23 August 2015
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16B (RCL)
1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11,22-30, 41-43
The passage from 1 Kings recounts Solomon’s renewal (change?) of the covenant with God at the completion of the Temple. This passage gives us about as clear an expression of the Temple/King mythology as can be found. It is interesting to note how the terms of the covenant have shifted with the covenant God made with David. When David wanted to build God a house, Nathan reminded him that all the time God had gone with the people in the wilderness and through the time of the judges, God had lived in a tent and had not asked for a house. Instead, God would make of David a house, as long as his descendants walked in the way of the Lord. The covenant was still attached to a people and their representative; not to a place.
Solomon’s covenant changes the terms dramatically. God is now bound to a place. Yes, the people must still walk in the ways of the Lord, but God’s presence is fixed. Later prophets would inveigh against this mythology, warning the people that, just because the Temple was in Jerusalem, that was no guarantee that God might not let the city be overthrown because of its sins. Once the Temple had been destroyed, the theology implicit in Solomon’s covenant would have to shift again. Many prophets returned to a theology of the desert; others began to universalize Israel’s theology. It became monotheistic. Deuteronomy offered one solution: If Israel suffered, it was because of his sins. Deutero-Isaiah begins to wonder if Israel’s sufferings might not be redemptive for the whole world. Trito-Isaiah imagines a restored Jerusalem as the devotional center of the whole world.
Christians picked up on Isaiah’s suffering servant motif, and began to re-imagine the theology of monarchy and kingdom. Jesus is a very un-Solomonic king.
We finish up the whole Bread of Life course of readings from John’s Gospel this week. It began with the people coming to take Jesus by force to make him king after the feeding of the 5000. In John’s Gospel, Jesus feed the five thousand on the mountainside, not in the desert, recalling Moses’ covenant meal with God in Exodus 24. The mythology of the Temple reflects that same topology, with the holy of holies representing the mountain-top, to which Moses/Jesus ascended after the covenant meal. Jesus’ refusal of the status of king represents John’s rejection of that theology. God is not bound to a place (remember, the Temple had been destroyed again by the time John wrote his Gospel).
Jesus is now the food of the covenant meal, and everyone who eats his flesh and drinks his blood is a member of the covenant community. John makes the life of this community the material of this eating and drinking. Gnawing on flesh and drinking blood metaphorizes the life of community: we have to get into each other’s business in very graphic ways to see the Christ revealed, to share the life of the covenant. Jesus makes this proclamation in the synagogue at Capernaum (a new fact in the reading this week — John has narrated Jesus’ arrival at Capernaum, but not his entry into the synagogue — this is a dispute within the synagogue community itself). That is why Jesus adds cryptically that the flesh is useless, the spirit gives life. It is not the actual eating of flesh that gives life, but the gnawing of the flesh and drinking of blood understood as getting down to the nitty-gritty of living in community.
This is indeed a hard saying. It is hard to live in community like that. We prefer Solomon’s vision, where as long as God is in God’s Temple, all is well with the world. Instead, we see police actions on the streets of our city that make little sense. To gnaw on this flesh requires us to see the world from perspectives we’d rather not. But this is where we are going to find the words of life. Where else can we go?