12th Sunday after Trinity

16 August 2018

Proper 15: Proverbs 9.1-6; Psalm 34.9-14; Ephesians 5.15-20; John 6.51-58

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WISDOM “sets her table” and calls “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” This invitation is the culmination of the first eight chapters of Proverbs, which present the competing claims of Wisdom and Folly. The chapters that follow will offer practical counsel about how to “walk in the way of insight”.

As Daniel Treier observes, Christian readers of these passages “cannot help but see” a eucharistic reference. Like the eucharist, Wisdom “does not leave behind the good gifts of creation but instead sanctifies them for use in divine-human fellowship” (Daniel Treier, Brazos Theological Commentary: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes).

To respond to her invitation requires humility (a recognition of our need) and hope (that God will meet it). In contrast, the embrace of Folly, described in the following verses, involves the pursuit of momentary pleasure at the expense of our true fulfilment. She tells her victims that “stolen water is sweet,” but hides the true cost of sin. Those who enter her house “do not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol” (Proverbs 9.17,18).

As Susan Gillingham explains, Psalm 34 is also an instructional text, drawing heavily on maxims from the Book of Proverbs. It has the same underlying message: the invitation of Wisdom offers us the path to true fulfilment, and so is addressed to all who “delight in life and long for days to enjoy good things” (Psalms through the Centuries: Volume Two).

Our epistle likewise calls on its readers to live “not as unwise people but as wise”. In doing so, they will learn how to use the good things of creation for their intended purpose. They are warned against being “drunk with wine, for that is debauchery” (a theme echoed in Proverbs 20.1 and 23.19-21). Instead, they are to be “filled with the Spirit”. This echoes St Luke’s account of Pentecost, when the descent of the Spirit is mistaken by some onlookers for drunkenness (Acts 2.1-42).

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In his book The Sober Intoxication of the Holy Spirit: Filled with the fullness of God, Raniero Cantalamessa explores this contrast between drunkenness and the experience of being filled with the Spirit. In doing so, he draws on the church Fathers’ commentary on Ephesians 5.18: “Both, they say, bring gladness, make us forget our sorrows and make us leave our senses. But while physical intoxication makes a man staggering and unsteady, spiritual intoxication makes a man steady at doing good.”

As Cantalamessa observes, the “sobriety” commended by scripture is not a joyless self-mastery: “Being sober is the equivalent of being humble, of not exalting oneself, of keeping a realistic sense of one’s limitations, of not forgetting that everything is a gift and that every good thing has been received.”

We need precisely this humility if we are to eat the banquet spread before us by holy Wisdom — the bread that alone will truly feed us, and the wine that will “make us leave our senses” and yet also make us “steady at doing good”.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus invites those whom he has just fed with bread and fish to this eucharistic banquet: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you . . . for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”

These words divide his hearers; for they are an invitation into a theological and spiritual revolution. As Jean Vanier observes, “The movement from a faith in the all-powerful God who protects us and whom we admire, obey, and fear to a faith in a God who accepts to be in the flesh, to become weak, incarnated, to become our friend, is too great for some people to make. They turn away” (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John).

The self-offering of Christ is “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentile”. In the face of God’s self-revelation, they must abandon some of their most reasonable-sounding theological preconceptions. It is Christ — the one whose flesh is given to us as food — who “became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1.23,30).

At the table set before us by Divine Wisdom, we are nourished by, and drawn into, the life of our humble and self-giving Lord.

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