Sunday, September 2, 2012

John 6

This post carries an explicit Christian content alert. I preached this sermon a week ago on the following passage from the Gospel of John.

So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

Once every three years, today's Gospel reading comes around, and we're reminded where the acclamation comes from that we sing every week: "Alleluia, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." And we remember the context of these words in the Gospel of John, and with it everything they imply.

Jesus says something over-the-top outrageous this morning, as we observed last week as well: "I came from God and live because of God. Eat my flesh, drink my blood, and you'll live forever as I live forever." This is what all the passages from the sixth chapter of John that we've been listening to for several weeks have been leading up to.

Imagine how freaked out pious first-century Jews hearing this would have been. Or you don't have to bother imagining: just ask a Jewish friend in our own day how bizarre, and how offensive the idea is of consuming flesh and blood, in light of the injunctions of the Torah, let alone counting it as the flesh and blood of God in human form. And then think of the amount of conflict the doctrine of the Eucharist has created within the history of Christianity itself, with Roman Catholics believing in transubstantiation, and Protestants saying that the bread and wine are simply symbolic of an inner spiritual reality, and Episcopalians and Lutherans and the Eastern Orthodox trying variously to steer up the middle without hitting any oncoming traffic.

I promise not to treat you to a long disquisition on the doctrine of the Eucharist. Let's just leave it with this: here, now, in this place, in a few minutes, we'll participate in a Mystery that we share with every Christian who's confessed the faith, for very nearly two thousand years, that Jesus has the words of eternal life; that in the person of Jesus we receive the Word that was in the beginning, that was with God, that was God; that nothing came into being without this Word. We gather on the first day of the week to remember that on the first day of the week Jesus broke the chains of death and won for us and for all Creation victory over the grave. Christians have gathered to remember this Mystery in an unbroken chain of Sundays for twenty centuries.

And yet, every Eucharist is different. When we celebrate this Mystery, we don't just remember what Jesus did two thousand years ago. We confess that Jesus's victory is present here among us, in Amagansett, by the highway, at the end of August, just next to a construction site that in a few months will be home to a whole new community of people who'll be glad to have an affordable roof over their heads. We confess that the Mystery of Jesus's victory over death is present here among us, even while some of us are living with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses; while some of us struggle with disability, or depression, or addictions, or bereavement, or broken relationships. We bring whatever suffering we endure, whatever hopes we cherish, to this table that we share with all the faithful in every time and place. We say, here, take what I'm bringing. Make my suffering into part of your suffering. Transform my hopes into your hopes.

When we remember Jesus, we participate in a Mystery by which Jesus is present among us, here and now. It may sound strange, but in some way, God has been waiting all this time for us to show up this morning and make a Eucharist that will be different from every other Eucharist that's going on this morning, and different from every Eucharist that's taken place since the disciples saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We bring who we are in the moment, and we ask to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, as grain is transformed into one bread, as grapes are transformed into wine. Jesus is our host, and Jesus is our feast. And he needs us and invites us to become, like him, the bread with which he will feed the world.

This is a message of radical inclusion. God loved the world so much that God dwelt among us and suffered alongside us, unable to bear that we should have to go through anything apart from God's presence. God in the person of Jesus proved that love is stronger than death and pain and decay. God invites us in this Eucharist to be as radically inclusive in our love as that.


And yet, there's another side to today's Gospel, an edge of exclusion and estrangement. Peter says, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" when some of the disciples have taken off, unable to receive what Jesus has said. Jesus asks the ones who remain behind whether they're going to walk away as well. Peter is saying, "What choice do we have? There's no one besides you to whom we could turn."

If your experience of life is anything like mine, maybe you share at least a little sympathy for the disciples who couldn't accept what Jesus was saying and who felt they had to depart. My partner is Jewish, and I'm intensely aware of how uncomfortable he is with the crucifix that hangs above my desk, and how weird bordering on blasphemous he finds a lot of Christian worship and devotional practice. I suspect most of us know people of other faiths, as well as people who haven't experienced Christianity as either liberatory, or life-giving. When the disciples who depart leave the scene, I'm not comfortable with just writing them off, as though they've missed the boat and they're no longer any of my concern. I want to know what becomes of them, and I certainly want to understand better what's at stake in their decision that they have to leave.

The Gospel of John is unique among the four Gospels. It stands out from Matthew, Mark, and Luke in a lot of ways, and it was almost certainly the last of the four Gospels to be written. It came from a time when Jewish believers in Jesus were getting expelled from many of their synagogues, after several generations of acrimonious disagreement over whether Jesus was the Messiah. I don't think it's unfaithful of us to keep this in mind when we consider how the author represents Jesus and what Jesus says to the disciples. The community for which John's Gospel was written was feeling the sting of being marginalized by their fellow Jews. We see this expressed in today's Gospel by the statement that some of Jesus's followers found his words too much to swallow, and left. We can hear the hurt and resentment of the community that first read John's Gospel expressed by this story that some rejected Jesus's message.

But I'd like to think that maybe we can receive the precious message of John's Gospel about God's radically inclusive love for the world in the person of Jesus, and still resist the understandable human resentment of a community that sometimes saw the world as divided into us versus them:" us", the believers who receive Jesus as the Word of eternal life, and "them", those who've walked away. I'd like to think that the Jesus to whom the Gospel of John witnesses is even more surprising than the community that first listened to John's Gospel was fully able to take in.

Think about the appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection in the Gospel of John. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden, but she doesn't recognize him at first. She mistakes him for the gardener. When she sees the resurrected Lord, she sees him where she doesn't expect. Jesus twice appears to the disciples behind locked doors, suddenly appearing even though they've shut themselves in. They've divided the world into us versus them out of fear, in as tangible a way as they could, by locking "them" out; and yet, there before them somehow appears the One who has broken the power of death.

A similar choice still confronts Christians in the twenty-first century. We can see ourselves as the in-group of those who've confessed faith in Jesus, in contrast to everyone else who hasn't. Or instead, we can see ourselves as the ones who gather at this table to eat in thanksgiving the Bread of Life, and to pray that the Holy Spirit will make us as well into the Bread of Life, knowing that in Jesus is life, and that that life is the light of the world; knowing that light and life pass when they have to through the locked doors that separate "us" from "them." Knowing that the risen Lord shows up in the strangest places, appearing even to those who aren't part of our charmed circle, even to those who from our perspective are the among the disciples who left.

Some of you have met my godson when he's come to visit me. He attends a very liberal, very high church Episcopalian congregation in Rochester. The church faces an artsy streetscape in the center of town, and one very hot summer day, when there was a street fair, the congregation decided that passing out free bottled water and cookies would be a nice way of offering hospitality. Down the block an evangelical group set up a table, and their leader came up to the rector of Nate's church and asked with evident suspicion, "What's your Gospel?"

The rector replied, "That God loves the world." And the leader of the evangelical group told him, "If you believe that, then you're going to hell."

I love that story for how clearly it exemplifies the choice we always have before us, just as the first hearers of the Gospel of John had it before them. Like them, we're always at risk of twisting the grace that's offered to all into our own special possession that someone else doesn't share. Or instead, we can embrace the radically inclusive love that compels God to offer Godself to us, over and over again, week after week, year after year, generation after generation, as bread for our journey; the love that walks through the walls we put up to shut out those we fear and resent, and says to us, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."


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