August 12, 2018

Zombies, gods and bread for the world

A sermon on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost | John 6:35, 41-51

"Never judge a book by its cover." You've heard this phrase.

It’s an idiom typically used to remind us not to judge other people by appearances. Doesn't usually have anything to do with books. Nonetheless, this is a truth we all know; that we shouldn't evaluate others merely by how they present themselves. I confess, I’ve certainly been this shallow, judging others on appearance. I'm sure you're better about this than I am.

As the gospel writer reflects back on his experiences with Jesus, he tells about how this same thing happened to our Savior. As Jesus attempts to explain who he is to Israel–and indeed the world, he’s cut short by those within earshot. "Isn’t this just Joseph’s kid? Who does he think he is?!" All they could see was a poor, country boy, the son of day laborer–and word on the street was that Joseph wasn't even is real dad, some saint that Mary was! What right did he have to say he was anything more?

This image hearkens back to the calling of the disciples: What good thing could come out of Nazareth? (Nazareth being akin to one of those small, seemingly insignificant towns off the side of the highway you'd miss if you blinked)

Judging him by his appearance, class, and family they could not see who Jesus truly was. Yet, they weren't hung up on his appearances alone. His words were insolent!

In this section of John's Gospel, Jesus speaks a great deal about food. Bread in particular. Just when you're starting to get hungry for grandma's home baked bread, Jesus starts alluding to his flesh being the bread everyone needs to nosh on! Ew! To our modern ears this rings more of zombies than anything else, right? But for those listening in first century Palestine, the undead did not rise up within their imagination.

Rather, gods did.

In the Roman world of the first century, everyone was religious. There were a number of religions–or possibly more appropriately tribal spiritualities–and even more gods. It was a regular practice to offer a burned sacrifice–meat or grains, for example–to your god. It would not have been uncommon for you, and those with you, to consume a portion of whatever had been offered in sacrifice. The belief, then, was that the essence of that god was within that sacrifice and when eaten was now within you.

When Jesus says, "Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread [...] is my flesh.” They didn't think "Zombies!" Instead, the would have thought, "Heresy!"

Jesus was telling his hearers that if they were to partake in his life, they were partaking in the very life of God. That was madness! He was a nobody from nowhere. Who did he think he was!?

Well, for one? God.

Judging this book by its cover ensured that they completely missed the point.

As I mentioned from the top, Jesus speaks a lot of bread here. This is not the first, nor is it the last time, that Jesus will refer to himself as a source of nourishment. He did the same when talking with a woman at a well in Samaria. In that interaction, he refers to himself as the source of living water. He will refer to himself again as bread, and wine as well, at his last meal with his closest friends in an upper room.

Here lies a distinction. After eating a meal with foods recently sacrificed to gods, your belly would have been filled with god-ness for only so long. Jesus refers here to a sustenance that is everlasting. He conveys to those that would here him that through Jesus a different kind of life is accessible.

We draw from passages such as this one, an understanding of what the Eucharist is intended to mean for those of us who call ourselves Christian. It would be convenient to surmise that Jesus is merely referring here to a spiritual state. Yet, it seems important to point out that John's Gospel does not end with a re-telling of the Lord's Supper. Rather, the writer of John's Gospel seemed to think it important for us to recall that partaking in Jesus' essence means partaking in his way of living. It does not merely connect us to his atoning work on the cross. Not simply to his death but his life as well. In responding to God's good news, by entering into the way of Christ, we accept Jesus' life as our model. Partaking in this communion service or saying a certain prayer does not discharge us from following in his steps. We receive nourishment in order to live. This Table is not the finish line. It's the starting line.

"Okay, Jason, I'm tracking with you," you might say, "but what's 'eternal' about living like this Jesus character?"

Consider the Sermon on the Mount. What gives life again and again?

Coveting what is not ours or learning to practice contentment? Vengeance or learning to love your enemy? Hoarding wealth or giving to those in need? Judging others or practicing humility?

We don't know what it is to live in the way of the Jesus only because we are too proud to attempt it. It is more convenient to live a temporal life that benefits me, myself and I.

Now, none of us are perfect. Like the poet W.H. Auden wrote, all of us attempt to love our crooked neighbor with our crooked heart. As we try to in our feeble ability to live into Jesus' way, take assurance that we are drawn into this way of life not by our own effort but by God's. In the passage read this morning Jesus says, "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me [...]" The word "drawn" that Jesus uses here was a fishing term. When I take my kids fishing, we place a lure on a hook and cast out our lines. In order to catch the fish, the fish has to make an effort to bite the lure. In Jesus' era, a fisherman would cast out a net, draw it in and the fish would be caught up within in it. The effort is not the fish's. It is all the fishermen's. Could this be an analog to the covenant made between God and Abraham, in which God carries the responsibility of both parties?

We know we will come up short; we will trip over ourselves, failing to offer ourselves as bread to the world. In these moments, be reminded that this is the miracle. Don't judge your own book by its cover! Even in our flawed efforts to nourish the world as Jesus has nourished us, God shows up and uses these broken moments, failed attempts and flubbed opportunities to transform this world.

Our lives do not culminate at the Eucharist feast. It is here that they begin. At the dismissal, our journey into living as Jesus begins. If God can choose to break into our world through the life of a Nobody from nowhere, then he will certainly use our crooked hearts to love our crooked neighbors.


Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

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