A Living Eucharist: John 6

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

In her novel The River Flannery O’Connor intriguingly observes:

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Can this be a possible explanation for Jesus’ teaching in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel?

Over previous weeks my focus has been on the Deuteronomic historical chronicle contained in I and II Samuel concerning the tensions of government in ancient Israel and to explore its resonances with our own current political climate. This focus on the O.T. lessons has necessitated ignoring Jesus’s growing controversy with the crowd as reported by John in the sixth chapter of his gospel.

Previously in John

Growing numbers of people have begun to follow Jesus into the countryside to listen to his teaching – culminating in an event where his concern for the hunger and thirst of the crowds exposed in the open countryside as evening approaches leads to an event we know as the feeding of the five thousand. It remains a universal truth that if you want to hold people’s attention then feed them; all the more so when people are generally hungry. Having experienced a free and bountiful supper, the crowds begin to realize that Jesus is the man to stick close to.

Spurred by their questions about food, Jesus begins to point out that they have the wrong end of the stick. He tells them plainly, that what he’s offering is not a free meal, but the food of eternal life. He tells them not to labor for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for everlasting life. They then ask, Rabbi, how can we get this food?

To cut a long story short, having crossed the lake at night walking on the water Jesus makes a surprise appearance in the synagogue at Capernaum. How did you get here, they ask? We didn’t see you in any of the boats.  Jesus ignores the question and proceeds to make a series of what are known in John’s gospel as I am statements.

Chapter 6 contains three I am statements, each statement more controversial than the last:

  1. I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never go hungry.
  2. I am the bread of life, come down from heaven.
  3. I am the living bread, and this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Just when the disciples must have been signaling to Jesus to dial it back a bit, he declares:

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Teaching that offends

Noticing a growing restiveness, Jesus asks the congregation if what he says offends them? They show that they are more than offended, they are scandalized. They fall over themselves in an attempt to get out of the synagogue and away from this crazy, blasphemous preacher.

His disciples also complain that this teaching is too hard to follow – it is too difficult to accept, they protest. In a vulnerable moment, Jesus asks them if they too will leave him? There now follows one of those magic moments when Peter breaks through the limits of imagination to tell Jesus:

Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! 


Familiarity with the Eucharist deafens us to the shock value of Jesus teaching in John 6. Being good Episcopalians, well-schooled in the use of metaphor when talking about the spiritual life, we dismiss the cannibalistic overtones in Jesus’ language, understanding them as hyperbole – excessive overstatement for the purposes of argument. 

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Anglican-Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and the Orthodox believe that in the Eucharist, Jesus is really present. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, the significance of Eucharistic elements are changed from mere bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. Roman Catholic’s have a complicated theory to explain how this happens while Anglicans cherish the words of Elizabeth I who when asked about it simply said:

I know Christ is truly present though I know not how.

Contrastingly, Protestants believe that the Eucharist is only a symbolic reenactment of the Last Supper in which nothing happens to the bread and wine. In this act of remembrance, the connection between the worshiper and Jesus is spiritual, not material.

A middle way

Anglican eucharistic teaching emphasizes the centrality of the real presence. However, it also places emphasis on the process of spiritual connection – the real presence becomes real only when received in faith by the worshiper.

At the invitation to Holy Communion, the celebrant invites us with these words:

Draw near with faith and receive the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you and his Blood which he shed for you …. feed on him in your hearts, with thanksgiving.

As we receive the host and partake from the cup the priest or eucharistic minister says:

the body of Christ – the bread of heaven, the blood of Christ – the cup of salvation.

Note how statements indicating the real presence – the body and blood of Christ are coupled with spiritual metaphors – the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation. Anglican tolerance allows for a range of belief that makes room for both a material and spiritual interpretation, according to the theology of the worshiper. What is a fudge for some is for others, an expression of genius.

The term holy communion points to an action of joining together two separate entities. Literally, com-munion means into a new combined entity which Jesus describes thus:

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

This remaining in one another is a comingling of identities that only happens within the context of a larger communal action of the Eucharist; another Greek word which means thanksgiving?

To hear Jesus’ words only as a hyperbolic metaphor, as in O’Connor’s really big caricatures is, however, to seriously miss his point. When Jesus says: I am the light of the world, we have little difficulty in hearing this as a metaphor of association. When Jesus says: I am the bread of heaven, again we hear the metaphorical association and his original hearers understood metaphor well enough. But he then deliberately labors the statement in ways that take it beyond mere metaphorical association.

The bread of eternal life is my flesh which I give [to be consumed] for the life of the world.

This is what his hearers found a hard teaching because they realized that Jesus was no longer speaking in metaphors.


To truly appreciate the significance of coming to the Lord’s Table in the Eucharist I want to draw out two emphases in Jesus’ teaching in John 6. The first is his emphasis on the action of eating and drinking. The second is contained in his words: I am the bread of life that has come down from heaven.

Eating and drinking

In John 6, Jesus alienates many who want to follow him because he speaks not of the comfortable distance of spiritualized metaphor but of the immediacy of physical action. In John’s Greek, the word he uses for eating is better translated as chewing with open mouths. Eating and drinking are both actions that emphasize an intimate and raw physicality of the action. We become present to Christ and he to us, not through our spiritual imaginations but in the physical actions of eating and drinking in real time. The result of eating and drinking is ingestion – taking in. As food is ingested through eating and drinking, Christ is ingested into the very fibers and cells of our bodies.

Come down from heaven

Jesus’ teaching emphasizes a public and communal physicality of being present in preference to a more distanced and individual spiritualized distance. Communion –comingling – happens physically in real time. When we spiritualize it we distance its raw physical immediacy. To follow Jesus is to engage fully with this world, not pine for the next.

There is a popular distortion of Christian teaching, all the more regrettable because it is so widespread; a distortion that places salvation as a future post-death event, the promise of everlasting life with God in heaven; pie in the sky when we die. Jesus does not speak of heaven as the future goal of our lives on earth. Christ-centered faith is thus concerned with this life, not the next, and this is exactly how the N.T understands Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus teaches that the realization of heaven – or of hell – happens in this world.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven 

communicates the urgency of the kingdom’s arrival. The kingdom is not imminent, it is not coming someday soon, or at some distant time, it is coming right now in this very moment!

Give us today our daily bread

emphasizes this. Our daily bread is to be eaten now, not sometime in the future.


If we are to be authentic followers of Jesus as John and the other N.T. writers present him, our first and foremost priority is to labor for the making good- the repair – of the material world of creation – in real time! It is not to prepare our souls for an eventual escape into the spiritual ether.

Therefore, Christianity is primarily concerned with the physical not the spiritual dimension of life. Participation in the Eucharist is vital for our Christian flourishing as food and water are essential for our physical wellbeing.  Our ultimate hope is not eternal rest but eternal life; life physically remade as part of a world that is in the process of being put to rights by God. Until this process finds its completion in the resurrection of the dead, it moves apace in real time with our participation and collaboration as God’s agents in real time, compelled to live by the expectations of the kingdom.

In the meantime, our focus must be on the real-time seeding, tending, and reaping of the kingdom’s harvest. As agents of the kingdom, we are engaged in an existential struggle with cosmic dimensions – against the systemic forces of evil as St. Paul warns us – that desecrate and corrupt the goodness of God’s creation. We are strengthened for this task by the physical incorporation of Christ, not into our metaphysical souls, but into the very fibers and cells of our bodies.

The Eucharist is where we feed on the food that lasts. The great 20th-century Anglican theologian and mystic, Evelyn Underhill, in her poem Corpus Christi pens this truth with an eloquence that I am incapable of. The full poem can be found at the link above and so I content myself with a more selective citation:

Come dear heart! The fields are white to harvest: come and see, as in a glass the timeless mystery of love, whereby we feed on God, our bread indeed. …Yea, I have understood how all things are one great oblation made: He on our altars, we on the world’s rood. Even as this corn, earth-born, we are snatched from the sod, reaped, ground to grist, crushed and tormented in the Mills of God, and offered at Life’s hands, a living Eucharist. 

Earthen Vessels of Clay


Since June, I’ve been following the unfolding Deuteronomic history chronicling the evolution of government in ancient Israel. It’s an increasingly sorry tale as it continues into the books of the Kings. The O.T. lesson for Pentecost 13 opens in the second chapter of I Kings with the statement:

David slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of David. 

David reigned an astonishing 40 years – remember life expectancy was short in those days – 7 years at Hebron and then after he conquered Jerusalem, and further 30. His son Adonijah was the next in the line of succession but David passes the throne to Solomon, his son by Bathsheba.

The weakness in authoritarian regimes lies in the unpredictability of succession. As the once strong leader begins to fail, in the absence of constitutional processes governing the strict line of succession, factionalism thrives. In David’s last years, anxiety increased about who would succeed him as those who had once been the king’s fixers, his right-hand men, vied to influence the succession.

Before his death, David advises Solomon on how to clear the field by killing the opposition ringleaders to not only clear his way to the throne, but also to settle some of his father’s old scores, the hand of retribution from beyond the grave as it were.

The Lectionary notes the death of David in II Kings:2,10-12, but then it then skips over the rest of chapter 2, picking up again at chapter 3. For us, however, it’s important to know what is happening in the omitted verses 13-46 – quite a chunk, in order to have the fuller picture of events.

Adonijah appears to accept being passed over but then gives Solomon an unexpected excuse to move against him when he manipulates Bathsheba into petitioning Solomon to give him Abishag for his wife. Abishag, you will recall, was the young woman chosen to be David’s last wife, a young woman to warm the old king’s feet in his failing years. For Adonijah to claim her seems to indicate a roundabout way of asserting his rights to his father’s inheritance.

In common parlance, Solomon is doubly pissed. He is pissed not only by Adonijah’s effrontery but also at his mother for allowing herself to become Adonijah’s tool to get to him. Solomon orders Adonijah struck down and killed and then moves swiftly against the opposition ringleaders. Joab, once the commander of the army, seeks sanctuary by grasping the horns of the altar. The Law of Moses allowed a fugitive to seek safety if he could get to the Tent of Meeting and grasp the horns (corners) of the altar. Incidentally, this is the basis of the claim of churches as places of sanctuary, which is currently being asserted to give shelter to refugees fleeing the harsh implementation of immigration law.

Solomon nevertheless has Joab struck down in the heart of the Holy of Holies – take note, Mr. AG. He then deposes Abiathar as high priest, exiling him to his home village. Zadok, a passionate supporter of Solomon now becomes high priest and the way is cleared for what happens next.

Solomon is described as one who loved the Lord and walked in the ways of his father. But he immediately goes to Gibeon, one of the cultic high-places where local pagan deities were worshiped and makes a sacrifice of 1000 burnt offerings. In the Deuteronomist account, it’s all a little odd, for this action clearly indicates unfaithfulness to YHWH. Nevertheless, the Lord comes to Solomon at Gibeon and invites him to make a request.

We then have what’s known as Solomon’s great prayer, which many over the centuries have taken to be the perfect template of prayer. In it, Solomon asks not for power or riches, but wisdom. The Lord is so impressed by Solomon’s request that he throws in power, riches, and long life anyway. For the discerning, there is a sting in the tail here, for God lays a condition on the long-life bit of the gift. Solomon will enjoy long-life as his father had done only if he walks in YHWH’s ways. We need to note that Solomon only lives to the age of 60.

Like his father before him, Solomon is also a complex figure.  Admired by Judeo-Christian tradition as the archetype of wisdom, as the one chosen by the Lord to build his Temple.

Yet, Solomon also went his own way. He married many foreign wives, a thing that was anathema according to the Law of Moses. His first wife was Pharaoh’s daughter, and according to legend even the Candace, the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia) journeyed to pay homage and become the most erotically enticing in a succession of foreign wives.

To add insult to injury, not only was marrying foreign women and insult to YHWH, but Solomon allowed his wives to set up shrines to their gods in the high-places and he even worshiped there himself. He was a brutal monarch, taxing his people ruthlessly and indenturing his male population in the service of the building of the Temple.

His corrupt foreign ways, his worship of pagan gods, his economic oppression of his own people, set the stage after his death for the secession of the 10 northern tribes of Israel, leaving only Judah and Benjamin as a remnant of the Davidic kingdom.


In omitting the bulk of chapter 2, the Lectionary has edited the text to emphasizes the identification of Solomon with wisdom, so as to segway in two weeks time from the Deuteronomist history into the Wisdom books of Proverbs, Songs (of Solomon), and Wisdom (of Solomon).

A recurring central theme in the Wisdom literature concerns the way human understanding pales against the grandeur of creation, which itself is the expression of God’s wisdom. Wisdom’s themes explore opposite pairings: righteousness/ unrighteousness, death/immortality, meaning/meaninglessness, hubris/futility, joy/sorrow.

The final judgment of the Deuteronomists on Solomon is mixed. According to their narrative, God gave Solomon wisdom, entrusted him with the building of a permanent dwelling place to house God’s spirit on earth. They also recognized that through his ruthlessness in furtherance of his own ambitions, and the single-minded pursuit of his own pleasures, Solomon ultimately destroyed the legacy he had inherited. Unfaithfulness to God did in the end, cut short his life.


Based on the absence of hard archeological evidence, some historians of the period doubt whether Solomon ever existed. Certainly, much modern opinion is that the great Davidic kingdom as presented by the Deuteronomists was anything but great. The Deuteronomic history is the product of a later period. 600 years later, the scribes engaged in a monumental root and branch editing of the Hebrew Scriptures during the Babylonian Exile, had a need to paint a picture an imagined golden age from which to trace Israel’s decline as an explanation for their current experience of having been abandoned by God.

I believe the value of the Deuteronomistic history lies not in its historical accuracy or veracity.

Its value lies in its power to remind us of timeless truths. That the nature of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That human government left to its own devices rests on the principle that power is there to be abused.

In the record of the Deuteronomists description of the tensions between faithfulness to God and the corruptions of worldly power played out between prophet and king, it’s not hard for us to hear some striking echoes of the tensions in our own time. Our society is grinding under the weight of increasingly huge disparities of wealth between the 1% and the rest. Under the pressure of unrestrained corporate greed, we turn a blind eye to the compounding of individual and national debt. Western democracies are increasingly retreating in the face a resurgence of authoritarian-nationalist political instincts riding on the uncertainties and fears of peoples in a time of rapid change.

From Samuel, through David, to Solomon and beyond, we see God’s glory encased in vessels of clay. Solomon is the proverbial everyman, he is you and me.  Like him, we too are creatures of our time and shaped by our culture. The continuing scandals of church child sexual abuse only too painfully reminded us that even our religious institutions while pointing us beyond ourselves are at the same time, all too corruptible and fallible.

Like Solomon, we aspire to love God, but mostly we follow our own counsels. We long to give our full allegiance making Christian faith the unifying story around which our lives take shape, yet mostly, we march to the drumbeat of lesser stories that promise us more than they can deliver. The extraordinary thing is how we nevertheless give allegiance again and again to stories that if we did but remember led to disastrous outcomes last time we placed our faith in them.

The timeless truth, that God challenges us to remember the covenant made with Israel which has now been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only story with the power to shape our times in the direction we truly long for. Like David and Solomon, we too are the earthen vessels made of clay struggling to contain the divine vision for creation. Occasionally we hear God calling us to be better than we currently are and to do better than we have done.

Father and Son

II Samuel 18

The historical chronicle found in the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings is the work of a group of editors known as the Deuteronomists. The Deuteronomistic history covers Israel’s transition from a loose tribal confederacy to a centralized monarchy. We have been following this process in the period addressed in the book of Samuel, one book later divided into two. I Samuel begins with the call of Samuel who is to be the last of the great Judges, the charismatic leaders who arose in times of crisis. II Samuel ends in the final years of King David. The greater part of the books of Samuel concerns the David saga. The Deuteronomistic history explores the core questions that arise when a nation struggles to evolve to meet new challenges while remaining faithful to its founding instrument?

Israel’s core identity is forged in the Covenant (a form of contract) that God and Moses made on Mt. Sinai. In this sense, it’s helpful for us to think about the Covenant as a kind of constitution. In the historical tensions chronicled by the Deuteronomists, we find many echoes to our own contemporary experience as a nation. As in Ancient Israel, we too need to continually evolve to meet new challenges within the opportunities and limitations of our founding instrument, in our case the Constitution.

The Covenant between God and Moses forged on Mount Sinai dictated the kind of society Israel was to be. The terms of the Covenant stipulated that Israel was to have no God but YHWH and consequently in terms of government, there was to be only one king in Israel and YHWH was his name. In the time of Samuel, Israel transitioned from a tribal confederacy into a Near Eastern monarchy, but with a difference: the Covenant confined the powers of the king to the functions of regent. The Deuteronomists had a simple rule of thumb in assessing the success or failure of a king. Did he rule as God’s regent, or did he rule as God’s replacement? Was he a faithful servant or a usurper?

As we know because power corrupts there is a need for checks and balances. Alongside the institution of monarchy, a parallel institution of the prophet arose to call power to account. The prophet was to function as a kind of one-man Supreme Court, whose function was to declare executive actions legitimate or illegitimate according to the vision of the Covenant.

Today’s Old Testament reading concerns the rise and fall of David’s third son, the much beloved and stunningly handsome Absalom. We need, however, to set the David – Absalom relationship within its wider context.


The major turning point in David’s life was his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. His lust for her led him to orchestrate her husband’s murder, a murder executed by his ruthlessly loyal fixer, Joab. Enter the prophet Nathan, who calls the king to account and pronounces upon him God’s judgment and sentence. David confesses his sin. He accepts God’s sentence that the sword will never depart from his house. For the Deuteronomists, David’s downfall is also the defining moment of his greatness.

Through genuine repentance, David comes to know the power not only of God’s judgment but also of God’s forgiveness. God does not stop loving David and he knows it. It’s interesting to note that this growing sense of forgiveness does not avert the chain of personal tragedies, the sentence must be served. It changes the way David responds in the face of adversity. David has received both punishment and forgiveness at the hand of the Lord. In response to being nurtured by God’s continued love, we watch David rejecting his personal vanity and lust for power, and we watch him learning to become tenderhearted.

David is transformed by his experience of being forgiven and the evidence for this can be no more clearly seen than in the story of David and Absalom.


Last week I suggested that in his seduction or was it really his rape of Bathsheba (as a woman her voice is absent from the Biblical record, so we don’t know how she felt about this incident), David tried to erect a wall separating his personal choices from his public responsibilities. But God will have none of this and rejects the falsehood much parroted in our own time – that a lack of personal honesty and integrity has no effect on the holding of public office. David is forced to live through the consequences of private choices disrupting his public life.

We also seek to build a wall between the practice of our faith and life in the public square. Last week, I noted that when out of a sense of middle-class, liberal squeamishness we practice our faith privately, we ignore the consequences in the public square resulting from our decoupling of faith from action. Whenever someone tells me that politics should be kept out of religion, they are telling me that their faith has nothing to say about the evils perpetrated in the public square of political life. To follow that path renders our faith next to useless.


David and Absalom are two case studies on the power of forgiveness. His repentance brings him to realize the limits of his vanity and the glorification of power. In Absalom, vanity and the arrogance of beauty coupled with a grievance-fueled rage and lust for power, consume and compel him to spurn his father’s forgiveness, leading him to sin even more egregiously. So, to the story.


Previously, as they say on TV, Absalom murders his brother Amnon to avenge Amnon’s rape of their sister, Tamar. Absalom not only kills Amnon but rages against David for his inaction in failing to punish Amnon for his crime. Following the murder of Amnon, Absalom flees to the north, but under the auspices of Joab, a kind of reconciliation allows him to return to Jerusalem. But although back in Jerusalem, physically, an emotional estrangement between father and son continues for two years before Absalom eventually returns to the king’s house.

David forgives his son, but Absalom secretly spurns his father’s forgiveness. Under the guise of a ruse of needing to fulfill a vow, Absalom goes to Hebron, where he has himself proclaimed king. He raises and an Israelite (northern) army and moves on Jerusalem. David flees the city with only his household, for Joab has forbidden the king to accompany the loyal (southern) army. Before he flees, in the presence of his retainers David makes Joab promise to:

 deal gently, for his sake, with the young man Absalom.


We might note an interesting aside, that on his way out of Jerusalem David ascends the summit of the Mount of Olives on his way to cross the Jordan, an ascent that finds an echo for us in Jesus’s journey via the Mount of Olives to the Cross.


Meanwhile, Absalom enters the city. His first demonstration of power there is to publicly rape the 10 concubines David had left to look after the palace. This action tells us something of how Absalom views the exercise of power.

images-1The two armies eventually meet in the Forest of Ephraim, where Joab and David’s southern army routs Absalom’s northern army, killing we are told, some 20,000 men. Absalom flees alone. As he does his long hair catches on a low hanging branch, suspending him in midair while his mule keeps moving forward.

The beauty of Absalom’s long, thick hair was the source of legend in those days. Afflicted by vanity the young man had failed to cut his hair in preparation for battle. We cannot miss the symbolism here, caught by his vanity, Joab and his shield bearers separate Absalom not only from his hair but from his life.

When news reaches David, he ascends to his chamber weeping. He cries out:

O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom. Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!

Some commentators have wondered, having made Joab publicly promise not to kill Absalom, is David’s demonstrable grief an expression of plausible deniability in the death of his son? This takes the hermeneutic of suspicion too far, missing the fact that since his encounter with Nathan and confession of repentance, David is a changed man whose heart has softened.

God punished David but nevertheless continued to love him. David’s experience of God’s love as a sign of being forgiven led to his own transformation from the man who had lusted after another man’s wife and murdered her husband to get what he wanted, to a man who deeply loves his admittedly, ill-gotten wife, and now grieves for the death of the son who sought to take from him not only his crown, but his life.

 The lust to possess, the pain of rage that feeds a hunger for power, the fragility of vanity that abuses the trust of those we serve, the arrogance of beauty that demands satiation, the rage of the fire that consumes the heart when forgiveness is spurned; these are no match for the power of the tenderheartedness of forgiveness received. God and David – David and Absalom – two stories: of forgiveness accepted and of forgiveness rejected.

David was a man of his time. He lived guided by the stark and usually brutal moral standards of his age. He had seven wives and numerous concubines. He is silent in the face of his daughter’s shaming. He is hardly the role model for modern-day Christian manhood. Yet, his fascination for us lies in his willingness to allow God’s love to transform him beyond the limitations of his culturally shaped imagination.

Are we not also creatures of our age with all the insight and blindness of our culturally formed limitations? How do we transcend the limitations of our shaping at the hands of our time and culture?

Failure and its bitter lessons forged in the heat of repentance is the instrument that breaks us open enough to allow God’s grace to shine through the cracks in our brittle facades.

As Leonard Cohen says in his song Anthem:

Rings the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

I commend to you John Piper’s moving poem Absalom and David

Choices Made: Samuel 11:26-12:13


David said to Nathan: I have sinned against the Lord.

Paul implores: I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Jesus warns: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.


The doctrine of separation of church and state has led to two assumptions highly favored by secularists and liberals alike:

  1. That the antidote to ‘bad’ religion is ‘no’ religion.
  2. The practice of religion is a personal and private right that has no legitimate voice in the public marketplace of debate and ideas.

The reality is however that while religion may be intensely personal, it is never private. Faith and its expression is always a public affair.

Throughout the Biblical record, the lesson learned ad nauseum is that the antidote to bad religion is not no religion, but good religion. Stanislav Volf uses the terms weak and strong religion in an attempt to avoid the more pejorative connotations of good and bad.

Weak religion is narrow, sectarian religion. Despite the megaphone voice of its proponents, it’s insecure religion, that seeks to impose narrow sectarian interest through force of law upon the body politic. Weak religion must be countered by strong religion – that is, a religiously rooted public interest attitude that embraces pluralism and insists on being heard as one voice among others in the space of civic debate.


The catalyst for my revisiting some of these thoughts is the story recorded in the book of Samuel concerning David and Bathsheba. In last week’s portion in the David saga, we heard about David’s covert discovery of Bathsheba bathing on the roof of her house. The sight of her excites David’s lust. He has her brought to him and then commits adultery with her.

Because the Biblical record hardly ever preserves the woman’s voice we don’t know if Bathsheba is a willing participant or not, so we don’t know whether the adultery is rape or consensual. The differentials of power here might give us a clue, however. Having taken and made Bathsheba pregnant, David then engineers her husband, one Uriah’s death, so that she can be totally his. Like men of power, David has a fixer. Joab, commander of the army is David’s chief fixer. While David orchestrates, Joab executes Uriah’s murder.

Today’s portion opens with the only recording of Bathsheba’s voice we have and it’s the clearest indication of her feelings about the situation she now finds herself in. We are told that when she learns of Uriah’s death, she cries out in loud and public lamentation. Her grief at the death of her husband is further aggravated when the child she bears David dies (is taken by the Lord as punishment). The only redeeming element in this sorry saga is that it seems David loves Bathsheba. He comforts her, and together they conceive another child, a son, Solomon, who will eventually succeed his father on the throne. We will get to learn more about Solomon in a couple of weeks.

The focus of the action in this section of the David saga concerns the arrival of Nathan the prophet God sends to speak truth to power. In ancient Israel, the only check on the king’s power was the office of the prophet. Nathan skillfully confronts the king by telling him a story designed to provoke David’s outrage at an injustice committed. Moved by Nathan’s contrivance, David condemns the man in Nathan’s story for his act of injustice, at which point Nathan proclaims: You are the man!  images

David, having condemned himself out his own mouth, Nathan then pronounces God’s verdict:

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house, and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”

David does not respond to Nathan with threats typical of a tyrant called to account; threats of retaliatory violence or banishment from future news briefings He simply utters five words of repentance: I have sinned against the Lord. 

Like all men of power corrupted by their autocratic instincts, David has tried to erect a wall of separation between his private (secret) acts and the domain of public affairs. From this point onwards, the rest of David’s reign is the chronicle of his increasing failure to maintain a separation between personal and public affairs as his personal choices have consequences that spill over into the public sphere of his kingship.

God’s verdict: I will raise trouble against you from within your own house, is fulfilled. David’s daughter Tamar is raped by her brother Amnon, and his complicity in Amnon’s crime through his silence and refusal to punish Amnon provokes his first-born son, Absalom. Absalom bides his time and eventually murders Amnon to avenge his sister. There is now only sourness between father and son, king and heir. Absalom flees from his father’s wrath. A deal is eventually struck allowing Absalom to come home. But things are not healed between them and Absalom looks for the opportunity to overthrow his father, but more of that next week.


David is remembered as the greatest of Israel’s kings. It is from his line that the prophets proclaimed the Messiah would be born. Being of David’s lineage is for the New Testament writers a crucial confirmation of Jesus identity as the Lord’s anointed one.

David is an autocrat with feet of clay. A strong man with a vulnerable heart. An autocrat, but unlike others who will follow in the long sorry list of Israel’s kingly failures he never confuses the fact that he is king under God, not king instead of God. The Deuteronomist identifies David’s true greatness as lying not in his achievements and power but despite his all too human weakness, in his humility before God. It is with five simple words that David accepts Nathan’s declaration of God’s verdict upon his actions.


Biblically rooted Christianity does not recognize a separation between private faith and public responsibilities. Like David, we come to grief when we try to separate the two. In our case, the attempt to keep faith a private affair renders us completely ineffectual as agents for God’s kingdom in this world. For private belief has public consequences. Even if we hide our faith under a bushel and never proclaim it in the market square – this is still a public action against which we will be judged by the promises of our baptismal covenant.

As the Christian Right understands only too well the public expression of faith is a political action. When out of a sense of middle-class, liberal squeamishness we seek refuge in the illusion of faith practiced privately, we fail to proclaim the fundamental connection between what we believe and how we act. This failure has catastrophic consequences in the business of the public square.

Nonaction is nevertheless a political choice made and a negative action taken. The public nature of the Christian faith requires from us the courage to expose and actively resist what Paul identifies as the dark forces of this world – forces of systemic violence and injustice. Our failure to do so will have consequences we may neither desire, nor eventually be insulated from.

The Apostle Paul issues the following plea:

I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 

In John’s gospel Jesus warns the crowds clamoring for another miracle feeding:

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. 

What is the food that endures for eternal life? It’s not a ticket into heaven; it is not the pie in the sky when we die which is a grotesque distortion of Christian hope. No, the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man gives us is:

                                        To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

You don’t have to look too hard to contemplate what this looks like in today’s world, where individuals benefiting from a legal blindness to corporate enrichment at the public expense; where ordinary people languish, and the perpetration of injustice thrives barely concealed behind a barrage of outrageous falsehoods.

                                                    When the proponents of strong religion remain silent, might this not be the greatest falsehood of all?


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