Proper 15 (August 14-20)
Texts: John 6:51-58;
Prov. 8:1-6; Eph. 5:15-20
TRUE BREAD AND DRINK
In these days that science has expanded our knowledge so much, the following confirmation class scene has probably happened more than once:
A student asked her catechism teacher how the sacrament was any different from the ritual cannibalism practiced in some tribes in which they eat the body of the departed leader in the belief that by doing so they will manifest the leader’s powers. The teacher was obviously agitated by the question and responded, “What a disgusting suggestion! It has nothing to do with cannibalism. We’re talking about a blessed sacrament, not some primitive ritual. It’s completely different.” The teacher refused to continue the discussion. (1)
I think that this incident is significant for a couple reasons. First, it is an example of how scientific knowledge does provide a challenge to a great many people in our age. Scores of our unchurched friends and neighbors have stopped going to church because they have not been helped with answers to how their Christian faith might go together with all the knowledge they learn in school. Do you know someone in this situation? Someone who doesn’t go to church because they have too many questions about how Christian doctrine seems to clash with their scientific outlook? I’ll bet that each of us knows someone like this; I know I do.
Now, to be fair to that poor confirmation teacher, who didn’t do a very good job of answering that student’s question–in fact, he simply cut her off–I don’t think that we in the church have yet done a good job of trying to answer such questions. And that’s the second reason why I’m beginning with this example today. I want to try to answer one of these questions. Specifically, the one raised by this student, who asked: how the sacrament was any different from the ritual cannibalism practiced in some tribes. Can we do better than the teacher’s answer of: “What a disgusting suggestion! It has nothing to do with cannibalism”?
I think we can not only do better, but our answer will get to the very heart of what I see our life in the church all about. So, hold on, while we take a quick journey to the very center of what Jesus calls us to be about.
What should we say to that student’s suggestion: is cannabalism any different than the Sacrament of Holy Communion? Yes, of course, it’s different. However–and this is an important “however”–it’s also meant to be similar. Yes, that’s right, I think Jesus spoke about it and instituted the sacrament in a way that’s intended to be similar to cannibalism. Crazy?! Perhaps. Disgusting?! Yes, that confirmation teacher was no doubt right about that. It’s disgusting. However, again, I think that Jesus meant for it to be disgusting. I think that Jesus means to jolt us, to shock us.
What’s my proof for such an outrageous claim? The Gospel lesson today. I think that Jesus was purposefully trying to be disgusting in the way that he spoke about people chewing on his flesh and drinking his blood. How did you react when you heard Jesus’ emphasize “chewing” on his flesh?(2) The original Greek word is hard to translate. It’s a rare word that generally means to eat, but to do so in a decidedly less prim and proper way. It means to eat with very bad manners, if you will. Most of the translations do go ahead and simply translate it as simply as “eat.” I confess to tampering with the translation in our bulletins by changing the one word to “chew.” I think that the translators have been too shy. Frankly, I can’t blame them because it sounds too digusting to translate it correctly. But all the Greek dictionaries and lexicons say that this word was usually used for animals chomping audibly on their food. So it could even be translated as something like “munching” or “chomping” or “gnawing” on Jesus’ flesh. My choice of “chewing” is even tame, by comparison!
So why didn’t the other translators make such a choice? I think it’s because they can’t figure out why Jesus would want to be so disgusting. And you might be thinking, “So how come you think so, Pastor Paul? You’ve come up with some pretty wild things before, but this takes the cake! And how could this possibly be about the very center of our life together at church?” Here’s how and why Jesus is choosing his words carefully. He’s trying to tell us about a Holy Communion. He’s trying to tell us about the entirely different way that God has for us to get together; it’s a way that does not involve carrying out any kind of violence against another person in any way, shape, or form. You might immediately respond, “But we already have that kind of communion! We’re civilized people, after all, and we don’t have to use violence to live together.”
But you see that’s where Jesus disagrees; that’s where he’s so desperate to try to show us that we’re wrong, that he even went all the way to the cross to show us our reliance on violence. And that’s why I think he uses disgusting language in today’s lesson. He’s trying to shock his listeners into seeing their violence. The Jews listening to him that day would recognize such gross cannibalistic language and would rightly be shocked. They would respond like we just did, “Hey, Jesus, why are you talking like that. There are other societies which may allow cannibalism, and others that allow human sacrifice. But we’re civilized; we only sacrifice animals!” And do you know what? That crowd was so disgusted that by the end of this chapter in John, a crowd of over 5000 people has shrunk down to just a hand-full of disciples. John tells us that even many who had considered themselves Jesus’ disciples left that day. And those few who remained stood around, scratching their heads and saying, “Gee! This is really hard stuff, Jesus. How can anyone understand?”
Well, you and I have the opportunity to understand today, because Jesus came into this world to fully reveal the truth of our violence. He offers up his own body and blood for us as true food that we might finally understand and live a different way. As he tells Pilate just before Pilate sentences him to death on the cross, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” If we keep our eyes on Jesus and keep listening to his voice, we go to the cross with him and have the chance to see the truth, the truth of our problem with violence. For the Jewish people of his day, they couldn’t see their own form of sacrifice as violent because it wasn’t human sacrifice, and it certainly wasn’t cannibalism. But, guess what, their brand of violence did execute Jesus just as surely; Jesus was consumed by their justice in cooperation with the Roman Empire. He was chewed up just as surely as if by cannibals.
Before we think less of the Jews or Romans, though, we had better be careful about ourselves. The Jews and Romans thought themselves more civilized than cannibals. I think that Jesus uses the language he does to try to show them it still amounts to the same results: people who are chewed up in the violence that their sacrifice represents. So what about us? We abhor violence the same way that the Jews and Romans abhorred the violence of cannibalism, right? And we’ve even moved far beyond the violence of animal sacrifice. But I want to put before you our form of violence: what happens to you if you break the law? The police come to arrest you. And why do they carry guns? Because they are prepared to use violence. Oh, they hope they won’t have to; but even the threat of violence is enough to lock many people away forcibly behind bars. To be sure, this does not look like violence to us. It’s the violence necessary to keep order in society, right? You have to have it, right? But, now listen to us. Do you see? Didn’t we just say that we need some measure of violence to come together as a community? Yes, it may be more civilized than anything to come before it. And, yes, I would prefer it any day to societies that kept themselves together by means of sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, and especially cannibalism.
But do you know what? That’s where that confirmation student’s question is so perceptive. In most ways, we come a long, long, long, long ways from the days of human sacrifice and cannibalism. We are much more civilized! But in a crucial way we are still the same: we rely on some form of violence to stay together as a community and keep order. That’s what the cross means to show us. That’s what Jesus comes to confront us with each time he comes to us in the sacrament with true food and true drink. He wants us to see our violence for what it is. That’s what St. Paul saw 2000 years ago already when he saw that the law ended up amounting to the same thing, that the only other way of coming together as people without violence, the only Holy Communion, is to come together in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s the only way. Otherwise, it’s like Elijah last week, who won a great victory over the priests of Baal, trying to stamp out their sacrifices, but then killed them all. He ran for his life, plopped down under a tree, and he realized that he was no better than his ancestors, his ancestors who even performed human sacrifice and perhaps even cannibalism. That’s the insight of science that the confirmation student brings up for us: that we are much more similar to our ancestors than we might think. Yes, we are more civilized about it, but we still base our coming together as people on violence. It’s the insight that the cross and the blessed sacrament are trying to show.
But it’s also where the sacrament does end up differing: the sacrament finally offers us another way. It is a Holy Communion opposed to all our other unholy communions. It offers us the way of the one who willingly went to the cross, the one who let himself be chewed up by our violence so that he could forgive us and offer us the way of love and service instead. This is the heart of our calling as a church that I talked about: to be a Holy Communion, a gathering of people totally unique from any other because it is based on this one who let himself be devoured by our violence in order to save us from it.
One last quick question: How are we doing in this calling? And now we get to one of my deepest convictions: I don’t think we have done well at all. In fact, I think the church got way, way off track when it became merged with the Roman Empire over 1500 years ago. It was then that our Holy Communion of the church became merged with one of the unholy communions, the Empire, in a way that we still haven’t come out from under. Martin Luther started a process of reformation; he faced burning at the stake to stand up to the violence inside the Church of that time and said we really need to change things. But the Church remained tied to the State in many ways and so has still been lost, I think. It is still our calling to continue Luther’s reformation of the church. We have a renewed possibility after 200 years of separation between church and state in this nation of ours to renew our understanding of what it means to be a Holy Communion; of what it means to offer people a totally different way for coming together in community. It’s a challenging call. Are we up to it? Well, we can begin as we’ve had the opportunity always had, by being fed with true bread and true drink, the body and blood of the one who comes to shock us, to challenge us, to forgive us, and so to call us back onto the right path of living in Holy Communion. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 16-17, 1997