Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Flesh-Eating Gospel

Sermon on John 6:51-58

When I read this lesson, I groaned a little bit. And when I went online, I saw that I wasn’t alone. The facebook statuses and blog posts of my clergy friends reflected a shared sentiment: “The bread of life AGAIN?”

The readings we hear each week in church are generally not selected week-by-week by the pastors, but are based on a three-year cycle of readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. Each week has an assigned Gospel reading, an assigned epistle reading, and a couple of different options for Hebrew Scripture readings and Psalms. This year we are in the middle year of the cycle, Year B, and the summer of Year B has a certain reputation among preachers; week after week after week, we hear about bread: the Living Bread, the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven, the loaves and fishes.

This Sunday, we once again hear Jesus describing himself as bread. But today’s reading is a little different. Jesus starts out again talking about himself as living bread, but quickly transitions to inviting his listeners to eat his flesh and drink his blood, causing some of my less reverent clergy friends to refer to this week in the summer of bread of life readings as “Zombie-vampire-Jesus week.”

“The bread that I will give for the life of the world… IS MY FLESH.” Zombie vampire Jesus indeed.

Our culture is rather obsessed with zombies and vampires. From Buffy to True Blood to Twilight, George Romero movies to the AMC series “The Walking Dead,” we can’t seem to get enough of these creatures that are human-but-not-quite, feasting on the flesh and blood of the living. So when Jesus seems to invite us to go vampiric on the Son of Man, it feels a little uncomfortable. Our worlds are colliding, as the blessed savior’s words evoke entertainment we think of as scintillating, self-indulgent, and perhaps even irreligious. As I first read this passage, my first instinct was to dismiss the similarities, to try to banish those zombie-vampire overtones from my mind and read it from a purer, more spiritual place.

I’m not alone in that: the great reformer Martin Luther stated emphatically that it surely could not be meant in a literal sense. He goes on to say that the sort of flesh that Jesus invites us to eat is not “the sort of flesh from which red sausages are made,” “not flesh such as purchased in a butcher shop or is devoured by wolves and dogs.” Martin Luther rejects the “fleshiness” of the text, and of course he is right that the text is not a literal invitation to cannibalism.

Another option, which Martin Luther also rejects, is that this passage refers to the sacrament of communion. Many commentators turn toward this option: the bread which we bless and break and declare to one another, “this is the Body of Christ.” The wine which we sip or dip bread into, saying sometimes “the cup of blessing,” but sometimes “the blood of Christ, poured out for you.” Communion is mysterious, and it is sometimes puzzling, and there are different ways of thinking theologically about it, but for those of us who are accustomed to it as an old and familiar ritual, it is not creepy. When we hear this lesson as a foreshadowing of the last supper and the crucifixion, a teaching about communion, it isn’t creepy either.

But what if those creepy resonances between this passage and stories of zombies and vampires are more than coincidence? What if Jesus is intentionally tapping into some of the same deep fascinations and fears, the same taboos and terrors, that horror stories play upon?

After all, it is pretty clear that Jesus’ teaching is disconcerting and upsetting to the listening crowd. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask. Even the disciples, a couple of verses after the end of the reading we heard today, tell Jesus he’s on thin ice: “This teaching is difficult,” they say, “Who can accept it?” If we try to reinterpret this teaching so it is not difficult, if we try to find an easy way to hear it so we can accept it without struggle, perhaps we’ve missed the point.

Commentator William Willimon in the Feasting on the Word commentary notes that throughout the passage, Jesus moves from polite words about eating and drinking to ruder words that are more explicitly anatomical, words more aptly translated as “gulp down my flesh,” or “slurp my blood.” Jesus calls attention to the messy reality of eating, the fact that, when we eat, we mash up formerly living things between our teeth, moisten them with our saliva, swallow them into our guts. We can try to dress it up with white tablecloths and pretty plates and proper etiquette; we can chew with our mouths closed and keep our elbows off the table, but eating, at its heart, involves a lot of bodily processes that make many of us a little squeamish when we give them our full attention. When we pay attention to eating, we remember that we are living things, with bodies: muscle and fat, bones and connective tissue, nervous system, skin, nails. Bodies that are different, but not so very different, from the bodies that once made up our hamburgers or pork chops (for those of us who are not vegetarian). Giving our full attention to the processes of eating and drinking calls attention to our own mortality, our own fragility. In this passage, Jesus calls us to give them our full attention nonetheless. Because, as the grand statement at the beginning of John reminds us, in Jesus, the Word was made flesh.

The Word made flesh means that all of the nitty-gritty embarrassing details of having a body have been in-dwelt by divinity. The Word made flesh means that God created every intricate and repulsive detail, from an infant’s tiny curling toes and almost translucent toenails, to dandruff and acne, to aching joints and sore muscles, to the electrical impulses of nervous systems, to liver spots and graying hair. The Word made flesh means that through Jesus Christ, God has dwelt among us in a particular body, experiencing the mundane joys and irritations of physicality. The Word made flesh and dwelt among us, shattering every barrier between that which is physical and that which is spiritual.

In his book Accompany them with Singing, Thomas Long writes about the history and traditions of Christian funerals. Long notes that to the Greco-Roman worldview saw the spiritual and material worlds as completely separate; the prevailing culture surrounding the early church celebrated things related to spirit and intellect and condemned things related to physicality and fleshiness. Early Christians, however, saw an intricate and holy connection between spirit and flesh. Long writes about the ways early Christians puzzled Romans with ideas like the doctrine of the incarnation, and practices like communion, reflecting Christian theology that the spiritual and the physical were not separate spheres, but a unified creation. “The most bizarre of these activities, as far as the Romans were concerned,” Long continues, “was the Christian practice of burying the dead – not just their own dead, but the poor as well.” The early Christians, Long says, gave their time to help bury the poor, a practice their Roman peers found repugnant. They gathered up the bones of martyrs and made relics out of them. They treated dead bodies not as empty shells to be abandoned, but as created things to be disposed of with care. There were other practices, too, stemming from this theology: Diana Butler Bass writes that early Christians were also known for caring for the sick. When an epidemic took hold, she writes, most people who could would flee the city; but Christians stayed and cared for the ailing. They believed that the Word was made flesh; they believed that the resurrection means we need not fear death; they believed that caring for the ignored and despised is a high and holy calling. And they believed that they were nourished and sustained in these acts of service by Christ – whose flesh is true food.

Those beliefs are as counter-cultural today as they were two thousand years ago, although we live in a very different culture than that of the early church. And the call to take seriously the incarnation is as pressing and as counter-cultural today as it was two thousand years ago. Taking seriously the incarnation means working and hoping for justice and peace in the flesh, in the world. Not only spiritual peace in the hearts of the faithful while wars rage and gun violence escalates, but peace in the world. Not only justice by-and-by in the realm of God, but justice now, in this world, for living people: fair pay for a day’s work, access to resources and opportunities, and a government that serves the common good. If Jesus is the Word made flesh, living bread for the life of the world, then God’s call to us, this Body of Christ which we call the church, is to incarnate God’s will. To work and hope and pray for justice and kindness and peace and grace that is tangible; visible; incarnate.

“My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” Jesus says. In the creation of human bodies, in the incarnation, the Word made flesh, God enters into all of embodiment. Not just the parts of the human experience that are polite and pretty, not just the parts that are joyful and romantic. The messy parts and the icky parts and the parts that we don’t talk about in polite company.

“My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” Jesus says. He invites us to a faith that happens not just in our internal reflections, but with our hands and feet and voices. It is not always sunshine and roses when we visit a friend in the hospital. There are bed pans and hospital johnnys. It is not always easy to sit down and eat with someone we don’t know well. There are awkward silences and moments of conflict. When you embrace someone while they cry, you sometimes end up with snot on your shirt. That is what it means when God invites us to the messy and ugly business, the high and holy calling, of really caring for our neighbors, being part of the Body of Christ, the church, incarnating God’s love for the world.

“My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” Jesus says. It sounds creepy, and maybe it is. But it is necessary. Because we who are fed by this living bread have a high and holy calling: to love God and our neighbor; to do justice and love kindness. And in that hard work, we are truly nourished and sustained by Jesus Christ – not always tangibly, but truly. We could not do it if we were merely metaphorically sustained by God. We could not do it if Christ loved us abstractly. We can do it only because we are fed by the Body of Christ – the Body of Christ which we know truly, though not always tangibly, through scripture and prayer and community – nourishing and sustaining each of us. And for that real sustenance, thanks be to God. Amen.

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