A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 19, 2012.
Psalm 34:9-14; John 6:51-58
I need to begin the sermon this morning with an admission. Notice I said admission and not confession. What I am about to tell you is not something for which I am necessarily ashamed nor do I feel the need to think it is wrong on my part. To use what has become a fairly common expression, it just is what it is.
Are you ready? Here it is… I have never before preached on this passage from John’s gospel… ever. And here’s the kicker… I haven’t wanted to. I have a feeling I’m not the ecclesiastical Lone Ranger either.
We’re about to begin our church’s Centennial celebration, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the very first time this passage has been considered in this pulpit in all that time. And since this is today’s gospel selection from the lectionary, my guess is that this part of Jesus’ discourse in John’s gospel is being ignored by many lectionary preachers all over the world today. There’s a side of me which wishes I could do the same. And why not? I’ve managed to do it so far.
You may be wondering why I’ve never chosen to preach this text before. Well, it’s really quite simple. I’ve chosen not to preach from this text because I don’t understand it. And to be really honest, I don’t care much for it either, even if it is Jesus who said all this.
I mentioned the lectionary. As most of you know, for the last decade or so I have preached from what is called the common lectionary. The lectionary is a three-year list of prescribed texts from the old and new testaments in the Bible that have a theme running through them each week. I can choose to preach from a text or story in the Old Testament, for example, or a psalm, or I can decide to preach from one of the New Testament epistles as well as from a gospel reading. Every week that’s at least four possibilities from which to craft a sermon.
In all those years I have preached from the lectionary, I have avoided this text from John’s gospel… intentionally. My guess is, that when it comes to all the other preachers in the world who use the lectionary, they have done the same. Or, they decide to take their vacation on the Sunday this text is assigned.
For example, the epistle reading for today is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter five, verses 15 to 20. Paul says, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time…” Now, that’ll preach! In fact, I have preached on this text… three times in the sixteen-plus years I have been here. But this passage from John… no, not at all. Why? Well, it’s just bizarre. There’s really no other way to describe it.
Oh, there are commentary writers who try to explain what Jesus means. I would encourage you to read them. But, I think what you’ll find, if you’ll forgive a fairly crude way of putting it, that they’re spitting in the wind. It’s all guess-work as to what Jesus really means here. Most commentators dance around this passage, flirt with it, even try to explain it away. But few of the commentaries I have read actually deal with what Jesus has to say here.
What I want to know is this: if biblically-erudite, well-educated biblicists – not that I include myself in that number – don’t know what Jesus means, how in the world could those who first heard him say these words figure it out? Imagine how confused they must have been!
It isn’t evident in our reading for today, but when you look at the context of these fairly lengthy discourses by Jesus (Jesus talks a lot more in the gospel of John than he does in the other three gospels), you discover that he is saying all this to his hometown folk in Nazareth, the people who think they know him so well, who grew up with him or watched him grow up, the folks who eventually, as we know from other gospels, turned on him because they couldn’t accept him for who and what he said he was… namely, the Chosen One of Israel. They are confused and angry, and no doubt disturbed by what they hear Jesus say to them.
And frankly, that’s understandable. Well, today, I feel like a Nazarene in that regard. So would you think less of me if I admitted that like his hometown folk I don’t really understand, nor do I like, what Jesus is saying here? It is rather bizarre, don’t you think? And, in some respects, I find it not only difficult but only a tad bit short – if that – of being repugnant.
I know that such an admission – not a confession, remember – could get me in trouble. After all, we’re talking about the Bible here, and we hold it in our minds and hearts to be a sacred book. How dare anyone, much less the preacher, talk about the scripture as being repugnant?
Well, did you read it along with me a bit earlier? I mean, really read it? Just in case, let’s review. This is what Jesus said… “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life… for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them… so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
If we didn’t know any better, we’d swear this is dialogue straight out of one of those Twilight movies. Dracula, move over! Not meaning to be disrespectful of Jesus or scripture, but if Hollywood can make Abraham Lincoln out to be a vampire slayer, think of what they could do with this passage from John’s gospel!
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” That’s what his listeners, his fellow Nazarenes, want to know. Good question! Even his disciples are confused. In the passage that follows, and which is assigned for next week’s lectionary reading (don’t worry, I’m not going to be preaching from it… enough is enough!), we are told that when his disciples heard what Jesus was saying, their response was, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Another good question.
The early Christians had to put up with a great deal of persecution at the hands of those who did not appreciate their religious way of life. One of the things their persecutors did not understand the most was this idea of Jesus being the sacrificial Lamb of God. They were aware that the Jesus followers participated in what was called the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, where the bread was Jesus’ flesh and the wine was his blood.
Well, that just escaped them, went right over their heads. They didn’t understand it, and above all they didn’t like it, so they accused the Christians of being cannibals and used this practice against them as a way of making life very difficult for them. To make matters even worse, because the Christians baptized children, they were accused of eating their little ones. It is no wonder the early followers of Jesus had such a hard time. Such an idea would set just about anyone’s teeth on edge.
Okay, so what are we going to do with all this? I’ll do my best in trying to explain it in a way that makes some sense to us. After all, my purpose is to invite us all closer to following Jesus, not to drive you away from him. And that, in itself, just may be at the heart of what Jesus is saying here.
The purpose of John’s gospel is to describe, if not explain, Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnated presence of God on this earth. By that I mean that John wants to depict the mystery of Jesus as being the Christ, the One sent from heaven, the Holy One of God, the human embodiment of the Holy. John begins his gospel, as you probably know, by describing Jesus as the Word… “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Everything that follows is John’s attempt to explain what that means.
One of the images John uses is that of Jesus as being the Bread of Life. When it comes to bread, those who were listening to Jesus had very literal ideas of what that might possibly mean, understandably so.
Consider their history. God had given manna to the wandering Israelites in the wilderness. According to the way it is described in the Book of Exodus, it “was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (16:31). Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? God gave the Israelites water from the rock at Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7). In other words, God took care of their needs. Now, centuries later, in their longing for a coming messiah, tied up in all that is the hope that God will do it again, will liberate his people from their captors and renew Israel as the true place and people of God.
What we have come to learn from Jesus is that this was a misguided understanding of what God was prepared to do with and for his people. God did not plan to liberate them from political oppression, but to find his way into their hearts so that regardless of their situation in life they would have a peace that exceeds all understanding. Jesus was the Path to that peace.
But it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Every person listening to Jesus that day would have had these Moses stories of redemption and liberation in the backs of their minds. It had been drilled into them from their earliest days. So when Jesus came along, performing his miracles, they thought Moses had come to them again. Not only would Jesus free them from their oppressors, the Romans, but he would feed and water them just as Moses had done so many centuries before in the wilderness.
And didn’t Jesus say it himself, that he was the Bread of Life? But what does that mean? Well, let me ask you: what do you do with bread? You eat it, of course. What do you do with wine? You drink it. Perhaps what Jesus was doing was encouraging his listeners to invite him in, to receive their spiritual nourishment from him. God had sent him to embody the presence of God himself so that God’s children might be present to, and participate in, the kingdom of heaven.
So I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps what Jesus means, by inviting his listeners to eat his flesh and drink his blood, is that they are, in accepting him, to take all of him, every last morsel, to immerse themselves completely in his presence, to fully engage in his way of life and to follow him without reservation.
If that’s the case, we have failed miserably.
I quote Barbara Brown Taylor quite often, if for no other reason than I find her to be a good thinker. For the record, she is Episcopalian. That’s important to know when I tell you this story. She was serving the Lord’s Supper in church one Sunday when a small girl, obviously eager to taste what was about to be offered to her, came forward for her first communion. Her chubby fingers circled the chalice, Brown says, as she peered into her reflection.
“The blood of Christ,” her pastor said to her, guiding it to her lips, “the cup of salvation.”
“Yuck!” the little girl said, pushing the cup back. “You keep it. I don’t want any.”1
My guess is that there are plenty of people who call themselves Christians, maybe a few here today, who feel exactly the same the way but don’t have the courage, or the childlikeness, to say it. When it comes to offering one’s self fully – that is, to eat the flesh and drink the blood – to the One who gave himself so fully for us, we would like to say, “You keep it. I don’t want any.”
If we were to be honest about it, Jesus isn’t the meal we would have planned. His way of life is hard, no doubt about it. He calls on us to give up that which we would like to hold on to. He demands that we love the unlovely, serve the selfish, walk the narrow road, to do just about everything counter to what we have learned to do. But you and I are here today in church because Jesus is the meal God has given us. I suppose you could say that Jesus is an acquired taste.
We are not called to dabble around the edges of the plate. Nibbling won’t do, nor is merely sipping from the cup going to get the job done. Jesus wants – yea, demands – that we take him, all of him, or we don’t take him at all.
It is not an easy message to hear, it is not what we wish was on our holy menu. But as I have done over the years, and find myself unable to do any longer, there simply comes a time when you can’t ignore his words. You’ve got to come to the table and eat, or you’ve got to walk away.
But before you decide, please consider this: as difficult as you may find it to be, to eat the flesh of Jesus and to drink his blood will not only fill you up, it will lead to eternal life. So take and eat, take and drink… all of it, all of Jesus.
Lord, invite us to your table of grace, and find us willing to accept everything you offer us in your Son, our Savior and Lord. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 73.