Lectionary blog for Aug. 9, 2015
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Text: 1 Kings 19:4-8, Psalm 34:1-8;
Ephesians 4:25:-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
Many years ago, when I was a young pastor, I was teaching a catechism class on a Sunday afternoon. A few minutes after we started, a young man came in, toting his 4-year-old sister on his hip. “Mama has to go to the hospital to see Grandma. Says I got to keep Annie.” “Which means I ‘got to’ keep Annie,” I thought to myself as I heard his mother pull out of the church parking lot.
We were studying Holy Communion. I got Annie set up in the corner with a coloring book and then I began to go over the lesson with my three students.
Question: What two things make a sacrament?
Answer: An earthly element and a divine command.
Question: What are the two sacraments we observe?
Answer: Baptism and Communion.
Question: What is the earthly element in Baptism?
Question: What is the earthly element in Communion?
Answer: Bread and wine.
Question: What are the bread and wine?
Answer: The body and blood of Jesus.
Question: So, when we eat the bread, what are we eating?
Answer: The body of Christ.
Question: And when we drink the wine, what are we drinking?
Answer: The blood of Jesus.
At this point I heard a noise in the corner, and turned to see Annie staring at us, wide-eyed. She loudly proclaimed “YEECH!” Then she threw up.
Most of us are so accustomed to hearing liturgical language about the bread and wine being the body and blood of Christ, that we no longer really hear the crude, primal, visceral nature of such language. At least not the way Annie heard it and not the way Jesus’ audience heard it when he said to them: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51).
How are we to understand this? What are we to make of such language? What is John trying to tell us in chapter 6, filled as it is with “bread” stories? We’ve got the feeding of the 5,000, the many references to the wilderness experience and God’s provision of manna from heaven, and Jesus’ claims to be the true bread from heaven – and then this crude, cannibalistic reference to eating Jesus himself. It’s all a bit much for our modern, antiseptic sensibilities. It sounds too much like snake-handling and poison-drinking and being slain in the spirit and all those overly enthusiastic things some remote Christians are rumored to engage in. We prefer our religion neat and clean and appropriately done and appropriately metaphorical, if you please.
And so did many of the people to whom John was writing when he composed this Gospel. They were not only offended at his language about eating Jesus, they were offended by the very idea that Jesus was really human. They preferred to think that he was some sort of ghost who only appeared in human form but was really all spirit. There was the idea that the body was bad, the spirit was good, and true religion consisted of being really spiritual and escaping the body. So many who became Christian with this idea decided that Jesus, being the ultimate “spiritual person,” wasn’t really human, wasn’t really real, I guess.
John’s emphasis on Jesus’ fleshiness is meant to counteract this notion. The Greek word used here, “sarx,” denotes meat, flesh; whereas the other Greek word, “soma,” just means body. John is making it clear that Jesus was a real, live, human being who ate and slept and went to the bathroom. This was important then, and it’s important now. If Jesus just appeared or seemed to be human, then his death was not a real death, his suffering was not real suffering and his resurrection was just a show, a trick, an illusion.
For the economy of salvation to really work, it is necessary that Jesus be a real human being who lived, taught, suffered, died, went to the place of the dead, and was brought back to life by the power of God. Otherwise, it’s just a nice story and it really doesn’t affect anything, doesn’t communicate anything to us about God’s love and our life.
In his book “Written in Blood,” Robert Coleman tells the story of a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion. For various reasons, the boy was the only donor whose blood could save his sister. The doctor asked, “Would you give your blood to Mary?” The little boy’s lower lip began to tremble, then he took a deep breath and said, “Yes, for my sister.”
After the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, the little boy began to look very worried, then he crossed himself, then he looked at the doctor and said, “When do I die?” Suddenly, the doctor realized that the little boy had thought that to give his blood to his sister meant he had to die, and miracle of miracles, he was willing to do that for his sister.
The gospel is – Jesus did that for us. That’s what John wants us to contemplate. It’s not a metaphor, not a parable, not a mythological construct about dying and rising gods. John is clear about that and wants his readers to be clear also. Which is why we have the language about eating Jesus’ flesh. The word rendered as “eat” in our text is perhaps better translated as “gnaw” or “chew.” Again, John wants to drive home the point of the “real world” nature of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.
As we come to the communion table, we are to be mindful of Jesus’ presence in our midst. It was a real presence then, and it is a real presence now. The gospel is that Jesus really, truly came down from heaven to live among us as the fleshly love of God. The gospel is that Jesus really, truly died upon the cross, giving up his flesh and spilling his blood, to save us from our sins. The gospel is that God almighty really, truly raised him from the dead, brought him out of the grave to a new and eternal life. The gospel is that God almighty really, truly has just such a future in store for each and every one of us.
And the gospel is that when we come to the table, we really, truly take a bite out of that future.
We really, truly drink deeply of that promise. We really, truly receive into ourselves a love that will never, ever let us go – in this world or in the next.
Amen and amen.