We all sit on the grass in groups, men, women and children – just like the feeding of the 5,000, I suppose. Instead of pieces of bread and fish we have little bags containing portions of pitta, small bottles of red wine, a plastic cup and the liturgy. It is Sunday morning at the Greenbelt (progressive Christian ‘faith, arts and justice’) Festival and this assembly is the high point as we all gather in the open air to celebrate our unity in Jesus. We are directed from the stage, but it doesn’t feel like being told what to do: instead there is a sense of both intimate and diverse community as we relate to the small and varied circle of people around us, finding focus in the midst of a crowd of thousands. I can see a rainbow of God’s people, from Franciscan monks to babies. You couldn’t know them all personally – yet this is our wider family; we’ve joined the same journey of faith by choosing to put our trust in the Man who broke a piece of bread and told us to eat His Body and remember Him. It feels like home.
The music is great – loud, lively, joyful – transcending different styles by cleverly using a mixed gospel choir that appeals to all as it dispenses life and truth. The celebrants on the platform are women and men, black and white and although there is a mainly Anglican format of prayers and responses there is no trace of ‘religion’ – during the reading of John chapter 1 we are even encouraged to ‘grab some flesh’ of the person next to us and squeeze whenever the scripture refers to the Word becoming human! We make paper chains, writing our own names on a link and joining them across the crowd – then, to a great gasp of dismay, are told to pull and break them. Immediately sobered… having spent time laughing, eager, being creative and child-like with coloured paper, it is almost a physical pain to have our work destroyed. It’s a powerful and shocking simile of how much worse it is to break apart the bonds between us – yet that is what we often do. In the moment of contrition, confession and intercession come easily.
Later on, a rainbow of ribbons is raised like a tabernacle over our heads – to celebrate the fragility and beauty of our flesh, to signify a tabernacle of promise and wonder and diversity becoming one under heaven’s covering. It’s not like being in a confined room – instead we are made small by the surrounding hills and sky, the grand panoply of God’s creation; our individual voices may be lost in such a space, but we’re significant in our agreement, together able to raise a shout that can and will be heard. As people of differing persuasions of course we don’t agree on everything – but that is not the call: it’s in those differences, as we learn to trust each other’s hearts, that true unity can be attained in the multi-coloured glory that is love.
Yet it was something even deeper than this colourful display that stays with me from Sunday’s gathering – that struck the resonance within and opened up another revelation of what the bread and wine are all about…
The speaker was American, a woman I had never heard before: her message hit the nail on the head and tied the rest together with my life. It was about fragility of flesh, the fact that God became a suffering man and limited Himself to weakness and decay – mortality. That’s why so many heresies arose – ‘it can’t be possible for an all-powerful God to be reduced like that, he must be God OR man’. Yet no – that’s not what we believe. So now the preciousness of flesh itself contains salvation’s message: it’s simply not about transcendence to some spiritual plane, but all tied up with bodies, wounds and suffering – we are embodied spirits and, made in God’s own image, we can house the presence of the divine. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was physical – and yet that new body still displayed His wounds: in the end we’ll all have new yet wounded/healed, eternal bodies too. And meanwhile in our flesh and here among weak and dying humankind, the Lord of all has found a home and dwelling place – invisible, yet visible in each one and in all. The whole earth is filled with His glory and what God has joined together let no man separate!
Well, that’s my interpretation of what Nadia Boltz-Weber said… I’ve probably added and subtracted stuff. But God was speaking – telling me it’s OK: He/She is part of my reality and all the physical suffering I feel, both in my own body in it’s weariness and changes as I age, and as I struggle to bear with Sam’s condition. I don’t have to escape to heaven, to some ecstatic out-of-body experience: the Incarnate One is here on earth with me. He took the bread and tore His own Body apart in willingness to identify – the courage of the Man who made that choice! He poured His life-blood down upon the earth to redeem and cleanse the world. So we sat upon the hallowed ground and celebrated this salvation message in the time-honoured way, thousands partaking of communion with the Christ in His covenant, and with each other in His Body – remembering the Lord until He comes and gives us all those resurrection bodies like His own.
We often pray for healing at such times: ‘the blood of Christ avails for me, for sickness and for sin’. I do believe in Divine healing and I do long for it to be released when we pray – especially for my own son. In fact at the moment Sam is well, and we cannot know what may happen after this! But, as Adrian Plass said in his talk this weekend, “I know two things about God and healing: He does and He doesn’t“. Looking round me in that crowd I could see those in wheelchairs and handicapped in other ways – let alone the pain I couldn’t see. Perhaps the special focus on the theme of ‘flesh’ meant more to me because of all the lessons I’ve been learning over the past 2 years about sharing in that fellowship of sufferings (see my poem Walking Wounded here). I do believe there is humility before God in not seeking to run away from our mortality and I feel compelled to angrily confront the reality of death and know that there’s no sting – because that is the essence of the good news! For me it is, in fact, just as Paul said long ago: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death… and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead’ Philippians 3v10-11. It was never one without the other, but always both/and.
As I knelt there in the midday sun with the full cup of wine waiting on my knees, the 2 year old lying down in front of me let his foot fly… my eyes were closed and I was not prepared. He kicked the cup out of my hand and soaked my lap with the ‘blood of Christ’. I was surprised – cold, wet, marked out by an accident and smelling strongly of alcohol! -but my brightly patterned clothing hid the stain and I somehow knew there was a message in this for me. How many times have I thrown wine around upon the ground, declaring healing in Jesus’ name, the blood that brings new life, the restoration of the land?
So if a male child should kick the cup over me – so be it: soak me with the reality of death that brings life. ‘Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me’ prayed Jesus in His hour of need – but it wasn’t – and as for me, I don’t know what will be required… But if the cup lands in my lap because of a young man at least I know that Jesus is in the middle of it all.