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Sunday, 19 August 2012

Wisdom

Jesus says: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

Wisdom says: “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live.”

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

“Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live.”

They sort of resonate, don't they? At least, they do for us, since we are used to thinking of bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ when we make our communions; and however we understand it, we are used to hearing “This is my Body, given for you,” and “This is my Blood, shed for you,” every time the Sacrament is celebrated.

So when Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we don't really turn a hair. But it was very different for his first hearers – they would have had no idea that he would take the Jewish Friday-night ritual and lift it and transform it into something very different, yet essentially the same. For them, when he said, “You must eat of my flesh and drink of my blood,” what they thought was cannibalism.

And, of course, that was seriously offensive to them, as it would be to us.  Perhaps even more offensive than it would be to us, since we have no taboo against eating blood.  But the Jews, like the Muslims, do have a terrific taboo against it, believing that the “life is in the blood”, and so to them it is probably not only unheard-of to drink blood, but rather sick-making, too.  Whereas other cultures – the Masai – certainly, drink blood as a matter of routine.  And even we have our black puddings, although I think we’d blench at being offered a nice warm glass of fresh blood.

And, of course, there are things that we wouldn’t normally think of as food that other cultures eat routinely – think of the Chinese and their dogs and snakes, for instance.  Or even the French with their snails, which are actually delicious if you like garlic butter!  And I know that many West Indians follow the example of the Jews and Muslims and eat no pork, and probably feel rather sick at the thought, just as I expect Hindus do about eating beef.

I expect you remember that Jack Rosenthal play, “The Evacuees”, where the two Jewish children are presented with “delicious sausages” for their supper and expected to eat them.  And although they’ve been told and told that as it is a national emergency, they may eat food that is normally forbidden, they simply can’t bring themselves to try.  The taboo against eating pork runs so deep, for them, that they simply can’t overcome it.

And Jesus’ followers certainly felt most uncomfortable at his words.  To start with, they simply couldn’t understand what he was on about:  “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  Visions, there, of Jesus cutting great chunks out of his arms, I shouldn’t wonder.  Or of people cutting up a dead body and preparing to eat it – in some cultures, that would be considered quite normal, and the correct way of honouring the dead, but not for the Jews, any more than for us.

We know, from later on in that same passage, that many of Jesus' followers found the whole thing too hard to stomach, quite literally, and abandoned him, and it appears that the rest of his followers stayed on in spite of, not because of, what he had said.

In fact, what Jesus had said appears very far from wise. But to those of his followers who did stay with him, and so down to us, it does echo, doesn't it, with the passage from Proverbs:

“Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live.”

Wisdom, here, is personified as a woman. There is a lot more about her in the Bible, especially in Proverbs Chapter 8, of which we read only a small extract this morning. Listen to this, for instance:
“Her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand
in her left had are riches and honour.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her:
those who hold her fast are called happy.”

And then again:
“All the words of my mouth are just;
none of them is crooked or perverse.”
“I love those who love me,
and those who seek me find me.
With me are riches and honour,
enduring wealth and prosperity.
My fruit is better than fine gold;
what I yield surpasses choice silver.
I walk i the way of righteousness,
along the paths of justice,
bestowing wealth on those who love me
and making their treasuries full. . .”

The old testament writers tend to personify Wisdom, and even to identify her with God. Lady Wisdom, or Sophia, to use the Greek term, is very definitely one aspect of Who God is. Incidentally, it can sometimes be instructive to pray to God as “Lady Wisdom” - don't if it feels really awkward and unintuitive, but it is a valid form of address and some people find it helpful.

But what is the point of all this? What does it say to us this morning?

Well, I am irresistibly drawn to the first chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

To the Jews, what Jesus said about eating his flesh and drinking his blood seemed the height of foolishness – and of disgustingness, too! Yet more foolish, perhaps, was that the Messiah, God's chosen one, should die a criminal's death – not just killed honourably in war, but put to death like a common criminal.

And yet, and yet. The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom; the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

It is only when we come to God in our weakness that God can act. If we try to know best, if we forge ahead without seeking God's will, then we will very probably come to grief.

I come back so often to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was so dreading the Cross – well, who wouldn't? He begged and prayed that he wouldn't have to go through with it, and it took him a long time, and an enormous struggle with himself, to come to the place where he could say “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”

That may have seemed a foolish decision – the disciples certainly thought it was. How could it work for their teacher to allow himself to be put to death? How, indeed, could it work to eat his flesh and drink his blood? But the foolishness of God was wiser than human wisdom, and through the Cross, the ultimate foolishness, if you like, through the Cross we are saved. And through eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Sacrament, and the other means of grace, of course, we learn to know him, and are made more like him.

There are many, many examples of what seems like foolishness by our standards that turned out not to be so when measured by God's. People like George Muller, who founded homes for orphan children in Bristol, and who was resolved not to ask anybody for help but to wait until God laid it on their hearts to do so. God always did, and people always responded – sometimes not until the very last minute, but I gather they simply never went hungry! The Overseas Missionary Fellowship, to this very day, doesn't publicise specific needs, and although there's a link on their website to enable you to give, if you wish, they don't push it. They trust God for all their income, even today.

So do we trust God's foolishness or do we try to rely on our own wisdom? I know I am far more inclined to rely on my own so-called wisdom; I'm always quite sure I know better than God! But I also know that I can't see round corners the way God can. What might seem the ultimate in foolishness to me may well turn out to be the best thing that could have happened!

“Come,” says my Lady Wisdom, “eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live.”

So – shall we be wise with the wisdom of God? Shall we let go and trust God, or do we want to keep on knowing best? I know what I want to do, which is to trust God to be wiser than me. I don't always succeed, but that's what I want. What about you? Amen.