Benediction Online

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Was Jesus a Cannibal?

Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

If that reading sounded rather cannibalistic to you, you’re not alone. It would have sounded that way to the crowd too. The word that Jesus used in these few sentences for eat really means chew and is the word you would use for gnawing meat off a bone. “Unless you chew the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.”

Just a reminder that Jesus was speaking to the crowd of people who showed up because they saw the miraculous healings he had done. Jesus continued with his great signs by blessing five small loaves and two fish so that there was enough for everyone to eat and twelve baskets left over. They were so excited by this that they figured Jesus was the expected prophet who would free them from the Romans. When Jesus realized that they were going to forcefully declare him king, he withdrew and later joined the disciples on their way across the lake to Capernaum.

But the crowd followed and he told them not to work for food that spoils, but for food which brings eternal life. And that’s the segue into his lengthy teaching about eating the bread from heaven, eating  Jesus. So we can place his discussion about eating his flesh within the context of Jesus comparing working for an uprising against the occupying force, with the work that pleases God and leads to the kindom. And that work, Jesus says, is to believe in the one God has sent (v.29) When they asked him to give them a sign like the manna in the desert, Jesus responded by teaching about himself as the bread of life.

You will remember from last week that the Judeans grumbled about how he could say he was the bread from heaven when they knew his family. In today’s gospel they are even more annoyed – John says they argued sharply among themselves almost coming to blows as they said “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” And Jesus ramps it up by saying that unless you “chew the flesh of the Son of Man, gnawing the flesh off the bone, and drink his blood you have no life in you.”

Now we know that Jesus liked to use hyperbole to make a point and maybe he’s getting irritated with these people but it is rather over the top. It makes me think of primitive people coming together after a kill and chewing up their victim. OK for Neanderthals but not for civilized people. In fact, rather gross. Especially this early on a Sunday morning.

So why is Jesus evoking bloody images? Images which speak of sacrifice, and not just sacrifice but human sacrifice?

I think it’s because he is challenging the whole sacrificial system of the temple, and beyond that, the sacrificial system of the sin matrix which makes people or groups of people into scapegoats and inhumanely chews them up; the sin matrix which makes some of us feed off the life force of others. In the sacrificial system of the temple and other religious rituals, an animal was sacrificed in order to please or to appease a god. In the sin matrix, people are sacrificed in order to make others richer and more prosperous.

Going back to my Starbucks habit; in order for me to pay just $2.25 for my cup of brew, the grower is paid just 30 to 50 cents per pound. You can get twenty 16 ounce cups from a pound, so of the $2.25 I pay, the grower gets less than 5 cents. Coffee pickers in countries such as Nicaragua can be paid as little as $2-3 per day even though the minimum wage is meant to be close to $6. Not surprisingly many pickers take their children to work alongside them. In Kenya as many as 30% of the pickers are under 15 years old.[1] These people are the victims of my desire to drink inexpensive coffee and the desire of a lot of other people to make money from processing and marketing it. Poor people are among the victims of the sin matrix, sacrificed on the altar of consumption and capitalism.

They are not willing sacrificial victims any more than the sheep and goats and doves sacrificed in the temple were willing victims. But they appease the gods of my desire and my comfort.

I want to make it clear that I know that these people are receiving something for their labor and something may be better than nothing. But there are at least two situations which could be much better for them but not nearly as good for me. First of course, they could be paid a living wage. One which would allow the children to go to school and the family to have clothes and decent food and somewhere comfortable to live, not to mention medical care when they need it, and even the occasional treat. Things which most of us pretty much take for granted... But then I’d have to pay more for my coffee. Another situation could be that the farmers would stop raising coffee as a cash crop and instead start growing food for their families and those around about… which would also raise the cost of my habit. So it’s better for me if they continue to work for a pittance and live in cramped conditions where their health is compromised.

Back to Jesus.

Jesus said, ‘Read my lips, “unless you gnaw on the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.”’ Scholars tell us that Jesus called himself, “ the Son of Man” because in the book of Daniel, Daniel has a vision and sees the Ancient of Days giving dominion over the earth to one like a son of man. Later writings translated this figure into the Messiah, so it seems as though, in using it, Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah.

Jesus said “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” He is clearly declaring that he is a heavenly being, which means that he is either declaring to be God or to be an angel. Now he uses the name Son of Man which identifies him with God.

We’re so used to hearing it that we don’t realize this is a complete reversal of the normal idea of sacrifice. Instead of humans sacrificing a sheep to bring peace with God, God is sacrificing Godself to bring peace with humanity. Remember what the angels sing at Christmas, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to humanity on whom God’s favor rests.” Peace between God and humanity. That is the intention of the ancient practice of human and then animal sacrifice.
But now it is God who is the sacrificial victim. God doesn’t need our victims but we are so caught up in creating them that to break our cycle of violence, she gives us a sacrificial victim, one who is completely blameless. One whom we can’t pretend deserves what he gets. God provides the meal to bring reconciliation and peace.

We humans are a funny lot. We like to define ourselves by criticizing and attacking others. It’s rather easy for us Episcopalians to be superior about other Christians who are not as broadminded and enlightened as us. It makes us feel good about ourselves. It’s a bonding kind of thing. It’s easier for the President to get us inflamed and patriotic when we can easily see who the bad guy is – the axis of evil or perhaps Saddam Hussein, evil personified. When we’re all worked up about the bad and evil or simply stupid and misguided people out there we have a greater sense of unity.

But that’s not God’s way. Instead of our unity coming from ganging up against someone else, God calls us to find unity in the Body of Christ. Which is a double-entendre; something that can be understood in two different ways. We receive the Body of Christ in the eucharist but we ourselves are the Body of Christ. In the past, human societies gained a sense of peace and cooperation by hunting together and killing an animal for food, or by fighting together against another group. We still do those things.

But that’s not where our unity is to come from in the reign of God. We are called to unity by our participation in the Body of Christ; and we are called to eat God instead of a sacrificial animal, and to drink the blood – the life force – of God instead of claiming the life of other humans.

Sometimes people tell me that they don’t want to deal the social part of church, they just want to pray quietly and then leave. I think they’re missing the point. I agree that the gossip and small talk which often characterizes church coffee hours is tedious and sometimes doesn’t honor Christ very well. But how can we find our unity in Christ if we don’t speak to each other? The last couple of chapters of Ephesians which we have been hearing are all about how we are to live together. Instead of getting drunk with wine, for example, the writer tells us to “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Being the Body of Christ is more than just symbolically eating the bread and the blood in a wafer and a sip of white port. We are to gnaw on the bread of heaven… to get down and dirty with it; to get it all over our hands and our faces; this is the difference between putting your toe in the swimming pool and jumping right in the deep end. Jesus wants us to engage, to stop coming up with more grumbling, more questions and to start sucking on the juices of the Lamb of God, the Son of Man.

It’s not a spectator sport.

It is something that Jesus gave his whole life to. His sacrifice was a self-sacrifice; it was something that he chose to do. He could have just withdrawn as he did when the five thousand decided to make him king, but he didn’t. He allowed himself to be ganged up on. He allowed himself to be scapegoated in order that we might see and be freed from the sin matrix which constantly makes victims.

And during his life he identified with those victims. He hung out with the poor, the prostitutes and the tax collectors; he saw the lepers and the injured and had compassion on them. And in that great teaching in Matthew he tells us that whenever we take care of someone who is a victim of our society, someone who is excluded or marginalized, we are taking care of him; and whenever we turn away, we are turning away from him.

So this practice of eating the bread of heaven isn’t showing up at church, having an uplifting service, joining in the communion circle, enjoying refreshments and then going on home to continue to live selfishly. No, chewing on the bread of heaven means that what we do here influences every part of our lives so that we constantly and actively seek ways that we can live more simply and produce less victims; that we look for organizations that are empowering the poor and we support them with our money and prayers; and that we use our power as citizens to influence the way our society works, in order to lift up the poor and victimized.

In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis makes a clear connection between our failure to care for our environment and our failure to care for the poor. Both the planet and the hungry are victims of the same rapacious economic system which seeks continual financial gain and economic growth at the expense of most of the world’s populations both human and animal. To reverse the trend will require that we, the wealthy of the global society, make different choices and choose to live with less. To live simply so that others may simply live. It’s up to us.

When we gather around the table together we come as the people of God to participate in the sacrament which enables us to know the presence of God in our very selves, and although we experience this as individuals, it is not just an act of individual spirituality for we come representing the poor of the world and the whole of creation. And then, after we have been nourished with the bread form heaven we are sent out, to be the Body of Christ in the world. We are sent out to be God with flesh on.

I want to end with part of a Eucharistic prayer that we use from time to time. Please turn with to page 372 in the red prayer book. We’ll just pray the first stanza here.

Lord God of our Mothers and Fathers: God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah,
Jacob, Leah and Rachel; God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.
Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace 
only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for 
renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one 
body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the 
world in his name.
Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the Bread.



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