First, a confession. I cheated a little bit. Today is the fourth Sunday in a series of five Sundays where we are reading from the sixth chapter of the gospel of John, which began with Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand with loaves of bread and fish and has evolved into a series of sayings in which Jesus announces that he is the bread of life and deals with people’s reactions to his teaching. In week one, we focused solely on the miraculous feeding. In week two we observed as the hungry crowd chased Jesus, asking for more and being told that Christ himself is the bread that satisfies. In week three we heard the angry response of his countrymen, who thought that their own religious heritage was a sufficient form of faith. This week Jesus not only repeats his assertion that he is the bread that comes down from heaven, but he pushes the crowd harder and farther by insisting that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). And this is where I cheated a little bit.
I really should have stopped after verse 58 today, after Jesus says, “the one who eats this bread will live forever.” That’s where the lectionary tells me to stop. Everything after that point is part of the reading for next week, the fifth and final week of this series. But I couldn’t stop. My seminary friends who come out of the Baptist or Evangelical or Pentecostal traditions would laugh to hear me expressing even a little hesitation over this, since they don’t use a lectionary for preaching, but instead rely on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to guide their use of scripture in preaching and in worship. But I value the lectionary. Without it, I would always preach my favorite texts and I would consciously or unconsciously avoid the hard ones.
The lectionary structures our worship, balances our diet of scripture, so that we regularly hear the resonances between Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament) and the writings that the early church found to be essential for describing what they’d seen and heard and come to understand as a result of their encounter with Jesus (the New Testament).
So, this morning the lectionary wants me to focus very exclusively on these challenging words of Jesus,
"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." (John 6:53-58)
If I did that, I would have to really wrestle with what Jesus meant by this, and I would probably end up talking about the early church’s already developing practice of observing the Lord’s Supper. All of which would be a fine thing for us to ponder together in worship, especially since the following verses that I went ahead and read are the ones assigned for next week, and we could tackle those later.
But I won’t be here next week, I’ll be at the Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, so I won’t get to read those verses with you and I won’t get to tackle them. I’ll be hearing them preached in the Assembly’s closing worship service, and you’ll be hearing them preached at Trinidad Lutheran Church in Humboldt Park during our annual LUNCH (Lutherans United in North Chicago) worship service. And, having preached the series leading up to next week’s climactic finale, I was feeling a little frustrated that I was going to miss the opportunity to get to the ending, so I cheated a little and extended our gospel reading so I could get to the end of the series.
Because, for all the benefits we get from the lectionary, it also divides scripture into discrete passages and separates them from their context, which can be dangerous. We’ve all heard this done, scripture abused to provide rationales for patently evil and destructive behavior, as when it was used to justify slavery or domestic violence. Scripture, when it is read out of context, can be made to say quite a few things that not only violate the overarching good news of God’s healing, reconciling love for all people, but also the more specific points its various authors were trying to make, whether they be the stories of the Hebrew Bible, or the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, or one of Paul’s letters to the early Christian church.
Here’s a concrete example: at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans (also not in our set of lectionary readings for today – you see how out of hand this can get, next thing you know I might start quoting poetry…) he wants to talk about the power of the gospel as the righteousness of God made visible and available for all people. To do this he talks about how false religion has led to false living, and as an example of that he makes reference to ways of living he was observing among the pagan Gentiles that ran counter to his Jewish cultural background. Specifically he talks about homosexuality, writing
“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (Romans 1:26-27)
This passage, read out of context as it almost always is, has been used to condemn gay and lesbian people and, more recently, to name the HIV/AIDS crisis the “due penalty” for homosexuality in much the same way that other portions of Paul’s writing has been used to justify slavery or the subjugation of women.
But if you read on, the way we did with this morning’s passage from John, you discover that what Paul really wants to talk about – what Paul has selected this example for – is to talk about the limitless kindness, forbearance and patience of God. He uses this example about sexuality that looks unnatural to him, and to many of his readers, to make a point about the need to set aside judgment for the sake of the unity that comes from relying on God’s boundless love. In the very next chapter he writes,
“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with the truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourselves, you will escape the judgment of God?” (Romans 2:1-3)
And here, when Paul says “and yet do them yourselves,” he’s not only talk
ing about sexuality, but a whole list of offenses he has observed and listed: envy, murder, strife, deceit, gossip, slander, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, rebelliousness, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness (Romans 1:29-31). And then we understand the point, we are all “living in sin.” We may debate the nature of sin, or what is or isn’t sinful, but the original point of Paul’s argument wasn’t to lecture the Romans on appropriate sexual behavior, but to point out that sinfulness, or rebellion from God’s loving, reconciling purposes, is universal and our desire to judge and condemn one another makes hypocrites out of us all. Another reason why it can be good, on occasion, to keep reading past the end of the assignment.
I pick that particular example from Romans for a specific reason this morning. Not because I’m on a quest to preach about sexuality yet again, but because later today Bill and Judi and I are headed to Minneapolis for the ELCA’s biennial Churchwide Assembly, and we’re going to be hearing a lot about human sexuality. You yourselves may already have begun to hear this story being reported in the news. NPR ran a story earlier this week about the proposed social statement on human sexuality that Judi and other voting members are being asked to decide on next week. Newspaper articles are calling this assembly a “show-down” over gay clergy. Undoubtedly we will hear people on the floor of the assembly using scripture in very selective, truncated ways to try and make the case against including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the full life and ministry of the church. You also may find yourselves in conversations over the next week with people who are hearing and reading these news reports, and who want to know what your church has to say about these topics.
And that is where this morning’s extended reading becomes useful to us again. If we only focus on the verses assigned for today, we hear a clipping about eating flesh and drinking blood and we might only end up talking about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. But when we remember the context that is wrapped around these verses, we remember that this whole story began with a miracle that pointed to God’s abundance. People were hungry and it looked like there wasn’t enough to go around, but Jesus found a way to create plenty out of lack, to illustrate the abundance of God’s gifts in a way that included everyone present with enough left over to feed those who weren’t there yet. Then Jesus, like a good teacher, used that moment – that miracle – to make a point about the nature of God and the meaning of his ministry, “I am the bread of life, whoever (anyone!) comes to me will never be hungry and whoever (anyone!) believes in me will never be thirsty.” But the good religious people of his day were offended that Jesus called himself bread from heaven, after all God had provided bread from heaven for their people in the wilderness, not all people in the wilderness. And that is what leads Jesus to say, as we hear this morning, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” Whoever they are, all people, anyone, food that is abundant enough for everyone and that binds us together as intimately as if we were all of one flesh and blood. That close. That intimate. One bread, one body, one Lord of All.
This is offensive to the good religious people, who did not want to be in the same body as the people they had condemned. And it was confusing to many of Jesus’ followers, who had assumed that he had come to conquer their oppressor and to institute a new reign in which they would finally have the upper hand over the Romans, the Persians, the Babylonians, all the many empires that had defeated their armies and occupied their lands. But Jesus, who is gracious enough to feed all who come to him, friend and foe alike, shows that the reign of God isn’t going to look like that. It’s not going to be a vindication of our prejudices, and it’s not going to be a reversal of power that makes victors out of victims. It will be a table that is long enough for everyone to share a common meal, a common life, and a common destiny.
Many of those who heard what Jesus was really saying, both the good religious people and the disaffected politicos, respond to this miracle of plenty with closed hearts, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Even in the face of God’s abundance, there are many who will say, “not for me, not if it means eating with those people. No thanks.”
And that is when Jesus turns to the twelve, that is when Jesus turns to you and me, and asks, “do you also wish to go away?”
That is the question we each wrestle with each day of our lives, in manners both big and small. Do you wish to go away? Would you prefer to leave behind all those people who annoy you or aggravate you? Would you rather not worship with people who don’t sing your songs or speak your language? Would you like to find someplace where everyone already agrees with all your politics? Would you, ultimately, be content to surround yourselves with people who are like you in so many ways that you never have to ask how your manner of living, and working, and eating, and loving, and raising children, and maintaining borders impacts and affects how other people and other families live, work, eat, love, raise their children and maintain their borders? Do you wish to go away?
Simon Peter, who famously struggles with confessing Jesus as Lord, speaks the truth here. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Jesus’ words, that there is one flesh and one blood, that we are a part of each other on a level that deep and intimate, requires us to recognize that truth and to enact it not only in ritual, but in reality – in our church policies and foreign politics, in our family squabbles and our broken relationships. That is where eternal life is to be found.
That is the point I wanted to get to, that I didn’t want to miss sharing with you – though I’m sure you’ll hear the point made again next week. But we need to hear it every week, like we need to come to the communion rail every week, otherwise we start to forget – we forget that these words and rituals come to us as the weekly reminder of a miracle that began when a young person willingly shared five loaves and two fish, everything he had, with a whole crowd. The Lord’s Supper, God’s real presence with all people, really.
So, if and when people ask you what your church has to say about all these controversies, tell them that. Tell them that the miracles Jesus performed were occasions of abundance and parables of inclusion. Tell them that you know you are drawn to communities that reinforce your preferences and politics, but that you are grateful for a God that does more than that – who even calls you to know and to love and to eat with people you would never have chosen on your own (the way a lectionary makes us read passages we might prefer to avoid). Tell them that you hope your church will choose policies and ways of living together that show the world a God who loves better and more broadly than we ourselves know how. And then invite them to come with you to church sometime, to share this meal with us where there is enough for everyone and all are welcome.