TRUE BREAD AND DRINK
What is a sacrament? A good catechism question, right? I had the chance to sit in the pews last week -- at my in-laws church, St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Saginaw, MI -- and the priest was reflecting on these same readings from John 6 that we've encountered. And he was basically reflecting on this fundamental catechism question: What is a sacrament? He was troubled, really, that many Christians seem to approach the sacraments as magical. With magic, one doesn't necessarily need to make commitments or keep relationships. Magic provides the easy answers of waving a wand and instantly making things O.K. For the sacraments, sometimes our approach can be one of simply following the rules of the ritual, like saying the right magical incantations, mixing the right potion, calling on the appropriate unseen spirits, etc. No other commitments. No relationships to keep.
But this is not what the sacraments are. The priest at St. Thomas Aquinas was trying to stress that sacraments involve being brought into relationship with the living God and with one another. There are no easy solutions. If the cross looks like an easy solution, then we're in the wrong place.
This week, now that I'm back in the pulpit, I'd like to continue such reflections on the sacraments, because I think they are vital. There's the concern my in-laws priest raised, that because many folks approach the sacraments as magical, they don't approach them in terms of keeping commitments. They call on the priests of the church only in cases of emergency when they need they right incantation for the instant fix. But I think there's also the concern that many in our world, who reject the magical approach in favor of the scientific one, also end up rejecting the sacramental because that doesn't seem to fit into the scientific, either. Science isn't based on commitment or relationship, either, so you find this strange mix in our world of people who are looking for the easy answers, whether through science or magic or both.
One thing is for certain: there's a whole lot of modern folks who are no longer coming to church, who no longer value those commitments and relationship. So perhaps we need to raise a fundamental question like, "What is a sacrament?" Perhaps the traditional catechism answers are no longer satisfying folks in the face of both the dominance of science and the return of an interest in magic. (If the return of an interest in magic surprises you, take a look sometime at the shelves in contemporary bookstores. I don't mean the Harry Potter craze. I mean that books of New Age religion and magic that often outnumber the books of traditional religion. I had a young woman in class at Carthage this spring who was a self-proclaimed, practicing witch.)
So let's take this catechism question seriously and see if we can give it some fresh answers. I think that the priest was on the right track in emphasizing commitment and relationship. But I also think we can go deeper, and that we need to. Consider the following confirmation class scene, which has probably happened more than once in the churches of today:
A student asked her catechism teacher how the sacrament was any different from the ritual cannibalism practiced in some tribes.... 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 an example of how scientific knowledge about past cultures 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 what they learn in school. And now they even seem to be turning to modern forms of magical thinking. 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 other modern options, whether science or magic? I'll bet that each of us knows someone like this; I know I do.
What should we say to that student's suggestion: is cannibalism 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.
But how else do we explain Jesus' way of talking in today's Gospel lesson? How did you react when you heard Jesus' emphasize "chewing" on his flesh? I confess to tampering with the translation in our bulletins by changing the one word to "chew." But I think it's actually more accurate to translate it that way. John's Jesus changes his word for "eat" in these verses to a more 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." But I think that the translators have been too shy. Frankly, I can't blame them because it sounds so disgusting 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 might Jesus have chosen such an offensive word? I think that Jesus means to jolt us, to shock us. There's something that we are refusing to see, refusing to hear, so that Jesus deliberately needs to say something shocking to get our attention. I think it's because 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 come together in community; it's a way that does not involve carrying out any kind of violence against another person in any way, shape, or form. But he also needs to get us to see that our unholy forms of Communion are, in fact, based on violence. We don't want to see this! We want to think of ourselves as civilized. We protest, 'Perhaps more primitive peoples used such violence to come together, like ritual sacrifice and cannibalism, but not us!'
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 was even willing to go 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 own violence. The Jews listening to him that day would recognize such gross cannibalistic language and would rightly be shocked. They would respond, "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, they wouldn't be able to understand until the cross, until Jesus offered up his own body and blood as true food that we might finally understand our sacrificial ways and begin to learn to live a different way. If we go to the cross with him, we have the chance to see 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 shock them into seeing their own more 'civilized' forms of violence as just as deadly. So what about us? We see ourselves as even more civilized. Are we blinded in a similar way to our particular forms of violence?
I'd like to suggest to you at least one form of our modern sacrificial violence. The first two weeks of our reflections on John 6, we talked about capitalism's assumptions about scarcity. Assuming scarcity means assuming that some people get enough and some don't. In other words, some people will have to be poor. What did Gandhi call poverty? The worst form of violence. And notice where the familiar parable of Matthew 25 places Jesus in our world today: with those who are hungry and thirsty, with those who lack clothing and shelter, with those who are sick and in prison. In other words, we will continue to find Jesus with those who continue to be victims of our violence, the violence of the poverty which is allowed to exist as long as our economics continue to assume that God has not made enough for everyone.
So how have we done in answering that confirmation student's question about the sacrament and cannibalism? In most ways, we have 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. Even though capitalism may be the most civilized form of economics ever to bind us together in human community, it continues to assume a god of scarcity, which continues to let some people suffer the violence of poverty. Isn't Jesus' message about the Kingdom of God meant to challenge us into having faith finally in a God who gives us life abundantly?
And do we first need to see how even the best of our efforts still lead to death, or at least turn a blind eye to it? Our continuing forms of violence are what the cross means to reveal to 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. We don't want to see it.
No, in the last analysis there is only one gift of the sacraments that can help us to see any of this: gracious forgiveness. The gracious forgiveness from God that can redeem and reconcile our botched up relationships. Yes, the sacraments are about relationship and commitment, God's commitment to have relationship with us that went to the breadth and depth and length of the cross, in order to offer us the gift that heals all the brokenness. We are offered a Holy Communion, in place of all our other unholy communions. We are offered 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 a different way, the way of loving service instead. This is the heart of our calling as a church: 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.
What does that mean for living? What kind of commitments and relationships are we called to? Capitalism, we have said, gathers us into community with an economics that assumes scarcity and that some people will be sacrificed to poverty. Can we be gathered as a community which assumes an economics of abundance and that no one needs to be poor? In the midst of human economies that continue to sacrifice the poor, are there things we can do to reach out to the poor? Do we have something to say to our leaders and politicians on behalf of the poor? (Have you heard any of the current candidates say anything significant on behalf of the poor?) Yes, it's a challenging call. Are we up to it? Well, we can begin each week 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. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 19-20, 2000
1. Martin Copenhaver, "Receiving Jesus," The Christian Century, July 27-August 3, 1994, p. 719.