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August 9, 2015, 12:00 AM

Proper 14- Year B

Proper 14

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

    If I were forced to say what the single biggest problem facing Christianity today might be, my answer would be domesticity. 

    I am not suggesting that the best church is a wild animal, nor am I suggesting that we are too tame in our proclamation of the Good News, it’s just, quite simply, we all too often forget how radical our message once was. After enjoying centuries as a dominant cultural force in the West, Christianity is perceived as a moderating force in society’s life. But the truth is that this conception of the Church and of Jesus’ message couldn’t be further from the truth. 

    Jesus was a spiritual radical. One of my favorite biblical scholars, John Meier reminds us that a happy-go-lucky spiritual guru will not find himself tried by the Temple leadership and crucified by the Romans. Only a dynamic preacher whose wholesale revision and upheaval of our understanding of God could ultimately cause enough of a disturbance to find himself the enemy of the religious leadership of the time. 

    That is an important lens with which to understand the Gospels. Anyone who has read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke becomes immediately aware that they are following a very similar outline of the events of Jesus life and contain many of the same incidents and speeches. That is why they are collectively referred to as the Synoptic Gospels. John, on the other hand, follows an almost completely different path. The events of Jesus life are arranged in a strikingly different pattern, and John quotes long speeches or sermons by Jesus which are not in the other three Gospels. So for centuries Biblical scholars have regarded the Synoptics as the more historically accurate of the Gospels, and have marveled at the beauty and poetry of John, but not taken his accounts as being all that accurate. Within the last few decades, however, this view has been changing and scholars are beginning to see far more historical accuracy and important information in John’s Gospel than they have previously been willing to grant. Many now hold that while John is indeed different than the others, perhaps he is using an independent, but nonetheless accurate source, that was unavailable to the other authors.

 

    So if we are going to try to deal with these very difficult and even somewhat distasteful sayings of Jesus, we ought to begin treating them seriously, as if Jesus meant exactly what he said. Just listen again to what he said to the Jews in the synagogue at Capernaum. “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

    Jesus continues this in what we will hear in next week’s gospel reading, “truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed...This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will life for ever.”

    Now…if you were trying to find a way to truly alienate all the loyal Jews in the synagogue that day, and probably confuse a good many of the disciples as well, you really couldn’t have done a much more thorough job than Jesus just did. In just a few sentences he has attack just about all the basic underpinning of the faith and practice of Judaism. Not bad for a morning’s work.

    One way to talk about a religion is to look at its foundational events, those events or actions which began the faith story and which become the tool by which all future events are interpreted and evaluated. In the history of Judaism there were really three: the  escape and Exodus through the divided waters of the Red sea: the miraculous feeding of the people with heavenly produced manna as they wandered for forty years in the wilderness; and finally the giving of the Law which would bind God and his people together forever. And in this little statement by Jesus, he has managed to totally dismiss and explicitly reject two of the three. 

    For the Jews of Jesus’ day, manna, that miraculous food which sustained them during their wanderings in the desert  was indeed “bread from heaven”, or the food of angels”. It was the miraculous God-given stuff which was at once the symbol and the tangible proof of God’s sustaining love for his people. It was indeed the bread of life. Now Jesus tells them that they have gotten it all wrong, that this “bread of heaven” may have worked wonders in the wilderness , but in fact was no guarantee of real or everlasting life. In short, what he was saying was that this heavenly food in which they believed so devoutly was worthless.

    It is somewhat like my great aunt who insisted on living on bran, fiber, and dried nuts, believing it seems that if she lives only on foods which have no flavor or give no pleasure she will live indefinitely. 

    (As an aside, it turns out that the flavor of repentance is eating a cake made without flour or sugar.)  

    What Jesus was saying to the Jews of his day would be as if someone were to tell this nutritionally fundamentalist relative of mine, that new studies have proved conclusively that the only foods that are really good for your are a Burger King Bacon Double Cheeseburgers, with a large side of french fries, washed down with a thick rich vanilla milkshake. It would be a scandal, all that she had been taught and believed, all that they had believed for thousands of years, would suddenly be thrown out the window.

    And as if that were not enough, Jesus went further. For even more horrifying than eating flesh, the idea of drinking blood would be completely abhorrent to any observant Jew. The Law of Moses utterly forbids consuming any blood whatsoever, and for anyone to violate this prohibition would result in their expulsion from the community. To the Jew, an animal, a person’s “life force” was contained in the blood, so it was absolutely prohibit for a person to drink the life principle of any other being.

    In fact, the Orthodox Jews, to this day, soak meat in water for thirty minutes, then salt it, and let it stand for an hour, then wash it again to draw out any residue of blood before the meat can be cooked and consumed. That is the law of Moses. And yet here is Jesus proclaiming that if someone wants eternal life, they must, emphasize must, eat his flesh and drink his blood. This was more than radical, this was pure scandal.

    So now that Jesus has their attention, in fact now that he has them really upset, what is he trying to say. I think what he is saying is really two things at once. First to the Jews of his day and to Christians of our day, he is saying quite bluntly that religion, true religion is not about following the rules, it is not about incremental moral and spiritual improvement. Then as now, we tend to think of religion or faith primarily in terms of following the rules, and trying very hard to do just a little bit better: to be little more generous, and little more compassionate, a little more faithful in our religious obligations and a little more compassionate toward our neighbor. 

    And what Jesus is saying is that that is nonsense, faith, true faith, is not about doing a little bit better at the edges, it is about a complete and radical change of heart. All week, I have been trying to think of just the right analogy to use at this point. and to be honest, I’m not the least sure that I have it yet. But the closest I can come is to say that it is something like marriage. Some people have whirlwind courtships and get married within a few weeks of their first meeting, and stay married for the rest of their lives. Other couples know each other for years, and date for month after month until they finally decide to get married and then they stay married for the rest of their lives. 

    Up until that point, you can be the most ardent suitor, the most trustworthy date, or the most faithful friend, heck, you can even live together, but nothing really counts until you are married in front of God and man and everyone.

    Then everything changes, whether you want it to or not. You have made a lifetime promise and commitment and the only question is whether the two of you will be able to keep that promise. Two people can live together faithfully and lovingly for years and decades, but in the final analysis it is only playing at marriage. Marriage is the risk, the commitment that comes when the promise of a lifetime is made. Then, somehow, everything is what it was while you were dating, yet somehow everything is totally different. It is the difference between a real commitment, real trust and love, and playing around the edges. It is the difference between the real thing, and non-dairy creamer. 

    It is what Jesus was trying to tell those people in this morning’s Gospel, it is the difference between an historical ritual and the faith it may engender, and a real, living commitment to God which undergirds all that a person does. It is the difference between the real, and the almost real. It is the difference between manna a wine, and the body and blood of Christ. As the German Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart put it in the thirteen century: “The bodily food we take is changed into us, but the spiritual food we receives changes us into itself; therefore divine love is not taken into us, for that would make two things. But divine love takes us into itself and we are one with it.”

    I think we all want to be close enough to God to be assured that he is around should we need him someday in an emergency, but most of us don’t want to get too close lest we be consumed by him or be overwhelmed by his love. But at some point, after a long or short courtship you have to decide, “Is he the one I trust, or not?” and if the answer is to be yes, then everything else is different and all that went before is mere pretense and pretending. At some point you just have to choose. Do I accept the gift, or not?


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