Monday, August 24, 2009

Eat my flesh? Abide in me.

Proper 16B 09
John 6:56-69

One of the most beautiful prayers in the prayer book – in my humble opinion, anyway – is the Prayer of Humble Access, which can be said immediately before receiving the bread and wine. There’s a line in the prayer (p 337) that reads, “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” Whenever we say that I wonder what our visitors think about that and, in fact, I sometimes wonder what our own congregants think about that. If I knew nothing about this tradition and walked in and sat at the back of the church, which is where I’d normally sit, and I heard that line…. Well, I’d say a quiet but strong YUK and quietly walk out. I don’t need to hear that kind of grisly image – it’s just a little too cannibalistic for even a died-in-the-wool meat lover.

It was just that way for a lot of Jesus’ followers, as well. Remember that most of them were Jews. Drinking an animal’s blood was completely prohibited – and to extend it to a human’s blood was beyond comprehension and just too over the top. Toss in the flesh and they were outa there. That kind of teaching was way too difficult for many of them. Jesus knew this. He transitioned into explaining this metaphor --- yes, metaphor --- of his flesh and blood as body and spirit – in other words, a wholeness of life itself. He didn’t drain his blood or cut off a piece of his flesh. He was speaking metaphorically, which, to many, was even more confusing than his paradoxes. And, as a result, he lost more followers. “This teaching was just too difficult.” It was foreign to their ears and their learned traditions.

And then he gives his closest followers – his disciples – the opportunity to leave. “Do you all want to leave, too?” he asks. Peter, the one who insists he’s loyal but turns out to have little courage and is quick to disappear – Peter says, “Where else can we go? To whom can we turn? We’re convinced and believe that you are the Holy One of God.”

Now we know and Jesus knows that of those who stay, Judas will betray Jesus, and Peter and some of the others will make themselves quite scarce when the difficulty of Jesus’ passion plays itself out. But given a direct question and opportunity to leave, their belief in him is strong enough to stay even if they don’t understand metaphors. They want to stick with him because they know and they believe he is Of God.

There are two aspects of this passage that I want to look at briefly. There are, of course, many more that can be addressed, but this morning, two will be more than enough. First, re-read the first sentence in the passage, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We know that there are some cannibalistic societies that believe that by eating the flesh of their dead relatives or heroes, they take on their positive attributes, they take on their strengths. In this case Jesus talks about a mutual abiding – let me live in you and I want you to live in me. Let us share one another’s beings, one another’s essences so that we will live in the eternal life offered by our creator. He’s not talking about afterlife as much as he is about how we live in the eternal life of creation. Right now. This inaugurated eschaton. Let me take into myself your weaknesses and you take into yourself those things of God that will give you strength, and let’s walk this journey together. Together, we will be at home in one another, we will abide in one another. There’s a John Denver song I was listening to on the way home called “Follow Me.” Follow me where I go and what I do and who I know; make it part of you to be a part of me……… and all the time that you’re with me then we will be at home.” All the time that you’re with me then we will abide in one another. No matter where we are, Jesus is with us, is in us, and we have access to the comfort and peace of being at home; of being safe and without fear.

Abide in me. And I will abide in you. Drink my blood and eat my flesh. Share my wine and share my bread. Abide in me and I will abide in you.

The other aspect of the passage that I want to talk about is Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, “Do you want to leave, too?” Peter doesn’t say outright, “No.” He certainly had plenty of choices. He could have returned to his family and his former occupation. He could have returned to the good friends that he had left behind in his village. He could have returned to the life he had had without all the traveling and crowds and uproar and a way of life that was foreign to him and that was questioned by his friends and family. Peter and his new friends didn’t have to stick with Jesus. There was no question that their path as disciples was difficult. There was so much they didn’t understand; so much that confused them; so much that was counter to the culture in which they lived. I suspect their families and friends hoped they would just get over this little stage of rebellion, this mid-life crisis, and then return home to reality.

Probably all of these things ran through Peter’s mind and the minds of the other disciples. But his answer was, “To whom else can we go?” To whom else can we go who has the same things you offer us. Who else connects us to God the way you do? There is no other that we believe is truly the Holy One of God.” So Peter’s answer is no – the alternatives are not acceptable for those who get it about who Jesus actually is. No one else in their limited world community offers what Jesus offers, and no one else can realistically claim the relationship that Jesus does to God, to Yahweh, to the great Jehovah, to their Creator. No one else –in more contemporary terms – integrates their bodies and spirits – their metaphorical flesh and blood – the way Jesus does. No one offers them an incarnational life. So they stay with Jesus on this increasingly difficult journey – and they still have no concept of how difficult it will actually be. One New Testament scholar, Dawn Wilhelm, describes this kind of decision in this way:

The more we realize that faith calls us to consume the body and blood of Christ, to embrace his death and resurrection and to emulate his manner of living and dying for others, the more difficult the journey of faith becomes. … This passage is not intended to reinforce our complacency or discourage us from witnessing the gospel of Jesus Christ to others. But it will help us remember that our calling is a strange and difficult one. It is more than skin deep; [it reaches] beneath the surface of our lives and into our workplaces, bank accounts, family relationships, eating habits, daily schedules, and all the other ways we choose to live and die for Christ and our neighbors.

She is talking about a way of life, not a compartmentalization of one’s status as a follower separate from all other aspect of daily life. Jesus offers the integration of spirit and body, just as we have the relationship of the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. All in one; not separated; not compartmentalized. But in the mystery of the oneness of the Trinity. Jesus invites us to participate in that relational mystery as we unite and integrate our bodies and spirits with him. He invites us to a wholeness that is anchored in a place of safety and peace, a place where we are assured that we are no longer alone, a place where his invitation of wholeness can be found in the community of his followers, in the community of faith.

Like his followers, we too are given a choice to follow Jesus and commit our lives to his teachings, to living out his ministries in the world. We are invited to become living sermons, if you will, of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Everything we do every minute of our lives reflects our decision to be one of his. We must expect it to be difficult and counter cultural; we must expect that it is our charge to demonstrate a new and more hope-filled and more balanced way of living our short lives in this world. As we say Yes to Jesus, we will find ourselves being called to say No to some of the pressures of a human-centered culture that has yet to look beyond itself and its basest needs. But that is who we are as Christians who integrate our bodies and spirits with the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. That is why we come to this table every week for strength as well as for solace; for renewal as well as for pardon. Please listen carefully to the words of the Eucharistic Prayer C!

Being a follower of Jesus is a challenging way of life, but it is a way of life that we have chosen. It’s a way of life that not only integrates us with our daily lives, but offers us the strength and comfort of a spiritual home – a life that is inhabited by Jesus Christ. Abide in me and I will abide in you. We will never be alone.

Delivered August 23, 2009 at St Clement's, Honolulu