Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lectionary 20
Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, ye have not life in yourselves.

For the past few weeks we have been following the text in John about Jesus as the bread of life. It began with Jesus surrounded by a great and hungry crowd of people. He asked the disciples how they might be fed. Philip didn’t know how they could feed that many even if they could buy bread with the coins they had, but Andrew pointed out a boy who had five loaves and two fish. Jesus blessed the food and it fed more than five thousand people. Though this miraculous event is beyond a physical explanation, the people saw that Jesus could fill their bellies. They wanted to make Him king so that they would never be hungry again.

When Jesus told them to work for the imperishable, they asked Him, “What is the work we are to do?” He answered, “Believe in the One whom God has sent.” That is the point of the sixth chapter of John, for us to believe in Jesus, the bread of life. Yet, as this story continues, Jesus’ preaching gets progressively difficult for us to believe, and it would have been even worse for those who were listening to Him that day. Jesus compared Himself to Moses, and while they wanted to make Him king, He was no Moses. Not even King David, most certainly the greatest king of Israel, was Moses. Then He compared Himself to the manna. How could He be compared to the manna? The manna came and fed them for forty years! He said He was the bread “that came down from heaven.” This was not only beyond belief—it was blasphemy. He was identifying Himself with God. Finally, in today’s passage, Jesus tells the people that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life.

Not only is this difficult for us to understand, it is too disgusting for us to even consider. How a Jewish rabbi who preached peace even suggest what could be seen as a cannibalistic practice as the way to the promise? Of course, we look back on this event through the lens of the cross and resurrection, so we understand that Jesus was describing the Eucharist. Yet, there are many Christians who still have difficulty with Jesus’ words and they are much too rational when trying to understand some of the more mysterious aspects of faith.

They do not want to accept that there are some things about God that are mysterious. They would rather understand with their brains than believe with their heart. We just can’t comprehend what happens at the Table. It is there that we step outside of time and space and join with the entire body of Christ to receive the body and blood of Christ. This means that when we receive the bread and wine, we are doing so with all Christians who have ever lived and will ever live. How can this be? It can’t if we rely solely on natural explanations. However, if we accept that God is bigger than nature and our imaginations, we can believe that Jesus is truly giving us His flesh and His blood and the eternal life that He has promised.

It is interesting that the intellectuals of our world would say that anyone who believes such things are foolish and nonsensical, and yet real wisdom is found in those who believe in the One who was sent, the wise are those who feast on the bread of life.

Wisdom calls us to feast, to set aside our simple and foolish ways to join in the meal she has prepared. What she has to offer is a new kind of life. This is a life we are called to seek, and yet at the same time it is not a life we can seek because it is a life that we have been given. She calls us into her home, has prepared the meal for us. We become wise not by our own ability or actions but because the way has been prepared for us. We become mature in our faith not because we have grown older and have learned it on our own through prayer, bible study and worship, but because God has invited us into His presence through His Son and a meal.

Life in God’s kingdom is a paradox. On the one hand we can’t seek God because He has found us, and yet the life into which we have been called is one in which we seek God. In constantly seeking after God, turning into the house of wisdom, living with other Christians as the body of Christ, we learn to fear God and in fearing God we receive the blessings He has to offer. So, we don’t have to seek God because he comes to us, but we seek God because He has come to us. This might seem simple and foolish to those who have pursued knowledge, but for those of us in Christ it is the mystery of faith. It is a mystery that doesn’t need to be solved. It is a mystery that gives life, just like the mystery of the bread of life.

Imagine what it must have been like for the people in Jesus’ day. Over the past few weeks we’ve heard Jesus move further and further into this idea that He is the bread of life. Bread is meant to be eaten, but how could He expect them to eat Him? It is not until this week, however, that we get the full picture of what Jesus is trying to teach them. His words are shocking, disgusting and against the Law. This man they had followed, to whom the looked for healing and provision, was giving Himself as food to eat. They aren’t carnivores. They couldn’t drink human blood. It must have been frightening for them to hear these words. The man they looked to as their Messiah was turning the world upside down.

He answered their questions with an oath, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, ye have not life in yourselves.” To the Jews who heard these words, the eating of human flesh and drinking of human blood would not be life-giving. As a matter of fact, it was cause for death! This was too much for many of the disciples and Jesus’ following became much smaller. They were afraid, but not of the God who offers eternal life. They were afraid of the consequences of the things they did not understand.

Those who followed Jesus were simple people, often even foolish. They did not fully know or understand the things He was teaching them. But like the psalmist, Jesus was teaching through word and dead a healthy fear of the Lord. He was calling the people to depart from evil, to do good, to seek peace and to pursue it. The fear of the Lord is doing good and seeking peace. It is about building right relationships and supplying justice. Feasting on the bread of life is sharing in the ultimate act of justice, where God Himself gave His Son over to pay for the sins of the world. Talk about a world turned upside down.

As I read this week’s scripture, I found seemingly opposing themes running through the texts: fear and wisdom. It seems so odd that these two things would go hand in hand. We understand fear as an emotional response to danger. It is our reaction to the things we do not understand and is often a sign of immaturity, inexperience and naivety. As children we are afraid of the dark, but as we grow and mature we no longer suffer from that fear. Many people suffer from stage fright, but as they get used to public speaking they are not as afraid. The more we know and understand, the less naïve we become about the world, giving us the confidence to be bold.

So, wisdom overcomes fear, and yet we learn from the Bible that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Are we really supposed to emotionally respond to God as if He is dangerous? Our God is certainly most powerful, but He doesn’t call us to be afraid. Fear of earthly troubles makes us hide. It makes us react without sense or in a crazy manner. Fear of the dark or public speaking or the world makes it impossible for us to experience the things that will make us mature. When we hide from the world, we waste the time that God has given us to live and learn and love.

Paul writes, “Look therefore carefully how ye walk, not as unwise, but as wise redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” Paul is not trying to make the people of Ephesus afraid of the world in which they lived, although we aren’t much different than those to whom Paul was writing. And though times are different, the world is the same. We are surrounded by troubles. Many people today think that the days in which we live are evil. We are afraid because we do not know what tomorrow holds or how to get through today. But Paul calls us to respond with reason rather than reaction. Foolish people respond to fear with senselessness. Wisdom responds to the times by seeking the will of God.

I think perhaps the hardest thing Paul has to say in this passage is that we should be thankful always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. How can we be thankful at all times? How can we be thankful for all things? Even amongst our brethren, in the body of Christ amongst believers, there are differences that cause us pain and suffering. Our differences might stem from a numerous reasons—age, gender, race, cultural upbringing and heritage, geography, educational background or financial circumstances. We see the way others walk and we don’t like what we see, so we complain. Yet all the while we do not recognize our own failures.

So, we are encouraged to walk wisely, knowing our own faults rather than pointing out the faults of others. We are called to live out our faith with our whole hearts, filled with the Spirit of God, which leaves no room for foolish ways. We are called to use our time wisely, speaking words that will edify and inspire our neighbors rather than beat them down. We are not only to live without hurting others, but to also live in a way that will raise them up. This is the life of thanksgiving—the life that takes God’s grace and passes it on.

We seek God and the life He has to give to us by attending to the meal He has given through His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is a foretaste of a greater feast, a feast that will last for eternity. The experience is beyond our human explanation, but God calls us to believe it anyway, knowing only that He is faithful to His promises and that He is in the midst of it all. We are but simple people, foolish because we chase after all the wrong things, senseless because we are immature and inexperienced. But God calls us to walk away from our evil ways, to live as wise people, blessed and thankful. Together we join with other Christians in our upside down world where mysteries can stay mysterious and wisdom is given by grace. It is a world in which we eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Savior and live forever.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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