13 Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
A lectionary is a list of passages of Scripture to be read in worship. Most mainline churches – Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and so on – use and share a common lectionary for our Sunday services, and the Roman Catholics have one that is exceptionally close. So on any given Sunday, a majority of Christians in the United States, are hearing, more or less, the same passages of Scripture. Many Christians around the world are also using this same lectionary, including our brothers and sisters over in the Church of England. So, when our pilgrims went to Sunday services this summer, they heard the same passages of Scripture that we did.
For the past five weeks, the lectionary has been giving us extraordinarily similar Gospel readings from John about a single topic: bread. I’ve noticed on Facebook that several of my clergy friends have been bemoaning this with comments like “Seriously? More bread lessons from John this Sunday? How many weeks can I possibly preach on this?” Who knows, I might have been thinking the same thing if I hadn’t taken a few weeks of vacation during this series.
Some of us, myself included, often find John a bit redundant, even when we just get a passage from him for a single week. But the lectionary has really helped us experience this redundancy by giving us these five weeks of this repetitive series. In John’s defense, however, when he is being redundant, he is trying to say that this point being repeated is really, really important. He’s trying to say: “Pay attention everyone; listen up now; I have really important information here.” And the really important thing he needs to say is this: Jesus is the bread of life. Did you miss it? I’ll say it again: Jesus is the bread of life. Still aren’t sure if you got it? Let’s repeat it: Jesus is the bread of life. There is no way that we can miss or avoid this point – Jesus is the bread of life – because John and those people that put this lectionary together just keep on underlining it for us: Jesus is the bread of life.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” said Jesus in this week’s installment. “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
As it turns out, this teaching was scandalous. “This teaching is difficult,” his disciples replied. “Who can accept it?” Jesus knew that when they said the word “difficult,” they were not simply having difficulty understanding it, they were offended, and many of them ended up turning away from Jesus because of it. Now, this teaching is not just scandalous because of the oddly cannibalistic overtones with the suggestion that they will eat his body. No, this teaching was scandalous because of the additional teaching about the blood. Eating and drinking blood was a clear violation of the Law for these good, observant, faithful Jews. The legal prohibition against consumption of blood is one of the first laws that God made, going all the way back to Noah in Genesis 9. After the flood, God allowed the people to eat animals - turns out that in the Scriptural story, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, along with every else until Noah were vegetarians - and the people were now allowed to eat meat, the flesh of animals, but they were banned from eating the blood. God said, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9:3-4). That command is repeated many times through Scripture, with harsh punishments, the people will be utterly cut off from the community if they do. And the reason given for why the disciples cannot consume the blood of any creature is the same reason that Jesus tells them that they and we should partake in his blood: because in the blood is the life. In the blood is the life. God had previously told us that we were not allowed to take the life, that is the blood, of another creature into our bodies, but now Jesus is saying that we can and we should take his life into us. The life of Jesus will mix with our life. And rather than being sacrilegious, rather than being polluting, rather than making us unclean, this will cleanse us. Rather than cut us off from the community, it will bind us to the community. Jesus’ life, as wonderful and holy as it is, will fill our own life. Jesus’ life will surge through our bodies.
And this is a really, really important point. This needs underlining. This needs emphasizing. This needs repetition. We emphasize this reality by making it the center, the core, of our communal practice each and every week when we gather here at the altar, by the blessing and receiving the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ, repeating Jesus’ words - this is my body given for you; this is my blood shed for you. Just like that old expression, you are what you eat, when we take Christ’s body into our body, and Christ’s blood into our blood, we are being transformed more and more into Christ. We abide in him, and he, in us.
We have an incarnate faith, literally a faith made fleshy. God became incarnate in Jesus the Christ, and Jesus is incarnate in us, the Body of Christ. Every week, we, the Body of Christ, are filled and nourished with Christ’s Body; and our life is found in Jesus’ blood, Jesus’ life, moving through our veins. And as Christ’s body, we are sent out into the world, to be Christ’s healing hands, with Jesus’ blood flowing through our fingers, and we are sent out into the world to be Christ’s compassionate heart, with Jesus’ blood pumping through our arteries. We are sent forth to be the Body of Christ in this hurting world. Where we find hate, we are to bring love; where we find pain, we are to bring comfort; where we find despair, we are to bring hope; and where we find death, we are to bring life. Amen.