The wilderness is an important place in scripture. It is the place where dramatic and important things happen, the place where people are lost, the place where people find themselves. It is the place where Jesus goes at the beginning of his ministry and the deserted place he goes to in times of need when seeking clarity and the place where he speaks/ communes with his father.
It’s not unfair to say that consistently within scripture the wilderness, despite being devoid of a cash and carry and the conveniences of our modern life: is an unexpected place of nurture, encounter and can be seen as a helpful place.
But our modern thinking is to see the wilderness as the enemy and as the devastatingly lonely place. The place which undermines and challenges us, the place absent of whatever we need in order to reflect who we are and are determined to be seen to be. The wilderness most notably means that we are forced to face up to the hard realities of life, we are forced to face upto hunger, and the understanding of ourselves – while perceiving and knowing God to be present.
In our reading from the first book of Kings, Elijah has reached a crisis in his career; and fled into the wilderness. In his despondency, he requests that he might die, but he is supernaturally provided with food to sustain him on the journey to Horeb, the journey to the mountain of God, where he will come to meet with God.
So, through all of the changing scenes of life, in trouble and in joy, as we heard from the metrical version of the psalm that we sang before the Gospel wherever we might be, even if we are surrounded by the people of God, the conveniences of life, wherever we might find that wilderness in our lives: gifts from God are constantly being offered for us, to sustain us and support us. And primarily for the Christian community – The gift is the bread which comes not raining down from heaven – but which is the Body of Christ given for us to sustain us and to bring us eventually into the nearer and eternal presence of God.
Renita Weems writes a beautiful description of ritual in relation to prayer in her book “Listening for God”. She writes, “Rituals are routines which force us to live faithfully even when we no longer feel like being faithful. Until our heart has the time to arouse itself to find its way back to those we love, rituals make us show up for duty”. And the daily or weekly patterns for prayer and of receiving the sacrament of the Altar are those things which keep us united with God, and with each other… even if we are not in the mood for God, or for each other.
In the reading from the Book of Kings, Elijah isn’t in the mood for life… yet the food which is given sustains him until he can find himself once again, until he can face up to the reality of his life and eventually see more clearly what God is calling him to do and be.
In that wilderness for Elijah, when he has given up on everything, that act of receiving the “supernatural” gift of food from God sustains him until he comes to meet God almost face to face. Until he has space and capacity within himself to remember himself.
It’s no surprise to you or me that this Old Testament reading parallels Jesus teaching in our Gospel today. Jesus develops in our understanding that thought which is that the Bread of life which is the body, his body given for us is the new heavenly food which will not only give us life now and sustain us to journey ever forward to seek and meet with God, but which will give us life in God through Christ, for ever.
They say you are what you eat… I will tread carefully here myself!! But the food which we eat is that which reflects that we are longing for God, longing for life in God, and for a life through Christ which is the Body of the Church with one another.
This bread that we eat at this holy table isn’t just something to momentarily give us encouragement or unite us momentarily with the eternal and everlasting presence of God. It is in receiving it a sign that we want to be together, through all the changing scenes of life. It is a sign, a tangible sign which affects your very biology that speaks into the deepest recess of your being that we long to be the body of Christ, one another together and for that body to be united in the purpose of the worship of God.
It seems reprehensible to me that we would not want this life… a life closely knit within the community of faith, a life devoid of longing for and meeting with God. And this bread when we eat it at this Mass, is the bread which ritually and sacramentally sustains us; through and while we are in the wilderness.
I recall many years ago when I was an organist at St Stephen’s in Clewer, Windsor. I had a one off falling out with the parish priest Fr Ainsley over something now long forgotten. And while playing for Mass, I felt I less than inclined to receive the sacrament, so I played on… only to notice Fr Ainsley with the Sacrament standing beside me at the Organ Console. He simply said “The Body of Christ…” I could not refuse the offer of love. But that wasn’t because he wanted to make a point. It was to sustain me through the wilderness until I could see again the revelation of the Love of the community and the Love of God.
Ritual is important in our Anglican Catholic Tradition. Not necessarily the trappings of ringing a bell, or shacking a smoking pot… not necessarily candles being raised and lowered – though these things add to our wholistic offering of worship. But, the ritual of daily, and weekly receiving the sacrament, the ritual of letting the body of Christ sustain us.. perhaps even until we are interested again, and the ritual of allowing the body of Christ to nurture us until we can again be a full member. This is what is being offered to us in Jesus Christ.
Too often we think we can do everything in our own power, our own mind and authority and I suspect some have thought throughout the pandemic – we don’t need the ministry of the church, we’ve got on well enough haven’t we. We are foolish if we believe this. The church will exist throughout – constantly speaking of the Love of God, always there for whenever you need it. But you might just thing that until you really understand it, you might still work within the ritual offering of the church until you are ready. Because until you are ready, God always gives. Until you understand, God will always offer himself to you. Until you are back in that place of believing and of being, remembering yourself.
Allow God to care for you through the gifts he gives us in his Son our Saviour – the wilderness becomes a transformational place and no longer the enemy – and that isn’t only for this world. For the Bread which he gives us not only transforms the wilderness journey but it conquers death and the eternal wilderness we might experience in being separated from God.
Lord give us this bread always, that we might rejoice in your company and fellowship with the living and the departed – now and always. Amen