Posts Tagged ‘material world’

Food for the soul

August 1, 2015

Pentecost 10 – 2015

John 6:26-35 (Some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who feeds our hearts, minds and souls with words of life. Amen.

Bread comes in many forms

Bread comes in many forms

In our Western society in which we have access to supermarkets twenty four hours a day it is difficult to imagine being totally dependent on what we are able to grow for ourselves and, except for the inconvenience of increased prices, we have no real idea how vulnerable food producers are to changes in the weather patterns, to drought and flood. Except in times of natural disaster – when people strip the supermarket shelves of bread, milk and other staples – we have no shortage of bread. Even then, most Australian suburbs boast more than one bakery that even in times of crisis can usually produce fresh bread each morning.

Today, in the West, we have a huge range of foods available to us and we know far more about nutrition than any generation before us, yet we still speak of bread as the “staff of life”. When we stock up on basics we still include quantities of bread because bread is filling and can be used in a variety of ways. Sandwiches can be built on simple spreads or extravagant fillings. Bread comes in a huge variety of forms, shapes and sizes. It fills lunch boxes, accompanies hearty soups, it is eaten on its own or as a accompaniment to a meal, it can be dipped in oil or smeared with honey, it can be toasted or fresh and used to make deserts as well as savoury dishes. The possibilities that a simple loaf of bread provides are seemingly endless.

The ability to grow rather than gather one’s food changed society from one that was always on the move to one that could settle down. Settling down in turn meant not only a need for more social controls but also to the stratification of society. Generally speaking, the vast majority of people existed at a subsistence level in order to feed the rich and powerful who made up a very small percentage of the population. Land was appropriated to feed the growing populations of the cities. This in turn, created a group of people who lacked the means to grow food for themselves and who were forced to hire themselves out as day-labourers, entirely dependent on others for their “daily bread”.

In the Palestine of Jesus’ day most people, including those with a trade, barely earned enough to keep starvation from the door. Their diet would have been limited to what they could grow, the animals they could afford to keep and the fish they were able to catch. Those whom Jesus has just fed with five barley loaves and two small fish, know only too well how dependent they are on the vagaries of the weather and how vulnerable they are should the harvest fail. Full stomachs and food for which they have not had to struggle is a miracle in itself, let alone the fact that Jesus has fed so many with so little.

It is no wonder that they seek Jesus. But Jesus is not impressed. He understands that they see only the superficial and that in seeking him, they are after physical, not spiritual sustenance. In other words, they have not understood the deeper meaning of the miracle that reveals who Jesus is and what he represents. No matter how much bread they have to eat today, they will still need to find bread to eat tomorrow and the following day. Jesus urges them to see beyond the external sign of the multiplication of the loaves to what the miracle is trying to tell them. He is trying to open their eyes to the presence of God in their midst. He wants to direct them away from their physical needs and encourage them to focus not only on their spiritual needs, but also on their eternal salvation.

Jesus points out that like bread the things of this world will perish. It is only those things that are not of this world that will endure forever. The things that are required to meet physical needs constantly have to be replenished, but the food for the soul – that which is required for spiritual well being, in the present and in the future – will be so satisfying that it will never have to be refilled or restocked. Jesus claims to be that bread, that source of nourishment and life that will so completely meet their need for fulfillment and meaning that they will never again hunger or thirst for peace and contentment.

For us, as for Jesus’ listeners, the pressures and demands of our day-to-day life can crowd out our need for spiritual refreshment and rest. The expectations placed on us by family, work and even church can claim our full attention and make us forget the needs of our soul. It is so easy for us to be distracted by the world around us – the world that we can see and feel and touch – that we can forget that for all the pleasure it gives us, this material world is limited in time and space. When it comes to an end or when our time in this world is over, what will we have?

While we are in this world, we will of course be caught up in it. Our physical bodies will require nourishment; our families and other commitments will make claims on our time, as indeed they should.

Today’s gospel reminds us that however much we gain from the things of this world, however much pleasure they give us and however much they meet our needs for achievement and pleasure – there will always be something wanting, we will continue to hunger and thirst for something more.

Jesus claims to be that something more, the source of a deep and lasting sense of fullness and satisfaction that will bring an end to all our striving and discontent in the present and assure us of life forever in the world to come.

A gift of love

January 11, 2014

Baptism of our Lord – 2013

Matthew 3:13-17

Marian Free 

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

 Last Sunday I attended a friend’s annual Epiphany party. In the course of the afternoon one of the guests began a discussion about godparents and in particular when the practice of having godparents began. Frankly, I had no idea. I thought that it was probably a late development as, up until the fourth century and even later, whole families, if not whole tribes, were baptised at the same time. It was an all or nothing situation, the head of the family or the king would be converted and the family and the tribe had no choice but to go along. There was no need for anyone to make promises for the children who would have had no say, then or in the future, as to whether they were Christian or not. As they grew up, it would simply have been a part of their identity. They would have absorbed by osmosis what it meant and their own children would have likewise been brought up in the faith of those around them

 An examination of that great source of wisdom and knowledge – the internet – revealed that I was wrong. Apparently, the equivalent of godparents came into being as early as the second century when parents made the confession of faith on the part of their child and were charged with their children’s spiritual upbringing. St Augustine allowed for exceptions to that practice, but apparently within a hundred years the exception had become the rule – parents were no longer allowed to sponsor their children for baptism.  However the relationship of a godparent  to the child was considered as close as that of a parent. This can be seen in the practice from the fifth century when baptismal sponsors were called “commaters” and “compaters” – co parents whose relationship to the child was considered sufficiently close that they were forbidden from marrying them.

Until recently, most children in this country were baptised. There was an assumption that this was a Christian country and that even those who rarely attended church were Christians and that their children should be formally identified as such. For some, there lay behind this practice a belief that a child who was not baptised would go to purgatory or to hell, but for many baptism was simply part of the culture of the day. Fear is no longer a driving force and in our time a great many people who no longer have any connection to the church, or who do not profess the faith, have come to the conclusion that baptism is at best unnecessary and at worst hypocritical.

The church has also undergone a change. Far from wanting to rescue so many innocents from the clutches of the devil, the church has had conversation after conversation about the practice of infant baptism and whether or not children of non-practicing families should be baptised. Some churches, including some Anglican congregations insist that parents attend church for a minimum number of weeks and attend classes before their child is accepted for baptism. The purpose of this is to ensure that the parents take their commitment seriously and that they will have some knowledge of the faith that they will claim to profess. Sadly this practice has led to a feeling of rejection and alienation among those who have felt that their good intentions were rejected when they were genuinely trying to do the right thing by their child.

Baptism as a form of initiation appears to be a Christian innovation. There is no evidence of a practice of baptism in Judaism. Purity laws meant that believers regularly had ritual baths to purify  themselves, but there is little to suggest that converts to the faith were washed or baptised. The Greek word Βαπτίζω simply means to wash. Jews washed away their impurities, but did not extend this practice to include the initiation of new believers.  John the Baptist appears to have taken the practice of ritual cleansing to a new level –  the idea of washing away sins and renewing of one’s relationship with God was unique to him.

Jesus’ baptism by John was controversial for at least two reasons. It was impossible for the Gospel writers to believe that Jesus had any sins to be washed away and it was equally impossible to imagine that John’s stature was such that it would warrant his baptizing Jesus. For both these reasons Jesus’ baptism seems to have been a cause of embarrassment for the authors of Matthew and John. Matthew tries to explain Jesus’ baptism away telling us that the Baptist insisted that Jesus should baptise him, to which Jesus responds that it is “proper for us to fulfill all righteousness”. John’s gospel does not mention Jesus’ baptism at all. However it clear that Jesus did seek and did receive baptism from John.

It is probably because Jesus himself was baptised that the early church adopted the practice as its form of initiation even though Jesus himself baptised no one. We have only a few New Testament references to baptism. Some scholars believe that Gal 3:28 is a baptism formula: “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” and Romans 6 uses the language of dying and rising with Christ. We heard in today’s reading from the Book of Acts that water was important for baptism – even though those who heard the message had already been filled with the Holy Spirit.

It is in the Didache (a second century document) that we find the first instructions for Baptism. The Didache tells us that we should baptise in this way. “After explaining all things you should baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. If you cannot do it in flowing water then do it in cold water, if not in cold then warm. If you have very little water pour it on the head three times in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Before the baptism both the baptizer and the candidate for baptism, plus any others who can, should fast. The candidate should fast for one or two days beforehand.” (The practice of fasting during Lent is an extension of this practice. The whole community would fast in preparation for the baptisms that were to take place at Easter.)

I’m not sure how many people fast before a baptism these days. Certainly, even for those encouraged to attend church for six weeks, the preparation is a far cry from the days when a candidate would spend four years learning the faith before they were accepted for baptism.

Over the centuries, the details of baptism services have differed, but the intent remains the same. Through baptism an individual, or godparents on behalf of that individual, declare an allegiance to the Christian faith and in so doing recognise and accept the place of God in their lives. In this overtly materialist world, those who bring their children for baptism acknowledge that the material world has its limitations and they express a desire to expose their child to the world beyond this world, to give their child an opportunity to see that there is more to life than what can be seen and felt and touched. The children whom we welcome into our faith community are already loved by God. In baptism we acknowledge God’s love for them and formalize their entitlement to that love. We recognise that everyone is loved by God and is a child of God.

Of course, that is only the beginning.  Jesus’ baptism signaled the beginning of his ministry. So too for us – our baptism is a gift that shows its true potential only when we set it free to act in and on us. Baptism is a gift of love that is activated most fully when we respond to that love. If we allow it, if we set it free, God’s love will empower and direct our lives, it will fill us with joy and it will activate our compassion and desire for justice and peace. Knowing our place in the spiritual realm will enable us to sit lightly with this world – not to be tossed about and driven by desire for material possessions, status and wealth.  Conscience of God’s presence always with us, we will face every difficulty with courage and every set back with grace. Having been affirmed as a child of God, we will strive to be worthy of that privilege.

Let our beginning not be our ending. May we, the baptised, give God the freedom to renew and transform us, so that we may become more truly ourselves – set free to love and be loved and to make God’s presence known to all around us.


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