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Materialism or the Spirit? Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69

In his poem The Caged Skylark Gerard Manley Hopkins tackles the issue of flesh and spirit. We can tend to think of our human spirits as trapped in our bodies like a skylark put into a cage. It is a sad image, an image of suffering and limitation. A skylark should be free to soar and sing high above the meadow. But Hopkins turns the image around into a more positive and Christian meaning. Sure, it is wrong for a skylark to be imprisoned for it should be free. But a skylark has a home which is the nest above which it soars, and to which it returns. Just so, it is a mistake to think that our spirits are trapped in this cage of bones, even though there may be many times and reasons when we may feel trapped in them. Age, disease and tiredness come to us all! But we need a physical home and this side of the resurrection our spirits and bodies are all of a piece created to be so by God. After the resurrection our bodies will be transformed to be as free as a soaring skylark; to be as light and wonderful as a rainbow that has its apparent footing in the meadow.

Flesh and spirit
John tells us in a long passage about a long and sharp debate that followed Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 5,000. He challenged those who were following him: are you with me just because I fed you or because you believe in me for your salvation? If you believe in me for much more serious reasons than getting a free lunch, then you must eat my flesh and drink my blood. This was more than many of them could bear. It cut right across all their expectations and moral ideas. They objected. 'Does he want us to be cannibals? How can we eat his flesh?'
Our immediate response to this might be long-schooled in immediately jumping to make a spiritual interpretation of Jesus’ apparently shocking words. Jesus is the bread of life. His flesh was given as a willing sacrifice on the cross. If we make this sacrificial approach our own, we receive his life within ourselves. The symbol of eating bread, which gives us strength, is what it means to eat Jesus’ flesh. To drink wine is to quench thirst and this is like taking in his blood which gives us his eternal life. We avoid the scandal by reading it symbolically.

However, should we not interpret this passage sacramentally? I don’t know whether it’s true to say that Jesus already had the Lord’s Supper in mind when he talked about bread and wine. But certainly by the time St John came to make his record of Jesus life, teaching, death and resurrection, the Church had developed the Last Supper into that special meal-within-a-service which we now know as the eucharist. Anglican teaching defines a sacrament as 'an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace'. It's like a kiss: the physical action does nothing, but gives it the added value of a symbol, and it actually conveys love. Love itself may be invisible; the kiss or act of kindness makes it visible. So, the Catechism continues, a sacrament is 'given unto us ... by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive [God's life-changing grace]'. Bread and wine in Communion are a symbol but they're an effective symbol; they actually make us better people. This isn't magic; it depends on us accepting God's grace by faith, going beyond the material to the spiritual meaning. The first Christians were misunderstood about the eucharist. It was thought that there were secretive rituals where Christians practised cannibalism because it was heard that they were eating and drinking Jesus body and blood. You can understand that it seemed scandalous.

A False Dichotomy
But we can sometimes go too far in the other direction. We tend to think so symbolically or so spiritually, that we tear the flesh and the spirit apart. Because we think we’re a caged skylark, we think that all we have to do is open the cage, leave our bodies and think of our spirits as free. If we can’t do it literally, we use the power of our minds to imagine it by going down the symbolic route. Nothing could be further from true Christian thinking. As Hopkins was trying to say: it may be wrong for a skylark to be put inside a cage, but we humans are not caged songbirds, even if Elton John’s tribute to Edith Piaf pictured her like that. Christians take the physical and the spiritual on equal terms because we believe God created it all: body and soul. We have to be clear about where our beliefs come from. It was some Greek philosophy that downgraded the physical and upgraded the spiritual. Hebrew ideas were based on the Scriptures which took the view that God made the whole world and that the physical was just as important as the spiritual. The physical world was the arena or place where God met his people and relate to them. That’s why real places, and real physical rules about where you were allowed to go, who you could stay with or what you could eat were important to them. Stay within the sacred territory of Israel, worship in the Jerusalem Temple, eat only kosher food with kosher people: were all expressions of their identity. That’s also why Roman occupation was such a humiliation to them: it compromised their whole approach to life and their faith. The Church grew and developed in both cultures, but also steered a careful way between the two. It refused to accept the limitations of Hebrew ways of thinking. God was to be found in the whole world and Jesus came to break down barriers which prevented more people coming to God than providing a way for all nations knowing him. But it also refused the Greek impulse to divide body and soul, to say “body = bad; soul or spirit = good”.

Where the struggle really lies
St Paul wrote to the Ephesians that our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh. We can then go on to interpret what he said in a purely spiritual way. We’re not fighting against things you can see, touch and feel, but against unseen evil forces, against spiritual enemies, and we jump from that to ideas about Satan and demons. That misses the point, too. St Paul was writing to those who could face opposition from Roman authorities. Christians’ values could sometimes be seen as a threat to their surrounding culture. They lived by a different code, they proclaimed Jesus as Lord rather than idolise the emperor. They refused to sacrifice to Greek gods but gave valuable resources to the poor and needy. They were misunderstood, maligned and maltreated. But they were to know that the local officials or citizens who opposed them were not the real enemy. The source of this persecution was far more sinister: it was the force of vested interests being challenged; of power feeling under threat; of corrupt human authority realising it didn’t have a moral leg to stand on. It might be easy to personalise that as Satan or demons, but it is a far more subtle enemy to reckon with.

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 16)

26 August
We may liken it to the changing face of warfare. The struggle was not against the full-on forces of tanks and artillery in an obvious theatre of war, but against the guerrilla tactics of those who melted into the hinterland once they’ve laid an improvised explosive device to run over. Blood and flesh is as obvious as an army that faces you. The struggle that Christians are involved in is more like facing terrorist opposition. That’s why Paul went on to use the image of a soldier’s armour to try and describe what a believer needed in this struggle.

Most of the armour is defensive and designed to help the believer stand firm where they were. Truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, and salvation are vital. The only piece of equipment that is not defensive was the sword of the Spirit, the word of God – something that elsewhere in the Bible is described as being able to penetrate deeply into someone’s life, so sharp is its blade of truth-telling. The whole approach of the Christian, so equipped, is to be bathed in a spirit of prayer. The Church grew and developed in the real world. Christians did not pray to escape the world and its struggles so that they could live in some spiritual heaven – they stood firm in the world where they lived, knowing that God created flesh and spirit. They sought to make a stand for their faith knowing that the values of the kingdom of heaven by which they lived, had an impact on the material world they were part of. Feeding the hungry; seeking justice for the oppressed; healing the sick; relieving distress – these were all ways in which Christians sought to follow Jesus. They were as much the meat and drink of their lives as the bread and wine they shared on Sundays. To feed on the body of Christ was to be strengthened to serve him in the real world.

King Solomon built a great temple in Jerusalem even though he knew that God couldn’t be kept in a box, however grand. He wanted it to be a place that all peoples, not just his own, could meet God. Christians believe that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We know we are not perfect, but we believe that somehow, through the real physical world and playing our part in it, it is possible to be in touch with God and to enable others to find him, too: that is why we eat & drink Jesus!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith