Have you ever noticed that scripture frequently draws our attention to the absolute necessities of life and connects us to the necessities of the spiritual life? Perhaps one of the reasons we fail to appreciate the importance of these spiritual necessities is that we have grown so accustomed to having the physical necessities that we no longer appreciate them. A few years ago Business Insider published an article on survival records in unusual circumstances, but they warned that under normal circumstances the rule of three applied – 3 minutes without oxygen, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food and most people are in serious trouble. (Kane, 2016)
The psychologist Abraham Maslow is famous for his “Hierarchy of Needs.” He fails to clearly define a relationship with the divine as one of the needs, though I think for Christians we can plug that into each and every level in different ways. At the base, the most important and most necessary to sustain life he puts Physiologial needs – air, water, food (those 3 again), shelter, sleep, clothing and reproduction. I would like to focus on the first three – air, water, and food and their connection to God.
The quest for food has been the primary goal of humanity for most of our existence. As Maslow illustrated, only when the essentials of survival have been met have humans had the ability to seek the loftier experiences such as pursuit of the arts and sciences. Food was tied to the ancient practice of sacrifice, humans’ earliest attempts to acknowledge, and to be honest, to control God. The first sacrifice offered to God described in scripture (and noteworthy, the first human to human conflict recorded) concerns Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Able and their offerings from the garden and from the livestock. God ordained the Feast of the Passover to commemorate his hand in the saving of the Hebrew’s from slavery in Egypt and the first complaint the Hebrews make against Moses and God is the lack of food in the wilderness. King David muses that God “spreads a feast” for him in front of his enemies, a sign of God’s favor and protection. Satan first tries to tempt Jesus to use his power to feed himself when he is hungry. Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life and establishes the Holy Eucharist by redefining symbols within the Passover feast calling the bread his body and the wine his blood. Food, probably because it was essential to life, was and is an affirmation of the relationship between God and humans, and humans and humans. During this pandemic, this is the first time many of us have walked into a grocery store and seen empty shelves and wondered what will happen if I run out of food and there is none on the shelf. A reminder perhaps, wondering where their next meal will come from is a daily occurrence for others. Many are feeling spiritually starved while we are fasting from Eucharist in an effort to keep one another safe from illness during this pandemic. One thing I hope we gain from this season is a renewed appreciation for both physical nourishment and spiritual nourishment and the connection between the two.
Water has huge symbolic meaning in the scriptures. Clean water, in reasonable amounts, at the right time are essential for life. I was fortunate enough to visit Israel several years ago and one of the most beautiful places there is at the northern border, at the head of the Jordan river, where the water flows gently in beautiful clear streams surrounded by lush fig trees, date palms, and beautiful flowers. A little further down is the Galilee, a crystal-clear lake that provides fish for food, but is also prone to storms that are devastating to small boats. Continuing south you go through a desert and at the far end is the Dead Sea. The Jordan does not dump into the ocean but deposits its sediments in a water filled pit almost 1000 feet deep, whose surface is 1400 feet below sea level. Nothing lives there. The shore is a stinking black mud and the water is so salty it feels like swimming in Jello. The people in scriptures knew the lifegiving property of water. They also knew: the destructive force of chaotic water (floods and storms), the dry arid world without water and the stench of poisonous water.
In our lesson today, Peter is looking back through scripture and as he reflects on the spiritual life-giving rite of Baptism he reflects on how this was “pre-figured” by events in the world’s history. We like to tell our children about Noah saving the animals, but Peter reminds us that God saved Noah and his family, and in doing so all of humanity by giving him the instructions to build an ark. Noah was probably ridiculed by his neighbors for doing so, just as you may be teased by others for doing what you believe God has called you to do. Love your neighbor in a world where “every man for himself” is the motto may seem foolish to some, but the vows that we made in our baptism are our ark. Clinging to those vows and going through the water of baptism is what brings us to safety and helps to save the human race. Moses led the descendants of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea out of slavery and into freedom. As we pass through the waters of baptism, we are released from slavery to sin and death and cross into the freedom of life and salvation through Christ.
And Christ describes himself as the living waters. When we move away from death, away from the desert, and out of the storm into the fresh living water that is life in Christ, as the Psalmist says, we will “…be like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” (Psalm 1:3).
Finally, breath is so fundamental to life that the ancient Hebrews and Greeks did not differentiate between flowing air – i.e. wind, our own breath, and what we call the Holy Spirit. In our gospel today, Jesus knows that for his disciples the absence of his physical presence will be like having the breath knocked out of them. But he promises them that when he leaves, he will send the Holy Spirit, the breath of God to fill them. This is the same breath of God that passed over the chaotic waters at creation and brought order and life to all creation. When the resurrected Jesus visited his disciples, he breathed on them, just like God breathed into Adam. On Pentecost, which we will celebrate in just a couple of weeks, we remember the breath of God entering that upper room and filling the early Christians with God’s presence and giving them the power, and hope, and determination to face their own friends, family, and religious organization that did not understand them, the Roman government that found them disruptive, and the general population whose lives were so different from theirs. That breath of God, the Holy Spirit, is what made possible the changed lives of the early Christians and revolutionized the world. That same breath can change our lives and can still cause a revolution for good if we are open to being filled with God’s Spirit.
This week as you sit down to a meal, as you drink from your cup, and even as you draw each breath – remember that these are gifts from God designed to not only give us life, but to draw us close to God and cause us to have compassion and affection for our neighbor.