Sunday, August 26, 2012

The power of women and the fears of men

Text: Mark 5 21-43 (two healings)

When religion becomes the focus of a news story, I often cringe. Today, I look at two such stories. The first is about the recent jailing of three women in a Russian punk rock group for a protest video they made in a Moscow Cathedral this February. The second is about the false claim made last week by a religious politician in the United States that rape cannot lead to pregnancy.

Both events show us religion at its worst, I think. In searching for a different way for the church to approach the issues of women, the state and reproduction, I place these news events against the backdrop of our reading today about the healing of two women by Jesus. The latter can be viewed through the lenses both of women's fertility and of religious and legal propriety, I think.

A desperate father approaches Jesus because his daughter is dying. As Jesus walks to the girl's house, a woman who has suffered from irregular bleeding for 12 years touches the hem of Jesus' robe. Her bleeding would have made this woman infertile during those years. The young girl at age 12 is about to enter her fertile years. In both cases, their healing allows them to live into one of the roles associated with being a woman -- the power to give birth and to form a family.

Jesus' healing of these women in our Gospel story occurs despite religious rules that deem both to be ritually impure and therefore untouchable. The irregular bleeding by the older woman means that she would have been permanently taboo in the culture of her time. And when the young girl died, her corpse would also have be considered ritually unclean and taboo.

In both cases, Jesus ignores these rules around impurity. He applauds the woman for touching his robe and says that her faith has healed her. And when Jesus approaches the corpse of the young girl, he takes her by the hand and raises her to new life -- once again ignoring a taboo.

The power to become pregnant and religious rules about what is taboo appear in the news stories that have dominated our media recently.

This February, three Russian punk musicians filmed a 30 second video in an Orthodox cathedral while performing a satirical song that prayed to the Virgin Mary to prevent the re-election of autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin. They were arrested after the video became popular on the Internet. A week ago Friday after a trial in which the judge showed his contempt for what he called their blasphemy, they were sentenced to two years in jail.

No one would deny that the action of these three women was provocative. It was designed to anger both Orthodox worshippers and supporters of Putin and to protest the close ties between church and state that have developed in the last 20 years in Russia since the collapse of Communism.

To their shame, the Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church backed this prosecution. They seemed more focused on the sanctity of the sanctuary than on the right of public dissent. Did they forget that Jesus cleared the Temple of his time? Did they forget that he flouted religious rules in favour of healing? Charges of blasphemy and heresy dodged Jesus throughout his ministry and contributed to his crucifixion by the Roman Empire.

The Russian state, by making this group's "blasphemy" a crime punishable by two years in jail shows that it has given up any pretence of the separation of church and state. In Russia today, Patriarch and President are united against voices of dissent and protest. It looks to me like a flashback to the days when church and empire worked hand in glove across most of Europe.

Then there is the second news story. Last Sunday, U.S. Congressman Todd Akin repeated a fiction that rape cannot lead to pregnancy. This repugnant idea is an attempt by people on the religious right to justify their opposition to legal abortion even when a woman says a pregnancy is the result of rape.

Now, I imagine that in any church gathering like ours today there will be different attitudes towards abortion. The United Church of Canada has been in favour of personal choice on abortion for many decades. But some churches oppose legal abortion, and some members of the United Church are "pro-life."

Parenting has a huge impact on all of our lives. The decision whether to become a parent or not; the heartache of infertility; the panic if a pregnancy is unwanted; the physical risks of pregnancy and childbirth; the joys and difficulties of raising children; the unimaginable pain if one's child dies -- these and other issues related to parenting are some of the most difficult and important ones we ever face.

Perhaps it is the central role of parenting that explains why the politics of reproduction remains at the top of our cultural and church agendas.

Men and women, of course, play different roles. During the nine months of pregnancy, women play a role that men cannot. Many of us think that attempts to outlaw abortion reflect a wish by some men to gain control where nature has not given it to us.

Of course, women are not the only one's affected by reproduction. Given how high the stakes are, they way these issues are handled affects all members of family and society. Nor would anyone say that decisions around pregnancy are trivial or without great emotional impact. But in the end, given that a woman's body and her health are uniquely at stake, who should have the final legal say about a pregnancy?

Canada gives that choice to the individual woman who is pregnant. While many Christians  argue that abortion is murder, most Canadians do not agree. In the past decade, there has been an average of 500 murders in Canada each year. During that same period, there has been an average of 80,000 abortions here every year. The difference between the two is clear to most of us.

Are a million or more Canadian women murderers? Should they all be locked up in jail? To ask these questions is to answer them, I believe.

Nevertheless, some Christians say that every pregnancy is a reflection of God's will, which is another reason put forward for making abortion illegal in all cases.

One way of interpreting our Gospel reading today might support such a theology. Jesus heals an illness and raises a young child from her deathbed. One could then argue that sickness and death depend upon God's will to act or not to act. In this interpretation, everything that happens to us -- including sickness, death, and certainly pregnancy -- reflects God's will.

However, I could not disagree more. God is with us. But this does not mean that sickness, death or pregnancy happen for anything other than natural reasons.

Scripture, tradition and our hearts assure us that healing and salvation are available to us all. But the healing given to us by God's grace is not an escape from sickness, death, or natural causes. Healing is the presence of God in Christ even when we are sick or dying. Salvation reflects the fact that death does not overcome the spirit of divine Love within each of us.

Our Gospel reading should never be used to suggest to grieving parents that their child could be resuscitated if they just had enough faith. It should never be used to suggest to sick people that they could be cured if they would only reach out to God. It should never be used to suggest that they have been abandoned by God. To me, the passage reminds us that Jesus comes to us regardless of religious rules and that God's Love is present even in the face of sickness or death.

All of life is a gift, both what we appreciate about it -- such as good health and a wanted pregnancy; as well as things we don't appreciate -- such as sickness or an unwanted pregnancy. But accepting the gift of life does not mean being passive in the face of things we do not like. Just as we can try to cure a sickness by medical means so we can also choose to nurture or terminate a pregnancy. The latter action, while never taken lightly, is not blasphemy or murder. To say otherwise is irrational, in my opinion. It is a theological cover for the desire to control women's bodies.

When I hear of religious politicians who demand that the state control women's bodies on the basis of irrational theology; or hear of presidents like Putin in Russia who collaborate with church patriarchs to put protestors in jail, I feel anger.

I am cheered, however, when I remember that Jesus stands against both religious elites and the state in favour of relationship, sharing, and the flourishing of life.

Jesus did not urge us to grab state power so that we could impose our religious prejudices on others. He stood against the power of both state and religious rulers in order to be with the sick, the powerless, and the oppressed.

Today I pray for all who are struggling with an unwanted pregnancy, including those who are the victims of rape. May they be free of the harassment of religious moralists who harbour irrational ideas about God. Today, I also pray for the protestors who have been jailed in Russia. May public pressure free them soon. Finally, I pray that churches will stop urging the state to use its repressive power to control women's bodies and to turn bad theology into public policy.

May all of us feel the healing touch of God in Christ who has the power to raise us to new life in any moment despite pious politicians and misguided church leaders.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Fear and faith in the storms of life

Texts: 2 Corinthians 6 1-13 (day of salvation) ; Mark 4 35-41 (Jesus calms the storm)

Several times over the past 20 years, I have tried to adopt meditation as one of my spiritual disciplines. But so far, none of these attempts have stuck.

In meditation, one tries to calm and focus the mind by moving attention again and again to one's breathing. Doing so is supposed to help thoughts and anxieties that constantly chatter away at the back of your mind drift away.

The problem is many people like me cannot focus our attention on a simple thing like breathing for more than a few seconds. We find it difficult to reach the gracious emptiness that lies beyond our anxious inner thoughts.

In reading our familiar Gospel story today about Jesus calming the storm, I am reminded of a meditation tape I once used. Unlike many meditation practices which involve sitting up straight, this one was designed to be practiced while lying on one's back. The tape suggested that the listener imagine he or she were resting comfortably on the bottom of a beautiful lake while breathing from an oxygen tank.

The listener was encouraged to regard the anxious thoughts that float across the mind as frothy waves far away at the lake's surface. No matter how stormy life seemed to be at the surface, at the bottom of the lake, all remained stable and calm. Amid this stability and calm, the listener was directed to focus on his or her breathing and let any anxious thoughts churn away harmlessly at the surface.

Perhaps this is one way to see Jesus' ability to sleep through a fearsome storm in the stern of a boat while his friends, the disciples, become frantic at the danger. Jesus shows them that beneath the surface of life's many crises and storms, there is another a place where we can remain trusting and faithful, a place where life's dangers do not shake our confidence.

After the disciples awake him, Jesus calms the waves and rebukes the winds. Yet even after this miracle, his friends remain terrified.

I sympathize with the disciples because there seems to be so much to fear in life. Take nature. Mostly we love the beauty of our world. We rely on the the rain, soil and sun to help us grow crops. But as we know, nature is not always calm and gentle. A season of bounty can be followed by one of drought or hail. And the fury of nature's storms often leads to destruction. The people in Saskatchewan who have lived through tornadoes this summer can attest to that fact.

Nevertheless, Jesus tells us to have faith instead of fear. One reading of the story might suggest that we should have faith because Jesus calms the storm and protects his friends from the winds and waves.

But that would be too simple, I believe. Jesus will soon head to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, arrested and executed. Not only that, Jesus will urge his followers to take up their own cross and follow him. Far from calming the storms of life, Jesus heads directly into the centre of the storm of his time, and he calls us to follow him.

I believe that the faith Jesus exhibits as he sleeps in the boat in the middle of a stormy night is a faith that comes from accepting the inevitable crises and pain of life. It is not a faith that believes that God will magically make all these crises disappear with a simple command.

Jesus shows us another source of faith. Although storms, pain and death are inevitable in life, there is a deeper sense in which we are safe in the midst of all of life's storms. At the deepest places in our souls, God is with us . . .

The storms of life were in evidence, I think, at the meeting of the United Church's General Council, which ended in Ottawa yesterday. Like General Councils before it, this one often seemed gruelling and filled with disputes; at least, that was the impression I got as I watched sessions broadcast live from a church website.

But despite the turmoil at the meeting, I am pleased with its outcomes. For one, we have a new Moderator. He is Dr. Rev. Gary Paterson of St. Andrew's Wesley United in downtown Vancouver.

The headline about Paterson is that he is gay. In fact, he is the first openly gay person to be elected to the top position of any mainline church anywhere. Paterson is married to another ordained United Church minister, Rev. Tim Stevenson, who now serves as a Councillor on Vancouver's City Council.

But I agree with Paterson that the headline about his election could just as equally be the fact that his sexual orientation and that of two other gay nominees for Moderator was not an issue in the election.

I think that Paterson has a lot to offer our church beyond his role as trail-breaker for gay people. I am drawn to his passion, poetic nature, pastoral skills, and long experience in ministry. I listened to the speeches of all 15 nominees, and I liked the one given by Paterson the best. I believe that we are lucky to have him as our Moderator for the next three years.

The Council also passed resolutions that expanded the doctrine section of our Basis of Union, modified the United Church Crest to incorporate First Nations themes into its design, adopted a new Statement on Ministry, and wrestled with many other topics. These decisions occurred between numerous worship services of singing, sharing, reflection and prayer.

There was also the debate around Israel/Palestine. I am pleased that the Council moved forward with many of the resolutions of the report of a working group on that issue, this despite lobbying against it by groups who support the illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River.

The issue of Israel/Palestine presents many difficulties, of course -- 3,000 years of disputed history; confusion about the roles of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; western military intervention in the region since World War One; links between violence in the Middle East and anti-semitism and Islamophobia in Canada; the rise of both fundamentalism and secularism in our lifetimes; differences between Stephen Harper's positions in the region and those of previous Canadian governments; and recent popular revolts against U.S.-backed dictators in Arab regimes. All this and more tends to muddy the debate.

Nevertheless, General Council moved our church further along a path of trying to respond to our Christian partners in the region even as it listened to different voices within Canada, including Jewish leaders who support the settlements and Jewish leaders who oppose them . . .

General Council did not always look to me like a placid or easy event. But the Council did its work with enthusiasm and good will, and for that we can all be grateful.

Our church often seems like a stormy place. But we also are a church that chooses faith over fear again and again. We try to stand for justice. When we stumble, we get up and try again, because we want to respond to God's call. We confront difficult issues like sexuality and politics in the Holy Land. When this upsets other churches or some of our own members, we listen but try to move forward because we want to respond to God's call. In the face of criticism both from secular and fundamentalist sources, we carry on because God in Christ calls us to faith and not fear.

Still, the turmoil of these debates might sometimes be difficult to take. When that is true for us, perhaps we could try to be like meditator praying at the bottom of the lake. Perhaps we could see all the heat, heartache and effort of the discussions in our church as the waves occurring far above the stable and beautiful lake bottom where we lay praying and breathing secure in the embrace of God's love.

Now, the difficulties I have had with meditation over the years show that this trusting place is often hard for me to find. But God's Grace continually clears the path to calm places where fear drifts away and we know that regardless of our circumstances, we are saved.

In our other Scripture reading today -- the one from St. Paul's second letter to the church in Corinth -- the apostle says that "now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!" No matter how difficult a day might seem to us, Paul reminds us that it is always a day of salvation when we are in Christ.

Our new Moderator, Gary Paterson, likes to quote poetry. So I will end this sermon with a poem about the day of salvation, which Paterson quoted at the end of his acceptance speech on Thursday. It is titled "This Amazing Day" by e.e. cummings.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened).

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Justice, kindness and humility in the United Church of Canada

Text: Michah 6:6-8 (What does the Lord require of you?)

When I was growing up in Cornwall Ontario, issues of justice and equality seemed to dominate worship at the United Church in which my father was minister. We often focused on poverty in the Global South and on our responsibility as people who live in a rich and privileged country to give generously to foreign missions. As well, we were urged to imagine a different world where wealth would be shared more equally.

It was also around this time that concerns about the environment first began to appear in the media. Having become aware of some of these environmental issues, I argued with my father that our church should stop focusing so much attention on poverty in the South and instead wake up to the fact that Canada was also at risk. I argued that the environment should be our top concern.

I remembered that argument with my father as I prepared for this service with its focus on social justice. None of us are opposed to justice, peace and equality. But how do we decide which are the most important issues; and how should the church try to tackle them? In other words, what does the Lord require of us?

Micah's answer to that question -- to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God -- provides the theme for this week's meeting of the United Church of Canada's General Council. 350 commissioners from across Canada are gathered in Ottawa under the banner "Seeking, Loving, and Walking." General Council is the highest governing body of our church and meets once every three years.

The phrase from Micah, "to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God,"  is one of the most well-loved passages in the Old Testament. This is especially the case in liberal denominations like the United Church. The passage says that acting justly and with kindness and humility is more important in God's eyes than how we worship or what we believe.

So this weekend as commissioners from across Canada begin their week-long meeting of prayer, discernment, and decision-making, I look at the place of social justice, loving-kindness, and humility in the life of the United Church.

Humility did not come easily to the United Church. Our church was founded in 1925 in a huge burst of enthusiasm. By combining the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches in Canada, we became the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. At our height 55 years ago, more than 30% of English Canadians saw the United Church as their spiritual home. We were an inspired and inspiring church, and we used our prominence to take a lead on many social issues in Canada. 

There wasn't much controversy about the liberal nature of the United Church and its political positions until the 1960s. Then the cultural upheavals in the United States around civil rights for African Americans and women, opposition to the war in Vietnam, and the rise of a youth culture of sex, drugs and rock and roll upset the confidence and unity of North American churches.

In the decades since then, churches have chosen one of two political paths. Some like the United Church have remained liberal. We support the rights of poor nations in the South and oppressed minorities in our own country. Other churches emphasize conservative themes such as support for the dominance of Western countries and traditional notions of marriage and morality.

It is not true that some churches are political and others are not. All denominations take a keen interest in social and political concerns, which makes sense when we remember Jesus' ministry. Jesus worked among the poor and he stood in opposition to the Roman Empire of his day. What is most striking to me is how the church has so often supported Empire -- archbishops crowning kings, popes crowning emperors, and clergy everywhere urging young men to march off to war in defence of the empire -- all of which seems completely foreign to the work of Jesus' with the victims of empire.

But while all churches have political concerns, all of us have also had to adjust to the church's reduced power in Canadian society in recent decades. When the United Church's General Council last met in Ottawa in 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker addressed it. Today it is unthinkable that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would address the meeting.

Despite this decline in our prestige, it is church statements on political topics that give us the most media coverage. On the left, people complain when conservative churches pressure the government to enforce traditional morality around issues like abortion or marriage. 

On the right, people complain when a church takes a stand against imperialism. This year, the hot button topic for the United Church is again Israel and Palestine. Nine members of the Canadian Senate, all of whom are members of the United Church,  recently wrote an Open Letter to the General Council criticizing a report on Israel/Palestine whose recommendations will be discussed at the meeting this week.

Personally, I am pleased with this report, which was written by three church leaders including a former Moderator. I am in sympathy with its recommendations that we oppose continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan and Gaza Strip. On the other hand, I can understand why some people might be upset.

Until the last few generations, churches always supported the empires in which they had been nurtured. In World War I, it would have been unthinkable for German churches to oppose the Kaiser in his attempt to break free of British dominance of the world, just as it would have been unthinkable for the churches in Britain or Canada not to support the King in his attempt to keep Germany from succeeding. 

I am unsure if many of us in the United Church understand how big the change in our stance towards empire has been in the last 100 or even 50 years. I am pleased that our church tries to raise awareness of problems associated with Western imperialism. I think such work is well-grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, this orientation marks a 180 degree change from where the church stood for more than 1500 years. 

One of the reasons churches are now free to speak out against the evils of racism, war, and pollution is because we no longer play a key role in propping up the status quo. That role is now taken by the media, the school system, and other cultural forces. Churches have freedom to speak the Gospel truth as we see it because we are no longer considered all that important.

Church today has been shunted to the margins. This fact might make some of us feel nostalgic or sad. But the margins are also humble places, and as such, they are places from which we have a better chance to seek justice and practice loving-kindness to ourselves and our neighbours, I believe.

Humility seems like a good place to start when it comes to some of the big social problems of our time, problems such as nuclear weapons, climate change, environmental destruction, or peace in the Middle East. We try to respond to God's call to seek justice on such issues. But what one person, church, or even nation can do about such problems does not often seem clear.

I think that the United Church more or less gets it right. We take big issues seriously and we oppose economic or political policies that we believe might make things worse. On the other hand, we do so as a diminished force in our country and with the awareness that we don't have easy solutions for any of them.

So even as we seek justice, we are graciously forced to walk humbly with our God. This humble path is shown to us most clearly in the Way of the Cross of Christ. It is on this marginal path that we can also best show loving kindness to ourselves and our neighbours. We may not know how to slow climate change or keep the world safe from nuclear war. But we can be there for our neighbours when they mourn the loss of a loved one or celebrate a joyous occasion. We can try to be the hands and feet of Christ to one another in small ways even as we try to make our voices heard on bigger issues.

In this life, we encounter many problems, big and small. Life's ups and downs also force us to confront our limitations. We are broken sinners and holy fools; and the church is made up of other people as broken and as foolish as we are. 

Despite or because of our lack of power, we are free to speak truth to power and to stand with other oppressed and marginal people. In church as in the rest of life, we don't have easy answers. Instead, we have the suffering Christ who walks with us in our pain, our joy and our struggles for a world of more peace and justice.

So as General Council unfolds over the next week, let us pray that the delegates will feel the presence of the Crucified and Risen Christ. As they seek justice, may they know that they are broken and holy fools. And may all of us receive the grace to respond in love and kindness to everyone we meet and walk humbly with God in Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

"The Plain Teaching of Scripture"

Text: John 6: 1-15, 25-35, 41-69 (the Bread of Life)

Today's long reading from the Gospel of John begins with the familiar story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with a few loaves and fishes.

As is common, John adds more to the story than do the other three Gospel writers. He follows the feeding of the five thousand with a set of speeches by Jesus that connect that miraculous feeding to the sacrament of communion.

John alone tells us that the occasion of the miraculous feeding was Passover, which is also when Jesus' crucifixion will later occur. John alone has Jesus saying that he is the Bread of Life and that eating his flesh and blood is the only way to have life.

The chapter is filled with metaphors, claims, counter-claims, questions and puzzling responses. I imagine that at least some of us here today could relate to the following statement found in the reading: "Many of his disciples, when they heard Jesus, said, 'This is a hard teaching; who can listen to it?'"

In puzzling over this chapter this week, the phrase "the plain teaching of Scripture" came to mind. This phrase is often used by conservative Christians when arguing that tough questions can be answered by a simple reading of the Bible: perhaps the idea that only those who believe in Jesus Christ will be saved, as our reading today might imply; or that homosexuality is always a sin; or that women should not assume leadership in families or in churches.

Like many liberal Christians, I don't subscribe to the idea that tough questions can be answered simply by reading passages in the Bible. There are several reasons for adopting this attitude: the awareness that the Bible is a human product; that it was written over hundreds of years by scores of different authors; that some texts contradict others; and that it is often filled with metaphors, which makes Scripture more like poetry than a set of legal documents.

Some conservative Christians may be moving closer this attitude towards the Bible as well. I wondered about this when I read this week that Canada's Christian and Missionary Alliance Church reversed its opposition to women in ministry at its General Assembly meeting in Winnipeg last month. From now on, women as well as men will be ordained to ministry within the Alliance Church, as has been the case in the United Church since 1936.

The Alliance Church is smaller than the United Church, but the Alliance congregations in Coronach and Assiniboia are two of the biggest in our area. I am pleased that after years of debate and prayer their Church has come to this decision, and I hope that it will be welcomed in all parts of the denomination.

Equality between men and women remains a hot topic in some parts of the world. For instance, a lot has been made of the fact that the current Olympic Games in London is the first one where all national delegations include at least one female athlete. Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have finally agreed to allow women to compete despite religious objections.

In Canada almost all of us accept the equality of men and women. But despite the legal equality now enjoyed by women in Canada, some Christian churches, including the largest one, the Roman Catholic Church, continue to discriminate against women when it comes to ministry. Such churches usually justify this stance because of the "plain teaching of Scripture."

Indeed, there are places in the Bible where a text plainly says that women should not lead in church. The most notorious is First Timothy: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety."

There you have it: clear direction from Holy Scripture that women should submit to men.  Except, what if one responds to such a text by saying, "So?" To treat such a text as more authoritative than the other means we use to understand the roles of women and men such as personal experience, social and cultural development, and scientific knowledge is to treat the books of the Bible as an idol in my opinion.

I don't know the details of the discussion in the Alliance General Assembly this summer, but I imagine that its decision on women in ministry might change the attitudes of some people within the Alliance Church towards the Bible.

Nor is the Alliance Church the only denomination changing its mind. Last year, the largest Lutheran denomination in Canada voted to allow openly gay and lesbian people to become ministers as did the Presbyterian churches in the United States and Scotland. Many here will remember how that issue divided the United Church in the 1980s. But a generation later, issues relating to sexuality are relatively uncontroversial among us.

Conservatives warn that ignoring texts like First Timothy on the role of women puts a church on a slippery slope that lead to heresy. I partly agree with them. But I believe that the slippery slope is a gracious one that can lead a church to greater hospitality and openness.

I am not suggesting that the Alliance Church will soon follow the United Church and some Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations down this gracious slope to offer full acceptance to gay, lesbian or queer people, though I would be thrilled if that were to happen. I do believe that by turning its back on the "plain teaching" of texts like First Timothy on the role of women, the Alliance Church has taken a step away from a narrow focus on the words of Scripture. The words in the Bible, after all, are not God. They are just tools that we use in our own stumbling ways to try and point to the God who is Love.

Which leads me back to today's thick and difficult reading from John. What might it all mean? Several times in it, Jesus says that belief in him leads to eternal life. But what does eternal life mean? Is it a quality that we briefly taste when, with Grace, we stumble into a moment without ego? Is it a guarantee that our egos and all their selfish desires will live forever in heaven. And what about the big majority of people who have never heard of Jesus? Can they not achieve eternal life?

In our reading, why does Jesus both repeat the graphic images of eating his flesh and blood and then also say that it is God's Spirit that gives life and that the flesh is of no avail? Also, why does Jesus urge us to believe in him on the one hand and then on the other remind us that no one can come to him unless God draws them forward?  One could go on.

Well, whatever treasures and lessons this chapter contains, one thing I would never do is describe its teachings as plain. But despite not having any definitive conclusions, I will close with a few impressions.

I love Jesus' image of the Bread of Life. I appreciate the graphic nature of his words about eating his flesh and blood, despite the disquiet this causes to many of his disciples. I am also reassured when Jesus reminds us that all of life depends on God's Spirit. I am aware that the text might be interpreted as making belief a requirement for salvation. But I am pleased that Jesus counters that interpretation by saying that no one can come to him unless God the Father draws one forward. Here, Jesus reminds us of Grace.

Our reading today is the only place in John where Jesus talks about Holy Communion. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John does not show Jesus instituting a sacrament of communion with his disciples on the night of his betrayal. As such, this seemed like an appropriate text for us to hear before communion today.

Communion symbolizes many things: the death and resurrection of Jesus, our physical and spiritual incorporation into God through an act of eating and drinking; and our status as recipients of the gift of eternal life.

In order for us to better grasp the concept of eternal life, we rely upon prayer, worship, service to the community, rituals like communion, and the many pain- and grace-filled experiences of our lives.

Knowing in our guts what Jesus means by the gift of eternal life sometimes comes in rare moments of awareness. Such moments do not happen every time we pray, every time we serve our family or neighbours in love, or every time we take the bread and cup. But such moments do occur; moments when we know with full confidence that we are of God and that God lives within us. Moments when the simple and everyday links up with eternity.

We cannot force such moments of union to happen. But Jesus assures us that God's Spirit continually draws us towards life eternal through Christ Jesus.

Jesus is the Bread of Life. Let us taste this truth again and remind ourselves not only in words but in our guts and our hearts that we are all part of God's eternity.

Thanks be to God.