today to see a bunch of kids playing on the climbing frame at the Leisure Centre.  They were supervised by a group of teenagers, and all the kids were wearing hi-viz vests.  Nice to know that the Beaker Folk are running holiday clubs, but have they considered the Health and Safety implications of wearing hiviz while climbing on a climbing frame?  A wee tot could easily by caught up on some projecting piece of apparatus, and left hanging there in a dangerous situation.  Not to mention that the hi-viz will make them easier to spot for all the molesters out there, as well as their so-called carers.  All in all I think a risk assessment is called for.