John 6: 51-58 (Proper 15B)
Good morning! Our gospel reading begins by repeating the last verse of our gospel reading last week, John 6:51. “Jesus said, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’”
The saying causes some confusion, a strong reaction, from those who are nearby. They’ve gathered around following the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 because they think there’s more to come. If he can do this with fish and barley loaves, what else might be possible? Maybe somebody remembers what happened at the Wedding Feast in Cana and thinks that there might be a party about to happen, a banquet spread out over the hillside—great stone jars overflowing with fine wines, a feast in abundance of the most exotic gourmet foods.
A few years ago as I recall Oprah suddenly announced that she was going to give everyone in her studio audience that day a new car. Maybe something like that! Hanging close to Jesus, because all kinds of good things seem like they might be about to happen.
There’s actually a long tradition of thinking this way. Jesus as a good luck charm. Like praying for a parking place on your way to the symphony or the ballpark. Sometimes you catch that theme in preaching. In its most explicit form, “accept Jesus and all your problems will be over.” Things will get better! Money, relationships, jobs, health. The idea that wearing a cross around your neck is almost like carrying a rabbit’s foot. The storms of life will miraculously give way to sunny days and fair winds. Blessing upon blessing!
There are more subtle expressions, sometimes with aspects of Christian proclamation blending in with the self-esteem movement in popular contemporary western psychology. Our God is a happy God, and he wants us to be happy too! There’s a funny and telling Facebook piece floating around that shows devotional drawings of ancient martyrs as they are being stabbed, drowned, burned, hanged, crucified, devoured by wild beasts. As they die their last words are quotations from the Twitter feed of Pastor Joel Osteen of the Lakewood Church in Houston, who is perhaps the most prominent currently in this genre. As the flames rise up, as the ax falls, as the lion leaps, the saint proclaims: “God is ready to take you to a new level.”
Note as an aside: Lakewood is the largest Protestant congregation in the United States. When the Houston Rockets built a new basketball arena, Lakewood purchased the old one, and they regularly fill it with 15,000 in attendance on a Sunday. Those who aren’t at home live-streaming or catching the service later on cable. It’s good news, that God is happy, that God wants us to be happy, that he will make us happy, if only we would let him!
But instead of rallying the crowds and winning more and more applause by spreading out before them all the desires of their hearts, Jesus pulls the blanket out from under them, meeting their requests with this hard to understand, metaphysical language, not at all the kind of bread and wine they were hoping for, but flesh and blood, the shocking imagery of death at the altar of sacrifice in the Temple, mystical union, promises not of fulfillment here and now but of some kind of life above and beyond this life, which somehow they can have only if they become one with him. My flesh is the bread you need.
Hearing this, most all of them are getting ready to head for the nearest exit, as we’ll see just a few verses below, John 6, verse 66: “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.”
Which brings me—and I hope you’ll forgive me for this—to Donald Trump. (And let me pause and say that I’m not intending any kind of political comment here. I haven’t decided who I might vote for next year—and it’s all way too early. And besides, if I were ever to tell you who I was voting for, it wouldn’t be in the pulpit anyway.
But to say I was intrigued not for political reasons but for theological reasons, when I read a few weeks ago an exchange from an interview that Donald Trump had given to CNN in which I guess some questions about religious belief had come up. Trump told the interviewer that he believed in God, and that he regularly went to church. Apparently he’s a Presbyterian, not an Episcopalian, but perhaps you already knew that! In any event, at some point in the conversation the interviewer asked Trump if he ever prayed for forgiveness. Something of an odd question, but perhaps it was meant to be a prelude to questions like, “what in particular do you feel you need to be forgiven for?”
Interestingly, and not sounding like much of a Presbyterian in this I would say, or any Christian really that I’ve ever known or talked with, but Trump said, no, he hasn’t ever asked God for forgiveness. At least not directly. But then he paused, and went on, and said that he does, though, participate in Holy Communion. And here’s the quote: “When I drink my little wine—which is about the only wine I drink—and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed,” he said. “I think in terms of, “let’s go on and make it right.”
“When I drink my little wine . . . and have my little cracker . . . and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed. I think in terms of ‘let’s go on and make it right.’” I’m not wanting to be too hard on Trump here. I think he’s trying to get at something, though he clearly has a problem with the vocabulary. It’s a perspective that we may hear a lot. A friend of mine wrote a blog piece recently in which he talked about what we might call the pharmacological approach to Holy Communion. You take a pill and it makes you feel better. “A little wine, a little cracker.”
Actually a pretty common way folks talk about Communion, about church in general sometimes. Looking for something to make them feel better. Sometimes people will say, “have you found a church that meets your needs?” Something worth reflecting on. I was hungry, and because I was following Jesus I got this great meal of bread and fish. How cool is that?
And again, not to push back on Trump, but shortly after I read his CNN interview I happened across an article by Faith McDonnell, a journalist who has been writing for some time about the tensions between Muslims and Christians especially in Africa and the Middle East. And the language struck me quite differently, as she wrote about an interview with a man she calls “Pastor O.,” from a Protestant Church in a smaller town in Central Nigeria. A mosque near the church had become a center for members of the group Boko Haram. And I’ll just read a few sentences.
“Reverend O. told how he had been leading a service of Holy Communion when his church was attacked by Muslims from the local mosque. “I don’t like telling this story because it makes me cry,” he admitted, but added that he thought it was important for us to hear. He continued that the Muslims had left their mosque and surround the church, where they began stabbing and slashing at people with knives, and committing “all kinds of attacks.”
“We tried to gather up the children and get them out or hide them,” Reverend O. said. His voice faltered and he was silent for a moment as a tear rolled down his cheek. “My daughter was among them,” he told us. Then he asked the people, “Do you want me to close the service so you can escape?” After pausing to remove his glasses and wipe his tear-filled eyes, Reverend O. continued, “They said to me, ‘You taught us that Jesus is worth dying for. This may be our last Communion. We will take it and die.” (Shortly thereafter on this occasion soldiers arrived, and the mob was dispersed. Though of course we know that that’s not always or even usually how these stories end.)
Just a contrast, for us to hold in our thoughts this morning as we approach the Holy Table, about what this meal and what this Christian life is really all about. Not about what he can do for us, but about who we are in him. “You taught us Jesus is worth dying for.” And John 6: “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.”