Uncontrollable Fire – Br. Mark Brown

John 6:51-59

He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

As it happens, I was just there at Capernaum a couple weeks ago.  We brothers, you may know, serve as chaplains for courses at St. George’s College in Jerusalem.  Our band of pilgrims visited the site of ancient Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee as part of the College’s “Palestine of Jesus” course.  There are ruins of the first century village as well as a later synagogue and a Byzantine period church built over the house said to have been Peter’s.

One of the effects of going to the Holy Land is to move things out of the realm of  the abstract and imaginary and make them concrete.  You see what Jesus saw: the fertile hills of Galilee, the harsh beauty of the Judean Desert, the snow capped peak of Mt. Hermon.  I vividly remember the first time I saw Mt. Hermon.  In 1991 I was on a dig in the Negev Desert; on weekends we toured the country.  We arrived at a kibbutz on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee one dark January night.  In the morning I walked out onto the beach and there it was, across the lake to the north: a magnificent snow capped mountain.  Something clicked: Jesus would have seen this, the disciples would have seen the breathtaking beauty of Mt. Hermon covered in snow.

To see what Jesus saw, to walk where he walked, to ride a boat where he rode a boat, helps move things out of the abstract into the concrete, out of the intellectual or imaginary into the physical.

Jesus’ words in the Gospel of  John  move us in the same direction.  “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day…” This passage surely refers to the Christian sacred meal instituted at the Last Supper.  Curiously, although John’s Gospel has numerous references to the sacred meal, it does not include the institution of the eucharist in the account of the Last Supper; we get this from the other Gospels.  But the community out of which emerged the Gospel of John was clearly sharing the sacred meal.

Getting back to Jesus’ words: first he uses an ordinary word for “eat” (phagein).  Then, for emphasis, it seems, he changes to another stronger, more vivid word: ( trOgO).  Which can mean to gnaw, or nibble or munch.  It’s an earthier word.  The intention seems to be to insist on the actual eating of something. Actual eating, as opposed to merely thinking about it.  The Christian sacred meal was to be an actual meal, with people gathered to actually eat it.  Not abstract or intellectual or imaginary, but physical.  Real mouths, real teeth, real stomachs, etc., etc. etc.

Although John’s Gospel certainly can be highly poetic, highly theological, highly intellectual, this passage brings things back down to the concrete and physical.   Christianity is to be something done in real time, real space, involving real human beings.  In other words, incarnational—in flesh.  Jesus makes God known in flesh: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We make God known in the flesh, by what we embody, what we incarnate.  As St. Francis famously told his followers:  preach the Gospel at all times—if necessary, use words.  The Gospel is best preached by embodying it, by incarnating it.

Much ink has been spilled, much blood has been spilled over what we are to believe, how we are to understand the things of God, what words we should use to explain God.  But when it  comes right down to it, the Christian religion is grounded in what we embody, what we actually do in this world, what we incarnate.  What we believe is important.  John says he is writing so that we may believe, and in believing have life [John 20:31].  But John insists on believing as more than words we give assent to.  It’s what we do in the three dimensional world we inhabit.  Real people, gathered in a real place to eat real bread, drink real wine.  Real people washing real people’s feet.  John’s account of the Last Supper focuses on the washing of feet.

Theology—great.  Scholarship—great.  Bible study—great.  Personal devotion—great.  All these good things  can be strategies of evasion, however, if we are not grounded in actual practice in an actual community.  If we are not grounded in an embodying way of being.

A new threat to this embodied way of being today is “virtual reality”.  A new form of escapism may have emerged in this age of technology and electronic communication.  There is much to be said about the benefits of information technology and social networking capabilities.  It has changed the way politics is being done—in this country, in Iran, as we’ve seen.  The transparency and speed and suppleness of electronic communication is a great boon to the human enterprise.

And yet ….  If I can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, if I can add and delete them at will, if I can engage or not completely on my own terms, I may come to have unrealistic expectations about what real flesh-and-blood community looks like.  Having the virtual world at my fingertips under my complete control may actually be disabling in terms of real human interaction, which can never be completely under my control.  I saw a family not too long ago gathered around a table in a nice restaurant.  And every one of them was using a cell phone.  We can control our cell phones; but families can be wonderfully and dangerously real and uncontrollable.

The Gospel of John, the gospel of incarnation, brings us back to the flesh-and-blood nature of human community.  Community which, for all its challenges and frustrations, is the only real one we have.  The beauty of John’s Gospel is that it does scale the poetic heights, it does scale the theological mountaintops—and it is grounded in real life, flesh-and-blood human community. A beloved community, a loving community, washing real feet with real water.  A beloved community, a loving community, eating the bread and drinking the wine—munching, gnawing, chewing.  A beloved community, gathered around the Divine Fire, risking the wonder and danger of actually being with one another.  Risking the wonder and danger of the uncontrollable Fire who dwells in our midst—the unpredictable and uncontrollable Fire who dwells in our midst.

© 2009

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  1. George E. Hilty on October 4, 2014 at 16:24

    Agree with Stephanie. De-emphasizing preaching hardly follows Jesus’ teaching and example in Matthew 10,11:
    5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. . . . .11Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.”
    Let us not eclipse the many wonderful things about St. Francis by continually repeating this quote which appears either to be spurious or contrary to the teaching and example of our Lord.

  2. Stephanie Cocke on October 4, 2014 at 06:29

    That quote has somehow been attributed to St. Francis even though there’s no evidence he actually said it. He preached all the time, sometimes in as many as five villages a day. And how does this misquote align with scripture? Paul asks the Church at Rome (Romans 10:14): How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?

  3. Meg Schoenemann on June 28, 2013 at 17:12

    Christianity as a verb rather than a noun. I like it!

  4. barbara frazer lowe on June 28, 2013 at 13:03

    wonderful, real; able to feel yhour being there. thank you Br. Brown

  5. barbara frazer lowe on June 28, 2013 at 13:01

    So powerful to have so real, actual, right from the kibbutz, message. thankhyou Br.Bown; able to picgture you being there.

  6. marc on June 28, 2013 at 12:59

    Agree with all that Br. Mark Brown said, but how about turning our attention to the incarnate world in the form of God’s sacred creation? Our ecosystem is being destroyed and part of that is caused centuries of theology that subordinates nature, rather than seeing it as a divine manifestation of our incarnate lives with other creatures. One problem with Christianity is that it is so radically anthropocentric that we fail to see our responsibility for saving the natural world and giving honor to our fellow creatures.

  7. Lynn Harrington on October 6, 2012 at 08:59

    Beautiful and wise. Thank you

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