Sermon for August 19, 2018 | Pentecost 13
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you have no life in you.” To the skeptical observer of Christianity, such language might seem odd at best, cannibalistic at worse. I’ve been told by some church leaders that for those who are squeamish, we should drop blood and flesh images and stick with bread and wine. After all, who is offended by the thought of eating a morsel of bread and taking a sip of wine? But eating flesh and drinking blood: isn’t that just a bit over the top? For some Protestants, it just sounds too Catholic; and for others, so outdated, so regressive.
But, then, I say: we are not literalists. We do not take the sayings of Jesus at face value. I say: we are invited to probe a bit deeper into this text and the context in which it was written. This means, first, to consider what everyone knew in Jesus’ time: that blood is the source of life. It is blood and breath that animate the body, the flesh. And as that which animates, it is precious. No wonder the image of blood appears so frequently in our discourse: “Give blood,” says the Red Cross, “for one offering of blood can save three lives.” Indeed, my physician, who has ordered a boatload of blood tests for me over the past six months, would concur that blood is life and much of life or harm to life can be discerned in the blood.
But, then, we might ask: why does John’s Jesus speak so starkly about eating flesh and drinking blood in the presence of his Jewish co-religionists? Would he not know that the Torah, the Law of Moses, strictly forbids the consumption of any blood? Perhaps, then, it would be helpful to understand that when John wrote these words, some seventy years after the death of Jesus, his community of Jewish Christ followers had experienced a terrible and acrimonious divorce with their Jewish brothers and sisters who were Torah followers, and thus these words of eating flesh and drinking blood were actually intended to offend, to say clearly: we Christ followers are quite different than you. But, oh, do we not know the terrible history that emerged from this divorce, in which Christians – soon to be the dominant religion in that world – frequently persecuted the Jewish people from whom Jesus was born, accusing them wrongfully of shedding Christ’s blood. For it was imperial Rome who executed him, assuming – and assuming wrongly – that they had silenced him.
We might also consider these words of Jesus from this perspective – that flesh and blood actually matter to Jesus. And if flesh and blood matter to Jesus, should they not matter to us who claim to be his disciples in the 21st century? The question that such an assertion raises is this: whose flesh and blood matter to you and me? Is it only the flesh and blood of those closest and dearest to us or does our concern include the flesh and blood of our Jewish and Muslim and Transgender neighbors – who have experienced a shocking rise in hate crimes and hate speech over the last two years? Does your circle of concern extend to neighbors of African, American Indian, and Hispanic descent who continue to experience discrimination and brutality? After all, their blood is shed on the street, in the reservation, and at the border. And if your circle and mine is expansive, do we not only pray but also speak up in defense of anyone who is maligned and marginalized? Or do we remain silent, hoping to sustain what is nothing more than a false peace?
Contemporary biblical scholars suggest that the phrase “to eat my flesh” can well mean to welcome or receive the One who is speaking. Thus, when Jesus says, “eat my flesh and drink my blood,” he is inviting the listener – that would be you and me – to welcome him anew into the enter of one’s life. But here’s the point: he is no unchanging substance you can carry in your purse or back pocket, no sweet heavenly pal at our beck and call only when life gets tough. Rather he is flesh and blood, coming to you and me in the here and now, calling out to you and me incognito from those who are hungry or thirsty, sick or wrongfully imprisoned, naked or a stranger fleeing violence. The question is: will we hear his call and respond to it with whatever treasure and skill we might possess?
Or this: the invitation to let him be our daily bread poses this deeply human, deeply Christian, and deeply sacramental question: Where do you and I find sustenance in life? Where do you and I find nourishment for the soul, the very center of our being? Is it in the conventional wisdom of our culture? Is it in a particular political agenda? Is it in the pervasive presence of entertainment? Or, or, is your soul nourished in daily prayer, in the Word of God, and most significantly in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ who is our bread and wine cup?
In the midst economic decisions that benefitted the few but not the many, corrupt political leadership, climate change induced famine, and church leaders interested only in maintaining the status quo, the English mystic, Julian of Norwich, wrote these words for any one and everyone who yearned for the good news that with God there is life-giving nourishment for the soul: “A mother,” she wrote, “gives her child milk to suck from her breasts, but our precious mother, Jesus Christ, feeds us with himself. He does so most courteously and most tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament, which is the precious food of true and eternal life. With this most sweet sacrament, our mother Christ sustains us most mercifully and graciously.”
In this Holy Eucharist, you and I receive the astonishing generosity of God and the life-sustaining food and drink Christ gives without discrimination, shared equitably among us in a world marked by sorrowful inequities. The only question is this: will our participation in the banquet of heaven enliven our commitment to its flourishing here on earth?