Sunday, August 16, 2009

Eleventh after Pentecost, 2009

(RCL Proper 15B) John 6: 51-58

And the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

What we’re doing this morning and in these readings from St. John over the past several weeks is getting down to brass tacks. We’ll pass through the libraries of Christian theology and the formulas of doctrine and liturgy and the great clouds of culture and behavior, and all the patterns of going to church, and all rest, and just come face to face with the central matter and point of the conversation.

It is at once wild poetry and straightforward statement of fact. It is at once the source of anxiety, and comfort. A stumbling block, and an open door. An impediment, and an embrace. The ultimate in craziness, and the only true sanity:

Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.

Hearing that carefully. Taking a deep breath. Not rushing past it. Radical exclusion, and radical inclusion. The narrow way. The easy yoke. The generosity of forgiveness, and the persistent call to self-examination, repentance, and amendment of life. That this one way is always to be both the way of austerity, and the way of extravagance. It’s easy. It’s impossible.

In the codes of ritual purity that surrounded Jesus in the world of First Century Palestinian Judaism, to come even briefly, even accidentally, into contact with a dead body, was to be associated and we might even say contaminated with death itself. It got into you, distorted and diminished your own living essence—so that even those who prepared the body of a loved one for burial would afterwards require a time of both physical and spiritual cleansing before they could return to ordinary life in family or community. So in the Book of Numbers, chapter 19, verse 11: "The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days.”

So it’s this huge thing. Eating is a lot more than touching. Beyond imagination that it could be done without deep deliberation. That anyone would. Certainly not casually. Come forward for this meal, and there is no turning back. It is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and the generous meal of hospitality and friendship.

But it is as well, even more deeply, this costly step across the River of No Return. If it takes long ritual prayer and a week of ceremonial purification to return from casual contact with a dead body, how would you ever come back from this? He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

From now on after this meal we may be in the world, as St. Paul said, but not of it. Not ever again. In many ways, outcasts. Unfit for society.

He calls us away, invites us, not to the old life slightly improved, but to a new reality altogether. Not in spite of his death, but because of it. In it. Through it. His death now residing deep within us. It was why he came, only begotten Son of the Father. His Cross not the unfortunate interruption of a promising teaching career. It was from the beginning the whole point, and it is for us the only way forward to reconciliation and restoration and life eternal. Choosing this meal.

Costly as it may be for us in so many ways, again and again. Now we are a society of unclean outcasts. Made so by him. Through the grave and gate of death, his and ours, all bound up together as one.

We do of course have lots of questions, things to work out. That’s the problem with poetry. How to live in the world, when we are no longer of the world. How to be at home here, where there is no longer home for us here. As we are called not to isolation but to the deepest identification of love. Not to the arrogance of separation, but to the humility of his way. Not a psychological distortion of self-esteem, and yet stepping back from the claims of entitlement and the bitterness of grievance. All pretty abstract, I guess.

And so the poet Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross where the young Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”

And so Martin Luther in his great hymn, “. . . let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever.”

The walk to the Holy Table for us this morning—not quite like a hike up a mountain. Not quite like the soldier racing across an open field in the midst of a fierce battle. But it is a big deal. And it is a concrete physical reality. Nothing abstract about getting out of the pew and approaching this Table. A steeper hill and a passage of greater risk. We don’t let ourselves forget that.

A friend of mine who came to the Episcopal Church from the tradition of Evangelical Revivalism says, this is our “altar call.” This is when we get up and come forward. Intending to lead a new life . . . walking from henceforth in his holy ways.

And we’re going to spend the rest of our lives figuring out how to live differently. Aliens. Strangers in a strange land. Hearing his promise and trusting him and then affirming the new and different life that is in him over any other version or definition of life. Not the old food of the wilderness journey. New food. The bread of life and the cup of salvation.

Bruce Robison

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