Focus on the promise of life, not cannibalism
A sermon preached by the Reverend Deacon Jason A. Burns
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 15 August 2021 [Proper 15]:
Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
William Willoman, who is a Methodist bishop and theologian, said “we are conditioned to live in a flattened, demystified world that is only what we can see or touch”, and I agree with him. I think that we are so conditioned to reject anything that can’t be proven with science or that doesn’t match our version of reality that we are quick to focus on the things we find distasteful or disagreeable, instead of the things that can bind us together. How many of us during the reading of the Gospel this morning focused on the words, eat my flesh, and drink my blood, instead of the promise of life that followed? When I first looked at the readings for today, I sarcastically thanked Michael in my head because all the eat my flesh and blood talk caused a gut reaction of disgust and a worry about what God may want me to say about it.
The Gospel of John can be quite off putting to many people because it is quite different from the other three, it leaves out many of things we all know well, such as the birth story and the last supper; and the language it uses is much more spiritual as John is not writing with the intention of proving anything, he is writing for people who are already convinced, which means we cannot read it in the same way. In the eight short verses we heard today John appears to be talking about what we call the Eucharist, and if we didn’t know better it would be easy for us to get caught up in the idea of cannibalism and think Jesus is nuts if he thinks we are going to literally eat him; but focusing on this would mean that we are missing the point.
I could spend a week talking about fancy terms like transubstantiation, corporeal presence, and pneumatic presence, but doing so would still mean we are missing the point. Whether you believe that wafers and wine literally turn into flesh and blood; that nothing happens during the eucharist, or that something in between occurs is irrelevant because it has little to do with what Jesus is saying.
If we remove the bread and flesh talk from today’s passage, what are we left with? As I was curious, I took the passage and chopped off the beginning of every line and removed any line that involves whiney people and was left with a series of phrases that reveal, not only John’s main point, but also the core truths of our faith and frankly why we are even here, week after week.
The phrases are, “came down from heaven.”, “will live forever.”, “life of the world.”, “you have no life in you.”, “eternal life”, “raise them up at the last day.”, “remains in me, and I in them.”, “will live because of me.”, “will live forever.”.
There are two references to heaven being the source of something; one reference to someone having no life; one reference something being the life of the world; one references to two things remaining within one another; one reference to living because of someone else”; and four references to eternal life. Almost our entire faith tradition is present in these 8 lines, and we rarely see it and certainly never get it. So, let’s unpack what is happening here.
In this passage John is confirming that Jesus came from heaven and is the source of life in the world, which means he came from God, who is the creator of all that is good. He is also saying that those who do not interact with Jesus have no life, meaning that they are missing out because they are separated from God; whereas those that abide in Jesus will experience God in their lives. And lastly there is the promise of eternal life, which goes far beyond the idea of resurrection.
Jesus promised us “eternal life”, but more importantly he promised life in general. I think it important that we talk about the concept of life for a moment because our general understanding of life is probably simplistic. My guess is that we all see life as having the quality of not being dead, it means that we are breathing, thinking, and able to function; but is that all life is? I suspect not and if not, then why do we assume that living forever is what Jesus means when he talks about eternal life? Especially when we know that we don’t live forever. As usual language choice matters because if something is eternal it exists outside of time, which means that God, through Jesus, is offering us a life, an existence that is different, an existence that knows no boundaries, not necessarily immortality.
Jesus is suggesting that through his body and blood we are bound to one another and to God, whether he literally means through his flesh and blood is anyone’s guess, but what is clear to me is that when we come together, out of our shared love for God, we are better people than when we don’t. Over the years I have come to realize that life is about relationships, it is defined, not by our ability to draw breath and think, not by how big our house is or even how clean it is, not by how much money we have, but by how we interact with other people. If we define life within the confines of time, we are limiting the possibilities of life and that is the point. Through Jesus it is possible to experience a different kind of life, a life that is not limited by time or human understanding, a life that is eternal. But it will only be eternal if we become one with God’s body, namely the body of Christ, not the bread and the wine, but the flesh and blood of the church. When we willingly become members of Christ’s body, we become a part of a timeless existence and remain a part of that body forever. How does it work? Literally God only knows because it is a mystery, and we aren’t comfortable with that; but if we are willing to take a chance and give ourselves to God, if we are willing to eat of the body of Christ then I guarantee that we will not be disappointed because how could following the source of all that is good lead us in the wrong direction? Amen.