August 19, 2018 The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

1 Kings 2:10–12; 3:3–14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5:15–20, John 6:51–58

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+ 

In the name of Jesus, the Bread of Life. Amen.

“You are what you eat.” Does that old saying ever ring true for me! I have struggled with my weight for most of my life, and especially as I get older and the pounds seem to come on more easily, I am painfully aware of the things I can eat freely and the things I need to avoid. I like to quip that if I walk by a bakery and even smell the doughnuts being made, I gain five pounds. And so, my diet these days consists of lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, particularly chicken and fish, whole grain breads and cereal, and water—lots and lots of water. While I long for and allow myself the occasional piece of pie or cake, a cookie or two, or snack food, I try to stick to the strict diet I just outlined. And it has paid off. I would like to reach a healthier weight, that is true, but I consistently do have good blood pressure and low cholesterol readings. Further, combined with regular exercise, I have more energy and generally feel good. Apparently, I truly am what I eat!

Jesus tells us in the Gospel reading for today, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” On the surface of it, Jesus’ teaching can seem grotesque and offensive to us, as it was to many of those who first heard him. Talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is the stuff of cultic ritual or a scene from a low-budget slasher film. So, what does Jesus mean? What is he trying to say? The most obvious answer to these questions is that in his teaching, Jesus is pointing to the cross. On the cross, “Jesus’ flesh will be broken and his blood will be spilled as Jesus gives his whole self for the life of the world.” (Craig Alan Saterlee, “From a Scholar: August 19, 2018,” in Sundays and Seasons Preaching: Year B 2018, p. 225.) In his redemptive work on the cross, Jesus gives himself to liberate the world from the power of sin, death, and evil so that God’s dream for the world becomes a reality here and now—a dream in which the poor and the marginalized are lifted out of their poverty and invited into blessed community; a dream in which those enslaved by the powers and principalities of the world, whose goal is to keep people enslaved to ensure and enshrine their own privilege, are liberated and have a place at the table; a dream in which every man, woman, and child matters, no matter their country of origin, or skin color, or language, or religion, or economic status, or sexual orientation, and is treated with basic human dignity and respect; a dream in which every creature matters, and the creation is protected and not degraded and exploited for the sake of human progress or financial gain. The liberation for which Jesus gave his flesh and blood is not a spiritual liberation only, freeing us to tolerate life until we get to the promised eternal life in heaven with God; no, the liberation for which Jesus gave his flesh and blood is liberation from all that oppresses here and now, in real-time, in history; and we, who believe in Jesus, and who gather each week to eat his flesh and drink his blood in the Sacrament, are Jesus’ agents of liberation in the world, the ones through whom such liberation becomes a reality.

In the Sacrament, we believe that somehow Jesus is truly present with us, and that in the act of eating bread and drinking wine we are taking the life of Jesus into our very bodies. In the Sacrament, we are being formed and re-formed, molded, shaped, and fashioned into the Body of Christ, and as we become the Body of Christ, so we in turn give our flesh for the life of the world. We become those who, in the name of Christ, seek to lift the poor from their poverty and invite the marginalized into blessed community; to liberate those enslaved by the powers and principalities of the world by challenging and defeating the powers and principalities; to treat every man, woman, and child with basic human dignity and respect no matter who they are, and to call out and condemn anyone or anything that demeans or dehumanizes; to protect God’s creation as sacred, for ourselves and for those who come after. We are food for the life of the world because we have eaten of the living bread that came down from heaven, and in our eating, we have been transformed because we are what we eat.

Now, some are offended by this vision of the work of Christ in the world, and I would say that the offense of Jesus’ opponents in the Gospel account concerning talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is a metaphor for offense over the nature of the work of Christ in the world. Such folks don’t want to become the Body of Christ for the life of the world. They want the Sacrament to feed them, to strengthen them to face their personal hardships, to comfort them, to nourish them, to prepare them for heaven, but they don’t want to be changed by the Sacrament to offer themselves for the life of the world. They don’t want to become what they eat. They don’t want to lift the poor from their poverty and invite the marginalized into blessed community because it might mean that they will have to interact with the poor and the marginalized and possibly change their stereotypes of who such people are. They don’t want to seek the liberation of those enslaved by the powers and principalities of the world because they benefit from the policies of the powers and principalities and support them with their money and their vote. They don’t want to treat every man, woman, and child with basic human dignity and respect no matter who they are, because frankly, it is easier to dehumanize people when committing unspeakable acts of cruelty against them. They don’t want to protect God’s creation for those who come after because it might mean they will be inconvenienced in their daily living or in their pocketbooks, or must admit that insatiable human consumption is wreaking havoc on our planet and threatening the very lives of the poorest among us.

Such folks don’t want to hear sermons like this. They want to hear sermons that affirm who they are just as they are without challenging them to be more, to be different, to be conformed to Christ. They want to hear sermons that promise the bliss of heaven without the work of discipleship; they want to hear sermons that make them feel good as they leave the doors of the church instead of equip them for the hard work of giving their flesh for the life of the world; they want, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred for his Christian resistance to the Nazi regime, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession…grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.) They don’t want to eat the Body of Christ and drink his Blood in the Sacrament to be changed into the Body of Christ for the world. For them, eating and drinking is a rote ritual—something we do (or endure) as a part of the structure of our liturgy—but it most definitely is not a life-giving feast. To suggest that it is more, and that we are more and become more as we eat and drink is offensive to such folks.

But I suggested last week that when offense arises, we need to take notice, because it might be that at such times the Spirit is hovering about to lead us into deeper relationship with God and greater discipleship in the world. While we may be frightened of the consequences of eating and drinking at the table of Christ, Jesus promises great gifts for those who dare receive his Body and Blood willingly and faithfully. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day,” says Jesus, “[F]or 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.” Christ’s Body and Blood are gracious gifts; ours is merely and humbly to receive them, allowing them to work in us that which is well-pleasing in God’s sight. “[A]s we are drawn into mystery, as we are made into God’s people around the holy table, we are also led to become food for others.” (We are what we eat!) “At the table of God, where Jesus himself is the meal, we eat in a way that changes us. This bread, while a free gift, is also costly. Jesus promises to abide in us as we eat, and that abiding presence will not leave us the same. The loving will of God is to be in relationship with us, ever forming and re-forming us. In those changes, like the rising of bread, the reign of God is tasted.” (Liv Larson Andrews, “From a Preacher: August 19, 2018” in Sundays and Seasons Preaching: Year B 2018, p. 226.) Amen.

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