We are now four weeks into our sojourn through John’s account of the Feeding of 5000 men, besides women and children, and the short, but difficult teaching, that comes after. A number of you have discovered that we are re-reading some verses each week, as if the lectionary editors were worried we would forget the story, the setting, or the teaching of Jesus within a week. I suspect we would. Rather, I suspect we already have, at least until our bit of focus this last month. Think about how we approach the Eucharist in the Church today. Some limit the Eucharist only to those who are “members” of the particular denomination. This despite the fact that Jesus feeds everyone and then explains. Some choose to limit the “amount” of communion served. This despite the fact that Jesus tells us that we need to be eating His flesh and drinking His blood to abide in Him and to have Him abide in us. Some might want to avoid the bread and wine as much as possible, choosing the wisdom or metaphor route of understanding. This despite the fact that He has specifically taught us that He is the Living Bread or Wisdom come down from Heaven. I could go on and on, but I see the nods of understanding.
Before we go any further, let us acknowledge the difficulty of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ claim to be the Living Bread or the Wisdom of God is no less scandalous today than then. In fact, the way Jesus presents it makes it a bit too graphic, a bit too real. Seven times in eight verses, Jesus instructs us that to be inheritors of His Promise, God’s Covenant, we must eat His flesh. Four times, He specifically mentions drinking His blood. And, just in case we are in the mood to assume He is speaking metaphorically, John has Jesus switching verbs for eating. Jesus switches from a normal or polite eating verb to one that connotes a bit more grinding and chewing, like a scavenger gnawing the flesh off a bone. It is a hard teaching. It is an offensive teaching. In fact, it is so hard and so offensive that, next week, we will read how many disciples fall away.
Think of that for a second. They followed Jesus. They saw whatever miracles that drew them to follow Him. They saw demons cast out. They saw the blind given sight. They saw the feeding of the 5000 men plus women and children. They saw incredible signs of power. Yet at this teaching, they feel they cannot follow Him anymore. As we spend some time on this today, we should not be surprised if we find it hard, if we find it difficult, if we find ourselves sort of wanting to fall away. Hopefully, whatever disgust we feel is tempered by the reality of His Passion, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Pentecost. Hopefully, you and I see that Jesus’ words, despite their hardness and graphic nature, are true, and that we must chew on them, think on them, cling to them, even when every fiber of our body cringes or wants only to run away.
In one sense of the teaching, Jesus’ words are metaphorical. When Jesus says that the crowd and we must eat His flesh and drink His blood, there is a sense of picking up our own crosses and following Him. Living a Christ-like life involves suffering, humiliation, loss, and any other incredible worldly negative before the entrance into glory. Loving God with everything we have and loving our neighbor as ourselves is incredibly hard work. I get a kick out of people who present Jesus as little more than a peace-loving hippie. Beneath that soft, warm, loving veneer was the steel of the Father in Heaven. Our Collect today reminds us that He was not just a sacrifice for sin but an example of Godly life. How many of us would have been able to take His flogging, the mockery hurled at Him, the punches, the crown of thorns, all of it, and still bear the cross beam of the instrument of our death to the appointed place? And none of us made all this! There was a strength there, a will there, to do the Father’s bidding in ways you and I can barely begin to grasp. Maybe those among us who have run marathons or triathlons or ridden in a Grand Tour or graduated from Ranger or SEAL school or those who have given birth get “it.” Maybe they understand how the human will can push the human body to incredible feats. But many of us stop when things start to hurt. We may push ourselves a bit, but we stand in awe of those who can accomplish incredible things. And Jesus, the God Incarnate Man Divine, came to do the most incredible thing! He came to save us when we could not save ourselves, knowing that many would reject Him, that many would mock Him, that many would reject that loving embrace which He offered. Can you imagine His will, His focus upon work?
Our lives are supposed to be a fragrant offering to the Lord. When we gather each time to remember His Passion, His precious death, His mighty Resurrection, and glorious Ascension, we pray to God that we might serve him in unity, constancy, and peace. But do we really understand what we are doing? Do we really want to be a cross-bearing servant in a world that, by and large, rejects Him and, therefore, us? If we are suspicious of being called one of His freaks, can we ever truly be about the work He has given us to do? Or are we like those in the crowd seeking satisfaction rather than life eternal? Seeking full bellies rather than the shalom of being reconciled to God?
If, in one sense, the teaching of Jesus is metaphorical, in another it is not. We are a liturgical people. We are a people who primarily gather around that altar or table and remind ourselves of the saving work He has done in our lives and for those in the world around us. Imitating what He did before feeding the crowd, I pray God’s blessing on the bread, I break it, and I distribute it. As a priest, I am like Moses, but in another sense I have a much better job than Moses. Moses distributed the bread that was but a foreshadowing of the fleshy bread that I serve in God’s name! When we gather around this altar rail, we really believe we eat the flesh of Jesus. Some of us may have been raised to believe that the bread and wine really become the flesh and blood of our Lord. Others of us believe it is still bread and wine but the important thing is the attitude and memory with which we consume them. Most of us give up and just call it a Sacrament or a Holy Mystery. We can’t explain it, not really. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and our prayers, the wafers become His flesh and the wine becomes His blood. And we eat His flesh and drink His blood. That’s our explanation; that’s our faith.
More amazingly, we express the very attitude captured by John of Jesus in this passage far more often than we want, don’t we? I know--all of us come to church because we cannot wait to be here—all the time. The sun is almost always up. The temperature is nearly perfect. We are well-rested. We are in such a great frame of mind that we cannot wait to give thanks to God for the saving work He has done for the world and for us. We cannot wait to confess those sins, for which He died, each and every time we gather and have that wonderful pronouncement of absolution. We cannot wait to spend however much time we spend in prayers for ourselves, our friends, our brothers and sisters in other places, and strangers.
I said earlier that John uses a different eating word in the midst of this discourse of Jesus. He goes from a “normal” word for eating to one that is much less refined, like a cow chewing cud or a scavenger getting the flesh and marrow of a bone. Sometimes that describes our presence, does it not? Some days we want to stay in bed because we are tired and it is dark and rainy. Some days we don’t want to waste times praying to God about ourselves, let alone interceding for those we only know barely or will never likely meet. Some days we come barely paying attention, oblivious to everything but our situation, our needs, and our wants. Let’s face it, some days we only come because Tina scheduled us and we did not have the foresight to get a substitute and are afraid of announcing our absence to the priest by not showing. You guys are laughing, but it’s like I tell my kids, “been there, done that, bought the T-shirt!” We know. Believe me, we know. You think we clergy don’t struggle sometimes? We know.
But it is precisely in those times where we have to grind our teeth on the bread that has become flesh. We chew to remind ourselves just what He accomplished for each one of us. We might like to think we are special. We might like to think that we would have behaved differently had we been in the story. In truth, those who heard Jesus’ promise did not have the lens of the Cross and the glory of the empty tomb upon which to focus their chewing. Yes. He was greater than Moses. Clearly. But why did He resist being made king? Why did He give such amazing promises in the hard talk of such teaching? Because what He came for was to fulfill the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah and to all the people of Israel throughout the ages. He was not just a good man; He was and is the God-Man. He was not just an amazing prophet; He was and is The Prophet. He was not just a rabbi; He was and is The Teacher, The Healer, The Priest, The Lamb. All of salvation history pointed to Him; and all of God’s love and wisdom were incarnated by Him. And if He is the focus of salvation history, if He was the fulfillment of God’s promises, then all those other teachings are simply wanderings in the wilderness, empty and vain. And the offer and promise was and is incredibly simple. Eat My flesh and drink My blood. If you do this, I abide in you and you in Me. Unlike our ancestors who ate manna and died, we will live forever in His presence. We will know Him not as a stranger, but as a friend. It is an amazing, glorious promise.
Brothers and sisters, we are nearly through our sojourn of John and his teaching of Jesus’ place in the plan of God’s salvation, in the Church, and in our lives. Yes, it skirts around the institution of the Eucharist that we celebrate. We cannot properly come to this appetizer until we learn and understand His teaching from that Thursday evening so long ago. But we can remind ourselves and those with whom we come into contact just what it is that we eat, what it is that we drink, and who it is that we call Lord at this point in the story. We serve a God of flesh and blood. Those in the ANE and, sadly, many in our midst today, served gods who could not hear, could not speak, and could not act. Yet we are reminded each and every time we read this story in John, each and every time we gather to celebrate our deliverance from sin, each and every time we spend considering His claims and the promises He made. God, the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, took on human flesh. For unfathomable reasons to us, He chose to save us even when we could in no wise save ourselves. Just as He promised, but in a way Israel could never have understood, He came and dwelt among His people, came and taught His people, came and obediently followed the path to glory set out by the Father. Even more amazingly, He promised that those who eat His flesh and drink His blood will not only live forever, but abide in Him even as He abides in us. We cannot begin to fathom this holy mystery. We cannot know the depth of wrath from which we are saved even as we cannot know the glory He has in store for us. But all of that, all the benefits, were made possible because He allowed His flesh to be broken and His blood poured out, that you and I and all in the world who claim Him as Lord, might share in His eternal promises and mission!
Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, the path that He has set out for each of us will likely be through deathly shadows and unmitigated suffering, at least from the world’s perspective. Like the disciples we may find the path difficult to accept. We might find His flesh difficult to chew or to swallow. Heck, we might find the fact that His blood cleanses us a bitter drink to swallow, indeed. Nevertheless, it is the only path that leads away from death, the only path that makes us heirs, the only path that leads those ineffable joys to which we all aspire.