Thinking Anew – ‘The sacrament of the present moment’
“Jesus insists that no one should be left physically hungry because the world is filled with plenty”
In his book The Christian Situation Today, Norman Pittenger, an Anglican priest and theologian, discusses encountering God in everyday life.
He writes: “The French religious writer Père Jean du Caussade insisted, in one of his discussions on Christian prayer, that we are to find God ‘in the sacrament of the present moment’. That is, we are to find him when we are confronted with the demands of life, given the opportunity to make our response to those demands, and enabled to labour responsibly for God in the place where we are.”
This is worth keeping in mind in churches that are struggling with complex issues such as gender identity, the role of women in ministry and the nature and authority of scripture.
Some try to ignore such matters seeking refuge in an imagined old order where everything was agreed and understood; it never existed. It is the “now” that matters and challenges.
That idea of “the sacrament of the present moment” is captured in tomorrow’s gospel reading from St John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, the only miracle recorded in all four gospels. The scene is set: “When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.” Philip panics: all he can see is 5,000 problems whereas Jesus saw 5,000 opportunities. Philip has no idea what to do; indeed St Mark’s account tells us that the first response of the disciples was to send the people away – in other words, give up.
In today’s church we, like Philip, panic as we face what seem like insurmountable difficulties: controversies within and diminishing respect from without coupled with ageing congregations, a shortage of clergy and other resources.
But the message of tomorrow’s gospel is that these are opportunities, “sacraments of the present moment” when we, like the disciples, are forced to acknowledge our limitations and turn to the one “without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy” – the one the Gospel reading tells us already knew what he was going to do.
It is a mistake to rush to spiritualise this event without first considering two “present moment” lessons.
First, Jesus insists that no one should be left physically hungry because the world is filled with plenty. The myth of scarcity then and now is that there is not enough to go around; so, the rich stay rich and well fed while the poor stay poor and hungry.
Jesus insists that there is enough for everyone when, like the boy with his loaves and fishes, people share what is available.
Second, the crowd are so impressed when their material needs are met that they try to control Jesus and use him for their own political purposes, but he escapes.
That is significant because we naively think that if we could only find some magic way of getting the “real” Jesus across to today’s world the masses would be hammering on church doors to get in. The challenge of Jesus Christ to lives of self-denial and love of neighbour and stranger has little appeal to those who see no value or entitlement in life beyond that of self.
In his recent book Life’s Great Questions, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche Community, speaks of God’s invitation to each of us to participate in his work of healing and peace making across the world: “God intervenes in human affairs by calling to each person. Each of us has a conscience drawing us toward truth and justice. God intervenes through every person who is willing to abandon personal gain and ambition in order to give themselves to the bringing together of the world in peace. God’s deepest desire is that we become one in love, one with him and one with each other. God intervenes discreetly and respectfully, changing one heart and then another, to realise this magnificent vision.”