|Fr. Dave Smith|
Christianity – a religion of the flesh! (A sermon on John 6:4-51)
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“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)
One if the great things about Julie (who preached at Holy Trinity last week) is that she always submits the written version of her sermon to me afterwards for an evaluation, and that’s not an easy thing to do! Sermons are very personal creations. You tend to share a lot of yourself in a sermon. Even if the sermon doesn’t contain a lot of personal detail about the preacher, it inevitably deals with issues that are very close to the preacher’s heart and so it’s tough to have your sermon torn apart in critical analysis!
Even so, we try to set a high standard here at Holy Trinity! I actually do consider it fundamental to my role here to safeguard the pulpit and see that sermons given here remain within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy and, moreover, that our preachers communicate clearly in a way that can be understood by everybody and anybody who chooses to join us.
I would consider it a problem if our addresses here at Holy Trinity were pitched exclusively at those who had a tertiary theological education. Sermons, in my opinion, should generally make just one point and make it unambiguously, such that everyone who attends church, even if they arrive here rather fuzzy-minded and confused, should be able to go home with a clearer understanding of the Scriptures that were read that day!
The only problem I have to grapple with here in my eminently reasonable approach to preaching is that Jesus Himself – our Lord and leader and our chief source of inspiration as preachers – didn’t seem to make any attempt whatsoever to abide by these standards! On the contrary Jesus’ sermons habitually left his audience befuddled and confused and arguing with one another over what on earth He was talking about!
Even Jesus’ own disciples had trouble with Him. They were constantly asking Jesus to explain things to them while also asking Him why He persisted in speaking to people in riddles. And if you remember Jesus’ response to that question (as given, for example, in Mark 4:12), He responds by quoting from the prophet Isaiah – “so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding” (Isaiah 6:9) – which suggests that with His parables Jesus was deliberately trying to confuse people!
And it’s not only the parables that are a problem. Indeed, today’s reading from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel seems to be another example of Jesus attempting to be deliberately obscure and even offensive: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)
It is tempting, as a preacher, to pick another passage to preach on when this one comes up as it is difficult to interpret. Moreover, the greater problem I have as a preacher is that if I do manage to interpret this passage and make something clear and unambiguous out of it (in accordance my principles of good preaching) I’m doing what Jesus seems to be deliberately not doing!
So what do we do with words like these? It’s not immediately obvious, is it? If you, like me, find yourself in a difficult position after hearing these words from Jesus then we are in roughly the same position as the crowd who first heard these words. They, likewise, were unsure what to do with Jesus’ words.
They began to argue sharply among themselves, John tells us, saying “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52) and Jesus responds to this, not by settling them down with any straightforward common-sense explanation – ‘Hey guys, there’s no need to panic! I’m using metaphor’ – but instead seems to deliberately stir them up even further!
“Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 6:53-56)
Of course if you’re a good Catholic you may be thinking to yourself by now ‘What is your problem? He’s talking about the Eucharist! Isn’t that obvious?’
Fair call! If you are a good Catholic with a traditional Catholic understanding of the Eucharist – that the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally become the flesh and blood of Jesus when they are consecrated by the priest, then this dialogue makes sense as an exhortation to participate in the sacrament!
Now, in case you’re not familiar with the different understandings that exist between the different Christian denominations when it comes to the Eucharist, the best way of remembering the distinctions, I think, was that given to me by my old mate, Tony Campolo (the great Baptist evangelist) who put it this way:
• In the Catholic understanding, the bread mysteriously becomes the body of Jesus and the blood mysteriously becomes His blood
• In the Anglican understanding, the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine, but to the person who consumes them in faith they become the body and blood of Jesus.
• In the Baptist understanding, he points out, the bread remains bread, and the wine magically becomes grape juice!
At any rate, if you’re a good Catholic, you may well make an immediate association between this dialogue and the Eucharist – a sacrament that had its origin, you’ll remember, in the ‘Last Supper’ between Jesus and His disciples.
The problem with making that link here though, in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, is that the Last Supper hasn’t happened by this stage. Moreover, while the Last Supper, where Jesus breaks the bread and shares the wine, saying ‘This is my body/This is my blood’, is recorded in each of the first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) it isn’t actually recorded in John’s Gospel at all, which is why even good Catholic scholars are reluctant to see these words in John 6 as a reference to an event that John failed to record!
If Jesus wasn’t referring to the Eucharist, was He really just trying to confuse us? I believe that there is a third possibility – namely, that Jesus was trying to make a point, and one that had to be made using really stark and offensive language because it’s a point that is not easy to hear.
In truth, communicating with people is not easy. That was my starting point today – that good communication requires clarity, but sometimes clarity is not enough when it comes to good communication!
I was speaking to a school teacher during the week who was keen to get me to come and speak to her children as she said “they are so used to listening to me they never really hear what I have to say!” I said “I hear you, sister! We preachers have exactly the same problem!”
Sometimes it’s not what you’re saying but who is saying it that’s the problem! And sometimes it’s not what you’re saying or who’s saying it but rather the filters we have as hearers that transform whatever is being said into something we can more comfortably hear.
A good friend of mine worked for many years as a missionary in some very poor parts of Africa and he had a very strong understanding of Jesus’ teachings about the dangers of material wealth and our obligations as followers of Jesus to share what we have with the poor. When he came back to Australia the church put this man in a very wealthy parish and I wondered how he would go.
I asked him “how do your people respond when you talk to them about Jesus’ condemnation of the rich? Are they offended” He said “No. I find wherever I go that when people hear Jesus talk about ‘the rich’ they always assume He is referring to people in the wealth bracket just above theirs” (just as we do)!
Sometimes our filters and our prejudices are such that it is almost impossible to hear what people say no matter how clearly they say it, and this is why sometime humor or poetry or song can communicate much more potently than any confrontational statement, and sometimes, conversely, it is a confrontational statement that is needed in order to achieve penetration!
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven” says Jesus. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)
Jesus is trying to make a point, and it is a counter-intuitive point, and it’s a point that is not easy for us to hear as it confronts all our religious prejudices, and that point surely is that what we really need from Jesus is Jesus!
If that doesn’t make immediate sense try looking at things from the perspective of the crowd who first heard this. What were they doing there?
• From the greater dialogue in this section of John’s Gospel it’s evident that a lot of the people who were there were just looking for a free feed!
• Others may have been looking to be entertained by Jesus.
• No doubt some of them were looking for wisdom and direction in life.
• No doubt many were there hoping to be healed of their illnesses.
• Quite likely most of them were there because their friends were there and they had nothing better to do.
Whatever the crowds were doing there it’s pretty clear that neither they nor the disciples really understood that the most important thing Jesus had to offer them was His body!
• Jesus had lots of good ideas but it wasn’t His ideas that they most needed!
• Jesus had no shortage of wisdom but it wasn’t Jesus’ wisdom that they most needed.
• Jesus had the power to heal them of disease as He had the power to feed them, but it wasn’t his power to heal or to feed (in the ordinary sense of the words) that they most needed.
What they most needed from Jesus and what we most need from Jesus is Jesus – in His body: the flesh of Jesus melded with our flesh, the body of Jesus as a part of our body, the life of Jesus living within us – and if that sounds offensive and all too fleshly then it’s time to be offended for, as this passage makes very clear, Christianity is a religion of the flesh!
This, as I say, confronts our religious intuitions. We look to religion to get wisdom, direction, comfort. What Jesus tells us is that what we need most is not more knowledge. We need to be transformed in our bodies! We need His flesh to become a part of our flesh! He need His blood flowing through our veins just as we need to be breathing His breath and seeing through His eyes. We need to be living the life of Jesus. We need God with us in our bodies!
This indeed is the heart of the Christian Gospel, as I understand it – that God comes to us in Jesus, not simply to pass on good advice, nor to hand down to us any new set of laws, but simply to be with us in body, and to make contact with us in our bodies, and to become involved with us and to suffer and die with us (and for us) and to be present with us in our bodies, always!
Father’s Day is coming up, and I know that in some Primary Schools they still have special Father’s Day events that (sadly) few fathers ever manage to attend. Even so, I heard of one such day where kids in the class were taking turns standing up and telling their classmates about their fathers.
“My dad is a gynecologist” one boy proudly announced, and then went on in some detail to explain to the rest of the class all the wonderful things his dad was capable of doing (much to the amazement of his peers and the horror of his teacher). A young girl then stood up and announced that her dad was a lawyer, and she likewise spoke in glowing terms of her dads work.
As the next little girl got up the teacher winced a little as she knew her dad was unemployed at the moment and she was concerned that this girl wouldn’t know what to say but, on the contrary, this little one jumped up beaming and announced proudly to everyone “my dad … is here!”
Presence – real, tangible, physical presence! It’s what we need most from those who love us, and it’s what we need most from God as well. Yes, we need rules and we need wisdom and we need healing and we need a lot of things, but most of all we just need Him! We need God, and we need God in Jesus – living with us and through us, His body in our bodies.
“For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven … whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:55-58)