August 19th – 12th Sunday after Pentecost

So this is our second last week to be reading from John’s Gospel, and today’s reading is one that often causes problems for people. Before we get into the problem areas, I just want to make a brief comparison between this gospel, and Mark’s, which is the one we have been reading for most of this church year. Several times, I have commented on the fact that Mark’s Gospel seems to be rushing. We keep seeing the word “immediately”, which Mark chose to push us as quickly as possible to the cross. John, on the other hand, is slower, more deliberate, often repeating himself. Moving from reading Mark to reading John can be just a bit irritating, especially if we are hoping for a simple narrative. But one of the benefits of reading John – speaking as an English teacher – is that it gives us a chance to read in a different manner. We can read meditatively, noticing that John’s circular style allows to focus on something again and again. This circular writing, then, is actually a spiral of greater intensity and meaning, rather than just a circle of repetition. It is like the rhetorical device of emphasis – by saying the same thing over and over, even with the words slightly changed – John is laying greater stress on his message. And the message this week is pretty straightforward. It is also a bit disgusting, because he says no less that five times, using slightly different words each time, that his followers are to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
In last week’s reading, Jesus commented on the fact that those who ate manna in the desert had died, but said that those who would eat the living bread would live forever. He repeated this in this week’s reading, so that we would understand the importance of the living bread. In a way, this also circles back to the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, when Jesus spoke to her about living water. In fact, he used very similar words: Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. In that conversation, the woman was asking if Jesus were greater than Jacob (since they are at “Jacob’s well.”) Here, the question is whether Jesus is greater than Moses, through whom God provided the manna in the wilderness.
Let’s get to the problem part of this reading. Many people are revolted by this reading, which seems to say that we must actually eat Jesus’ flesh, and drink his blood in order to obtain eternal life. It is for this reason that some denominations believe in transubstantiation – the act by which the bread and wine is actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ. The priest, at the moment of consecration, hold up the bread – usually, but not always, in the form of a host and announces: This is my body. Then he does the same thing with the wine, saying: This is my blood. Other denominations believe in something called consubstantiation, which means that, at the moment of consecration, the bread and wine, even though they remain bread and wine, also take on the qualities of his body and blood.
When we, in the Presbyterian Church, celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we use specific words at specific times. However, we attribute those words to Jesus, by saying them like this: We give thanks to God the Father that our Savior, Jesus Christ, before he suffered, gave us this memorial of his sacrifice, until he comes again. At his last supper, the Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup after supper and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this in remembrance of me.” For whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. And when the time comes to break the bread and pour the wine, I say: When we break this bread, it is a sharing in the body of Christ. When we drink this cup, it is a sharing in the blood of Christ. And most of us are so accustomed to hearing this that we forget the words Jesus used when talking to the crowd of followers. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. You can’t put it much more simply than that, can you?
But before you rush on to assume that Jesus was espousing some kind of divine cannibalism, let’s remember that Jesus seldom spoke in a straightforward manner – especially in John’s Gospel. He went around and around things, preferring to muddy the waters rather than clarify things. So it is up to us to figure it out. We are not the only ones to be a bit confused by Jesus’ words. If you listen again to verse 52, you will hear that the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? And, as you will see in next week’s Gospel, these words, and the arguments which followed, caused some of his followers to leave him. You see, the whole idea of eating and drinking blood would have been really offensive to the Jewish people. Laws concerning food include a prohibition against drinking blood or eating meat with blood still in it. And what about us? Granted, many of us like our steak rather rare, and people even eat raw steak, in steak tartare. But still, eating Jesus’ flesh, and drinking his blood? I think that most of us would draw the line at that. We prefer our religion neat and clean and appropriately done and appropriately metaphorical if you please.
And we are not alone in this. The early Christians, the people to whom John was writing, were not only offended at this language about eating and drinking Jesus; they were also offended by the very idea that Jesus was really human. They preferred to think that he was a sort of being who only appeared in human form, but was really all spirit. And John chose to write the way he did to emphasize the humanity of the Saviour. In the original Greek, he could have chosen one of two words to mean “flesh”. The first SOMA means BODY, but John didn’t use this word. Rather, he used SARX, which actually means FLESH. I believe that he did this to make it clear that Jesus was a real human being, one with all of the emotions and feelings of any other human being. You see, if Jesus had not been truly human, he would not have suffered and died, and the resurrection itself would have been nothing more than a cruel joke.
Robert Coleman, in his book, Written in Blood, told a story about a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion. After all of the testing had been done, it turned out that the little boy was the only one whose blood was a match. 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, finally 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.
And that is what Jesus, our brother, was willing to do for us. It was not a metaphor, not a “pretend” death, not a staged resurrection. Jesus died for us, and his resurrection foreshadows our resurrection into eternal life. Jesus said: I tell you the truth, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. Too often, we allow these words to be applied only to the time when we share communion at the Lord’s Table, when, in actual fact, they should be a part of our daily lives. The daily devotional which many of us in this church read is called “Today”, and its main message is: refresh, refocus, and renew, which is what we do each time we share in Communion. But the point of the devotional is that we should do this every day, and the point of Jesus’ words is that we should feed on him every minute of every day.
So now comes question time. I want you to think about your answers to these questions. With Jesus Christ available to us, what do we choose to feed on every day? With an invitation to share in the table of the Lord, whose table do we sit at on a regular basis? Do we sit at his table or at one placed before us by a secular world?
Too often, it seems that many of us who should know better – and I include myself in this category, unfortunately – feed on the kind of food that creates worry and anxiety, selfishness and intolerance, hatred and despair. We see things that our friends own, and, rather than rejoicing that they have been blessed by God, we are envious because we don’t have the latest gadget ourselves. We watch the news every night, and, rather than applying God’s understanding to what is happening in the world, and laying blame where it rightly belongs, we become bitter, wondering what kind of God would allow such things to happen. We see hypocrisy all around us – in our workplaces, in our neighbourhoods, and in our churches – and, instead of forgiving others as God forgives us, we become cynical. We see the rich and famous falling from grace, and we react with a: SERVES YOU RIGHT attitude, instead of showing compassion, and saying: THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD, GO I. Cynicism and bitterness can permeate our lives, if we let it.
There is an old Cherokee legend which you may have heard. One evening an old Cherokee looked into his grandson’s eyes and asked, “My son, I see fear in your eyes. What is troubling you?”.
The boy responded, “Often I feel as if two wolves are living inside me, one is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. But…the other wolf… ah! The littlest thing will send him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all of the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his pain and fear are so great. Sometimes it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit and are always struggling against each other.”
With tears streaming down his face the boy looked intently into his Grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one will win, Grandfather?” Grandfather smiled and replied, “The one you choose to feed.”
And for us, it is not only the one we choose to feed, but with what we feed ourselves that will determine the winner. A little junk food never hurts anyone. Even though I don’t like ice cream, which is my husband’s favourite junk food, I confess that I have more than a passing fancy for a good French fry – or a chip, as I prefer to call it. But eating such food on a regular basis is not good for us. If we eat only junk food, without balancing it out with regular, healthy eating – including fresh fruit and vegetables – we will end up in trouble. And the same is true of living bread versus the bread offered by the world.
Throughout Scripture, and especially in this chapter of John, God’s word – spoken, written, and now living in Jesus Christ – is compared to food – to bread, the living bread. It is in Scripture that we will find God’s word, the word which is the bread of life, a life which is able to conquer sin and suffering, a life eternal which is waiting for us. So, when we share in communion, we are not actually eating his body or drinking his blood. Rather, by remembering what he did, both at the Last Supper AND on the cross, we are sharing in his life.
Keith and I got back from Labrador on Thursday. It took us the better part of two days to drive here, and on the way, we kind of ate bits and pieces of all sorts of things, including a lot of red licorice. By the time we got home, we were both famished for a real meal. We, as people, can’t survive on snacks, even though we enjoy them. We, as people, need real meals. We, as God’s people, need the living bread which gives us strength for the journey. We need the word of God. We need the people of God to show us where he is. We need a community of God’s faithful people to laugh with, to cry with, and to pray with. And we need to share the living bread with them. For it is through this that we affirm our belief that Jesus did come to live among us as one of us. It is through this that we affirm our belief that he died on the cross, spilling his blood to redeem us. It is through that we affirm our belief that he was raised from the dead, and taken into glory to sit at the Father’s right hand for all eternity. It is through this that we affirm our belief that eternal life is what awaits each one of us who eats of the living bread. Thanks be to God.

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