Our vestry, the Board of Directors of our church, has been studying a book about the changes in religious attitudes and cultural patterns that have fewer and fewer people interested in what they think the churches have to offer. At our meeting the other night, we were sharing stories and observations around the table about these changes as we experience them in our own neighborhoods and families, and one member of the vestry talked about a conversation with her daughter who said to her “why would I go to church? I don’t need to go to some building to find God—to me God is everywhere.” And she’s right, of course—God is everywhere, available to everyone, all of the time.
During our long centuries of cultural dominance the message of the church to the world has been an accusation: “we have God and you don’t.” The reply of the church to that daughter of the vestry member would have been, “no—the God you experience for yourself and relate to any time you want is not the real God. It’s probably the Devil. Our panels of experts decide what is, and is not, allowable religious experience.” People who said publicly that you don’t need the church to find God, but that God is everywhere, all the time, for any one were considered dangerous. They were excommunicated and persecuted and even burned for saying it.
But, thankfully, fewer and fewer people are willing to accept that anymore. Today people recognize that nothing could be more preposterous than the notion that God is a scarce commodity. Nowadays, anyone can rent an auditorium in an office park and call themselves the Divine Light Worship Center, and set up a light show and a pop band and an espresso cart in the lobby. Today, you can browse at your leisure in an overstocked spiritual emporium, filling your cart with this Buddhist meditation and that Native American symbol, and it’s all good. You can choose what seems to suit your sensibility and lifestyle and leave the rest behind.
This approach to religion mirrors the individualism of our culture, and our growing social fragmentation. Because the unspoken corollary to “I find God on my own—however, wherever and whenever I want to,” is “you go have your God and leave me alone to have mine.” I’m not going to tell you that this is wrong. But I can say with conviction that it is not biblical. The Bible is full of descriptions of sublime personal encounters with God. One thinks of Abraham hearing the call to leave the land of his fathers and set out on a great journey, of Moses turning aside from the path to see a bush that burns without being consumed, or Saul of Tarsus struck blind by a great light on the road to Damascus. But in every case, the import of these experiences is not individual but collective.
Outside of a few of the Psalms, the Bible has very little interest in private religious experiences of personal illumination and consolation. But it is very interested in experiences of conversion that turn a person into a leader, who summons others to share God’s vision of a transformed community. The great and fundamental confession of the biblical faith is not “I have my God, now you get yours”, but “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.”
This is the God of Jesus. God sent Jesus to be a leader, to connect people across barriers of isolation and bring them into a new communion with God and with each other. His mission was not to accuse the world—“I have God and you don’t”—but to ask it a question: “What could happen if we shared God together?” [Repeat]. He put that question to those who had been pushed out to the margins and excluded from the sphere of blessing and holiness, and he put it to the elites who guarded the places of access to sacred power. Jesus didn’t demand that people submit to his authority. But he did ask them to imagine how they would be different if they could see the authority of God already here, present among us now, inviting all of us together to create in God a community of justice and love, of sharing and forgiveness.
Jesus didn’t just talk about these things. He showed people what it looks like by sharing with them at the most basic level. Anyone who has carried a lunch tray through a crowded high school cafeteria, anxiously looking for a place to sit, knows the role that sharing a table plays in defining social rank and belonging. But Jesus subverted the conventional norms about all that by eating with anyone. It was one of the things that drove his critics crazy about him—“This man welcomes tax collectors and sinners,” they said, “and he eats with them.”
I see this aspect of Jesus’ ministry in the background of the Gospel stories about the feeding of a great crowd. I think the real miracle in these stories is not the multiplication of bread and fish. It is that 5,000 individuals, each one of whom had come looking for Jesus out of his or her own need, jostling against each other, vying to be the first to get his attention—this crowd sat down together on the grass and shared a common meal; at least for a moment, they became a community.
They shared the miracle of the abundance of God, that not only is available to everyone, everywhere, all the time, but is also what makes it possible for us to get over our fear and suspicion and rivalry with one another and live together in unity and peace. It was a powerful shared experience for those 5,000 people, and I think that when the church is at its best it gives people that kind of experience. It’s something you can’t have by yourself: an experience of belonging, of being part of something, part of a people that are on a journey together toward a common homeland where they won’t exploit and oppress and deceive and slander, and commit violence against each other anymore. It’s an experience that changes the way people see themselves in relation to the existing power structures in world. Which is something the Gospel clearly understands—why else would it say that after the banquet the crowd tried to seize Jesus and make him their king?
He wouldn’t let them do it, but not because his leadership was “spiritual” and not political, but because they’d misunderstood what he had just showed them about the way power works in the Kingdom of God. Because you can’t point to any one place in the story and say, “here is where the five loaves and two fish became enough to feed a multitude.” Was it when the little boy came forward with his little bit of food? Was it when Jesus took it and said the prayer of thanksgiving? Was it when he broke the bread and passed it out to the crowd? Was it when they received it, and handed it around?
This isn’t a story of Jesus showing off his power, so people will become dependent on and submissive to him. It’s an illustration of what can happen when we trust enough to share the blessings of God together; God, the Letter to the Ephesians says, “whose power working in us can do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.” This is the divine power that we worship, and put at the center of our common life as Christians. It is the power that makes the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. But where is the transformation—in the bread and wine or in the people who eat and drink them? And when does it happen? When the priest says the Eucharistic Prayer? When the little bell rings? When the bread is broken to be shared? When it’s given out, or when we receive in our hands, or in our mouths?
It’s a mystery. Difficult to comprehend, even harder to communicate, especially to someone who hasn’t been there, and has no idea what it’s about. And yet this is the power that can disarm the forces of human self-destruction and save the world. So I don’t think we really have a choice except to try to share it. At least we know now what’s not going work—“We have God and you don’t.” So let’s get up, and dust ourselves off and try again, this time with a question, Jesus’ question: “What could happen if we shared God together?” I say we make more of an effort to ask that question, explicitly and implicitly, with words and with actions. Let’s ask it of ourselves, and of our neighbors and our old enemies. Let’s ask it with as much courage and creativity as we can muster, and let’s see.