Saturday, August 25, 2012

Scandalized Yet? (August 26 2012)

Homily:  Yr B Proper 21, Aug 26 2012, St. Albans
Readings:  1 Kgs 8:22-30,41-43; Ps 84; Eph 6:10-20; Jn 6:56-69

For the past month we’ve been working our way through the sixth chapter of the gospel of John on Sunday mornings, beginning with the feeding of thousands, hearing Jesus surprising claim “I am the bread of life”, and concluding with the final verses which you just heard in today’s gospel.  I’d like to thank to Matt, Peter and Jonathan who have preached for us the past few weeks and shared their insights on this remarkable text. 

I say that this Chapter 6, this “bread of life” discourse, is a remarkable text because there’s a dramatic transition that takes place in this story.  Did you notice it?  At the beginning, there are crowds of thousands – by the end we’re left with the Twelve.  At the beginning, the people are so enthralled with Jesus that they want take him and make him king.  By the end, they complain, they are scandalized, they turn away and leave him.  What happened?  Did Jesus do something wrong?  Did he say the wrong thing? What did he say that turned them off like that?

Everything seemed to start so well.  Crowds flocked to see Jesus, thousands followed him, and when the crowd got hungry, Jesus accepted a small child’s offering of a few loaves and fish and somehow he fed the crowd until all were satisfied, not only meeting their physical needs, but as Matt pointed out, he gave them hope, by overturning their basic understanding of the world as a place of scarcity, and holding out the hope of abundance.  This must be a prophet, the crowd exclaims, the prophet that we’ve been waiting for.  Let’s make him king, and then we’ll always have bread to eat.

Now I get this.  When you’re hungry, there’s nothing more important than getting something to eat. Jesus gets this too.  Time after time in the gospels we’re told that Jesus has compassion for those with physical needs. But Jesus also wants to move us beyond our physical needs.  This feeding, John tells us, was a sign.  But sign of what?  A sign of something more than just the satisfaction of physical hunger. 

I remember when I was in high school we read the book Animal Farm by George Orwell, his satirical take on Communism.  Is it still on the reading list at high schools these days?  I don’t know.  But I remember after we’d read about the pigs Snowball and Napoleon and the horse Boxer and the rest of the animals, just in case we hadn’t figured it out, the teacher got up at the front of the classroom and said, “Look I just want you to know.  Animal Farm isn’t about farming”.

Well when Jesus stands up at the front of the synagogue the next day to address the crowds who are still hungry and are still looking for more bread, Jesus says, “Look I just want to know, it’s not about loaves of bread.”

And then, blow by blow, he proceeds to push the crowd out of its comfort zone.

“Don’t work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life which only I can give you.”

Questions begin, grumbling starts.  Obviously we’re not getting any free food today.  So what’s he talking about?

“You want the bread that only God can give, the bread that gives life to the world?  I am the bread of life.  I am the bread which comes down from heaven.”

Muttering and complaining.  Who does he think he is?  What sort of a claim is he making?

“The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

By this time even Jesus disciples, his closest friends, the ones who have been traveling with him for months, even they’re getting spooked.  “This teaching is difficult,” they complain to each other, “who can accept it?”  They’re offended, they’re scandalized.

And this is where I want us to pause for a moment.  Do you find this teaching difficult?  Do we understand why the crowd was offended?  Are you scandalized by what Jesus has said?

Because if we don’t get why everyone was scandalized by this, we might as well go back to eating bread.  Cause this stuff is meant to scandalize us, it’s meant to shake us out of our complacency.

(walk up to Mary)
“Mary, I want you to eat my flesh and drink my blood, so that you will live in me and I will live in you.”

How did that feel to all of you?  I tell you what, to me it felt totally creepy, and if I was to do say that in all seriousness instead of as an illustration, I expect that Mary and a whole bunch of you would probably leave and never come back.

But that’s what Jesus does say in all seriousness.  This is a difficult, scandalous, offensive teaching.

It’s scandalous, because as Jonathan reminded us last week, the literal sense of eating flesh is simply disgusting.  Jesus clearly doesn’t mean these words literally, but he is trying to shake us up.

It’s offensive to the crowds, again because as Jonathan reminded us last week, the whole notion of drinking blood goes against all the Jewish dietary laws.

It’s shocking because of the claim Jesus is making.  The crowd was happy enough to recognize Jesus as a prophet, even “the prophet”.  But Jesus is claiming more.  He’s claiming to be greater than Moses, the one who fed the people with manna in the wilderness.  He’s claiming to be the Son of Man, the one prophesied in the book of Daniel who would inaugurate God’s kingdom on earth.  He is claiming to be the one who has come down from heaven, the one through whom heaven and earth are linked.  He is taking on the divine name of “I am”.

This claim in itself is enough to get Jesus killed, in fact the charge brought against him at his crucifixion was blasphemy, the claim that he was indeed the son of God.

So by this point I think we can get why many in the crowd were shocked by what Jesus had to say, why even his own disciples found this to be a difficult teaching.

But what about us?  How do we react to all this? Is there anything difficult here for us?  So far, maybe not. We can get past the literal unpleasantness of crunching Jesus’ flesh, we’re not troubled by Jewish dietary laws and chances are if you’re here on a Sunday morning you’ve already come to terms with claims about the divinity of Jesus.

But let me keep pushing!

Jesus says, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

Is it my imagination, or do I hear in these words a remarkable suggestion, even a demand of intimacy?  Eating, taking something into my own self, having it become who I am, taking the flesh of Jesus into me so that he can live in me and I can live in him?  This is a radical invitation to intimacy, so radical that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it.  I mean, I’ve gotten used to the notion of Jesus as a prophet, calling for justice.  I’m comfortable with the idea of Jesus as a teacher, providing guidance for my life.  I’ve come to see Jesus as the Son of God, the one sent by God, the one who reveals what God is like, the one who is God himself.  And it’s relatively easy to think of God as God up there or out there, the one that I can pray to when I feel like it, the God who is like a divine therapist in the sky when I’ve got a problem, the one I can ask for my daily bread.  But the idea that God is near, that God wants a relationship with me that is so close, so intimate that Jesus uses this language of eating and drinking and living in me, that does seem to be a difficult teaching.  Am I ready for this?  Are you?

And then, to make things even more difficult, I swear that in all this talk about eating flesh and drinking blood, I hear overtones of self-giving, of sacrifice, of suffering and even death.  Yes, there is the promise of life, of real life, abundant life, eternal life.  But to get there, certainly there is at least a hint here that it may not be easy.  And of course, as the story of Jesus plays out and heads towards the cross, we’ll know that we were right to hear these hints, and that the teaching about drawing into this close, intimate relationship with the one who endures such suffering, is indeed a difficult one.

At the very least I think it’s safe to say that Jesus has managed to shock us out of our preoccupation with loaves of bread and direct our gaze to what he would call the things of the spirit: what it means to live abundantly, what it means to be loving and self-giving, how we fulfill our needs for belonging and connection, what it means to live in the presence of the God revealed in Jesus, how we go about creating lives of meaning and purpose in response.
None of this teaching is easy; much of it is difficult, even scandalous.

Because of this, many of Jesus disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”


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