Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:4-8 Elijah given bread for his journey
Psalm 34:1-8 Taste and see that the LORD is good. (Ps. 34:8)
Ephesians 4:25–5:2 Put away evil, live in love
John 6:35, 41-51 Christ, the bread of life
Who decided to pair Psalm 34’s beautiful encouragement to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” with Jesus saying, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink”? The psalmist’s phrase is lovely poetry, but Jesus sounds more than a little creepy, right? It’s especially disturbing to note that the verb here translated as to eat in John’s Gospel is really closer to “to gnaw” or “to chomp on.” Is Jesus encouraging his hearers to be cannibals? Zombies?
Evidently, the original listeners were disturbed by what Jesus says too, because just two verses on from today’s reading, many followers will leave Jesus because of what he says here. Even if the phrase is not intended to be taken literally, and Jesus is simply reminding his followers that following him is not easy, what he says is daunting. For us to live as the kingdom of God is to be asked repeatedly to do things that seem a little crazy, or at least a little uncomfortable. Sometimes shocking metaphors help us to consider and reflect on what is really important. Perhaps this one sharpens our attention on our relationships with God and with creation.
Still, Jesus is talking about more than simply assessing our values and choices. He is also inviting his hearers to delve into poetry, introducing the mysterious concept of sacrament. The church teaches that in sharing Holy Communion, we are joined to the essence of God: God takes on our burdens, and we take on some of God’s goodness and grace. And we understand that we are taking on one another’s hurts and joys too, because in the moment of consuming the bread and wine, we say we are discerning the Body of Christ, which is the Church. What Jesus offers is deeper than a shocking metaphor; it’s an invitation to be in communion.
That is also what the letter to the Church in Ephesus is encouraging. The author is fleshing out what community looks like when we strive to live out the things we claim to believe. The very first bit of pastoral advice we hear today is to speak the truth in love to one another. This is huge. It’s especially huge especially in our time, when truth seems to be negotiable at best. I want to underline this Bible verse for everyone who claims to read the Bible literally, because there is simply no other way to interpret this verse except to take it at face value. It is, of course, incredibly difficult to do. In the practical nitty gritty of living together, it is hard to speak the truth to one another, and even harder do it in love. It’s so much easier to ignore or belittle the people we have trouble with, or to talk to a third party instead of facing head-on the person with whom we are in conflict.
My guess is that’s why the very next sentence of the letter is about anger. Anger is a normal and important part of being human, but I’m afraid the church hasn’t always been helpful when talking about anger. Often the message we send seems to be that “good Christians” don’t feel anger, so we stuff it away. Perhaps as “nice” Midwesterners, we’re more susceptible to that unhealthy instinct than most.
The thing is, it doesn’t work. If we keep anger pent up inside of us, it festers and gets more poisonous. It doesn’t help to pretend it’s not there. We are called to speak the truth to one another, to hold each other accountable, to give voice to our feelings, to confess our own role in wrong-doing. But if anger is the frame for this kind of truth-telling, the secret is to tell the truth in love. If love is the framework for what we share, then even if the conversations are hard, healing can occur. Get angry. But don’t remain angry. Speak the truth, but speak it in such a way that what you say is for building up the community, and gives grace to all those around. Believers are also encouraged to be kind, tender-hearted, compassionate, generous, and forgiving of one another. The ultimate call is to imitate Christ, whose ministry of reconciliation should be formative in the life of the Church.
The Church is made up of human beings. And human beings are frail, fallible creatures. We are not able to live in perfect imitation of Christ. Even when we don’t want to, we mess up, for we live in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. When we do manage to get it right, we do not earn merit badges in heaven. Every good and perfect gift—including our own capacity to be gracious— is given to us by God. The goal here is not to get it all right all the time, but to consciously practice living a truthful and loving life. When we strive to get better at living in community, attempting to live and love like Jesus did, we will find ourselves taking on more of his attributes than we imagined we could. Luther once said, “This life is not being but becoming, not health, but healing.”
The good news is that as we struggle to live lives that are worthy of our calling as God’s family, God is at work in us and among us, renewing our hearts and minds, feeding us with his very self. Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading that, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. And I will raise that person up on the last day.” It is Jesus who draws us to himself, not we who draw near to Jesus. As we pray and sing and tell the truth in love and commune together, Jesus is faithfully fashioning new creations out of old, new life out of death, and holy people out of fractured community.
We are wholly God’s, and God is always nudging us toward the kingdom, a time when all of creation is reconciled in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider