8/19/18 – GNAWING FLESH by Samantha Crossley+

Proper 15, B

John 6:51-58

Barbara Brown Tayler (BBT), an Episcopal priest as well as an rich resource for homiletic plagiarism, tells the story of one young girl’s first communion. She bounced to the rail excited to participate for the first time. She took the bread, then “Her chubby fingers circled the chalice as she peered into her reflection.”

“The blood of Christ,” intoned the chalice bearer guiding the chalice to the child’s lips, “the cup of salvation.”

“Yuck!” the little girl said, pushing the cup back. “You keep it. I don’t want any.”

“Her reaction made perfect sense. Who willingly drinks human blood or eats human flesh? The taboo against dining on members of our own species is strong and old. In biblical times, consuming body and blood was something reserved for one’s worst enemies, as when the psalmist writes”When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh – my adversaries and foes-they shall stumble and fall” (Ps 27:2). Christ’s instructions to do just that have left Christians vulnerable to ridicule by those outside the faith and to doubt by those inside.” (BBT, The Preaching Life p 78-79)

Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them, and said: “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you.”

As supper was ending, Jesus took the cup of wine. He gave thanks and gave it to them saying: “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is poured out for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.

I say this, or some version of this every week. We take in our wafer or the more substantial lovingly made loaf and our sip of sweet wine. We go back to our seats in peace and think our theological thoughts and make our metaphorical connections and all is well and neat and orderly – in a pattern established on a hillside in Galilee 2000 years ago: Take, bless, break, give…

Until Jesus insists, 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.” That vivid, disturbing image burns away neat metaphors. As one commentator notes, “Maybe the real miracle in the sixth chapter of John wasn’t that 5000 people were fed at the beginning, but that a dozen were still left at the end!” (Wallace W. Bubar, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” in Christian Century, August 22, 2012, 20.)

Jesus, apparently not content with merely introducing this disturbing thought and letting well enough alone, repeats it, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life”. And again, “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” As barbaric as the words seem, our translation does not reflect that Jesus has upped the ante still more. He shifted from the common word for “eat” (esthio) to “trago” a somewhat onomatopoetic word more closely translated as “munch” or “gnaw”, eating as an animal would, loudly. Over and over that image, “Those who gnaw my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

You’ve heard the story of the farmer and his mule? A farmer was prodigiously proud of his mule. He bragged to friends and neighbors and strangers alike about how obedient it was. “All you have do is ask politely, and it will do whatever you want.”

His long term neighbors had all seen the mule working at his farm, pulling huge weights, braving any conditions with the farmer whispering in his ear.

One day a new neighbor challenged the farmer ”All mules are stubborn,” he said, “I don’t believe yours is any different.”

“My mule is different,” said the farmer. “It’s well-behaved, and all you have to do is ask nicely and it will do whatever you want.”

“I still don’t believe you,” the neighbor retorted. “Show me.”

So the farmer took him out to the barn, and there in a stall at the back was the mule. Just as they walked up to it, the farmer leaned down, picked up a two-by-four, and smacked the mule upside the head.

Stunned, his challenger asked, “What are you doing? I thought you said your mule was obedient and would do whatever you asked?”

“Ah, yes,” the farmer answered, “but you’ve got to get its attention first.

Frederick Buechner wrote “One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God” This lesson, this fleshy, munchy, masticating, untidy lesson is Jesus’s 2×4. He forces his historical listeners to look up from their laws and their purity codes, forces us to look up from neat rows of clean pews and face the messy prospect of transformation in Christ. Taking Christ into ourselves, wholly and completely, digesting that substance, chewing on that reality, incorporating it into our own souls and bodies, becoming what we eat – the Body of Christ – this is an intimate, untidy, visceral and immediately compelling process.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” – not will have, not down the road. This is not merely a promise for a cozy afterlife strumming harps on a cloud. People hunger now. Prisoners suffer now. Children cry alone now. The earth groans under the weight of our use now.

A few years ago, a Barna Research Group took a random survey of a cross-section of Americans. Their research question: “What is the phrase you most long to hear?”

First place answer, hardly surprising, the phrase people most wanted to hear – “I love you”

Second place answer – “I forgive you”

Third place answer to “What is the phrase you most long to hear?”

“Dinner’s ready.”

Jesus said, I love you. Jesus said, “I forgive you”. Finally, when the time was right, Jesus said, “Dinner’s ready” and offered himself, flesh and blood, heart and soul – his life for our consumption.

This is the meal we reach out for at [the] communion [rail], caught between our desire to be fed and our certain knowledge that we too are being called to take, bless, break, and give the stuff of our lives. (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, p 77)

“Receive who you are” invited St. Augustine and then “go become what you have received.”


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