Sermons That Work

For the Past Four Sundays, Proper 16 (B) – 2000

August 27, 2000


For the past four Sundays, we have listened to Jesus speak about himself as “the bread of life.” Today we hear the results of his teaching.

Some of those listening to him there in the Capernaum synagogue begin to grumble. “This is more than we can stomach!” they say. “Why listen to such talk?” Many of his disciples drop out, and no longer associate with him.

The response of the twelve is different. Jesus asks them if they too want to leave him. Speaking for the group, Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have faith and we know that you are the Holy One of God.”

All heard the same teaching. All knew the same Jesus. But there are opposite reactions. Some reject what Jesus says and then desert him. Others welcome his words. They confess their faith and draw closer to him. The same man, the same message, but opposite reactions. Where does the difference lie?

The disciples who leave hear what Jesus says as a threat, a threat to their way of life, their accepted notions, their grip on reality. Those who continue faithful hear what Jesus says as a challenge. A challenge to their way of life, their accepted notions, their grip on reality. These disciples who remain may not completely understand what Jesus says. They may be uncomfortable with it. But somehow they are intrigued by what he says, and they are intrigued by him.

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter says this on behalf of the others. I do not hear him saying this in an over-eager way, or in a voice that is too serious, too certain. I think he says it with a gentle sense of irony, with a slight smile on his lips, with even a brief chuckle. It’s as though Peter says to Jesus, “You’re not exactly what we pictured as the messiah, but that’s all right, because you’re really far more than that.”

What is it, do you think, that causes those other disciples to drop out and go home? It seems to be something Jesus said.

 

The reason for the fuss is that Jesus calls his disciples not simply to listen to his words or follow his example, but to eat his flesh and drink his blood! Sounds like cannibalism, doesn’t it? He is serious in what he says, but he also seems amused by the dumbfounded reactions he receives from some people.

Down through the ages, attempts have been made to tame these words of Jesus, but these attempts never enjoy lasting success. They demonstrate how we humans try to be more spiritual than God. The fact remains that what Jesus says about eating his flesh and drinking his blood is among his boldest, bluntest, and most shocking statements. No wonder some of his disciples are scandalized!

Consider what he says about eating his flesh. Here most English translations become fainthearted. The original word refers to “munching” or even “gnawing.” It describes what a famished man does with a turkey drumstick. And Jesus says we are to do this with his body.

He links this strange, repulsive munching with the gift of eternal life. In effect, he asks: You want to live forever? You want to enjoy life that is life indeed? You won’t find it by eating junk food. You won’t find it by eating health food. You won’t find it by eating at the best restaurants. To live that eternal life, starting now, you must munch on me, gnaw on me!

To accept what Jesus says here, to act on it, to live by it, means that something in his disciples has to die. Perhaps for each of them it is something different. A comfortable feeling of security perhaps, or a predictable boredom. An understanding of how the world works perhaps, or a familiar fear that has become second nature. An old obsession that brings relief from the present, or perhaps a self-respect that demands the sacrifice of passion.

Something in each disciple must die so that room becomes available for new life, life nourished by Christ’s body and blood. Something has to die. It’s no wonder then if these disciples are scared stiff, and if many pull back and no longer have anything to do with Jesus.

Of course, Jesus never asks of his disciples–he never asks of us–what he has not already done himself. Something in him has already died. What is it? He has chosen to come among us as one of us, and so has died to the possibility of not committing himself to us.

Jesus commits himself to us, and he commits himself forever. This unbreakable commitment has its echo in our commitment to him. Other options have been rejected; we are dead to them. We have no place else to go. Christ is one with us forever, and we are empty and hungry for new life.

There is always something specific about a commitment. No one really commits to an abstraction. And when we talk about commitment to people, we mean commitment to people of flesh and blood.

Christ demonstrates this commitment to us. He takes for his own our flesh and blood. Through human birth he is born and through human death he dies. He accepts for himself our condition. He thereby enters into a new relationship, not only with the baptized, but with everyone who shares this condition, with all human flesh. In Christ God marries humanity, and the two become one flesh.

In a few moments, we will break the bread and share the wine of the Eucharist. Here and now the mystery of Christ’s flesh and blood will become apparent again to the eyes of our faith. We will have prepared ourselves by prayer and confession to receive these gifts. Thus we will have died to those things that keep us from rejoicing in Christian cannibalism and in the even more shocking fact of God’s limitless love for all human flesh.

But the Eucharist is more than a moment out of the week set apart as holy. It is a holy flame, meant to illuminate every corner of the week with the light of Christ. What we do this day is our model for how to live life every day.

So look this day on Christ’s flesh and blood as you receive them for your spiritual health. But go beyond this celebration. Die to yourself in new ways, and in new ways recognize the flesh of Christ.

See the flesh of Christ in the poor, and seek justice with them. See the flesh of Christ also in the rich, and pray wealth does not destroy them. And see the flesh of Christ when you gaze into a mirror. Look at yourself, and say that this too is the flesh God has married.

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