God Touches the Beer
One statement in particular from today’s Gospel stands out to me: “[Jesus] touched the bier.”
Now, what does this statement sound like to you?
I suppose, if you just heard me say it, on its own, apart from the context of today’s Gospel, you might suppose, uh oh, here it comes, Father Tim is going to offer some argument about the benefits of drinking beer.
After all, beer is an ancient drink; it’s been around since people started putting words to parchment, or even since people were painting figures on stones. It goes well with lots of common foods—especially fish and chips. And it cheers the spirits.
Why, even the great reformer Martin Luther recognized beer’s benefits, and thus brewed it at home, we learn from his own writings, for purposes of health.
And, on top of all this, right here in today’s Gospel, much to the moral tea-totaller’s chagrin, we read that Jesus touched the beer.
So it’s got to be good, right? There’s just got to be some kind of moral imperative in here for us, some kind of biblical principal we can draw on. No wonder Benjamin Franklin said, Beer is proof God loves us.
But—I’m sorry to say—that’s just not the case. You can’t get blood from a turnip; and you can’t find a biblical mandate for drinking beer.
When the Bible says that Jesus touched the bier, it’s actually not talking about the beverage we enjoy with fish and chips. Instead, it’s talking about a funeral bier, a sort of cart used in the ancient world to haul a corpse from one place to another. This–not the other—is the bier that Jesus touched.
Well—eww!—you might be thinking, that’s kind of gross. Why do you want to talk about Jesus touching a corpse, Father Tim? Can’t we talk about the other kind of beer instead?
To which I answer, love to!
Just not here, not now.
Instead, feel free to give me a call any time and invite me out to Prison Hill Brewery. They’ve got this great new brew called Rykers Red RyePA—delish!
But, oh yeah, I said we wouldn’t talk about that kind of beer, not here, not now.
So, well, um, I guess, it’s on to the other kind of bier, the funeral-cart kind of bier, the kind that carries a corpse.
Why would Jesus reach out and touch a corpse that happened to be passing by?
By the way, has anyone in here ever brewed beer? Yeah, I’m back to the first kind of beer again, the kind you drink. I guess I’m a little distracted. Anyway, the whole process of brewing beer strikes me as a kind of small miracle. You know this if you’ve ever tried to brew it.
So, you start with the grain: barley. It starts out as a living, growing plant, a member of the grass family in fact, a major cereal grain around the world, sometimes used as fodder for farm animals.
And, of course, like most grains, we harvest it when it’s ripe. When harvested, it dies: it’s no longer connected to its stalk, its source of life.
By the way, one of Jesus’s own parables conveys just this image. In John 12:24, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Do you think Jesus might have been referring to his own, yet-future resurrection here? I do.
Do you think that Jesus might have been referring to other, smaller resurrections each of us experiences in day-to-day life, throughout our lives? I do.
At any rate, at this point in the beer-brewing process—after the barley is dead—it is milled. And, as I understand it, it has to be milled just right, crushing the grains enough so that the starchy center is exposed but not so much that the grain hulls are too finely crushed. Not enough means there won’t be enough starch for fermentation; too much results in a gummy, unusable—not to mention disgusting—brew.
Next comes the step called mashing, where hot water mixes with the milled barley and, incredibly, enzymes are released which produce highly fermentable sugars.
Now the whole concoction is filtered to yield a sugary liquid brewers call wort. The wort is boiled, to sterilize the liquid—and if you’re still recalling that last reference I made to Jesus, what is sterilization but another kind of death?—then cooled.
And now, behold, new life!
To this cooled, sterilized, figuratively dead liquid, yeast is added; and the amazing, life-like process of fermentation begins to take place. The yeast and the sugars combine and transform into something entirely new: alcohol.
Now, don’t let the negative connotations we sometimes connect to alcohol distract you from seeing the phenomenal picture here. A kind of metamorphosis has taken place. In this process of brewing beer, we’ve witnessed the dead becoming alive; the old becoming new. It’s a kind of small resurrection. It’s nothing short of a small miracle.
No wonder legend tells us that Benjamin Franklin said, Beer is proof God loves us![i]
But—to return to the Gospel now—as that funeral bier passed by Jesus on that certain day; and as he reached out and touched it, no small miracle took place. What Jesus did on that day was nothing so commonplace as the simple, chemical process we call fermentation. Instead, what Jesus did was nothing short of bringing a person back from the realm of the dead; a bona fide resurrection! This was no small miracle; this was a huge miracle!
So why did I take us down that rabbit trail all about the small miracle of fermentation?
Because of this: Jesus touched the bier.
Jesus reached out his hand and actually touched the corpse of a stranger.
This was a huge, chosen-people no-no. A Jewish man just didn’t do such a thing!
Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? A man was robbed and left for dead by the side of the road. Some good Jews came along and—what did they do? They walked by the half-dead man on the other side of the road. They weren’t about to touch him. For doing so would’ve made them unclean! Doing so was forbidden. And yet, Jesus reaches out and does something totally and completely socially unacceptable. He touches the corpse of a stranger—and thereby makes himself an outcast.
Yes, a huge miracle followed. But right here, before the huge miracle, a kind of small miracle takes place. Jesus dies to society.
You know what else happens? The man who had died was his mother’s only son; and she was a widow. Translation: the man who had died was his mother’s sole source of livelihood and well-being. What would she have done for the rest of her life with her only family member dead and gone? How would she have survived? But Jesus gives her new life.
Aside from the huge miracle that takes place here, Jesus reaches out, touches the bier, and thereby performs all at once any number of small miracles. All before the huge miracle takes place! Jesus demonstrates a divine display of compassion to the man who had died, to the man’s mother, to his own disciples, and to the crowd who was present.
Jesus touches the bier.
Do you see? Here’s what happens when we focus on the huge miracle and forget about the small ones.
We look around us and we see evil and the effects of sin seemingly everywhere. Why are there campus shootings? Why are there terrorist groups bent on death and destruction? Why did my daughter die of cancer? Why did my wife leave me? I mean, if Jesus was able to raise that man from the dead, then why doesn’t Jesus help me now, in my time of need?
When we focus only on the huge miracle, we’re left wondering why God doesn’t perform a huge miracle for us.
When we focus on the huge miracle, we end up forever haunted by questions we’ll never be able to answer.
But Jesus touched the bier.
Jesus is about small miracles before, and much more frequently than he is about, the huge ones.
In small miracles, Jesus forsakes societal norms and becomes unclean for you.
In small miracles, Jesus reaches into the intricate details of your life, replacing your despair with hope, your pain with wellness, your dysfunction with soundness, your death with new life.
In small miracles, Jesus shows us—no, he lavishes upon us—God’s compassion.
Now, do you see what happens when we focus on the smaller miracles? We end up seeing that God is at work even in things like the simple, chemical process of fermentation. We see that God is at work in the midst of our lives, our intricate, messy details. No longer do we find ourselves mad at God for not making my world work out according to my expectations; no longer are we haunted by questions we’ll never be able to answer, but we are grateful—thankful for every small miracle we encounter from day to day.
Teach us, Lord Jesus, to see the small miracles everywhere around us. Teach us, Lord Jesus, to be thankful.
[i] This is legend. Franklin probably never said this. What he actually said, in a letter to a friend in France, was, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”