August 23, 2015
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
If you have been paying attention these past few weeks, you may have noticed that there has been overlap in the Gospel readings. Each week has had us re-reading a few verses of the passage from the previous week. Not unlike a TV series that recaps what happened in the last episode before getting on to tonight’s story, the lectionary is trying to reinforce that these are all part of the same storyline, part of the same teachings.
And this is the last portion of Jesus speaking about himself as the bread of heaven, that who he is and what he does is the work of heavenly bread, and that we who feast upon him, in communion, will be about his work and his presence in the world. But the disciples complain, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
And maybe this is a hard teaching for us. How are we, with our mistakes, our flaws, our all-too-human humanness, supposed to let Jesus abide in us, and how are we supposed to live in him? Or maybe we got this one! Maybe we understand this part just fine. But lest we get too far ahead of ourselves, are there not other passages, other verses, other teachings that are hard for us?
- Eating with sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes?
- Touching lepers?
- Giving, healing, loving, forgiving, asking nothing in return?
- Leaving church before the offering to go and grab coffee with that family member who has been holding a grudge against us and getting it reconciled and then coming back with our envelope?
- Saying, in the midst of betrayal, denial, and crucifixion, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”?
- The thought that those who believe will do greater things than even Jesus did?
I can keep going if we have not hit a hard teaching for you yet.
- Go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give your cloak and your shirt as well.
- Give to all who beg from you.
- Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor.
We all have passages in the Gospel that are hard teachings, and we wonder if anyone can accept them.
Jesus goes on to say that the Spirit gives life, the flesh is useless. This seems paradoxical, having just spoken about the flesh of Jesus being the bread of life. Which makes sense in the symbolism of communion, but here it says the flesh is useless.
I believe that the Protestant reformation got it right in trying to translate the Bible into languages that everyone can understand, and I truly affirm the tenet of our brand of Christianity that respects the right of individual conscience, for each person to be persuaded and convicted as they are inspired to be. But the Bible is written in language that is as often as not poetic.
So when Jesus talks about flesh, it can mean:
- This strange collection of skin and bones,
- but he is also talking about the bread of communion,
- and he is also talking about our tendency to be focused only on ourselves, on our own needs, wants and desires.
And when he speaks of Spirit, he is speaking of
- Breath, by which a body lives (all too often recently I have recited the words, “We return to the earth the breathless body of your servant,” at a graveside.),
- and the power of the Holy Spirit to make of simple gifts of bread and cup the Communion of the Lord,
- and it is the gifts of the Spirit which are given, not for our own betterment, but for the building up of community.
These can be very hard teachings, because they move us out of our usual frame of reference, which is about our own surviving and thriving, and into a new way of seeing ourselves and our neighbors. And it is hard enough that a lot of the people walking with Jesus turn around and go home.
Maybe they wanted a quick fix. Maybe they thought Jesus could just touch them like he did the lepers, and all the chaos and difficulties of life would go away. But instead, Jesus keeps talking about abiding in him and him abiding in us. This is not a quick fix; this is a different way of living. And a lot of the people seem disappointed. As one comedian says, “We all want revolution, but Tuesday’s no good, the kids have soccer practice and piano lessons.” [Christopher Titus. Warning, his comedy contains very non-church language.] We want life to be different; we just do not want to change.
And Jesus turns to the twelve, the Apostles, and says, “What about you guys?”
Lord, to whom can we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe
and know that you are the Holy One of God.
I confess that this confuses some of my friends. Some of my liberal friends think I am too Christian to be liberal, and some of my Christian friends think I am too liberal to be Christian. But when life is good, I give thanks to God. And when the storm winds blow, I find myself sheltering in prayer.
This does not mean that there are not difficult passages with which I still wrestle. I wrestle with a lot of them. But where else am I supposed to go? To whom else can I turn? These are the words of eternal life. Jesus is the Holy One of God.
This does not mean I have all the answers, or that my faith is always strong. But on the day of joy, I sing God’s praises, and from the depths of the pit, I cry out to God.
Chances are we will always have hard passages. And we probably disagree on which are which. Our call is to follow Jesus as best we are able. Because that is where the words of life are found. And the Holy Spirit is going to do the heavy lifting.
Thanks be to God.