I love today’s reading from Proverbs. Wisdom is personified as a woman who has built a house, slaughtered some animals, mixed up the wine and set a table. Obviously she is planning a feast or a banquet. Then she sends her servants out to summon the guests.
She says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Eat my food and you will be wise – you will have insight.
Paul admonishes us to be careful how we live, not as unwise people but as wise. Do not drink wine to become drunk, but to be filled by the Spirit.
Then we read John, where eating gives us eternal life. The language of this passage continues to bother me. I think I mentally labeled it as “cannibal language” about 50 years ago, and then ignored it.
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for 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.”
It isn’t just that his language bothers me. I wonder how it might hit a visitor or a non-Christian. Is it any wonder that rumors about Christians killing babies and eating them persisted for so long? I have friends who are spiritual, but are totally turned off by this kind of imagery. So how are we supposed to understand it?
I have three perspectives to offer. One is this: in primitive cultures, even non-cannibal ones, there was a strong belief in a literal understanding of this passage. If I eat the heart of a brave animal or a brave opponent, I will become more brave. I will become more like that being. Moreover, I honor that animal or person in the act of eating, so that their death serves some purpose.
The second perspective comes from a seminar Lee and I attended 9 years ago with John Dominic Crossan, one of the best-known Biblical scholars of our time. He has done extensive work on the historical Jesus, and on Paul and Jesus in opposition to empire, specifically the Roman Empire. He’s an expert on the political, social and religious world in which Jesus and Paul lived and worked. Here’s part of his perspective:
In the ancient world there were two ways to establish, maintain, or restore proper relationships with others: give them a gift or invite them for a meal. The gift is a sacrifice, something of your substance that you give to the other, the more valuable it is to you, the greater the gift. The meal required that you kill one of your animals.
An animal taken to the temple is killed to make it holy and is then eaten. So a sacrifice is something made holy or sacred.
Both of these understandings apply to the death of Jesus. The Romans executed him for subversion. He could have hidden in the hills. He could have gone back to being a carpenter, but he continued his mission and preaching in spite of the risks. This was his sacrifice – to die was what it cost him to bring us his message of love and non-violence.
Note that this sacrifice is not dependent on suffering. The sacrifice would be the same whether he had been killed instantly or starved to death instead of crucified. Suffering happens in all sorts of ways, but is not part of God’s intention for us.
This idea of sacrifice is different from that in the Isaac story. It is much more like the tradition in the pagan world that the king must die to restore the kingdom. In some versions the king died each year to insure good crops, but in others the king went willingly to his death in a time of trouble or crisis to restore the relationship between his kingdom and the gods – to insure their blessing upon his people in the way of good crops and fat cattle. The king was saving his people from disaster, from starvation, from bad weather, from earthquakes, or whatever had beset them.
In this understanding, Jesus died in his attempt to restore right relationship between God and God’s people, not to atone for anyone’s sin. In fact, the tradition of Jesus dying to take away our sins became orthodox a thousand years later.
The third perspective on today’s reading is this — The author of John’s Gospel is a mystic. Mystics seek spiritual union with God. So the eating of bread and drinking of wine are outward and visible signs of our incorporating the spiritual qualities of Christ into ourselves. We seek to become one with Christ and have Christ dwell in us.
And when we speak of belonging to the Body of Christ, that reminds us of our right relationship with everyone else, especially, but not only, those who share this Eucharistic meal. It connects us to all the saints both past and future.
The implications of these connections are clear and staggering. If I make a disparaging remark about Georgeanne behind her back, or if I cheat Lee in a business deal, or I treat Sam in a way that humiliates her, I am hurting them, obviously. But I am also hurting me, and ALL of you too. Why? Because these are acts that destroy relationships; they tear the fabric or our community; they weaken the web that binds us together as children of God. Where is the wisdom in hurting others when we hurt ourselves and our community at the same time?
I’ve often commented on how lucky we are to be belong to a church that is not part of a confessional denomination. It is not our theological statements that bind us together; rather it is our worship.
Especially in times of rapid change this is so crucial. In this church we can hold differing theological views and still worship together. We can disagree on all sorts of issues, but in worship we metaphorically become again the body of Christ. Worship doesn’t change our differences, it changes their relative importance to us. It reminds us that our relationships are more important than our opinions.
When we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, the whole purpose is to restore our relationships with God and with each other. We confess our failures and receive forgiveness, we share a meal of bread and wine made sacred by the sacrifice of Jesus, and in these acts we knit up the raveled sleeve of compassion and restore our community. When we leave here, we are once again, the family of God. Alleluia!