December 15, 2017

The Bigness Of God

Silence, it seems, is big business these days. My friend Mike leads silent retreats several times a year. He started with four guys, and now gets close to 80 wanting to go and experience something that is getting harder and harder to find in our day: Silence. I went away for a similar retreat last weekend. I needed to get away from the noise of life and listen to the one who most often speaks in a still, soft voice. And while the quiet was very welcome, one thing I was not prepared for was encountering just how big God is.

The retreat was in a monastery where I was invited to pray the offices with the monks who live and work there. I gladly went to most of the offices held in the church on their property. When you first enter the church you find six rows of chairs set out for the lay people, with a small, decorative wall separating this area from the monks’ carols. My first impression was how small and narrow the church is. There is a low ceiling where I sat (a balcony is above), and the whole section might only seat 40 or so people. Very small indeed.

Following the morning office of Lauds is the Eucharist, or Mass. And it’s at that time the gate in the small wall was opened so I and the other retreatants could go to the front of the church. We walked past the carols to a section where there were more chairs set out and … and there I saw just how wrong I was. This church wasn’t small. It was huge. The height and width and depth was far greater than I could have imagined from the spot in the back where I had been sitting.

The only time I could be in this largeness, though, was by coming forward for the Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus. And that is when I realized this was not just a truth about this particular church. God had been inviting me to experience his bigness all along. If I have thought him to be small and narrow, it is only because I had been hanging back, not approaching him as he calls me to come. And he only calls in one way: through his body and through his blood.

It is the same call today that Jesus issued to those following him after the feeding of the 5,000. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” And it has the same effect today: Most, on hearing this, turn back.  Most would rather ask, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” That sounds so good, but who is really God in that case? Those doing the works become their own god. And Jesus was having none of that.

Come, eat my flesh. Drink my blood. This is the only door to the bigness of God. If we insist on doing the works ourselves, we will remain in the small, narrow confines of the back of the church. But if we do decide to go forward, no matter how large the front is, there is no room for our own accomplishments, our own efforts, our own will. There is room for one thing only: the dead Christ, on whom we are called to dine.

The dead Christ, on whom we are called to dine.

Does that offend you? It offended most of those who heard Jesus first say it. I mean, getting handed free bread and free fish is one thing. But all this talk about eating flesh and drinking blood? Now this so-called Messiah was just getting weird. The crowds left to find a more respectable teacher, one who would tell them what they could do, someone to outline the works of God for them. Hard work is good for the soul, right? Cannibalism is morbid and weird.

Then Jesus turned to the twelve disciples and asked, “Do you also want to leave?” That’s the question for you and me now. Do we want to leave? Faith is hard. Trusting Jesus is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It is so much easier to sit in the back and do the works that please God. Yet by taking of Jesus’ body and blood I find that God is so much bigger than I ever imagined. And he is big without my help. He doesn’t need me to do anything in order for him to be much larger than I will ever need.

John Wilkinson talks about the absurdity of faith in his new book, No Argument for God: Going Beyond Reason in Conversations About Faith. In it he writes,

“Faith is difficult; it is hard to believe and requires risk and effort to grasp. Faith is wild and demands a lot from us as rational beings. Faith takes us on a crazy journey. By trying to make sense of things we bend the absurdities of faith to logic and make the way smooth. It is easy to believe in a faith that has been explained, but how likely are we to believe in a faith that violates everything we think we know about truth and reason?” (p. 35)

The key to the bigness of God is there for us all. It is the faith that the broken bread and the cup of wine is all we need. All are invited to dine, but most turn away without ever tasting of God as he truly is. Most prefer to be their own respectable god. I was that way for oh so many years. Now I have chosen to enter into the bigness of God through the death of his only son. I know it sounds like something a good Christian should have done a long time ago. I just seemed so, I don’t know, easy. Too easy. And yet once I went to the front of the church and saw how big God is and how I have to believe and not work, I was still faced with the question: “Do you also want to leave?” This time I said No, I would like to stay if I may. And he let me stay and dine with him.

For me, a Protestant, the partaking of the elements of the Eucharist was not permitted at this monastery, and I respect that. So, crossing my arms over my chest, I received a prayer of blessing from the priest instead. Yet I could still taste the bread and the wine somehow. Somehow Jesus still looked at me and said, Well done. Enter into the bigness of God.

I left as I entered–in silence. But in another way I left a totally different person. And the silence itself was now music in my soul. How can one ever be the same after encountering the Very Big God?

Comments

  1. A Very Big God…and very small people.

    I do not know why some baptized Christians exclude other baptized Christians from receiving the body and blood of Christ.

    I thank God that our Lord didn’t set up fences like that around His gospel.

    • Paul Timo says:

      Closed communion. Always torques somebody off.

      If Christians are not united then to receive communion together is a BIG FAT LIE and profanes the body of Christ.

      That happens enough already.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Couldn’t have been more than three comments in, and the Theology Fight is on.

        Truly Reformed on this side, Romish Papists on that side, everybody check weapons and LAY ON!

  2. The dead Christ, on whom we are called to dine???

    He is risen, he is risen indeed. Death could not keep its prey.

    • We are called to dine on the Living God! Christ Jesus is alive!

      He told us that “if you don’t eat my body and drink my blood, then you have no part in me.”

      We do it, and trust that He is there in it, for our sakes.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

      True, true. But as one of my favorite priests is fond of saying, “There’s no Easter Sunday without a Good Friday. There’s no Resurrection without Crucifixion.”

    • Maybe Jeff should have said, “The Christ who had died” rather than “The dead Christ”.

      • No, I mean the dead Christ. We rush past the fact that God died to get to the resurrection. All moments exist for God in this moment. He is always, in that sense, dead. Once he tasted death, he will forever have that taste in his mouth. And that, for us, should be very comforting. He knows death not in a passing sense, but in a “now” sense.

        And it is his death we are invited to partake of in communion. Yes, he rose and conquered death, but he has not forgotten it. Neither should we.

        • I guess rushing past HIS death makes light of HIS death….but lingering long over HIS death can make light of the resurrection. I think maybe triumphalism has left a bad taste in your mouth on this one: I’ll take a Christ who died, was buried, and rose again: the whole enchilada so to speak. My hope is centered on the resurrection, though: lots of folks have died.

        • Thanks for the clarification. 🙂

  3. isn’t the most central expression of communion (common union) the most intimate of communal participation?

    i have my RCC membership card (baptismal certificate) & would not hesitate taking communion during Mass. however, if any objections where to be raised, i would not make any waves.

    partaking of the body+blood of Jesus a very visceral consideration, no? no matter how one wants to incorporate the specific imagery Jesus uses regarding this mystery. i must assume it is a mystery since the literal implication was not a theological wrestling issue for the apostles+disciples that actually heard this first hand…

    there is no account of the apostles+disciples actually planning a cannibalistic feast after the crucifixion, is there? maybe this is not the place for such a rumination. but the implication Jesus intended is still a very edgy consideration: eat My body; drink My blood. if you do not, you have no part in me…

    since we are entering Lent with the focal point being Easter, that Last Supper institution of communion in remembrance of Him an annual reflection. how is this possible? what is the spiritual dynamic Jesus transfered to the physical elements of bread+wine? if those elements do not change physically, then there is no observable miracle, since by definition a miracle is a measurable+observable override of nature. since faith is required, what is it believers identify with? i take communion every Sunday i attend service. i consider it true spiritual food. just as my natural body needs nourishment, so does my spiritual man. however, no rite or ritual is carried out that ‘converts’ bread & wine into Jesus’ body+blood. and when i attend my sister’s Lutheran church, i partake of communion there. and any funeral mass i attend for relatives i partake of communion then. it is so much a doctrinal statement as it is a communal statement as it was intended to be.

    always a fascinating consideration. i have not had an adequate explanation yet of what it truly means from God’s perspective. i get all the doctrinal nuances from a human standpoint reiterated, but really, what was Jesus’ purpose for making such a radical statement & how does this really become our reality when we approach the communion table to “eat & drink” in remembrance of Him???

    • I believe that Jesus wanted us to have something tangible for assurance of salvation. Faith has to ‘touch down’ somewhere. So He commands that we do this, and He is in it for us that we might have the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation…totally apart from any inward feelings, or doubts that we might have. This keeps us grounded in Him and off of the spiritual, ladder climbing project.

      My 2 cents.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

      In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, we find a very interesting bit of theology regarding the Eucharist. It’s both Catholic and Reformed. The following are the words of institution. The first sentence for each element comes from liturgy that predates the Reformation. The second….does not:

      The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.

      The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.

    • David Cornwell says:

      ” i have not had an adequate explanation yet of what it truly means from God’s perspective. i get all the doctrinal nuances from a human standpoint reiterated,”

      Yes, it is a mystery that we will never be able to explain. Doctrine and theology pale and fade in its light and can never explain its mystery. And as Jeff makes clear, the our human mind can and never will fully comprehend the Bigness of God.

      And in the end it is truly good news for us.

      • Yes!

        “Christ has died
        Christ is risen
        Christ will come again…”

        The Table is indeed a part of a divine mystery. Far too many people attempt to break down the beauty of the bread and wine into a theological construct, hoping to transform the Maker and Savior of mankind into a tenth grade math equation, or a 7 step program for spiritual completion. Fact is, it’s a mystery. Somehow, as I’ve grown older in my faith, I’ve come to believe that the more I’m willing to admit how little I know about God, the more of Himself He’s willing to reveal to me…in The Word, in the Sacraments, etc.

    • “i must assume it is a mystery since the literal implication was not a theological wrestling issue for the apostles+disciples that actually heard this first hand…”

      Jesus actually says ‘eat and drink’ three times in the passage. The final time, the Greek word used by Jesus for eating means ‘to grind with the teeth.’ The disciples clearly understood the implications and most turned away from following Jesus, precipitating His question to the disciples “You do not want to leave too, do you?” To which Peter replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66 – 68)

      So it was a ‘theological wrestling issue’ to such an extent that many of the disciples no longer followed Him.

      (I heard one Pastor describe this passage as Jesus’ church shrinkage sermon.)

      Also an interesting side note; all of John Chapter 6 is about eating.

    • Adrienne says:

      For me, the age old division over the meaning of these hard words which Jesus spoke gets in the way of what I see as the most amazing part of this “meal”. Jesus, Son of God, truly God is asking us, His creatures, to remember Him!! Was not Jesus Christ demonstrating humility for us throughout this “last supper”? To wash his disciples feet and then say, “remember me”. Asking us to remember Him. It breaks my heart to try to understand what His feelings and thoughts must have been at the moment that He said those words. But, instead of remembering Him and His humility we get all puffed up with pride as we take sides, as we exclude others of like faith from the meal, as we argue our interpretations and theological stance on Jesus few hard words. Could we shift the focus, at least privately when we take part in the meal, and remember Him?

  4. I would love to do a silence retreat!

    I love the quote “God had been inviting me to experience his bigness all along. If I have thought him to be small and narrow, it is only because I had been hanging back, not approaching him as he calls me to come. And he only calls in one way: through his body and through his blood.”

    How profound. I think about how small I have made God at times by hanging back.

  5. I. Needed. This.

    Thank you!

  6. I gave up blogging for Lent but I’ll break that just to say that a silent retreat is one of the most powerful and moving experiences you can have. Christianity is about community, to be sure, but we are so bombarded by marketing and the pace of our modern lives that spending 3 or 5 or 7 days outside of the frenzy is an amazing experience. Imagine being able to meditate/pray for hours without worrying about your to-do list.

    Peace.

    • I also love silent retreats. I did a similar one to Jeff’s — at the same place, in fact — after Thanksgiving. And interestingly, I still felt a sense of community, although I didn’t speak to any of the other participants. We were all there for the same purpose, following the same path, together in body and spirit if not in conversation. It felt — in a good way! — as if I were one of a herd of cows, all contentedly grazing in the same meadow, separate but united.

      • “It felt — in a good way! — as if I were one of a herd of cows, all contentedly grazing in the same meadow, separate but united.”

        I like this metaphor, Damaris. I have a metaphor about baptism and the Eucharist that I bet many people would not like. BUT…I kind of see baptism like being given an antidote. And the Eucharist is our booster shot. Some people have called the Eucharist a “God pill” and though they may have meant it sarcastically, I will take it truly.

      • It would be just my luck to be on my retreat and someone decide to go “cow” tipping…. I guess retaliation is pretty much out….

        • Count — or Cownt — it all joy, brother.

          • Amen…..and if I’m in HIS presence, does it really matter that I”m on my side or upside down ?? HE is above and below …OK….be-lowwwwww. me;

            Not to run amok with amusement here: this was a very good theme and post; well suited for lent and all things reflective.

  7. Thank you, Jeff. The Eucharist is beyond words in its awesomeness. It speaks of pure grace. May you hunger to experience it more fully.

  8. Carl Jung contrasted our smallness to His bigness by saying, “That is to say, even the enlightened person remains what he is, and is never more than his own limited ego before the One who dwells within him, whose form has no knowable boundaries, who encompasses him on all sides, fathomless as the abysyms of the earth and vast as the sky.” Answer to Job (p. 108)
    Not bad for a psychotherapist.

  9. Jeff writes, “I left as I entered–in silence. But in another way I left a totally different person. And the silence itself was now music in my soul. How can one ever be the same after encountering the Very Big God?”

    How, indeed. I pray and hope that the silence/music increases in your soul daily, Jeff.

  10. Beautiful! you have given me a wonderful meditation, (allowing Jesus to feed me), as I go thru this Lent.
    silent communion, feeding on Jesus – thanking him for his Love. Thank you Jeff. peace.