Sermon: XII Pentecost (15b)
XII Pentecost (15b)
19 August 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen
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Way, way back in the olden days, the 1990’s, there was a television show I loved to watch – maybe some of you did, too – called the X-Files. The protagonists were a pair of FBI agents who were tasked with investigating bizarre crimes and weird happenings which didn’t yield to the FBI’s normal investigative techniques, and which often turned out to involve a strange and byzantine conspiracy involving the highest levels of the United States Government and, well, space aliens. The show had a catch phrase, kind of a slogan that summed up the theme of the X-Files, ehich often appeared on the screen just at the end of the opening credits: “The Truth is Out There.”
“The truth is out there.” It was a perfect slogan for the show because it had a double meaning. On the one hand, there was the straightforward meaning: “the truth is out there” – out there in the sense that there was an actual answer, a solution, to the mysteries the agents were investigating, and that answer, that solution, was in principle if not always in practice, discoverable. With diligence, with intelligence, with courage, and with just a little luck, they could discover the truth – because it was “out there,” somewhere, waiting to be found.
But on the other hand, the show’s slogan meant that the truth is “out there” in the sense of strange, weird, unexpected. And to discover the truth, to recognize and understand the truth of the matter under investigation, you must be willing to expand the range of possible answers, of possible truths, you’re willing to consider. The truth is often strange, weird: “out there.”
We have been reading these last few weeks through chapter six of St. John’s Gospel, and we have one more Sunday to go after today. And at each point along the way Jesus has been upping the ante on his “out there-ness,” pushing the crowd further and further, continually asking them to take one more step with him in order to discover and receive a very strange, a very unexpected, truth.
And it’s difficult. It was difficult for them and, if we are honest readers and hearers, difficult for us. Next Sunday we will see that the crowd finally has enough of it – and not just “the madding crowd,” but many of his own disciples also, who had apparently been following Jesus, listening to Jesus, placing their hopes in Jesus for some time. “After this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him,” St. John tells us.[i]
But we’ll save the denoument for next week, this morning we have the climax of the strangeness, the “out there-ness” of Jesus’ truth.
Remember Jesus began this discourse, this interaction with the crowd, just after the miraculous feeding of the 5,000. And so when the people come for some more of this bread to fill their bellies, Jesus says, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”[ii] Which is strange, but apparently some sort of metaphor for faith, for trust, for attachment to Jesus.
But then Jesus ups the strangeness ante a bit more and says, “The bread which I give for the life of the world is my flesh.”[iii] And so the crowd begin asking among themselves, “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” That’s actually the line immediately before our lesson begins this morning. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” the crowd asks. It must be a kind of riddle, some trick of rhetoric that raises the tension level, but then has a simple, reassuring, tension-relieving answer – an answer which the crowd now eagerly awaits.
A riddle? A trick of rhetoric? Not at all, says Jesus. Truly, truly, he says – I’m not playing games with you! – Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.
It would be difficult to overstate just how strange, how “out there,” and how deeply offensive, especially to a Jewish audience, these words of Jesus are.
This is a little bit – maybe a lot – obscured in our English translations. In St. John’s Greek, Jesus had been using the normal word for “eat” – phago – up to this point. But with this paragraph, this “Truly, truly” statement, a new word is introduced, a more concrete, more graphic, descriptive word – trogo – which means something more like “chew,” or even better, “munch.” Unless you chew, unless you munch, my body…
And not only must you “chew” my body, Jesus says, you must drink my blood. A horrifying thought, horrifying for us, but even more so for pious Jews, for whom the consumption of blood was an abomination repeatedly forbidden in the Mosaic law.[iv]
But as shocking, as off-putting as Jesus’ words are, I want to suggest that the strangest, most difficult to receive, most “out there” thing he has to say is this: Without me, without my flesh and blood, you have no life in you.
No life in you. Of course the life that our Lord is talking about includes but transcends mere biological life. It is life as it relates to God, life as God intended us to have it, life full of joy and meaning purpose, life that is utterly fulfilling and satisfying because it is aligned with, in tune with, vitally connected to, the beating, loving heart of the universe. Real life. Eternal life. Life out from under the looming shadow of death, because it is God’s own life shared with us.
But we work so hard to produce that life for ourselves, don’t we? We might even say we eat lots and lots of stuff – sometimes really strange stuff – to give ourselves that life. We gorge ourselves, on work, on achievement in school, on the acquisition of stuff. Maybe we feed on exercise and physical health; maybe on being a person of learning and knowledge and culture; maybe on having a shiny happy family and just the right relationships. Maybe we even stuff ourselves with church and Bible study, and being the right sort of person with every one of our moral ducks perfectly in a row, taking our fast food from Chic-fil-a.
We want desperately to believe, we try desperately to prove, that we have life. But of course it’s always crumbling around the edges, if not actually imploding from the center.
Eat my flesh, drink my blood, Jesus says. That is not Jesus saying something just to be shocking; he’s not trying merely to provoke. He means it. That is Jesus giving us an invitation. An invitation to rest. An invitation to stop. An invitation to receive rather than produce. An invitation to hop off the vain treadmill of self-justification, of self-perfection, and to allow ourselves to be fed – loved into fullness, into health, into life, and finally to be raised up on the last day.
In Jesus, the God who has life in himself has given himself to us. Jesus offered his life for us, and he gives it to us. Eat my flesh, Drink my blood. The glory and wonder of the Eucharist is this: in this little bit of bread and this little sip of wine, the Truth, the Love, the Life, that is “out there” comes in here – not as an idea, not as an abstraction, not as a happy thought, but as a tangible, touchable, taste-able reality. My flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed.
And so the question is, are we willing to consider something so strange, so “out there” – the crazy idea that I cannot feed myself, that life must come from the outside, and must rest and be nourished by another? If so, then come to this Altar, the Lord’s own Table, and taste and see that the Lord is good.
O taste and see that the Lord is good.
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