Pentecost 12, August 19, 2012

Background notes for a sermon on Pentecost 12 in August in response to a request from one of you–this is not the sermon, just a lot of notes in preparation.

This morning’s lessons introduce one of my favorite characters in the Hebrew bible, Lady Wisdom. She speaks in Proverbs 9:1-6, but if you do a little searching, you find that she is a figure whose presence moves in and out of scripture. She’s most present in the layer of texts known as the “wisdom” writings, which includes Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs; the Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach are included in what we call the Apocrypha. In Proverbs, if you go back to the beginning of the book, you’ll trace Lady Wisdom’s presence from the beginning of creation. She was a figure of divine presence, and in chapters 8 and 9, she herself speaks, a voice calling to people to learn from her. She is the first created–and was God’s delight (8:30), rejoicing before God always. And she loves human kind. She dwells in the midst of the people, making her home among them.

She plays about the foot of the throne of God. The author of Proverbs tells us, “She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy” (3:18). The author of the Book of Wisdom speaks of her this way: “She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of his goodness. Although alone, she can do all; herself unchanging, she makes all things new. In each generation she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets; for God loves only the one who lives with Wisdom” (Wisdom 7:25-28, Jerusalem Bible trans.)

She is a rich symbol, indicating God’s indwelling presence, but not just that, a feminine presence, which we sometimes fail to remember. She is someone who assists at creation, and is a consort of God; in some of the language used about her, God loves her like a bride.

Later, as Christianity develops, the language about Lady Wisdom gets incorporated and appropriated into language about Jesus, about the incarnation. But when we speak of God incarnate in the human man Jesus, the material person, the feminine aspect of God can get lost, and we lose the connection between Lady Wisdom, and Jesus. In Greek, the word for wisdom is Sophia, another term which carries a kind of personification of Wisdom. In the Gospel according to John, in the opening hymn, we hear beautiful language describing the incarnation of the Word, the “logos” of God. Some scholars like to think of Wisdom and Word together, so that Jesus becames the expression of holy wisdom/ holy word, preserving a line through the earlier wisdom language, a kind of DNA threading together–we even say it now, in our liturgies: “holy wisdom, holy word.” And if we can remember that, we can keep the balance of both expressions, the indwelling wisdom and word. Some of the language used about Wisdom is similar to language we use about the Holy Spirit, source of knowledge and insight, guidance, inspiration.

Here in Proverbs, Lady Wisdom, calls to people to come feast on her, that ingesting her, as we ingest food, is a spiritual nourishment. Her banquet table is open for all; she invites everyone to come and learn, to walk in the way of insight. This should sound familiar now to us, as we’ve been pondering John 6 for the last four weeks, the meaning of communion, of feasting at Christ’s banquet table, the questions we might have about Christ’s presence in the bread and wine, and the deep teaching here. We’re invited to feast on Wisdom, invited to feast on Christ.

Much of what divides us in Christendom has been our different understandings of what happens at this table: is Christ really present in this bread and wine? Is it real? How does it happen? Can we understand it? What makes it holy? Is it a sacrifice? A holy meal? A meal of remembrance? How can Jesus say these words. if you eat of me, you will have life? If it helps to think of this table as Wisdom’s table, then think of it that way. Here, in the bread and wine, God’s own Word, God’s own wisdom are offered to nourish our lives, to keep us alive.

Here is Christ’s presence broken, not keeping him wounded on the cross, but breaking the bread as a way of distributing, a way of sharing this life among us, that we, the body of Christ, are fed with the body of Christ. We are made who we are in this meal. We are what we eat. We re-member, we who have been scattered, are re-membered into one body, by this meal.

A good place to read some of the ways our ecumenical understandings have been articulated is in a document caled “Baptism, Eucharit, and Ministry” published by the World Council of Churches, Faith and Order Paper No. 111, often known as the Lima document. “As it is entirely the gift of God, the eucharist brings into the present age a new reality which transforms Christians into the image of Christ…”(15).

We pray the Words of Institution together, as a the Body of Christ, and the meal is made holy, not because I stand up there and say a prayer, but because God promises it–word and bread, word and wine, Jesus promises his presence in them. And we can only receive that promise in faith.

So how can this be? How do we receive it? And what is happening when God offers God’s self in this way, in the eucharist? One of my professors, my Confessions professor, Timothy Wengert, who translated our Book of Concord, a wonderful scholar, often spoke of this moment in a beautiful way, this moment of receiving, when our lips meet the bread and the cup. Faith is a kind of falling in love–a kind of surrender to this holy encounter, just as we do when we fall in love with someone. There’s a drawing toward the other, a receptive capacity, a surrender. And here God comes and embraces us.

In Hebrew, the spoken verb to kiss, and the noun “drink” are a kind of word/play, a pun in sound: if you hear them spoken they can sound similar. So one way to think of this, when you are offered these gifts, when you come to eat and drink, God comes, Wisdom comes and offers a kiss, God meets your lips with God’s self.

Plenty more notes on this, but it’s getting to be a longish entry. Blessings on your journey. PA

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