Who’s afraid of a metaphor?

Most of the authors of Scripture use images that suit their own time, but not ours – not if we’re honest; Paul being the prime example.  Protective clothing, whether it’s for work or for war, looks different now.  Armour of the sort Paul mentions is something found in a museum.  War – physical combat – is a universal constant; no historical period has known real peace; yet the followers of Jesus – even so soon after his resurrection – were trying to follow a peaceful path.  So Paul is quick to point out that this conflict is a spiritual one – no enemies of flesh and blood should concern us – thus opening the door for us to understand what follows in a different light

Both of our readings this morning are heavy with metaphor, and each has encouraged faithful people to take positions that defend these passages as literally, (rather than figuratively) true.

Metaphor can be a dirty word in some Christian circles.  If you use it carelessly, or too frequently, you will be accused of not “believing in the Bible”  – and that is fine, because I don’t believe in “the Bible”, I believe in God – Father-Son-Spirit – as revealed in the Scriptures, traditions, Doctrine, and polity of the Church.  Faith in Scriptures is an imperfect arrangement, since much of what comes to us in our holy book comes in the form of idiom, figures of speech, parable and metaphor, not to mention prophetic visions and theologically constructed stories about the origins of faith, ritual and the pursuit of righteousness.  And yes, some of it also traces an arc of history.  But metaphor is what Paul is offering – and Jesus too, for that matter.

Jesus was not condoning cannibalism when he speaks to the crowds in this morning’s reading from John’s gospel (John 6: 48-59)   The gathered ‘experts’ missed the allusion to metaphor (so did we – he sets it up much earlier in the chapter) – and Jesus, to be fair, exploits their misunderstanding.  They have taken Jesus literally “I am the bread that comes down from heaven” and Jesus uses their confusion to extend the metaphor:

“ unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. “ (Jn 6: 53-55)

Jesus goes on to tell them that he is a gift from God quite unlike the food their ancestors received (no manna from heaven here). This is about real sustenance; the needs of the body are not just food and drink – but since food and drink are what you understand, “eat and drink of me (the Son of Man) and LIVE!

We are not ignorant of this kind of talk – we “drink in the scenery” (with our eyes no less!) – we find ourselves “hungry for company” after long absences from family or friends.  More and more often we reserve such expressions for clever writers or poor poets, and that way of speaking has fallen from common use.  But we are not foolish enough to think that company – of any kind – could possibly fill our bellies, nor can the most beautiful view on the planet satisfy our thirst.

The authorities (in John’s gospel) – desperate for a charge to bring against Jesus, would take a provocative approach, but  Jesus is giving us another way – a more visceral way – to understand the Gift of God that stands before us in the flesh.

Of course, we hear the Communion liturgy when Jesus talks about body and blood – but even at the table Jesus is inviting us to extend the metaphor; remember your whole selves need feeding; do not neglect your spiritual selves; do not shun the mystery that brings you in contact with God.  Bread and wine, taken internally,  do not transform us (nor, in our understanding, are they transformed). We recognize the symbolic significance in the Sacrament, and in Communion we are given a different set of senses with which to encounter/discover God.  And Jesus is the guide – the host – the catalyst for this mysterious, miraculous exchange.

So if Jesus’ metaphors can endure, let us not cast Paul’s aside too swiftly.  We are indeed “armed for battle” – faith vs. faithlessness; doubt vs. certainty; spiritual powers vs. our frail, mortal selves.  And the protection we are offered, through Christ, is head-to-toe; complete and nearly impenetrable.  That does not mean that we are beyond harm, it means that we should not be afraid.

Communion’s scant provision ( scrap of bread – sip of wine) will not keep us from starvation, but it will remind us that there is good even in the meagre or the small.  If Paul’s ‘armour’ gives us confidence to proclaim Christ in a world that worships gods of our own design, then it is a good metaphor.  The ‘battle’ is (just as often) within ourselves, or among ourselves – so that the real enemy cannot be ‘beaten back’ except by a better metaphor.

So the Prince of peace is revealed among the down-trodden and destitute, and stands unarmed against the might of the Empire – and it is the peaceful idea that endures.  And the Son of God dares to sit at table with criminals and outcasts (tax collectors and sinners) and talk politics and power as though it were theres to wield.  A teacher offers parable and story – demonstrating new ways of seeing old ideas, and always he points, not to himself but to God as the source of all wonder and power.  And in the end the very power of God is reduced to a miserable wreck of a man who is subject to execution on a cross, and the result is victory!  Life!  Freedom!  where none should have been found.  And that victory comes, not through brute force – not by martial power – not by superior weaponry  or slavish devotion to ritual – but perhaps because of a better metaphor which plants the seed of an idea, that gives us a glimpse of the power of God.

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