TRUE BREAD AND DRINK
Let's say you're teaching confirmation class about Holy Communion and a student asks you, "If the bread and wine truly are the body and blood of Jesus Christ, then how is Communion different then the ritual cannibalism practiced by many tribes of people?" How do you respond? Do you say something like, "That's disgusting! It has nothing to do with cannibalism. We're talking about a blessed sacrament, not some primitive ritual. It's completely different."
Or do you say something like, "Wow! It's very interesting that you would ask that. Even though Communion is quite different from ritual cannibalism, I think that Jesus actually meant for us to think about cannibalism sometimes." If you would choose this second way of answering that student, you could have them turn to our Gospel Lesson today. And I'll bet you've never heard this Gospel Lesson with the word "chew" before, either. I confess to changing it, but only to better reflect the change that's in the original. At verse 54, Jesus doesn't just talk about eating his flesh anymore. He changes the word he uses to a more earthy one, one often used to describe animals gnawing or munching on their food. So my translation of "chew" is actually somewhat tame.
Now, the million dollar question, of course, is, "Why? Why would Jesus talk in a way to have us think in terms of cannibalism? Why would Jesus purposely be so disgusting?" And, by the way, that's exactly the reaction he got from the crowd that day. They were disgusted and offended and left in droves. St. John tells us, "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him" (John 6:66). Jesus had to ask the few remaining disciples, "Are you going to go away, too?"
So why? Why would he make what we do in this sacrament sound intentionally like cannibalism? Here's my suggestion. We call this sacrament Holy Communion, right? Look at the two words. Communion is about people coming together and finding unity. Holy means different, set apart, special. So what do we have? A different way of people coming together and finding unity. Different than what? Different from all the other ways that we human beings have for coming together in our communities. For we always gain our measure of unity as a people in community over against someone else. We always come together on the basis of chewing someone up and spitting them out, so to speak. Do you get it? Believe it or not, ritual cannibalism used to be one of those ways of bring people together in a community. It wasn't about being hungry. It was a ritualized form of scapegoating. The rest of the community could come together and find harmony by choosing a common enemy, killing them, and eating them.
Here's the thing. In the 21st century, we no longer practice ritual cannibalism. But we still have our own modern ways of gaining communion at the expense of scapegoats. Since 9/11, for example, we have come together in an amazing way against terrorists, haven't we? The thing is that our tried-and-true way of finding communion as human beings, all the way back to our ancient ancestors practicing cannibalism, is at the expense of scapegoats. We are convinced, of course, that we're much more "civilized" today, but it's the same basic pattern. So the problem for Jesus -- who wants to give us a Holy Communion, a completely different way of finding communion -- is how to shake us out of our being so sure about being civilized. We think our ways of finding communion are just fine, thank you.
Well, my proposal to you tonight is that Jesus needs to sometimes get disgusting and graphic with us in order to shock us out of our complacency. He needs to tell us that the only way to find true life with each other, in a Holy Communion, is to chew on his flesh and to drink his blood. He makes us think of cannibalism so that he can get his point across. When we think in these primitive terms, then maybe we can see how the communion he offers us is truly holy. It is the opposite of what we do, in fact. We gang up against someone else to find our unity. Jesus offers us a different unity by letting himself be ganged up on! We scapegoat. He lets himself be the scapegoat, the Lamb of God, if you will, who comes to take away the sin of the world. What is the sin of the world? It's our way of gaining communion at the expense of someone else.
Let's check this out with something closer to home than cannibalism. While I was in Atlanta with our two oldest sons, Joel and Matt, Ellen took our youngest, Josh, to visit her brother in San Francisco. A highlight of her visit was to take the boat and tour the old island prison of Alcatraz. Do you remember that one of the events that ended that prison as a prison was an Indian uprising and occupation from 1969 to 1971. Alcatraz now stands as an ugly reminder of an offensive part of our history. Here's a book that you can get in the Alcatraz gift shop now, telling the story we thought we knew from a different perspective. As we European settlers expanded across this continent last century, for example, we told ourselves stories of great civilization. But this book tells a different angle on that story, of course. Our communion, our holding together as white civilization was on the backs of someone else. We can read here that in the year 1800 Indians still lived across 80% of the land on this continent. One hundred years later, in 1900, the Indians had lost control of 95% of those lands. And at what cost to human life? How much blood was spilled? How many lives were chewed up in the wheels of our civilization? Didn't we over and over again find our communion on the basis of excluding the native peoples of this land?
I get uneasy thinking and talking about this, don't you? I don't want to admit that my civilization is responsible for such injustice, for such violence done in the very name of justice and civilization. But I think it's the same kind of uncomfortable feeling that Jesus is aiming at in today's Gospel lesson. Jesus needs for us to be uncomfortable. He needs for us to be able to see the cost of our civilization, the story told from a different perspective, the perspective of the victim, the perspective of those who bear the cost in suffering.
If I've made you uncomfortable, now let me commend you for a moment. Rather than try to expand outward as a congregation and move to the 'suburbs,' like many churches are choosing to do these days, you have elected to stay-put right here in the city, closer to the center of those who bear the cost in suffering today. And you've called Pastor Tracy, a pastor passionate about justice and reaching out to those who bear the human cost of our continuing civilization. These are daring moves you've made. Will you have the courage and strength to listen to some of the scapegoats of our day, the poor who live in our neighborhood? Do you dare listen to the story told from a different perspective, the voices of those who are cast aside and chewed up under the wheels of our machine known as economic progress?
We can begin to have the courage and strength as we come once again to the table of the One who let himself be ground up in just such a machine of human civilization. The Jewish and Roman cultures represented two aspects of the greatest of civilization of Jesus' day. But he let himself be ground up by those civilizations so that he might be raised up by God to come to us again today, beckoning us to chew on his flesh and to drink his blood. Why? Because he has the grace of forgiveness, the kind of wonderful grace that can unstop our ears and open our eyes, so that we can dare to hear and see the story of who we are from a different angle. Why? Because he comes with the gift of life, true life, the kind of life lived in a Holy Communion based not on chewing up and spitting out someone else, but a Holy Communion based on reaching out to embrace everyone. Come, eat and drink of true forgiveness and true life. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior's Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 20, 2003