Some things are beyond words

Pentecost 13 – 2018

John 6:51-58

Marian Free

In the name of God who who desires relationship not understanding. Amen

Many years ago I had the wonderful experience of preparing three young girls for their first communion. It is the tradition of the Anglican Church in Australia to admit the children (over the age of 7) of church going families to Holy Communion after a period of preparation. The theory is that receiving the Eucharist is a serious matter and that children should understand what is happening.

The process involves families working through a book that explains the Eucharist – including the names for the liturgical garments and the Eucharistic vessels. The workbook requires a reasonable level of literacy and a knowledge of the Eucharist that many adults do not have. In this particular instance the children came from a disadvantaged family who lived in an impoverished part of the city. Their mother had recently abandoned them to live with someone else and their father was doing a valiant job of looking after them. Like many of the children in the area, the literacy skills of these three were poor to non-existent.

I was caught between fulfilling the requirements of the church and responding to the desire of these children to be fully included in the life of the Christian community. It was clear to me that their writing skills were not going to allow them to fill in the exercises in the book. It was equally obvious that the use of language like ‘chasuble’, ‘ciborium’ or even ‘font’ were so far beyond their capacity to comprehend or remember that we were not going to progress very far.

One Sunday as I was pondering the way forward I noticed, as the priest was saying the Prayer of Thanksgiving, that the three young girls had made their way to the front of the altar. There they were, standing in rapt attention to all that was going on before them. It was clear to me then, that they had intuited the significance of what was going on (perhaps more than any adult in the church). No amount of book learning would give them what their hearts already knew – that what was happening at the altar had a deep and profound meaning and that they wanted to share in that experience.

The whole of John Chapter 6 is a reflection on the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand. The arguments are circular, heavily dependent on an understanding of the Old Testament and an interpretation of the story of Israel in the wilderness. At times, as we have seen, Jesus is obscure and he does not always give direct answers. But Jesus’ teaching does not occur in a vacuum. The teaching is based on what the listeners have already experienced. They have eaten their fill of bread. Their their physical needs has been met. Jesus goes on to explain that being in relationship with him will satisfy their spiritual needs. Experience precedes understanding, the material precedes the metaphorical.

As Craig Satterlee points out: ‘Jesus is less concerned with getting people’s to understand than he is in getting them to eat.’ ‘He promises rather than instructs or explains.’ Jesus’ focus is on relationship first and foremost. Those who do not challenge Jesus are those who instinctively know and trust him. They are not worried so much about the intellectual details they simply see in and through Jesus a means to deepen their relationship with God and a way to enrich their life in the present that will at the same time ensure life for eternity. Jesus’ challengers will not understand no matter how he tries to explain himself.

As those children reminded me (and continue to remind me) some things are simply beyond words.


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