Sermons represent copyrighted material and are not to be reproduced, transcribed, or used in any form without the permission of Rev. Chris Moore or the speaker for that day.
This sermon was presented on Sunday, August 19th at Phillips Theological Seminary’s chapel during a service that joined East Side Christian Church (DOC), College Hill Presbyterian (PCUSA) and Fellowship Congregational (UCC) for worship together. It was written in two parts and preached “tag-team” style by the pastor of College Hill, The Rev. Todd Freeman, and the pastor at Fellowship UCC, The Rev. Chris Moore. The sermon text was John 6:48-60.
–REV. MOORE —
This passage is gross. Let’s just say it and get it on the table. It’s gross. We, just like what our translations calls “The Jews”, a term better translated as “The Judeans”, are completely disgusted by the implications of these words. Of all the Sundays to just skip communion, this would be one for sure. But that’s what we are here to do, the good Rev. Freeman and I, to help unpack what is a passage that we’d rather just skip. In fact, lots of John’s gospel has been so hijacked by the fundamentalist interpretive lens that it can be tempting to just cast it out into the outer darkness where there is wailing and the gnashing of teeth – you know, the megachurches.
But I would like us to consider one thing before we do. The Gospel of John was written to a developing community, a community seeking to distance itself from the tradition that seemed increasingly out of touch with the values it claims, a community trying to resist the connection of church and state, a community re-imagining what it means to be faithful, standing as a counter-narrative to the culture in which it existed. So, maybe there’s something for us here after all, we “progressives” in the buckle of the Bible Belt at a time of resistance, witnessing the title “Christian” being claimed by people who seem to display the exact opposite of what we hold as Christian values? But first we’re going to have to deal with the “viewer discretion advised” portion of John.
John’s is a highly symbolic gospel, full of metaphor and poetic imagery that, unfortunately, does not translate well when your lens for interpretation is a literal one. It is poetry and brain science tells us today that the parts of our brain that fire up while reading poetry are the same ones that fire up while listening to music, evoking our centers of memory and self-reflection. Sometimes poetryhas to be shocking to be effective, and nothing is quite as shocking as cannibalism.
It was a charge leveled at Jesus by the Judean authorities, and later at his followers – that this communion meal was cannibalism. But is that what is really going on here? The phrase “flesh and blood” that gets used, in parts and in whole, throughout this passage, is an idiomatic phrase in Hebrew, an expression – like saying “I’m gonna hit the sack” when you’re tired, or you’re “under the weather” when you don’t feel good.
In Hebrew, “flesh and blood” means the whole of a person – their hearts, minds, spirit, feelings, hopes, dreams, fears, concerns, everything.
Throughout John’s gospel we are told who Jesus is and who we arein relationship:
Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep; he is the vine and we are the branches; he abides in God and we abide in him. But here we get the most stark and dramatic example of them all – a reminder of the unbreakable union we have in the “Way of Jesus”, a new life, a kind of life symbolized for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. John asserts (through Jesus) that we must claim this life with our “flesh and blood”, with our whole selves, embracing the way of Jesus so deeply that it becomes our food, clinging to our bones and coursing through our veins, supporting and sustaining us as if it were sinew and plasma.
This is the promise which God makes to us in the Sacraments: to be one with us and for us forever, to stick withus and even inus no matter what. It’s a promise meant to be our food, more than the false identity of status, more than the plastic promise of finances or fame, more than even the inert promise of a salvation only concerned about what happens to us after we die. John’s gospel opens with the Word become flesh, dwelling among us, and continues right through this sixth chapter and beyond, where he feeds 5000 in a miracle of sharing, and announces to the disciples and all who will listen that he is the true bread from heaven, delivering the good news of the centrality of life and God’s life-giving presence announced in him and made real in his actions, not just by belief in him, but by believing intohim.
John makes this point by wrapping it in a basic, foundational item for the people who follow him. After all, Jesus lived in a world where the vast majority lived at subsistence level, and to them bread was life – quite literally. (for us it’s too many carbs) In Arabic, and many other middle eastern languages, the word for “bread” and “life” is the same. Bread was both food and currency, it was culture and identity and politics, the basis for agriculture and community, and control over it was used by “the powers that be” to exert their own power, distributing it by whim and withholding it as a means of control. So when Jesus claims that he is the “bread of life”, it’s no idle phrase. He asks his disciples through this metaphor to consider something more than their bellies, to imagine something beyond this age of oppression and resistance in which they currently reside and to life extends far beyond what we can see and hear and touch. He announces a new kin-dom, one of abundance, not scarcity, bread that is not about death and the means of death, but about life – life for all, life abundantly. And Jesus asks them, at least in the original Greek, not for their belief in this as an intellectual agreement, but rather their belief in this new world as trust…long-term solidarity with Jesus…so close to him that it is as if we have consumed him, nourishing us for the building of this new life. It’s a lot of work, I know — this a very tough passage. Man, I’m exhausted! I wish I could just take a break, you know? Hey, Todd…wanna you tag in here?
—–REV. FREEMAN —–
I agree with the good Rev. Moore, this passage is gross – and it necessitates a tag-team of preachers to address it.
“Bread of life,” “bread that comes down from heaven,” “living bread,” “eat my flesh and drink my blood,” “eternal life,” “true food and true drink.” No, the scriptures do not simplistically interpret themselves, especially the Gospel of John, like so many folks would have us believe.
Continuing with verse 56, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abidein me, and I in them.” From a spirituality perspective, this is perhaps the key verse in this entire passage. “Abide” is a theological term for the gospel writer, and it carries many connotations, such as to stay or remain with another, to make one’s home with, to dwell with.
In this gospel, however, it goes even deeper than that, it means indwelling, as in Jesus dwells within us, and we within him. Yes, that still sounds pretty weird. So, let me approach it this way. It has to do with the fancy theological word, “incarnation.” John 1:1 famously states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It continues in verse 14, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
There’s that word, “flesh”. God’s very Word – God’s Wisdom – was made flesh – incarnated – in the person of Jesus. Jesus, according to the gospel writer, is the physical embodiment of God. This is where God chooses to meet us – in the flesh.Thus, when we look at the ways and teachings of Jesus we see the very nature and character of God, and God’s will for the world.
Let me oversimplify the implications of all this flesh and blood language this way. At one level, the gospel writer is asking the question, “Where Is God?” The Jews basically believed that God’s Presence dwelt not only in heaven but also in the Temple in Jerusalem. Later, Christian thought expanded this to include Jesus as the livingtemple of God, the Word that became flesh. But now, in a major theological shift, for us to eat and drink the flesh and blood of Jesus (to ‘ingest’ and ‘consume’ God’s Word, the living temple of God), symbolizes that the Sacred Presence of God now dwells within each one of us.
Notice the historical progression in the understanding of the Presence of God: Heaven. Temple. Jesus. Us! Biblically, that’s a place ‘outside’ this world, to a place in this world, to a personin this world, to all persons who live their lives according to the ways and teachings of Jesus! We, like Jesus then, become living temples where God dwells; with direct contact with God, running through our veins, nourishing every part of our body, mind, and spirit. This is the true bread and true drink that brings life in the here and now, as well as in the hereafter.
To take all this a step further, we face the challenge of what we will do with this understanding that Christ’s Presence is a part of who we are? Are we called, then, to commit ourselves as totally to others as Jesus does? Can we provide nourishment – food and drink, physically and spiritually – to those around us? Will we allow ourselves to be nourished by others? After all, are we not the Body of Christ, and in this together? If so, then how can we be the incarnation of Christ in and to the world?
This is a call to radical hospitality, inclusion, and diversity. It is the community of a bigger table.
That’s one response. Another, like the disciples in verse 60, is to simply declare, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” Who CAN accept it? Feeling rested, Chris? Back to you!
Look around this room — it is a beautiful thing that we are all gathered here for this sacred meal, for this time together at a bigger table. This is why I think that it matters that we are gathered here. This teaching IS difficult!
It is one thing to speak about a bigger table, but if we don’t do the difficult work on ourselves and our churches, opening our own hearts, changing and growing and reminding ourselves that we don’t have the copyright on how to be church, or how to worship God, or how to express Christianity, then we have not ingested the Word, it is not in us like it needs to be.
We live in difficult times, friends, just like the followers of Jesus in the years after his death and resurrection – times full of doubt, uncertainty and turmoil. As we struggle for human rights, we must remember our centers; as we fight for equality and inclusion, we must be fed by living bread; as we make the assertion that there is a right and good way that we must live together as human beings, we must know that this assertion comes from a place bigger than us, a place deeper than even our own hearts. This way, based in humility and kindness, in compassion and hope, in mercy and grace…this way, founded on the power of love rather than the love of power…this way which we call the Way of Jesus, known also in other traditions, must be our food, as surely as the nutrients we need to survive each day. So be fed, good people, by the meal that announces the abundance of God’s love against the fear of scarcity – the meal that helps us trust in God’s grace, given to us each day – the meal which claims youas a child of God…and everyone else, too.
Thanks be to God. Amen.