September 2, 2018 The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost/Creation 1: Planet Earth Sunday (Year B)

Song of Solomon 2:8–13, Psalm 45:1–2, 7–10, James 1:17–27, Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+ 

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

For the last number of weeks, we have been immersed in the great sixth chapter of John in which Jesus offers the food that gives eternal and abundant life to those who eat of it—his flesh and blood for the life of the world. In the explication of that chapter, I drew you to two main conclusions. First, when we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus, we take into ourselves the very life of Jesus and in turn become the Body of Christ given, as Jesus was given, for the life of the world. Second, the implications of this teaching are too much for some (perhaps many or even most) to hear and believe, and so they turn away and refuse to participate in the life of Christ for the world. The offense that many take to Jesus’ words is not just about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Most who hear this teaching know Jesus is speaking metaphorically. No, it is the implication of that to which the metaphor points—becoming the Body of Christ for the life of the world—that is the source of the offense.

To take the life of Jesus into the very core of our being is to be so changed by Jesus that we become Jesus for others. Thereafter, our words are the words of Jesus, our thoughts are the thoughts of Jesus, and our actions are the actions of Jesus because our hearts have warmed with love for him and so have changed to beat in time with the heart of Jesus. Thereafter, we speak as Jesus spoke, we think as Jesus thought, and we act as Jesus acted not for our own sakes, but for the sake of others who are broken by the power of sin manifest especially in the powers and principalities of the world. But the implications of such a life are enormous. To live in such a way, as I have said before, is to be willing to be given as Jesus was given for the life of the world, that is, to be willing to give all, even one’s very life, for the sake of others. This means that our entire will must be given over to Jesus and we must learn to trust him absolutely and follow him without hesitation. It is precisely here the offense arises.

Most people are willing to follow Jesus only so far as following Jesus doesn’t inconvenience them, or doesn’t require they give up any control they might have, or doesn’t require they submit their beliefs or ideologies to the way of Jesus. Most people are willing to follow Jesus so long as the internal change required by such following is not too extensive. But Jesus makes clear in our Gospel reading for this morning that nothing short of a full internal transformation will do. The religious leaders were again complaining to Jesus that he and the disciples were disregarding the religious traditions of the elders, in this case, the washing rituals necessary before preparing and eating food. But Jesus will have none of it. While those traditions were likely developed to help people better keep the dietary laws given by God, the traditions themselves became more important that the laws they were meant to supplement and serve. More disturbingly, the keeping of these traditions devolved into rote ritual, no longer connected to the laws they were to serve, and no longer flowing out of hearts on fire with love for God, the only valid posture out of which religious laws and traditions may be kept. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” says Jesus. After giving examples of the kinds of evil intentions to which he is referring (examples that most likely applied to the religious leaders who caught Jesus’ implication), Jesus says this, “All these things come from within, and they defile a person.” Here Jesus uses the criticism of the religious leaders, itself coming from hardened and unrepentant hearts, to teach that what goes into a person from outside is not the source of defilement, but rather that evil intentions well-up from inside, from the human heart. A changed heart is therefore necessary.

When combined with Jesus’ teaching in the sixth chapter of John, there is an interesting juxtaposition here. It is true, whatever we eat cannot defile us, for the heart is already defiled—the seat of evil intentions in need of transformation. But it is equally true that what we eat can heal and transform the heart. Eating of the Bread of Life—taking the life of Jesus inside of us—can transform our hearts in such a way as to beat in time with Jesus and for the sake of the life of the world. Eating the Bread of Life can expel the evil intentions that keep us locked in our selfish desires and can turn us outward in love for the neighbor. But understand, half measures avail us nothing. We are called to go all-in and give ourselves completely to Jesus who alone can transform us to become the Body of Christ for the life of the world.

The question is, “Can we?” Can we give ourselves completely to Jesus? Can we embrace the inconvenience of following Jesus? Make no mistake, following Jesus can be inconvenient in many ways. When people come to my office, for example, and interrupt all the “important” work I have to do because they are hungry, or she is homeless, or he just needs to unload his hurts and fears and worries and needs a kind gesture or word of hope, can I turn away from myself and become the Body of Christ for them—become Jesus to them—because I see Jesus in their need? When change is proposed that would interrupt the traditions of this parish—the worship or music or the look or use of the facility—do we cling to the traditions because they bring us comfort, or do we let go those traditions to offer the Bread of Life to those Jesus brings to us in this place? When our political ideologies and beliefs run counter to the way of Jesus in the world, are we willing to let go those ideologies and beliefs in order to be the Body of Christ for the world rather than “Republican” or “Democrat”; and are we willing to understand that the Word of God is active in the public realm and has as much to say about our politics and political convictions as it has to say about our most private inner thoughts, feelings, and struggles; that is, if we are truly serious about submitting everything under the sun to the rule of Jesus? Can we give ourselves completely to Jesus?

In a word, no. No, we can’t, not without help, specifically, not without the help of Jesus, the Bread of Life, who gives his Body and Blood for the life of the world. The movement toward giving ourselves completely to Jesus is a lifelong endeavor, begun by Jesus and his gracious invitation to take his very life inside us to begin the transformation of our hearts. Bit by bit, as we eat his Body and drink his Blood, the evil intentions of our hearts are healed, and we are transformed into the Body of Christ, on fire with love for Jesus and the world for whom we are given. Bit by bit we learn to let go all the things that keep us turned in on ourselves. Bit by bit we learn to seek out Jesus in those places where there is need. Bit by bit we learn to become Jesus for the sake of that need. Bit by bit we learn to give ourselves completely to Jesus and in so doing learn to trust more deeply in his gracious leading—every day, right up to our final breath when at last, the giving is complete, and we are fully in the arms of Jesus.

It all starts with a bit of bread and a sip of wine where Jesus gives himself completely to us. Come, eat the Bread of Life and drink the Cup of Salvation, and become the Body of Christ. Come, be transformed for the life of the world! Amen.

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