Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Episcopal Church of Newton Centre
August 9, 2015
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 14B
1 Kings 19: 4-8
Psalm 34: 1-8
John 6: 35, 41-51
When you are afflicted, as I am, with a strong sense of irony, it becomes nearly impossible to avoid noticing the gap between how things are and how they ought to be. And worse, the gap between reality and expectation is often so marked and so strong that—try as I may—I usually cannot resist the opportunity to draw it to the attention of the unsuspecting. Oscar Wilde once quipped that “I can resist anything but temptation,” and, for me, a situation replete with irony presents just such an “occasion of sin.”
Now, needless to say, during my thirty-two years as a teacher, I had endless opportunities to indulge my ironic disposition. The disparities came so fast and so furiously, in fact, that even this seasoned observer of the human comedy sometimes felt overwhelmed by each day’s multiple ironies. And, of all of the little follies committed by both the students and teachers alike over the course of a year—and believe me, they were legion—perhaps the most glaring was the practice known as “tag day.”
For ten of my years in the classroom, I taught at Roman Catholic secondary schools where students were required to wear uniforms. So, of course, they eagerly sought any opportunity to relax the hated rule, and—I must say—I entirely sympathized with them in this matter. On special occasions, however, and to help student organizations with their fundraising, the administration would occasionally relax the uniform rule and declare a “tag day” on which, for the nominal charge of one dollar—payable to the student organization involved—students could buy a “tag” entitling them to wear whatever they wanted, within reason, on that school day. And, of course, everyone did. Yet, without exception, on those days when students were entirely free to dress as they chose, they always unconsciously chose to imitate each other by dressing alike. They would walk into the classroom wearing slight variations of the same, expensive designer-jeans, the same style athletic shoe, the same knit pullover shirts—often with collars arranged in precisely the same upright position—with only small variations in the color scheme. In fact, the uniformity of their appearance on a day when the dress code was temporarily suspended was so manifest that only the brain-dead could fail to notice it. So I, of course, would always quip, in a slightly devilish tone, and with a sweeping gesture of the hand inviting them to look around the classroom: “I thought that today is a “tag day,” and that you are not required to dress in uniform.” And, for just a fleeting moment, you could almost see the proverbial lights go off in their brains as they noticed the inescapable truth: They had unconsciously imitated each other; they were now dressed in the unofficial “uniform” of their peers. Their little brush with “autonomy” had merely resulted in the substitution of one uniform for another.
Now, I tell you this anecdote this morning because I think that it goes right to the heart of our readings from the Christian Testament this morning: We humans are fundamentally imitative creatures. And my students—albeit unconsciously—had stumbled upon this central truth of the human condition. This awareness about the irresistible fascination for the “other” and our desire to imitate that “other,” is vitiated, however, by the myth of “rugged individualism” so prominent in western culture since the Enlightenment and so pervasive in American culture in particular. We have all been raised on the so-called virtue of “individuality”; we have all been exposed in a thousand different ways and means to the hypnotic drum-beat of Emerson’s famous dictum “Never imitate,” along with Thoreau’s rhetoric about “marching to the beat of a different drummer.” But it is not true, and believing will not make it true! We are inherently imitative creatures whose basic motivation is “mimetic “ or “imitative desire.” And no one knows this better than the advertising industry, which exploits with such efficient subtlety and skill our imitative natures, our rivalries, and our propensity to follow the leader.
So, it is not a matter of whether or not we will desire; whether or not we will imitate; whether or not we will follow; whether or not we will fall under the influence of an “other.” No, it’s a matter of what and how and who we will desire; who we will imitate; who we will follow; and under whose influence we choose to fall. Like it or not, we will—all of us—imitate some “other.” The real question for each and every person is which “other” will it be? What and how and who will we desire and—if I may make the by now obvious leap—who will we call “Lord” and at which altar will we serve? Our cultural myths about the “individual” notwithstanding, we have no choice about whether we will imitate; we can only choose, in our radical freedom—which is the stamp of the “bet ‘selem,” the “image of God” within us—the “how” and the “who.”
Our readings this morning from the Letter to the Ephesians and the Gospel according to Saint John offer the radical Christian answer to these ultimate questions with unmistakable clarity. After a series of statements about appropriate Christian behavior in the diverse circumstances of human life, culminating in the command to forgive one another as we have been forgiven by God in Christ, the writer of Ephesians boldly states: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Well now, that’s a very clear and unequivocal answer to the existential question of imitation, and it echoes God’s command to the Jewish people in the Torah to “Be holy, as I am Holy.” But how are we to do this; how do we, “like beloved children,” imitate an unseen God? The answer is found in Jesus’ eucharistic discourse in this morning’s Gospel: We Christians, like Jesus, must give ourselves in servant witness for “the life of the world”; we must “walk in love as Christ loved us.” This is “eternal life,” and it is only possible through intimate, sacramental communion with Christ Jesus, the human “face” of God; the eternal “Word made flesh.”
One of the several remarkable peculiarities of Saint John’s Gospel is that, unlike the three synoptic Gospels, Saint John’s contains no “institution narrative” at the “Last Supper” in which Jesus uses the familiar words of the Eucharistic liturgy to offer his disciples the bread and wine that—as we just heard again this morning—are his true “body” and “blood.” This seems odd in a Gospel that speaks so often and so eloquently about the centrality of “abiding” in Christ through visceral communion with his flesh and his blood. Many New Testament scholars account for this anomaly by observing that Saint John’s Gospel was written at the end of the first century CE, seventy years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. So, by that time, the Johannine community of believers would have already been thoroughly acquainted from their own Eucharistic liturgy with Jesus’ “words of institution.”
So, instead of the blessing and the sharing of the bread and wine at the sacred meal before his crucifixion, Saint John makes Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet the centerpiece of his narrative, a “Eucharistic” action that Jesus commands his followers to imitate. This is the model of suffering servanthood in the “kingdom of God,” which Jesus has come to proclaim and to inaugurate, especially in the terrible suffering and death that he is about to endure for the sake of the “life of the world.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes the connection between his giving of his own body and blood and true discipleship abundantly clear for any who choose to imitate and to follow him in “the way of the Cross”: It is the “Way” of perfect obedience; the “Way” of complete self-surrender; and the “Way” of suffering servanthood. In the “new creation” of which Christ Jesus is the “first-born,” this is how things must be; this is the “other” whom we, the baptized, must imitate. And this is also how the world will know that we are followers of Christ’s humble and merciful “Way”: by becoming “imitators of God” who “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” We Christians are called to be “servants of the servants of God,” unashamed to imitate Jesus and to call him our “Lord.”
- What and who do I desire?
- Who do I imitate?
- Who do I follow?
- Whom do I call “Lord”?
- At which altar do I make of myself a “living sacrifice”?
These are the urgent questions with ultimate significance placed before us by this morning’s readings. Is Jesus just a clever, first-century sage with pretensions beyond his humble background, as the crowd suggests in this morning’s Gospel? Or is he “the one like a Son of Man,” the human face of God, whose life of suffering servanthood and eucharistic self-giving we must imitate to grow into “the full stature of Christ” for the sake of the “life of the world”? How we answer these questions will make all of the difference to our destiny as imitative creatures.
Let us pray, then, this morning for God’s true gifts of faithfulness and hope and love, together with the strength and courage—amid all of the temptations, distractions, and powerful lures of this world—to answer those ultimate questions with a clear and resounding: Jesus Christ our Lord! “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”