Sunday, August 19, 2012

Flesh and Blood...

I am indebted to the work of the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary," and Rev. Lindy Black for help in composing this week's sermon.

For those of you offended by the graphic language of the audible gnawing of flesh... that's kind of the point.

John 6:51-58
"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."
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" 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 forever."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Sometimes, getting a little distance between yourself and a given situation allows you to gain perspective, to look at the big picture, to examine a situation logically, without the emotion of the moment getting in the way.

Sometimes, though, that distance actually serves to cloud perspective, blur the big picture, and confuse logic.

Two thousand years removed from the day on the lakeshore, it seems that, for many Christians, we suffer – at least in part – the latter fate when it comes to what Jesus is telling us in our Gospel reading today.

Though, to be honest, it’s easy to interpret what Jesus is saying here in a merely Eucharistic manner – in the language of the Lord’s Supper. After all, even though our Reformed Theology does not interpret the elements of the Lord’s Supper as being altered in any substantive manner in the ritual of communion, we use the language of the Body and Blood at the Lord’s Table. “The Body of Christ, broken for you…” “The Blood of Christ, shed for you…”

This passage has been used as an argument for the Catholic and Episcopal theology of transubstantiation, where the elements of communion become in some manner substantially transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ, as well as for the Lutheran theology of consubstantiation, where the fundamental substance of the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the bread and the juice, or wine.

And after all, hasn’t Jesus been talking this whole time about bread?

Well, yes. And to those of us on this side of the Resurrection, it’s a very familiar conversation, manna in the wilderness, bread from heaven, Jesus as the Bread of Life. It is a comforting, reassuring picture for those of us who have taken the name of Christ. And please understand that there is nothing wrong, and everything right, about that picture! We have the words, as well as the testimony of the body of believers and the affirmation of the indwelling Holy Spirit to help us make those connections.

Yet there is more… and the picture is violent and troubling, but it is a picture of liberation.

The people listening to Jesus that day were getting their face rubbed in the picture, you see. Jesus’ words were challenging them, pushing them to expand their understanding of the Almighty, to open their hearts to a measure of love they had never imagined, an inconceivable truth.

Here was this human being standing in front of them… granted, an extraordinary human being, someone who could perform great signs, who spoke the oracles of God… but a person, nonetheless. Bad enough he claimed to be better than Moses, but the crowd really got steamed when Jesus went so far as to say, “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.”

Our reading says the people “disputed.” The Greek word there actually carries a much stronger connotation – one of physical fighting! The crowd had erupted into violence! They were coming to blows with one another over this! Jesus had better say something quick to calm them down!

Well, Jesus did speak... but...

Have you ever actually seen someone throw gasoline on a fire? The closest I’ve come is starter fluid on flaming charcoal, but I’m willing to bet that it’s a pale comparison to what Jesus’ next words could have done to the crowd…

But they stood there, stunned, frozen, aghast, sickened and horrified.

“Eat my flesh… drink my blood?” Could he really be telling the crowd to roast him up and make a feast of him, like some band of ancient pagans? No wonder they stood there gape-mouthed, speechless!

But it goes further than even that! Jesus is not merely using the language of cannibalism, he is using words of violence. “Eat my flesh?” The Greek, trogein, is generally used of animals gnawing audibly on their food! No wonder we so quickly retreat to the comfort of the language of the Lord’s Supper! No one wants to dwell on such an abhorrent image!

And I can, in good conscience, do nothing to lessen the dreadfulness of the language… I dare not, because of the Cross.

Why would Jesus use such violent, such graphic and bloody language, when he knew it would offend and enrage the crowd, when he no doubt knew that even we, who call ourselves by his name, would recoil at these words?

Yes, it is a visceral, bloody, discomforting picture that Jesus paints for us in our reading today. Out of the mouth of any other person in history, it is the language of hyperbole, of gross exaggeration, of wild and fevered fantasy.

But not that many days after Jesus speaks to that horrified crowd, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will, of his own free will, and out of a deep and abiding love for humankind, bear the torture of the scourge and the humiliation of the crown of thorns, take up his cross, and as his blood drains from him, Jesus will allow death to gnaw at his flesh until he appears to have been consumed.

The cross is offensive. The very idea! That the God of all creation would hang, naked and bleeding, until his life is drained from him, and do it as an act of love for that creation… it’s ridiculous. Gods don’t die, and they certainly don’t die to redeem humankind to themselves.

Besides, even if God could die, why choose such a slow, torturous and humiliating method? Why the cross?

Because, quite simply, it is in that act of submission to the will of God that death itself will be defeated in the Resurrection. It is in that act of unrestrained, vibrant love that humankind will at last be reconciled to God. Jesus not only said the offensive, shocking, gruesome and horrifying thing, he lived it… and he died it! And through it all, Jesus demonstrated for us, lived for us, the truth of what God’s love for you and for me and for the whole world is!

Oh we have done our best to calm it down over the millennia, distilling it into theological statements and doctrines and creeds. In fact, the very community that the Gospel of John is written to had been struggling with a Gnostic heresy which said that Jesus hadn’t really been human, he had just appeared human.

But make no mistake, Jesus stood before that crowd as a real person, with real flesh and real blood, and that real flesh and blood was sacrificed as evidence – stark, shocking, irrefutable evidence of God’s love – a violent, passionate, burning, all-consuming love.

God’s love is the kind of love that finds us at our lowest point, on our worst day, takes our hand, lifts us up, and guides us through.

God’s love finds us in the darkest corner of the farthest reaches of our separation, when we have done the thing we swore we would never do, when we have done our best to alienate ourselves from our Creator, when we have consciously and willfully done the worst we could do, God shines a light, destroys that darkness, and brings us out, forgiving us before we have even asked for it.

God’s love knows no bounds. God’s love doesn’t wait for permission, doesn’t pay attention to propriety or convention, is not at all interested in cultural mores or acceptable standards. God just loves.

Yes, it is really that simple.

The Gospel – the Good News – is that Jesus really, truly came down from heaven to live among us as the fleshly love of God – the wildly passionate, recklessly abundant, vibrantly inclusive 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 really, truly raised Jesus from the dead, brought him out of the grave to a new and eternal life.

The Gospel is that God, through Jesus Christ, really, truly has just such a future in store for each and every one of us.

Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us. May we, every day, walking in faithful fellowship in the Holy Spirit, keep the feast!

No comments:

Post a Comment