It’s a fact: sometimes following God is difficult, unpleasant and confusing. We are called to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow Jesus (Matt 16:24). Those who promise only wealth and ease in the Christian walk need us to forget that 11 of the 12 disciples; James the brother of Jesus and head of the Jerusalem church; Paul the great apostle to the gentiles; and Jesus himself were all murdered or executed after facing many persecutions and confusing events. But while we attempt to walk faithfully with our God who has claimed and saved us, we are offered guidance and reassurances through words of spirit and life. The lectionary readings from this week offer two examples of words that lead to life.
When Solomon dedicated the temple, he assembled the representatives of the tribes, the leaders of all the clans and all the elders of Israel to see what God would do. He was certain not to repeat his father’s mistake with the oxcart, and he had priests carrying the ark to the new temple use extra-long poles so that no one would be in danger of accidentally touching the ark (1 Kings 8:8). He wanted to be certain that this occasion would be one for celebration, for the indwelling of God’s Spirit into the temple, and to prolong life. His dedicatory prayers reflect these desires.
When Solomon prayed, he first humbly acknowledged that of course no building could house the God who created the universe (1 Kings 8:27). He then reminded God, however, of the promise that God’s name and special presence would reside in that place (1 Kings 8:29). Solomon then beseeched God to hear seven specific kinds of prayers when they were prayed toward the center of God’s attention on earth:
- When a crime had been committed, God should come and provide justice to the perpetrator and uphold the innocence of the righteous (1 King 8:31-32).
- When the Israelites were defeated in battle, God should hear their national repentance and repatriate them into the Land (1 King 8:33-34).
- When the earth suffered because of people’s wrong actions, God should hear their repentance and show them “the right way to live” (1 Kings 8:35-36).
- When anyone faced economic devastation, whether through human oppression, natural causes or even disease, God should forgive and act on their behalf (1 Kings 8:37-40).
- When a foreigner sought anything, God should be especially solicitous and generous to that person so that God’s renown and generosity will become famous in all nations (1 Kings 8:41-43).
- When the people were sent to fight against their enemies, God should “hear their plea and uphold their cause” (1 Kings 8:44-45).
- When the people sinned “and there is no one who does not sin” and were forced to live in a foreign land, if they repented with their whole hearts, God should forgive them and cause the people among whom they live to show them mercy (1 Kings 8:46-51).
The common thread running through all these prayers is the Solomon asked God to protect, uplift and dignify life. Whether the focus is on protecting the accused, the earth, the foreigner, the soldier or the whole Israelite people, Solomon’s desire was that the temple he built for the Name of the Lord would be a place where the people’s prayers would evoke God’s lifesaving mercy and grace. The thick presence of God’s Spirit (1 Kings 8:10-12) was a palpable sign to all those assembled that, indeed, God had showed up to be intimately present and to hear Solomon’s words of life for God’s people.
In this, the last week of readings from John’s Bread of Life dialogue, Jesus intensified his purposefully difficult claims, but then also contextualized them within his ministry. Jesus’ word choice reflects is simply shocking. In the readings for this week, Jesus switched verbs for “to eat” from the root ἐσθίω/“eat” which was used earlier in John 6 to τρώγω which should probably be translated as something like “gnaw aggressively, like an animal.” Jesus was challenging those listening to him to sink their teeth into him. This was obviously upsetting, and many disciples left because of this difficult teaching (John 6:60, 66).
Then Jesus specifically addressed his disciples (and not the larger crowd that had gathered to hear him in Capernaum) and sought the reassure them. After asking if they were troubled by his teaching, Jesus pointed out that interpretations of what his teaching meant would pale in importance when the disciples saw Jesus ascend into heaven. He then went so far as to say that the flesh – which to that point he had been stressing the importance of – counted for nothing, but that the Spirit gave life (John 6:63). Jesus said that the words he had spoken to them were full of Spirit and life. Jesus’ disciples were to live in the tension that his flesh and blood were real food and drink (John 6:55), but/and the Spirit gives life and the flesh counts for nothing (John 6:63). We hold onto this tension every time we celebrate with Jesus the Eucharist in bread and wine, and Jesus’ real presence in, with and under the elements.
This paradox of flesh and spirit was too much for many of the disciples. Peter’s shining moment in scripture was to acknowledge that even though what Jesus said was difficult and confusing, he has “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). May we be like Peter as we cling to Jesus’ words of eternal life, even as we struggle to understand them and put them into practice. And may we be like Solomon as we pray that God’s Spirit will uphold the life and dignity of the accused, the foreigner, the economically oppressed, the soldier and the whole beloved community.