Sermon from August 19, 2012

August 30, 2012

“You Are What You Eat”
John 6:51-58

51 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.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “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. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Anybody who thinks being Christian is a tame enterprise has not spent enough time reading the Bible. We’ve turned church into a safe place to show up and bring children, but there were a lot of people who didn’t consider Jesus to be properly religious. And what we’ve got this morning is Jesus utilizing some shocking language to separate himself from the most proper authorities of his day.

Jesus’ invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood established a new and lasting association between himself, God and us, but it was appalling to many who first heard it. What he had to say was not just shocking on a graphic level, it was specifically offensive to his religious adversaries who were very particular about the kind of flesh they ate and who would never drink the blood of anything. This wasn’t just some shocking language, this was some in your face language.

Jesus didn’t set out to create a fundamental schism within the Jewish community, but what he did exposed the emptiness of some revered traditions and practices, and that never goes over well with people who love the privilege that religion provides and not the relationship to which it points. Jesus was unwilling to play along with the dominant agenda of the Jewish leaders who had reduced the practice of the faith to following some trivial dietary laws. This religious system turned a blind eye to injustice and it distorted the truth about God. It was in the face of this powerful religious establishment that Jesus shared these shocking words. What Jesus had to say about the eternally good value eating his flesh and drinking his blood was totally offensive to the Jewish authorities of the day. The invitation was to consume who he was as opposed to the trivial diet that was advocated by the Pharisees.

It’s very important to distinguish between the people who were trying to be faithful Jews and the people who were defining what it meant to be faithful. We have in this passage a very critical reference to “the Jews”, but that is more of a reference to the ruling class of Jews than it was a blanket reference to the entire community. I think it’s important to point out that Jesus was Jewish. And we know him to be devout in his practice of the Jewish faith, but he recognized the ways in which Judaism had become an avenue of privilege for some and a set of overly burdensome practices for others. It’s hard for us to know exactly what the flashpoints were between Jesus and this group of people John identifies as “the Jews”, but we all know how hard it is for establishments to change.

And you don’t have to know exactly what the issues were that created the rift between Jesus and the official leaders of the faith in order to know what’s going on here. Jesus was an advocate of practicing the faith of Abraham and Moses in a new way. Jesus didn’t adhere to all of the values that had come to be associated with the religious tradition, and some people hated him for it. There were people who felt like he was out to destroy the faith because he didn’t value everything that had come to be associated with the religious community, and this feels so current.

I read an essay not long ago from a book called Generation Rising that was put together by Rev. Andrew Thompson, who is a member of the Arkansas Conference. He teaches Wesleyan Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary, and he is the official Wesleyan Scholar for our conference. The book is a series of essays written by men and women of Generation X, which are people who came of age in the 80s & 90s. I don’t need to go in to all of what that means, but these are people who were watching a different set of cartoons on Saturday mornings than I was. I’m sure they had some good heroes as well, but they have different sensibilities than those of us who preceded them, as well as those of you who are following them, and of course this has bearing on how it feels for them to be in church.

One of the essays in the book was written by a young man named Arnold Oh, and in his essay he addressed the way in which the entire enterprise of Christianity has been “a history of various attempts, successes, and failures of translation”. I think this is an accurate portrayal of the gospel message, and he focuses in particular on the way in which this has played out in the mission field of the church. In the course of his analysis he also points out the way in which the gospel has often been “over-translated” by Christian missionaries, and by over-translation he means mixing cultural baggage with essential Christian teaching.

Mr. Oh argues that many early missionaries who went to Africa and other continents from the United States weren’t just teaching native people to be Christian, they were trying to teach them to be Americans. I think he makes a good point about that, and I think we always need to be sensitive to the way in which we mingle our belief system with our cultural biases.

I think you can argue that the hostility Jesus and his early followers faced was the way in which Judaism had become “over-translated”, and when Jesus tried to separate the essential nature of the Mosaic tradition from the cultural biases of the day he was considered to be in violation of the faith and an enemy of God.

I don’t draw the same conclusion that Oh does in his essay. He argues that because of the way the church is faltering in the United States we need to be more open to the message of the church in Africa and other continents where the church is growing. I’m not saying that we don’t have something to learn from Christians in other places, but I’m not convinced that there isn’t some over-translation going on in those places as well.

What I believe we need to do is what Christians need to do everywhere, which is to always be very careful about discerning what is essentially true and what is culturally defined – regardless of what impact we may suspect this may have. We always need to be conscious of what we are feeding upon because when we substitute cultural bias for the truth we are siding with those who were not nourished by the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ but were appalled to hear Jesus say such a thing.

I’m so happy to be the pastor of a church where we do not allow historical cultural standards to define what we believe to be true about human sexual relationships. This is a church that has taken a bold step in trying to separate the essential kernel of Christian truth from the chaff of religious tradition, and that’s a big deal. But we don’t need to get too puffed up about this.

Our work isn’t over. We always need to maintain a level of suspicion of what we consider to be righteous and true. We may have one thing right, but there are so many ways to be wrong. There’s never any room for any kind of self-righteousness among true followers of Jesus Christ. People who are self-righteous are feeding on something other than the body and blood of Jesus.

We don’t need to feel too proud of ourselves for being the most progressive United Methodist Church in the State of Arkansas – I think we are, but we aren’t very strong. We have enough people coming to church and giving to our church to keep our utilities and staff paid, but we aren’t paying our share of expenses within the Arkansas Conference.

I won’t bore you with the details. The point is that I think we have a good thing here, I believe we are well nourished by the truth, and it’s time for us to grow up.

I don’t really know how to do this. On one level I believe that all of this is in God’s hands, and the measurable ways in which we expand or contract is irrelevant to the work of God to redeem the world. God’s work is not dependent upon how effective we are at getting people show up here on any given Sunday morning.

But on another level I believe that if we truly are people who are not offended by the words of Jesus Christ and who have an appetite for the sacrificial life that he lived and taught, than we will be so full of life that we can’t keep quiet about it.

I hope you will tell your friends who don’t really like church to come down here. Tell them it’s not a properly religious place. We may not always feed on the right thing, but we aren’t deeply rooted in the wrong things, and I consider that to be a great thing.

I trust that if we will seek to stay nourished by the self-giving love of Jesus Christ and if we will exercise our faith in loving and generous ways we will grow up, we will be strong, and we will be the powerful source of good news that God has called us to be.

Thanks be to God.


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