Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 19, 2012

2012.08.19 Eat What? – John 6: 51 – 58

Central United Methodist Church

Eat What?

Pastor David L. Haley

John 6: 51 – 58

August 19, 2012

 

I am the Bread of Life. Your ancestors ate the manna bread in the desert and died. But now here is Bread that truly comes down out of heaven. Anyone eating this Bread will not die, ever. I am the Bread — living Bread! — who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live — and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.”

At this, the Jews started fighting among themselves: “How can this man serve up his flesh for a meal?”

But Jesus didn’t give an inch. “Only insofar as you eat and drink flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, do you have life within you. The one who brings a hearty appetite to this eating and drinking has eternal life and will be fit and ready for the Final Day. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. By eating my flesh and drinking my blood you enter into me and I into you. In the same way that the fully alive Father sent me here and I live because of him, so the one who makes a meal of me lives because of me. This is the Bread from heaven. Your ancestors ate bread and later died. Whoever eats this Bread will live always.” – John 6: 51 – 58, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

It was back in June when the discussion appeared on the internet, of whether we had arrived at the Zombie Apocalypse. It began after that horrifying case in Miami of a naked man eating another man’s face, shot and killed in the act by the police.  Then a case of a mother in Texas, so revolting I’m not even going to describe it, and then another involving a college student in Maryland. Actual cases of live people acting like zombies, which made some wonder whether we had arrived at the zombie apocalypse.

Aberrant human behavior, we call it, off the scale of what we consider normal, which frankly has probably always occurred in isolated incidents, but until these days of the 24/7 news cycle we never heard about.  And just as well. There are some things so horrible – even to us adults – which we’d prefer not to know about, especially in great detail.

And so, when we come to church on this beautiful Sunday morning, what are we to make of this morning’s Gospel, when we hear Jesus say: “Only insofar as you eat and drink flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, do you have life within you.”

What might some seeker who visits a church this morning think, should they sit down in a pew and hear this? What might some non-churched person, hearing these words, think about this religion we call Christianity? Might they think what the Romans thought, in the first century when they first heard rumors about this new sect within Judaism called Christians, having love feasts, eating bodies and drinking blood? With such rumors, is it any wonder Christians were persecuted within respectable society? Even pagan Romans didn’t engage in such despicable behavior!

So on this beautiful summer Sunday, as we hear such words, which camp do we find ourselves in: those who find such language revolting, or a member of that strange sect known as Christians?  My guess is, BOTH.

Even I, as pastor, as a person with modern sensibilities and yet a Christian, find myself in both camps. Did you know that when I first came to Central, I alienated at least one worshipper when I declared in an early sermon that we were going to try to avoid “blood” terminology? Those of us who have seen blood spilled – or worse yet, who have caused blood to be spilled – know we’d just as soon never see it again, (especially if it is ours.) Even as inheritors of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which in its earliest form practiced animal sacrifice, we must confess we are uncomfortable not only with such practice but even with its terminology – termed by some as “slaughter house religion.”

Yes, the understanding of Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” dying on the cross in sacrificial atonement for the sins of the world, is one of the New Testament understandings of Jesus’ work for us, understandably so, since most of his first followers were Jews. But that is not the only understanding of Jesus’ work for us, not even in the New Testament. There are other understandings, for example of Jesus as a ransom, or of a strong man entering the devil’s domain and plundering it, or perhaps best yet, one who gives his life not only for his followers, but for his enemies, indeed for the whole world, in sacrificial love. As moderns who abhor the notion of blood sacrifice and the spilling of anyone’s blood, forgive us if we are uncomfortable with the use of such language. Do you, like me, still wince on the rare occasions when we sing those old songs, like “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins.”

No wonder, as scholars of religion point out, as humanity’s understanding of God progressed, we moved from animal sacrifice to grain offerings, reflecting the shift from a hunting to an agricultural culture. And finally beyond that, to the offering of ourselves and our virtues, rather than animal, grain, or food offerings to the gods. Frankly, if we had to sacrifice animals, who of us would be here?

So let’s back up, and take a deep breath.  Eat my flesh and drink my blood?  As modern day disciples of Jesus, what are we to make this? Let’s examine it in context.

First of all, it’s in the Gospel According to John. John’s Gospel was the latest written of the Four Gospels, written in the last decade of the first century, some 60 years after Jesus. Partially because of that, John wrote in a very different style than Matthew, Mark, or Luke, with much greater theological reflection and sophistication. For example, in John, Jesus doesn’t just walk into Galilee preaching, as he does in Mark, he is the eternal Word, in existence before anything came to be.  We are warned upfront that the Eternal Word has become flesh in Jesus, come to live like us and with us.

Secondly, John is noted not only for his style, but for his redundancy.  Jesus talks a lot in John’s Gospel. United Methodist Bishop William Willimon says a few years ago he and his wife watched a Canadian movie, The Gospel of John. The movie goes through the Fourth Gospel, word for word, start to finish, in about three hours. When he mentioned it to a friend, the friend said he and his wife had watched it, too, and midway through it his wife had looked at him and asked, “Will Jesus ever shut up?” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 357.)

Perhaps it is due the profundity and difficulty of what Jesus is trying to communicate, that in John’s Gospel he does a lot of talking. He does so in long discourses, like this Bread of Life discourse, which we have been reading for 4 weeks now. All these discourses in John’s Gospel follow a similar pattern: Something happens: Nicodemus comes to talk to Jesus, a woman comes to a well, a blind man is healed, Jesus feeds 5,000 people. Following each incident, Jesus expands and elaborates upon a theme.  To Nicodemus he says, “You must be born anew.” To the woman at the well he offers “water springing up to eternal life.”  Following the healing of the man born blind, he says, “I am the light of the world.”

After each of these theological affirmations, nobody gets it. Nicodemus asks, “How can a man be born again?” The woman at the well asks, “This well is deep, and you have no bucket, how then can you draw this living water?” Here, when Jesus says, “Eat my flesh,” they say, “How can this man serve up his flesh?” Nobody gets it! Because in each case Jesus means it metaphorically, and they hear it literally. And that becomes a problem for them, just as eating flesh and drinking blood would be a problem for us.

And this is the third thing about John’s Gospel, not only its distinct style or it redundancy, but its rich metaphorical imagery. When Jesus talks about being born again (from above), or drinking living water, or eating his flesh and blood, he is using metaphorical, even mystical language.

We sometimes we use such language in life, why do we stumble over it in religion? When we say to a baby whom we love, as we nuzzle them, “I could eat you up,” nobody runs for the authorities. When we say to an exasperating parent, spouse, or child, “You’re killing me,” nobody calls 911.  Why do we have such trouble with metaphorical language in the Bible?

Beyond that, it is not only metaphorical language, it is mystical language, language which reflects longing, and union, and oneness.  When we try to talk about it in relation to God – who is beyond comprehension – we often resort to language we know and understand, either of sex and sexuality or food and of eating, both of which describe forms of oneness we are more familiar with.  It should not come as a surprise that in an ascetic religious sect, they’re not going to use the language of sexuality, even though the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament did and mystical writers have ever since. And so here Jesus uses the language of food and of eating, which we understand, to express the concepts of participation and oneness. Jesus is bread come down from heaven, flesh to be eaten, and blood to be drunk.

No wonder, in grasping for understanding, Christians have applied Jesus’ words to Holy Communion, the Bread and the Wine, which we refer to as the Body and Blood of Christ, as I believe John intended. It has been noted that John has no institution or theology of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion or the Eucharist, as we variously call it, and that this is it. Here, in contrast to the other Gospels, it is not a theology of remembrance and commemoration – Do This in Remembrance of Me – rather, it is a theology of participation: “Eat my flesh, drink my blood, and only insofar as you do this, do you have my life within you.” “By eating my flesh and drinking my blood, you enter into me, and I into you.”  We say it this way: “You are what you eat!” And so as we eat the bread and drink the wine, the body and blood of Jesus, we become Jesus and he becomes us. No wonder that that which is created becomes abundant, overflowing, inextinguishable, everlasting life. Now there’s something to think about during silent reflection!

Like some of you, I grew up in a Methodist Church that celebrated Holy Communion only once every three months. And frankly, that was enough, because, as a child, I found it deadly boring. Over the years, my understanding and appreciation for Holy Communion has grown, not because of my more sophisticated understanding of it, but in reality, because of the simplicity of it, the eating of bread and the drinking of the cup. If this, in ways I cannot articulate or understand, brings me closer to Jesus and him to me, then I want to participate as often as I can.

Indeed, one of my most instructive lessons occurred right out there in the vestibule, when some of our neighborhood’s most recent refugees, Christian but non-English speaking came to our church.  That was before we began communion every Sunday, on a Sunday when we did not celebrate it, and one of them asked me after the service, through gestures, “No . . .?”  I confess, as a pastor, I found it embarrassing.  Because if you can’t speak the language, what one thing in a Christian worship service can you participate in and clearly understand?

Following Jesus would definitely be easier if it were only belief or intellectual assent, but it’s not. Those of us who want to think of following Christ as cool, detached and dispassionate, must get up, come forward, hold out empty hands, chew bread, drink wine, and think through ingestion, consumption, and intimate participation. Because today’s scandalously carnal gospel reminds us that Jesus wants all of us, body and soul.  He wants to burrow deep with us, to consume us as we consume him, to be digested, to flow through our veins, to nourish every organ and cell of our being.  He wants all of us, and wants us to have all of him.

We began with the bizarre and extreme, and in illustration of this bizarre and extreme Gospel, perhaps that’s where we should end.

Recently, my daughter was watching one of her lawyer shows, Drop Dead Diva. In this particular episode, a mother was suing a wife over the custody of her son – the wife’s husband’s – cremains or ashes.  The problem that came to light was, one day, when the wife was moving the ashes, she got some on her hands. She didn’t want to wash them down the sink, so what did she do? She licked them off her fingers. From the insight and sense of union that came from that, she began consuming them, slowly, with her food, as a way of becoming one with her dearly beloved but deceased husband. As I tried to find out the name of the show, guess what I discovered? It was likely based upon a real life incident, of a woman named Casie.

It may be no less disturbing, but do we now begin to hear it differently?

“I am the Bread of Life . . . . The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self”. . . . “Only insofar as you eat and drink flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, do you have life within you” . . . . “Whoever   eats this Bread will live always.”

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