Eternal Transformation

In our Gospel passage for this morning, we hear Jesus talking a lot about bread. We heard about bread last week, and we’re going to hear about bread the next three or four weeks: this is the bread-section of John’s Gospel. And Jesus makes a distinction between “regular” bread–the kind of bread we eat every day–and this thing he’s calling “the bread of life”. It’s not totally clear what he’s talking about. And it’s especially strange because just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus feed the 5,000–with regular bread! Clearly he thinks we should feed people when they’re hungry. And yet today he tells us that we should not seek the bread that only fills us for a  few hours; instead we should seek this bread of life, which will fill us for eternity. That’s a strange idea!

What is he talking about? He’s talking about this bread of life that will lead to eternal life. Now my guess is that some people here have beliefs about eternal life and an afterlife, and some don’t. But if we want to get a sense of what Jesus is talking about– and if we are going to sit here and listen to the Gospel, we might as well give it a shot–we are going to need to get some idea of what he means by “eternal life”. The trick is that Jesus almost never says anything about what this eternal life actually is. Jesus talks a lot about what we are supposed to do to inherit eternal life–what we should be doing in the world–but if you’re looking for details about what this eternal life thing actually is, Jesus says, basically, nothing. He’s focused on what we do to achieve it, not what the thing is.

When he does start to talk about it, he says really strange things: we’re in chapter six of John now; eventually we’ll reach chapter twelve. I’ll give you a little preview: Jesus says that those who love their lives will lose their lives, and those who hate their lives will gain their lives. What is that supposed to mean? Those who don’t want to live, live, and those who want to live, don’t? That’s not very helpful! That doesn’t really give me any sense of what he’s talking about. Now I suggested a few weeks ago that when we seek God, we come to a strange frontier, a mysterious horizon, and I think we’re approaching that same place right here with this eternal life stuff. We can’t get a sense of what Jesus is talking about.

Now if we move to Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (and, again, if you want to put “Paul” in scare-quotes, go for it!) we get something very different. Paul is giving this very concrete advice, he’s talking about daily human life, he’s talking about the kinds of attitudes and behavior that we need to get rid of, and those attitudes and behaviors we should encourage and nurture. It’s very everyday stuff, unlike what Jesus is doing in the Gospel of John. And I think that you can summarize what Paul is saying with one quote from him. He says: “put away from you all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and wrangling, and slander, together with all malice.” And he references all these kinds of negative emotions and attitudes. We might add things like arrogance, and greed–put all of that away from you, so that you can make space for compassion, and forgiveness, and love. That’s what Paul’s talking about. He seems to be suggesting that things need to change at this church in Ephesus.

Now, Paul is writing to a community, this gathering of people at Ephesus. But a community is a gathering of individuals. And I think Paul has something to say both to communities and to us as individual persons. Now when it comes to confronting things like anger, and arrogance, and greed in society, St. Mark’s has a long tradition of taking that work pretty seriously. Earlier this summer, we found minutes from a meeting in our archives from when St. Mark’s welcomed the first Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. That points to a long tradition of seeing where society is drawing on anger, and arrogance, and hatred, and greed and then confronting that, offering a different message, calling for society to be changed into something different. And as Michele mentioned at the beginning of our service today, in our city in just a few hours, we’ll be confronted by a segment of our society that seems bent on worshiping anger, and arrogance, and greed. I think that’s one way of summarizing what white supremacy is: the worship of anger, and arrogance, and greed. And we need to speak truth to them, we need to show them a different way to live, confront them, struggle for change in our culture.

But we also have to be thinking about ourselves as individuals. Bitterness, anger, malice, arrogance, greed: I don’t know about you, but those are things I find in myself more days than not. If I want to be an agent of change in this world, I might need to be prepared to be changed myself. You know, we can’t rebuild this building with crumbling, and cracked, and broken bricks. If we want a secure and steadfast structure, we need well-fired, hard bricks. Likewise, if we want to build a just society, we have to be struggling for justice not only out there in the world, but justice within ourselves too. If we are feeding on arrogance, and anger, and greed, what do we expect to reap out there?

Paul summarizes even this point in just three words: he asks us to be “imitators of God”. And it seems to me that if we are imitating God, that might be the first step to what Jesus is talking about, with this eternal life stuff, right? God is eternal, so if we are imitating God, maybe we are taking that first step into that unknown. And whether we are worried about seeking eternal life, or whether we’re just worried about seeking authentic human life, I think that Paul’s advice is crucial for us to hear. We have to give up anger, and arrogance, and greed, to make space for something else: compassion, forgiveness, and love. And this brings us back to Jesus’s strange statement: those who love their lives will lose them, and those who are willing to lose their lives will gain them. I think what he might be saying is: we have to be prepared to put to death everything that is killing us: anger, arrogance, greed–those things are destroying our lives, communally and individually. But once we begin to lay those things down, we make space for forgiveness, and love, and compassion. Those things can begin to blossom.

So we must put to death everything that is killing us, individually and communally. And that does mean confronting those forces in our society that seem to be worshiping death. So we have to call people out–white supremacists–challenge them, and work to change our culture, which is unfortunately still infected with racism. But while we’re doing that we also have to be so careful: while we confront people who are worshipping anger, we can’t allow ourselves to be so angry at them that anger defeats us. While we notice their arrogance, we can’t look at their arrogance and, knowing that our opinion is better than theirs (though I do think it is!) we can’t allow that arrogance to grow in us! And while we call out their greed, and we seek power to overturn their greed, we can’t become so greedy for power that the greed overcomes us. We have to work for change in our society and we have to be prepared to be changed in order to be agents of change in society.

As I was thinking about this this week, this need for transformation, this need for change socially and personally, I was reminded of someone I met last year, while serving a church in Maryland. I met a woman and we started to talk, and she told me a little about her life story as the weeks went by. She’d had a daughter, and as her daughter grew up, that daughter joined a religious community, and as a part of her practice of this religion, she cut off all contact with people who were not members of this community, including her mother. And so they didn’t talk for years. And then this daughter, over time, developed an addiction to heroin. And eventually that killed her. She overdosed; she died. And so this woman lost her daughter twice, really. She lost contact with her and then she died, physically, biologically.

And so this woman was wracked with conflicting emotions: she was angry at her daughter and also mourning her, at the same time. And she couldn’t reconcile those emotions, and she couldn’t resolve those emotions, and so that anger, and that sadness, filled her and spilled over into everything in her life, until she had become a deeply angry and morose person. Years later, eventually, she decided to go to Church–I think she had been seeking different possibilities, and church was one of the things she did, I don’t think it was the only one. But over time, as she attended church, she learned in that community that she could change, that she could lay that anger and sadness down and let something else begin to replace it. And she told me that she was a completely different person since she had started coming to church.

Now when I was talking to her, she was 84 years old. She had started coming to church when she was 72. If a 72-year-old can basically be dead–and she was dead, emotionally she was dead–and she can find the power to transform herself, change herself, I think that tells us something about our capacity to be transformed. As we talked, she said that some days she had a deep faith in Christianity, and some days she didn’t, but she joined the community and she tried to follow these crazy ideas that Jesus was talking about. She tried to actually live that life, and she found the possibility to be transformed. To kind of be reborn, and that spread out into her life: she started to teach art classes at her church, and now she offers those classes on Sundays and weekdays, and the children love it, and it feeds her too. I think she find the possibility of reconnecting with her daughter through those children.

If a 72-year old can die, come back, and be transformed, that tells me that we really do have the possibility to be changed personally, and that gives us the power to go out and change things in society. But what I also learned from her, and what I also hear Paul telling us, and what I hear Jesus also hinting at (although Jesus never likes to be that direct, right? He always likes to play with us a bit) is this: that possibility of change internally and in the world, is work–it’s not a passive process, you don’t just come to church, or go to therapy, or go to an AA meeting, or go to a political rally, and stand there, and things get better magically, on their own. We have to work. And we have to be prepared for real change and transformation. And that can be painful. We have to put to death those things that are killing us, that version of ourself that we hold on to so tightly. It’s a struggle. It’s a  struggle out there, and it’s a struggle within ourselves. And so my hope is that for those of us who feel called to transformation externally and internally, that we’ll have the courage to really join that struggle, and that we’ll have the compassion to support each other in it.