Read Martha’s Sermon from August 19, 2012
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St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for Pent. 12, August 19, 2012
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; Ps. 111; Eph. 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
There is the occasional time when I would wish not to be an Episcopalian. We are a prayerbook people, and most of the words of the liturgy are given to us. Much of this I love, and I also love the way the church is always working to “expand the language, images and metaphors used in worship.” This helps us not to get stuck in our ruts, not to be habitually reciting the words to risk emptying them of meaning. This is why we are using Enriching our Worship this summer, and from time to time use other forms of liturgical expression. But there are times when the medieval church casts a long shadow over what we do here, coloring the meaning and, I think at times, hiding and distorting it. And so today, after the greeting and joyful Gloria, we come to the collect of the day “Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin,…”
So perhaps the gift is we cannot simply go our own way; we have to confront things like this, engage it. Because these words in this collect are claiming something about Jesus. I would prefer a collect that helps explicate the Gospel, but in this case I think it is actually in conflict with it, at least the words “sacrifice for sin” are. Because this idea of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin does not come from John’s gospel. So let’s go there and see what it might have to show us.
This is the fourth Sunday we have read from Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. Chapter 6 begins with the feeding of the multitudes and contains a lengthy discourse on Jesus as the bread of life. This is Jesus, as described by John, talking about who he is. In last week’s gospel reading we had the first of the seven “I am” statements that appear in John’s gospel. Not “I am the sacrifice for sins,” but “I am the bread of life.” This entire chapter is about opening up what that means, how the disciples misunderstand, Jesus explaining, how his explanation is too much for them. Today it really gets sticky.
We may be used enough to this language that it has lost its power. The Jews (as the word is translated) say “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus replies “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… So whoever eats me will live because of me.”
Jesus is speaking to whom John calls “the Jews.” We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. The gospel of John reflects deep and broad knowledge of first-century Judaism. (Adele Reinhartz, JANT (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 154.) However, for all of that, the Gospel’s explicit references to Jews and Judaism are often hostile. (Reinhartz, 155). Sometimes John uses the term “the Jews” to simply designate the forces hostile to Jesus, as it is never used to describe the disciples or other followers who are certainly Jewish with regard to their religious and ethnic origins. The fact is that we don’t know what John meant by “the Jews.” Was it a geographic designation, as in “the Judeans”? Did he mean the Jewish religious authorities? Is this about a dispute “en famille,” — the way we Christians can debate hotly among ourselves and call each other names? The Gospel of John was written at least 40 years after the death of Jesus, probably more, when circumstances were different, when relationships had changed among those Jews who were Christ-confessors, those Jews who weren’t, and gentiles. It is important to recognize that the gospel is not anti-Semitic in a racial sense. It is belief, not origin, that is decisive for John. But we are reading these words in our post-holocaust age, and we have been made tragically aware of now the words have been used by white supremacists and others to advance an anti-semitic agenda. Adele Reinhartz, commenting on the Gospel of John in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, says this —
While John’s difficult rhetoric should not be facilely dismissed, it can be understood as part of the author’s process of self-definition, of distinguishing the followers of Jesus from the synagogue and so from Jews and Judaism. This distancing may have ben particularly important if the ethnic composition of the Johannine community included Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. This approach does not excuse the Gospel’s rhetoric, but it may make it possible for readers to understand the narrative’s place in the process by which Christianity became a separate religion, to appreciate the beauty of its language, and to recognize the spiritual power that it continues to have in the lives of many of its Christian readers. (156).
The designation of “the Jews” in today’s passage is particularly significant for another reason that we might miss because we are so accustomed to the language “The body of Christ” and “The blood of Christ.” It is significant because it is antilanguage. The literal meaning would have been offensive, even repellent. Jews do not ingest the blood of an animal along with its flesh. Jesus, according to John, is being deliberately provocative. The disciples don’t like it much either. In verse 60 the disciples say “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus is shocking them. Why?
This vivid — even provocative — reference to flesh and blood should tell us that there is nothing spiritualized and other-wordly about Jesus and what Jesus is trying to tell us. This is profoundly real, physical, embodied. And it is against our natural inclinations. Jesus is “hammering upon our cognitive defenses until we comprehend” what he means by bread. (William Willimon, Feasting on the Word, year B, vol. 3, p. 357.) The central verse is 56. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” It is all about the abiding. And what is abiding? The more I look at this the more I realize it is in hidden in plain sight. Abiding is stilling the mind. There is that practice again. Abiding in the interior spaces below thought, below the small “I” of egoic self, which is where Jesus is to be found. The central relationship with Jesus. This is why the first words in the collect are so bothersome. Jesus isn’t all “out there,” isn’t simply to be thought about, looked upon, or observed. Jesus isn’t just an idea in your head. Jesus is in here. As deep and personal as it gets. It is relationship so intimate it is in you. Food is part of you. We are what we eat. It travels through our systems and shapes us. We talk about our children as being our “flesh and blood.” This is the hospitality of Jesus, Jesus as host. We have this open invitation to the hospitality of Jesus, into the presence of Jesus. This is why many of us, including me, and your bishop, object to the “normative,” “historical” idea that communion should be tied to Baptism. Another medieval idea. Baptism is hugely important, it is about being sent out into the world. Communion, also very important, is about receiving the presence of Christ into our bodies.
What Jesus is saying is that there is no mediator between him and you. Not a church. Not a priest. Not an ecclesiastical authority. That’s a scary thought to some religious leaders, but there it is. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Just you and Jesus. We are not just to follow Jesus. This is plenty hard enough. Our faith would be a whole lot easier if it were just a matter of giving our assent to a set of ideas. But Jesus wants all of us, body and soul. To “flow through our veins, to feed every nook and cranny of our being.” (Willimon, 361). We are called to the deepest engagement there is.
It is important to know these events and this discourse are the Eucharist for John. There is no last supper in the Gospel of John. Jesus and the disciples have a final dinner, but it is not a Passover meal, there is no pascal lamb, there’s no institution of the Eucharist. The body and blood of Jesus is not associated with Jesus’ crucifixion. It is here in the middle of Jesus’ ministry. The Eucharist is associated with Jesus’ life.
Perhaps we are helped by looking right at the crux of the problem for first century Jews. Jewish law, specifically Leviticus, prohibits the consumption of the blood of animals. Leviticus 17:14 says this “For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; …” Its blood is its life. Blood isn’t forbidden for being dirty, but for being holy. Blood wasn’t consumed but was always given to God. Given to God because it was holy. The blood of the animal that embodied its very life.
The life force of the creature is its blood. Because God is the giver of all life, life is holy. Life is sacred. And it’s not to be misused or mistreated. It belongs to God, and God alone.
So, when Jesus says that his followers are to drink his blood, what he’s saying in the ancient biblical language of Leviticus is: take my life, and pour it into your bodies, your lives, your souls. And by pouring his eternal-life-blood into our life, we then are the recipients of eternal life ourselves. (Rick Morley blog, at rickmorley.com).
Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us the living bread, the one who gives us life. Amen.