Monday, August 17, 2015

Flesh and Blood

The scriptures referred to are John 6:51-58.

While I have been mining Ephesians for its treasures I have been keeping my eye on our gospel, which has been painfully inching its way through John chapter 6. I wanted to preach on it but whoever came up with our lectionary decided to draw the whole thing out and not get to the point of the passage for 4 Sundays! As you remember this is the aftermath of the feeding of the 5000. All the gospels record this miracle but only John gives us the fallout of that event. After Jesus feeds the multitude, they decided that he would make a great king. Jesus, sensing this, withdraws from them, going up the mountainside. Come evening, he sends the disciples ahead by boat. He later joins them by walking on the water. The crowd, realizing that Jesus has given them the slip, sail to Capernaum, Jesus' base of operations. The people confront Jesus, who knows that they are not interested in anything spiritual but his ability to feed them physically. So he begins this extended metaphor of him being the true bread of life.

John's gospel is known for skipping over important events that the other gospels report and filling in what they don't mention. His account of the last supper doesn't have the actual moment where Jesus says, “This is my body...This is my blood.” But this meditation in chapter 6 is obviously about the Eucharist. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life....” Unfortunately the crowd takes what Jesus says literally and turn away from him. It's doubtful that even his disciples understood what Jesus was saying until after his death and resurrection.

What Jesus says sounds as weird to us as it did his original audience but he is using the traditional Jewish teaching method of midrash. Midrash was the way rabbis would “search” (the literal meaning of the word) the scriptures to find a meaning not obvious on the surface. They would often compare 2 scriptures to do so. Here the verses appear to be Exodus 16:4, 15 and Psalm 78. In Exodus the Lord tells Moses he will rain down bread on the Israelites and the people call it manna; literally, “what is it?” In Psalm 78:24, the manna is called “the bread of heaven.” Jesus also uses the traditional method of contrasting the old and the new. In this case he is comparing the old manna from heaven with the new living bread from heaven, himself. Those who ate the manna died; those who eat the bread from heaven that Jesus is offering will have eternal life. But the people just don't get it.

Was it impossible for them to grasp? Not necessarily. Rabbis often used manna as a symbol of spiritual food. It often was used to mean the Torah or the wisdom or the word of God. And indeed it was the people who brought up manna, not Jesus. He seized upon it to make his point about the difference between the physical bread with which he had fed them and the spiritual bread he now offered. They should have anticipated some such contrast. But Jesus, in saying he is the bread of heaven, is also telling us that he is the wisdom and word of God Incarnate. As Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” The person who trusts God lives by what Jesus did and said, for he is the living Word of God. And he is our spiritual sustenance.

Also, at the beginning of this chapter, in verse 4, John mentions that the Passover was near. What did the Jews eat at Passover? The lamb. It was sacrificed and its blood was smeared on the doorposts during the original Exodus, as a signal for death to “pass over” them. The body of the lamb was roasted and eaten at the Passover meal. Those who had followed Jesus from the beginning would have known that John the Baptizer call Jesus the Lamb of God. His death saves us from death and his life is given so that we might have life.

What did the Jews drink at the Passover? Not the lamb's blood. Drinking any blood was forbidden by the Torah. Instead, they drank wine, which they poetically called “the blood of the grape.” Jesus may have had that in mind when he tells the disciples at the last supper, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” The point is that the symbolism was right there in the holy feast they celebrated every year. And in a midrash any and all details in scripture are looked at for their potential deeper meanings.

As I said, after Jesus' resurrection the disciples would put together the connection between the Passover, the Lord's supper and his sacrificial death. The meaning of the elements in the communion meal would become clear. But at this point neither the meal nor his death have happened. So why is Jesus saying this now?

We know that after he fed the 5000 they wanted to make him king. The most popular concept of the Messiah at this time was that of a second David, a holy warrior who would expel the Gentiles from their land, as David had the Philistines. They wanted a king to establish a physical kingdom of God. That would inaugurate the Messianic age and bring to an end the present evil age. The Messiah was a religio-political leader who would save the Jews from their pagan oppressors.

And Jesus was trying to nip that in the bud. The ironic thing is that though David was a good king in many ways, he was not as holy as people tended to remember. His womanizing sowed the seeds of instability in his regime. He was a warrior but one whose hands were too bloody to build God a temple. It was his son Solomon who built the temple and reigned over a golden age for Israel. And right after Solomon's death, the whole kingdom split. In a little over 300 years, the Babylonian Empire would breach the walls of Jerusalem, plunder and burn the temple, take the Jews into exile and effectively end the reign of Davidic kings.

Human nations are established through the violence of the conqueror or the rebel. They maintain themselves largely through violence and war. Jesus was not going to be that kind of king. Ironically, the violence that would establish the kingdom of God was the death of God's king at the hands of an earthly kingdom. What Jesus would conquer would not be people but death. And becoming a citizen of his kingdom was a matter of answering his call, not of physical coercion.

So at least part of what Jesus is doing here is discouraging those who saw him only as a potential king of a physical and temporal kingdom. And he is doing it by saying something that is repugnant to those who can only think in physical terms. But Jesus is not simply trying to drive people away. What he says will resonate with some. Jesus' mission and kingdom are spiritual; he is appealing to those who can perceive the spiritual dimension of what he is saying, even if they don't get it entirely at this point.

What was the function of the original bread from heaven, the manna? It was to keep the people of Israel alive as they journeyed to the promised land. What was the function of the living bread from heaven? To give eternal life to those who are entering the kingdom of God which has no physical boundaries.

What does Jesus say about the kingdom of God? That it is among or within us. (Luke 17:21) That it starts small and grows like a seed. (Matthew 13:31-32). And that means that growing the kingdom within and among us needs nourishment. We are nourished by Christ, by what he did for us on the cross and by feeding on him day by day.

Why did Jesus use such a revolting analogy? As I said, partly to discourage those who thought he was just going to keep producing physical bread and would therefore make a good physical king. But he was also getting real about how dependent we are upon him. Without him giving his life we would not have eternal life. And his giving his life was a messy thing.

Life is always messy. From the moment we are conceived we live not only in but off of our mother's body. For instance, the skeleton of the fetus needs calcium as does that of the nursing infant. A lot of that comes from the mother's own bones.

You may say, “Well, that's not exactly cannibalism.” How about the fact that there are literally millions of people alive today because they have the blood of others in them? I'm not talking vampires; I'm referring to the recipients of blood donations. And what about organ donation? How many people are alive because someone donated their heart or liver or kidneys? These things weren't around in Jesus' day so he picked a metaphor that was nevertheless appropriate. Just like the donor must die to give someone a new heart, so Jesus had to die to give us new life.

You want to know one of the weird things many heart recipients notice? That they often start to take on some of the characteristics of the donor. Some report changes in their preferences in food, music, art, recreation and careers, While this is still being studied, several scientists and physicians believe that cells can carry memories which are transferred in organ transplants. So the physical change of heart can lead to a metaphorical change of heart. And by giving his life for us, all who accept Jesus receive a spiritual change of heart.

And because we are physical beings, it makes sense that Jesus would use physical means both to remind us of his sacrifice and imbue us with its benefits. In the Eucharist the body of Christ comes together to share the body of Christ, communing with our Lord and with each other. This sacrament comes in the form of a meal, which in the Middle East symbolizes peace and reconciliation of enemies. You become companions, literally, those you break bread with. What better way to express our new relationship of friendship with God.

But most of the crowd didn't get it and they weren't willing to stick around and figure it out. And I find that interesting. Did they think that because it was hard to understand it couldn't possibly be true? Somewhere along the line we humans have gotten the idea that we are the measure not only of the universe but of God. God, we feel, should be completely comprehensible to us. Mind you, we don't understand much about his creation. For all that science has discovered and explained, there is a lot more that it hasn't. Scientists are even discussing the possibility that we may get to the point where we can't explain certain things any more; that we will encounter phenomena that our finite brains will simply not be able to take in. But the infinite mind that created it? Oh, yeah, we've got that all sussed out! That's rather like the lab monkey who figured out that if he pushes the button he gets a banana going on to assume that he understands the electrical engineer who designed the machine behind the button.

Actually if you could totally understand God, that would be sufficient proof that he wasn't God. One persistent feature of reality is stuff that exists whether or not you understand it. It is fiction that simplifies life and and its issues and ties everything up with an easy-to-follow explanation. Fiction writers know that reality can get away with things they can't. You will never read an Agatha Christie where someone asks, “But how did the killer get into and out of the locked room?” only to have Poirot reply, “I have no earthly idea.”

So it may seem odd to us that the salvation of humanity requires the sacrifice of God- made-man. Is it that much more counterintuitive than that we stand on a ball that is spinning at 25,000 miles per hour and yet are not flung off nor do we feel that we are moving at all? And that's gravity, probably the longest known of the four fundamental forces of the universe. On the quantum level just about everything is counterintuitive.

That laws that govern the physical universe are not always obvious. Why do we expect the laws that govern spiritual reality to be self-evident? C. S. Lewis said that one of the things that helped convince him of the truth of Christianity was that it had rough edges and sharp corners just like reality. One of which is that nothing in this life comes without a cost to someone. To the mother, birth costs calcium from her bones, 9 months of her life and pains both large and small. To the heart donor, it costs his life. The crowd wanted Jesus to tell them that he could give them eternal life as easily as he gave bread to the 5000. They didn't know, and didn't want to know, what eternal life cost him. They didn't want to feel dependent upon his body and blood.

When we come together to share the body and blood of Christ, we are enacting part of the gospel, the good news of how much God loves us. But it's the good news, not the pretty news. There is nothing pretty about what Jesus had to do to deal with the spiritual and moral consequences of our sins. That's why Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 says that we should examine ourselves before partaking. We need to acknowledge what we have done that led to Jesus' flesh being torn and his blood being spilled.

But there is a reason we call it the Eucharist, literally, the thanksgiving. We not only remember our sins but Jesus' love for us. We are in awe of his sacrifice and grateful for his selfless act. It is a celebration of God's grace, of his unreserved, undeserved goodness toward us. In it we proclaim Jesus' death until he comes again.

It is also about life. Jesus said, “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....” Jesus not only gave his life for us; he gives his life to us. After all, it is eternal life. Only God is eternal and so he is the source of the eternal life offered by the Son of God. All he asks is that we turn over our sinful life to him.

So when you come forward in a few minutes, and cup one hand in the other, it is not an empty gesture. You are bringing to the altar your old life and in return you are receiving new life, his life, eternal life.

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