Tasting the Divine

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Imagine you know someone who has never - even once - tasted honey, but whose hobby is learning all she can about it.

She has spent countless hours studying honey. She knows all about how it is produced, how to care for the bees and make sure they have access to the right kind of flowers, and how to harvest it and refine it so it is ready for the table. On top of that, she's read numerous accounts of what honey tastes like from a variety of different sources. She is completely fascinated by these descriptions.

Our hypothetical friend knows everything there is to know about honey, but she's never tasted it for herself. There's no doubting that our friend knows a great deal, but doesn't the average joe who has actually tasted the goods have the more crucial understanding of honey? Isn't her understanding of honey disastrously incomplete, even flawed? And even more importantly, though we have to admit she is genuinely passionate about honey - we could even say she loves the stuff - we'd have to also admit that something important is missing, that she can't really love honey, at least not properly.

This strange anecdote sheds light on what's going on in Jonathan Edwards' book, Religious Affections. By affections, Edwards means the "vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul" (96). He's talking about our positive emotional responses to God - especially things like love and joy.  We all experience affection for a variety of different things. If you're a Christian you must have some kind of affection for God. But our affections aren't always what they seem - they can be deceiving.

Take our honey-obsessed friend. She absolutely loves honey, and experiences great joy while learning and discussing the topic. But something crucially significant is lacking. This is a person who sincerely loves honey, but a five year old who has ever squeezed a translucent golden plastic bear has the ability to love honey in a deeper, more important way; he is able to love honey the way it is actually meant to be loved.

This is because if a person is going to love someone or something, he or she first has to have some experience of it. Moreover, a great many things are supposed to be experienced in one or more appropriate ways, and our experience of them is flawed if we try to experience them in different ways. For instance, I would recommend that you taste honey - don't just read about it. Likewise, I'd suggest you read a novel, and I would discourage you from attempting to taste it.

It's the same in religion. But if touch is the appropriate way to experience play-dough, and sight is the appropriate way to experience the Mona Lisa, what is the appropriate way to experience God so that He might raise our affections? What 'eyes' do we have with which to 'see' God, so that we might admire him in appropriate love and joy?

Edwards suggests that the Holy Spirit gives us something he calls the 'spiritual sense' that makes these proper, 'gracious' affections possible. It's a sense similar to sight or touch or taste, but instead of enabling our experience of light or texture or flavor, it enables us to experience God's grace. Grace, after all, is no ordinary thing. It's utterly unique and new, and we can't appreciate it adequately with our ordinary capacities: sensory or emotional or mental. If we are going to love God truly the way God is supposed to be loved, we need new tools, and that's what the 'new sense' provides.

You can love the idea of God, and you can receive joy when thinking upon the things of God. You can have great passion and affection while learning about God, your heart can become excited upon hearing the Christian message - the good news of God's love in Jesus. But this is quite a different thing than loving God himself. Real love and passion for God, according to Edwards, means discovering new eyes with which to see, new ears with which to hear. We need a new, spiritual sense. Edwards seems to think this can come to us only as a gift.

Why does Jesus dine with sinners?

Sin is not a popular topic these days, but I think it is a necessary one. The truth is that human beings are often our own biggest problem. We're broken, and we break stuff. Christians classically call this phenomenon 'sin.'

In bringing up sin I don't mean to cause shame and hate and division. I do think those things are evidence of sin - they are symptoms. But I certainly don't want to cause any of those things any more than a doctor wants to make you sneeze when she's telling you that you have a cold. 

Moreover, I should clarify that what I mean by sin is actually not the popular image of sin as "missing the mark." The glossa ordinaria is that in Greek the word for sin comes from an archery term that means to miss the mark, but etymologies don't control the meanings of words (for a banal example, just think about driveways and parkways). Generally when Christians talk about sin as missing the mark, there is the vague idea lurking somewhere in the background of what 'the mark' is. Jesus hit it, and we all miss it. But I don't think there is a 'mark' more fundamental than Jesus; there's no timeless moral law that we all fall short of with the exception of Jesus. I don't think this notion takes Jesus seriously enough. 

What I mean by sin is more rooted in disordered desire. Humans were created to love. We exist to love God, and to love each other. When that doesn't work right, we call that sin. (Jesus is, among other things, what it looks like when it works right.)

And like many things that have to do with our desire, sin is contagious.

If you are around enough violence, there's a good chance you'll become a more violent person. It is difficult - perhaps impossible - to live in a greedy culture such as ours and not have that rub off on you. If you are consistently in roles and around social groups that valorize pride and arrogance, well, you're probably not going to grow in humility. 

I could go on. 

Our sin - our wrongly directed desires and our misplaced loves - is contagious. So one might sympathize with the Pharisees:

Jesus sat down to eat at Levi’s house. Many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus and his disciples. Indeed, many of them had become his followers. When some of the legal experts from among the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, “Why is he eating with sinners and tax collectors?"

When Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15–17 CEB)

If sin is contagious, then what Jesus is doing is patently unwise. Sick people do need a doctor. But sin is a serious condition, and as we've observed in the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, doctors can actually get sick too. You have to take precautions if you are going to be in close proximity to such severe sicknesses. Really the best course of action is avoidance. 

Or is it?

Well, it probably is with Ebola at this point. 

But Jesus is vaccinated against sin. Or, better (hopefully without overextending this already quite extended metaphor) Jesus is the vaccine. Sin is deadly, and sin is contagious; the Pharisees are right about that. But grace is yet more lively than sin deadly, and yet even more contagious. 

So, with all the risk of doing so, why is Jesus eating with sinners? Because if they're sick, he's a doctor. Or, less metaphorically, because what's broken about them is their love, and Jesus is the Lover par excellence

A lot of religious people (including more than a few supposed Christians!) are afraid of difference, they're afraid of outsiders, they're afraid of behaviors that they see as questionable. This fear might be perfectly reasonable - unless you're a follower of Jesus. If you're a follower of Jesus, then the question changes, it flips: why aren't you eating with tax collectors and sinners? When you aren't eating with sinners, you aren't eating with Jesus. 

Then, of course, the strange good news here is that you're a sinner too, dear reader. 

Loving Water

It's around noon, and Jesus hangs out alone by a well in Samaria. The disciples have gone into town to get food, but Jesus is tired. Jean Vanier points out that this is the only time in any of the gospel accounts where Jesus is explicitly tired. It's been a long walk in a dry climate, and so Jesus is also thirsty. So when a woman comes to draw water from the well, he asks if she will draw some for him. 

The conversation that follows in John chapter 4 is famous. The woman is confused about why he's asking her for water - Jews and Samaritans don't usually mix. But Jesus, thirsty and tired, avoids her attempts to deflect. Jesus is interested in the water in the well, but he is more interested in sharing a more metaphorical water with her. This woman is thirsty, she has a 'past', but Jesus loves her regardless of what she has done or what has happened to her that she might be ashamed of, and Jesus is out to quench her thirst. She is thirsty; Jesus' heart is that she would never thirst again. 

But there's more. In the Bible, meetings at wells are often significant. 

Abraham's servant finds Rebekah - who will be Isaac's wife - at a well after he asks her for something to drink. Moses met his wife Zipporah and Jacob (whose well Jesus and this unnamed Samaritan woman drink from) also met Rachel at a well. 

Jesus isn't hanging around a well just because he's thirsty. Jesus is hanging around a well so that he can meet someone to love. Jesus is hanging around a well because he knows that the world is thirsty, and his love is the only well that can slake that thirst. 

In other words, Jesus is hanging around the well because he is a lover, a lover like the lover of Song of Songs: passionate and unflagging and self-giving, even erotic. Jesus came to the well for the same reason that Jesus came to the world: to find his Beloved.

And he finds her. 

In spite of it all, Christmas comes anyways

On the Sunday before Christmas in 1930, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached at a German church in Cuba while on holiday there. Here's an excerpt from his sermon, as quoted in the biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945 by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen:

It is probably correct to say that each of us who has looked around a bit in the world perhaps finds it particularly strange to be celebrating Christmas this year. Before our eyes stand hordes of unemployed persons, millions of children throughout the world who are hungry and miserable, people starving in China, the oppressed in India and other unfortunate countries, and in everyone’s eyes we see despair and perplexity. And despite all this, Christmas is coming. Whether we want to or not, whether we are in the mood for it or not, we must hear once again: Christ, the Saviour, is born … (DBWE 10, 589)

Take away China; insert North Korea or any number of other places. Take away India; insert Syria, Mali, or any number of other places. Or maybe even just set aside starvation and oppression and look at the overwhelming violence in our world. The violence of unmanned American drones, the violence of Israelis and Palestinians, the violence of the pursuit of nuclear weapons by those who don't have them, the violence of flexing those nuclear arms by those who already do have them, or the violence of a young man with a gun against a handful of adults and twenty bright-eyed elementary school students. Just as easily as Brother Dietrich did in 1930, we can claim that it is awfully strange to be celebrating Christmas this year.

In the presence of so much hunger and pain, fear and isolation, resentment and revenge, there is plenty of cause for cognitive dissonance this season. And yet here is Christmas nonetheless: a light, a stable, a baby. Joy. Peace. Hope. Love. God coming to earth in all the power and glory of helplessness and poverty. Here it is, ready or not. So no matter what you do or how you feel, allow yourself to be confronted today and this whole season with the material fact of Christmas, the fact that unto us is born this day a Savior who will be for all people.

So for all the broken and weary, all the hungry and afraid, all the angry and hurting, and especially all the people who are under the impression they aren't invited: may we all come and seek his peace against our world's turmoil. Amen.