August 18, 2015 by jmar198013
Below is a transcript of my sermon from Sunday, August 16, 2015 at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. The readings were 1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5.15-20; and John 6.51-58.
About 15 years ago, I was an undergraduate at a small Christian university in western Tennessee. Now, there was this church in the next town over—not one of our churches, mind you. And this church seemed to pride itself on putting the most provocative messages it could think of on its marquee. Like around Halloween, their sign would say: DO YOU LIKE TO BE SCARED? THEN SEE WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU DON’T ACCEPT JESUS. Or around Easter, it might say: BUNNIES STAY DEAD. JESUS DIDN’T. And those were some of the tamer messages this church would post. But the sign I will never forget was the one they put up one Friday in the fall of 2001. It simply read: JESUS SAID: “EAT ME” (JOHN 6:57). I’ve heard there were car wrecks on account of that sign. People would look back over their shoulder to make sure they’d read it right. And—WHAM!—they’d ram the car in front of them. Or veer off into the ditch. Eventually it got so bad that officials from that church’s denominational board got on TV to rebuke the pastor. They made a statement distancing themselves from that congregation, and assured the general public that their denomination didn’t condone such crude language. The news station running the story went to the pastor to get his take. He was indignant. It’s right there in the Bible, he said. Go look it up! Well, I’m guessing it was a very slow news day. But I also suspect that church and its pastor were eaten up, themselves. It seems to me that they were being gnawed at by the desire to stay relevant in a changing culture. They were being consumed by culture wars. True enough, as we heard in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus said: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. But the attitude that church served up on their signs didn’t taste anything like Jesus. That makes me wonder, church: What does our Jesus taste like? Are we being fed by Jesus, or feeding into the ways of our culture? What are we consumed by?
Those are vitally important questions. Several years ago an author named Paul Metzger diagnosed the American church-at-large with a serious case of malnutrition. And a malnourished body becomes weak and deformed and diseased. And dies. According to Metzger, the body of Christ has become weak and sick because we have been eating junk food. “The culture wars and the consumer culture that Christians have internalized . . . have made efforts to spread the love of Jesus increasingly difficult.” We have been nurtured away from the fierce, reckless, bold, patient folkways of love and forgiveness and sharing and healing. We have been nurtured into the convenient, impersonal, mass-produced, instant truthiness of our age. You are what you eat, goes the old adage. Consume something long enough, it consumes you. Now look, I’m not trying to be judgy. I get it. It’s a sweet tooth kind of thing. I think American Christianity has grown malnourished for the same reason that I eat fast food and TV dinners, and call hot chips and grape soda breakfast. It’s affordable. It’s convenient. It’s fun and easy to do. And it’s killing me. So I get it. I totally get it. We American Christians have this sweet tooth thing that we indulge. Certain ideals just appeal to us more because we’re American, and we’re determined by particularly American values. Like, we need an evil empire to fight against, or some cause to rally around. We’re always looking for some problem to solve or evil to fight. We cheer for the underdogs. We’re proud to be a nation of laws and rights. At the same time, we tend to be suspicious of institutions. And if those institutions fail us—if law and order seems to break down—we may go around those laws and rights in the name of doing justice. We place high premiums on liberty and choices. We are success-driven. And all those things tend to make us industrious, pragmatic, self-reliant, and resourceful. I suspect we want to envision ourselves as a nation that looks like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon writ large: “Where all the women are strong; all the men are good-looking; and the children are all above-average.” So that’s our sweet tooth. What we crave, what we savor. Now, not all of these things are bad. But just like with any sweet tooth, if that’s all you eat, it leaves you bloated and gassy and tired. And then there’s that old saw again, You are what you eat. We consume these things until we are consumed by them. And we become unable to distinguish our Christianity from the snacks that indulge our American sweet tooth. And the church takes on the flavor of consumer culture and culture wars. And the next thing you know, you’re putting up signs in front of your building that read: JESUS SAID: EAT ME. And the church doesn’t taste much like Jesus anymore.
See, in our reading this morning, Jesus says that: I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. There’s something in the gritty, earthy life that Jesus lived that nourishes us. And it is the only food that will endure; that will keep us beyond this age; that will nourish us for eternity. The grumbling Judeans we met last week, who were late to the conversation, are still hanging around protesting ideas they have only halfway heard. These Judeans ask: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Jesus could have taken the easy way out. Said, Sheesh, y’all—it’s only a metaphor. I’m not literally going to feed you my flesh! I’m kind of attached to it. But he doesn’t let up. He just keeps pushing the metaphor farther along: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (John 6.53 NIV). Most commentaries suggest at this point that it’s not just the idea of cannibalism that has grossed out these Judeans. They’re mostly outraged because the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood is a gross violation of one of God’s earliest laws. After all, Gen. 9.4 clearly says: you shall not eat flesh with . . . its blood. Actually, I suspect that we’re missing the point if we think the Judeans were stupid enough to take him literally. Rather, I think what’s bothering them is that Jesus’ responses aren’t indulging their sweet tooth. Think about it. This is all going down the day after he’s fed 5,000 people in the wilderness off of five loaves and two fish. So all these people come back, mouths watering, craving for him to do it again. But Jesus starts talking about himself being the bread from heaven that will sustain them. And these Judean hecklers show up to point out what a lousy meal Jesus is. This guy says he’s from heaven? No way! He’s just an out-of-work carpenter from Nazareth! He’s going to feed us with what—his flesh? And how’s that going to work? I think that when the Judeans start shouting Jesus down by asking, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?; they’re being sarcastic, not naive. What they really mean is: He’s not enough. He can’t really take care of us. He’s talking about feeding the world forever, and he can’t even feed these people two days in a row. They’re saying Jesus can’t really satisfy.
And you know what? Sometimes I’m tempted to side with the Judeans on this one. I crave a more practical Jesus. A Jesus who doesn’t always hand me a tray full of metaphors. A Jesus who spoon feeds me the truth. And when I don’t get that—when those cravings aren’t satisfied—I get downright hangry. This is one of those times. I join with the Judeans who grumble, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Jesus just keeps teasing us. Teasing me. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. I am hungry. I am grumbling. I am beginning to think, You know, right now culture wars and consumerism would be a good snack. They’re fun and easy to swallow. Just when I’ve worked up a healthy hankering for a holy war and an all-you-can-eat buffet, I get a whiff of something scrumptious. I remember: It’s all a metaphor. You’ve always had a strong appetite for metaphors. I begin to smell what Jesus is cooking. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. Eating and drinking means taking something outside yourself and putting it in you to stay alive. And if it’s bread and wine you’re eating and drinking—like we do with the Lord’s Supper—it’s stuff that used to be alive. Grain and grapes. Anything you can eat used to be alive. Jesus is alive, though. I am the living bread, he says. And if we receive his life into our lives, we will live forever with him. Okay, that’s great. I’m hungry to live forever. But what does that do for me, for us, for the world now? I’m chewing on this, and taste the answer: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. Remains is now. Remains is already happening. I remember that in all the Gospels, Jesus’ favorite place to be was the dinner table. He was always sharing meals with friends, disciples, tax collectors, even those grumbly Pharisees. Eating together. Being nourished together. What a sign of shared humanity! Jesus sharing his earthy, flesh-and-blood self wherever he went. That’s what he’s talking about. Eternal life begins when we welcome Jesus to the table of our lives. To nourish us. We consume Jesus. We are consumed by Jesus. He feeds us a life that endures. He draws us into his life. Suddenly it occurs to me that culture wars and consumerism clog the arteries of the spirit and lead to hard hearts. They’re killing us.
In fact, I suspect that as Jesus continues to feed us, we will find culture wars and consumer culture less appetizing. Even downright disgusting. Like chewing gum you picked off your shoe from the bowling alley parking lot. As we remain in Jesus, and Jesus in us, we lose our taste for dumpster diving and fighting over scraps with a hungry world. Jesus invites us away from culture wars—fighting over scraps—and reminds us: I am the living bread. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. He is bread for now. He nourishes us. Nurtures us. Sustains us. For this life and the life to come. That’s so essential to our faithfulness, church. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have this scene where the Lord’s Supper is formalized. Where Jesus, at Passover dinner, breaks bread and passes wine. And says: This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me (1 Cor. 11.24-25). The emphasis is on Jesus’ dying flesh and blood. So it’s really interesting to me that John doesn’t have that kind of Last Supper / Lord’s Supper scene. Instead, he tells this story about Jesus feeding thousands of people during the most vital, lively time of his ministry. And he makes sure we know that it happened when it was nearly time for Passover (John 6.4). That’s the context of our Gospel lesson today about Jesus’ flesh and blood being food and drink. It happens around Passover, just like the Last Supper stories in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The only conclusion I can reach is that this is John’s version of the beginning of the Lord’s Supper. Everything that we’ve been hearing about for the last four weeks is John’s story of how the Lord’s Supper came to be. And John doesn’t emphasize Jesus’ dying body here, but Jesus’ living body. I am the living bread. He is bread for now. He sustains us now. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. He is also bread for later—bread that will sustain us into the life to come. The world fights for scraps that will keep them alive today. That’s consumerism. That’s culture wars. But we have the living bread. We are fed by the one who said: I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest (John 10.10).
Now I have pointed to John’s emphasis on Jesus’ life. That doesn’t mean Jesus’ death is unimportant. It does mean that we can only grasp the significance of his death in the context of the life he lived. His death is both the climax and the necessary outcome of the life he lived. He lived a life to God. He lived a life for others made in God’s image. That is precisely why Paul can say: Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood (Rom. 3.25). That emphasis on the mercy of God mediated through the blood sacrifice of Jesus is so crucial. Offering blood meant giving your life in the logic of the biblical sacrificial system. That’s why Lev. 17.11 says: I have provided you the blood to make reconciliation for your lives on the altar, because the blood reconciles by means of the life. In fact, if you read the Gospels closely, you’ll find that Jesus speaks less about dying than he does giving his life. In John 15.13, for instance, Jesus tells his disciples: No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. In Mark 10.45, Jesus says that he has come to give his life to liberate many people. So the cross is really one final act of faithfulness to God and to all humanity—a final giving of life that marks a lifetime of self-giving. Okay, I don’t like to mix my metaphors—I’ve been talking about eating. Consuming. Being consumed. But if the idea of receiving Jesus’ life by eating his flesh and drinking his blood still seems icky to you, maybe you could think of it this way. Creation is wounded. The world is wounded. Humanity is wounded. You and I are wounded. And Jesus made himself the skin graft and blood transfusion that saves us, heals us, and restores our lives. In our Gospel reading today, John has Jesus say it this way: the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Jesus’ flesh, the living stuff, his full humanity is the offering he gives to redeem human life. So in Romans 8.3, Paul says that God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans. The word Paul uses there in the Greek is flesh. God frees us from sin and death through Jesus’ offering of his human flesh. His living stuff. His full humanity. Paul liked to talk a lot about being in Christ. Drawn into Christ’s life. Consumed by Christ. For instance, in 2 Cor. 5.17, he made the bold claim that if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. You may have noticed that John talked about being in Christ in our Gospel reading, too. Jesus said: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. For Paul, this being consumed into Christ’s life has dramatic consequences for how we live in the world. In Gal. 3.28, he boldly declared that Jesus is the end of all culture wars: There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And in Eph. 2.14ff, he says: in his flesh—that word again—he has made both groups into one and has broken down . . . the hostility between us . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity. Consider that, sisters and brothers: Jesus offered his flesh—his full humanity—to heal the wounds that cut humans off from each other. And we see that every time we look at his life. The way he lived and died teaches us that every life matters. Think of the scandalous ways he affirmed all human life. The Romans occupied Palestine and oppressed the people. Still, Jesus healed the child of a Roman centurion. He was saying: Roman lives matter. Tax collectors profited off the misery of their neighbors. They were traitors. Jesus ate with tax collectors. Tax collector lives matter. The party line of ancient Israel was: “The only good Canaanite is a dead Canaanite.” He healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman. Canaanite lives matter. When the temple goons came to arrest him, Peter drew a sword and hacked off one of their ears. Jesus told Peter to cut it out before he hurt himself. And he reattached the dude’s ear. The lives of the people who want to kill you matter. How scandalous! Anyway, what this teaches us who are nurtured by Jesus’ life is that he has not left us here to compete with the world or go to war with our culture. Jesus’ flesh—his life—is for the life of the world. We are here—like Jesus—to serve, to feed, to give life in our bodies. This is what happens as we consume Jesus and are consumed by him.
And that’s where I want to end for today as we come to the table Jesus has left for us. The Lord’s Supper. I hope we come with a deeper appetite for Jesus. For the life Jesus gives. We have heard him say: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As we share this meal, we take Jesus’ life into our lives. He clings to our flesh and courses through our veins. We cling to his life and are nourished. May we be consumed into Jesus. I cannot help but hear another word from Paul as we come to Christ’s table to be satisfied by our share in his life: present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God (Rom. 12.1). O church, Jesus lived as a sacrifice for a lifetime before he died as one. He was and is living bread for the life of the world. As we go from this place today, fed by the body and blood of Jesus, may we be also transformed to be bread for the world. A hungry, wounded world fighting each other for bread that doesn’t feed them. As we are nourished by Jesus at his table, let us ask ourselves: What does our Jesus taste like?