My wife is gluten intolerant. She has coeliac disease. People who have it often start off perfectly healthy and develop the condition over time. It’s not a lifestyle choice or a diet fad. If you eat gluten then you get ill.
She won’t thank me for sharing this (she really won’t) but you can get diarrhoea, constipation, stomach cramps, head-aches, fatigue, anaemia, weight loss or weight gain. If not treated soon enough it can lead to osteoporosis or small bowel cancer. As 1% of the UK population have it, someone else here probably has it or knows someone who has.
And she wasn’t diagnosed straight away. For about 10 years they thought it was anaemia – and the treatment was actually making it worse.
So, you spend your life looking at the ingredients lists on packaging for oats, wheat, rye and barley. Or checking menus to see what’s ok to eat in a restaurant, and if the menu isn’t clear then asking whoever is serving. Then hoping to goodness that they know what they’re talking about and aren’t bluffing.
I am the bread of life
Consequently, “I am the bread of life” doesn’t have the best connotations if you’re gluten intolerant. If you can’t eat bread without being ill then would you want a saviour who makes you think of stomach cramps, headache and the runs?
The more-aware churches will have a gluten-intolerant option when it comes to Communion. Either a wafer or bread which look like normal gluten products – or they make a feature of it and have a rice cake. With the less-aware churches, well, you just have to do without.
Of course, in making the statement “I am the bread of life” Jesus was saying that he sustained spiritual life in the same way that their staple food stuff in Israel sustained physical life. Plus giving a nod to the manna from heaven that God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness, the “bread of heaven” that we sang about earlier.
I am the rice cake of life
But there are many parts of the world where the mainstay is rice not bread. It would be interesting to know how this passage is translated in those cultures. If Jesus had said “I am the rice cake of life” how would we think about that?
I also suspect that “I am the shepherd” probably doesn’t resonate in parts of the world where there are no sheep – and so you’d need to think of different ways of expressing that same thought too.
Gluten & Church intolerant
We’ve heard about gluten intolerance but I think some people suffer from ‘church intolerance’. They may be very spiritually aware and seeking – but don’t come anywhere near a church. I believe there are parallels between the two conditions.
Perhaps they used to partake of church when they were younger but over time they find they can no longer stomach it? Perhaps words on a Sunday not being followed up by actions during the week gives a headache? Or clergy child abuse scandals and their subsequent cover-ups make them sick? Or a rich church in an area of social deprivation makes them queasy? Perhaps just a lack of spiritual depth in what they perceive of church – and that they can get something more substantial elsewhere?
It might even be that they don’t really know what’s wrong. It’s taking time to diagnose the problem. They’re uncomfortable without really knowing why.
To push the analogy further maybe the packaging that we put around what we do as ‘church’ is unclear and confusing? The person looking in can’t readily tell what’s contained inside so they don’t risk trying it. So does our labelling, our menu, need to be clearer? If they ask a church goer what goes on at church do they get a reliable answer that they can trust or do they feel the church goer is bluffing, unable to explain convincingly?
Should we change our catering service?
We more or less cater for gluten intolerance – so should we better cater for church intolerance? Should we think about alternative forms of church? Some which are similar to the regular versions of what we have now, some very different? What would that look like? Does the building itself put people off or is it the old hymns with archaic words? Would a service be better on a day other than Sunday? Is a sermon an outmoded way of putting a point across?
But unlike gluten intolerance, which seems relatively recent, church intolerance goes back millennia – way before the buildings and services that we have now. And when you think about it it’s not people of no faith or of other faith who have the hardest things to say about it. We see the harshest words coming from our ‘own’ prophets… You could take your pick from Amos, Malachi or Isaiah.
What would the prophets do?
Here’s a typical example from Isaiah (chapter 1): “I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. 14 … your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.”
If Amos, Malachi or Isaiah were around today would they be attending regular church or synagogue I wonder? Where would they go to worship?
And, of course, the prophets are just channelling the heart of God. Would Jesus turn up each week to church or would he too be ‘church intolerant’ and look elsewhere?
Substance over style
If we’re to provide something palatable to those who don’t normally come to church then if we’re to learn from the prophets perhaps we should spend less time worrying about what the music is like, or whether we say a creed, or have communion, or what day of the week the service is, or whether there’s a multi-media presentation instead of a sermon or whether it’s in a café or a pub rather than church, or whether we sing ‘Stand by me’ instead of an anthem. Perhaps it’s not format that’s wrong but content?
You may have come across a Lutheran minister called Nadia Bolz-Weber. She’s covered in tattoos and swears like a trooper… but she was also at the Festival of Preaching last year in Oxford. The church to which she was pastor until last month is called ‘The House of Sinners and Saints’ and made up mostly of young people, a third of whom are from the LGBT community and you may not be surprised to know that she has a ‘minister of fabulousness’ who is a drag queen.
Yet they don’t dumb down. There’s real substance. Nadia estimates she spends 20 hours a week on a 10 minute sermon. The liturgy is traditional & sacramental, with ancient plainsong & old hymns.
The congregation sings those hymns unaccompanied rather than rely on a choir or organist. They share as much of the service as possible. This is not a happy-clappy church. Yet young, radical Christians come every Sunday.
“We don’t do anything really well,” Bolz-Weber says, “but we do it together.”
Depth, honesty and love
So maybe it’s less about format and more about authenticity? More about recognising that we’re both sinners and saints. More about demonstrating spiritual depth and inner transformation despite outward appearances. Not kidding ourselves that we’re perfect. Psalm 51: “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.”
And maybe it’s about being more honest, fair and just? The old word for this is ‘righteousness’. As Martin Luther King Jr was fond of quoting from Amos: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.”
And maybe it’s more about how we act and behave towards each other? As the chorus goes: “Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Surely if people could clearly see that at work within our churches wouldn’t that be appetising? If they could see people who stand for something, who are honest in their imperfection, who show love for another. Wouldn’t that be a meal we could all happily sit and eat together?
And, if, like the boy in the story who brought the loaves and fishes we all brought the little that we had – our gifts, our abilities, our love and, yes, our fabulousness too – then there would be more than enough to share around.
God calls us all. He equips us all. So let’s all do something about it. Amen
‘I am the (gluten free) bread of life’ was given by Ian Banks at 4 Lanes End Congregational Church on August 5th 2018. It’s based on John 6:35 and inspired by a post from Pastor and Comedian Jane Voigts