Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.
Last Sunday, we explored the twists and turns of storytelling. This Sunday, we’re going to twist and turn to a whole new level, as we boldly approach the heart of story’s magic, its ability to use conversation as a way of setting the world on edge, and confounding everything we thought we knew.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus says, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
Is it any wonder that many ancient Romans believed that the early Christians were cannibals?
The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel is known as “The Bread of Life Discourse.” It begins with the feeding of 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, and continues with Jesus walking across the lake in a strong wind. (By the way, this image is well known in certain Buddhist circles as a description of an Enlightened One surmounting the storms and terrors not of a disturbed sea, but of a disturbed mind. And to cross over water is one of the great archetypal images of the journey from this world to the next.) The Gospel lulls us by reporting all this as ordinary events. The storyteller knows they are anything but. When they get to the other side of the lake, Jesus begins to teach that he is the bread of life.
We get to the end of the chapter next Sunday when we hear, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
During the summer of Year B, we spend five weeks on this one chapter of John’s Gospel. And to make us really think about it, the most difficult lines are repeated from one week to the next. These are:
35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (We’ve been prepped for this by the Samaritan woman story with Jesus evoking living waters and I have food to eat that you do not know about.)
51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
As Presbyterian minister Walter W. Bubar writes in The Christian Century: “What was Jesus thinking? He had such a great following before he spoke. He’d just fed 5,000 people, and they were ready to sign up to become disciples. This would’ve been the time to use his best preaching material—toss out a few Beatitudes, or tell a couple of stories about farmers or sheep. Jesus could have had the biggest church in town.
“But instead he launched into a ridiculously long, convoluted discourse about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which—let’s face it—sounds creepy. And when he was confronted by raised eyebrows and expressions of bewilderment and a barrage of questions, Jesus didn’t let up but just kept getting more and more obscure.
“No wonder his followers started grumbling: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Many turned away and went home, never to be seen again.
“And Jesus let them go!”1
Western civilization has little patience with mystery and even less patience with leaders losing their followers. Rather than unravel the puzzle, Alexander the Great just cut through the Gordian knot with his sword. Likewise, so do most Christian commentators like to cut right through difficult texts and take us straight to the answer. So, moving from Bubar to The Harper Bible Commentary, we are told that this whole teaching is a reference to Christ’s saving death on the cross and the sacrament of the Eucharist, “Otherwise, the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood is unthinkable.”2
I am not going to disagree with the commentary, but I must say that this answer doesn’t help me much. If eating flesh is creepy, so is crucifying God. I live in a culture that glorifies violence, and if I can say anything with certainty about Jesus, it was that he did not glorify violence. He often subverted the language of violence in his teachings to make us think. In this spirit, I think it may be significant that Jesus is not saying “kill me.” He is saying “eat me.” I am reminded of a story about the Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson telling someone in despair, “Sure, go ahead. Kill yourself. Just don’t harm your body.” In God’s kingdom, anything is possible. So, faced with my own discomfort before the teaching that I must eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, I want to begin, not with an answer, but by letting my discomfort be the teacher. Non western cultures do this all the time. When faced by the unthinkable, they do not solve, but meditate.
In Zen Buddhism, the unthinkable sayings that trouble one are known as koans. A koan, often translated as parable, is an unanswerable riddle, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “if you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.” The koan is given by the Master to the Student both as a focus for meditation and a question to take into daily life. These things are not figured out in an hour or a day or a year. They are the work of a lifetime, and very often, what they end up revealing is as unspeakable as the original question, for koans are very personal messages from the universal realm just for you. (That, too, is a kind of koan. How can the same thing be both universal and uniquely personal?)
The Lectionary in Year B with its five Sundays of bread gives us a taste of what it feels like to work with a koan, but only a taste. Most of us very western, creative and answer driven preachers tear our hair and say, “What can I possibly say about the same thing for five weeks in a row?” And typically we do what I’ve done, which is to preach on the Old Testament or the Epistle and make only a passing reference to this building confusion in the Gospel, or as was the case with a particularly creative preacher, pass out a recipe for bread and talk about how prayerful it is to knead dough. But none of this makes the problem go away.
Jesus said, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
Storytelling, writes creative writing professor Greg Sarris, “is an art generating respect for the unknown while illuminating the borders of the known.3
I would like to suggest that this is how Jesus taught. He generated respect for the unknown while illuminating the borders of the known. An ordinary boat crossing becomes a passage between the empire of Rome and the kingdom of heaven. The story of loaves and fishes leads us to “I am the bread of life.” Jesus is helping us to see, as he does, again and again in his sayings, God’s mind at the edges of our human mind. My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways, said God through the prophet Isaiah. (55:8) We may be created in the image of God, but we must try not to return the favor by assuming that God is in the image of us.
How a person interprets a story says as much about the interpreter as it does about the story. I gave myself away as a feminist last week when I used the cry of Tamar as the hinge upon which the whole David story hung. Our pastor, Walter W. Bubar, assumed, or played upon his listeners’ assumption that Jesus’ point was to win converts. We were expected to be amazed that Jesus let all these potential converts go. But maybe letting go is just as important. Only when I can let go can I be free. Later on in John, Chapter 8, comes my very favorite teaching in Scripture, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Freedom is all about letting go. Slaves can never be free because they are forced to be attached to their masters. When Jesus teaches the outrageous, he is reminding me that I am a slave to my notions of propriety. Maybe Jesus’ “saving death,” saves us by confounding our images of the omnipotent God. You never know, says an old Jewish folktale.
Has any of this brought us any closer to what Jesus is talking about?
As a preacher, I’m supposed to know what Jesus is talking about. But really, outside my love of sacraments and my sense that a profound tension exists between contemporary culture and what God wants us to be, I’m not sure what Jesus means when he asks me to eat his flesh. Fortunately, one of the best things about being an Episcopalian that I don’t have to know.
But since God has asked me to be a teacher, I’m going to leave you with two clues.
- The first is that a lot of primal myths are all about food. Eating is a sacred act, the table a locus of life. Native hunters remind us that for a caribou to give its life to me is an act of love and I love that caribou in return. Jesus may be asking me to question where I derive nourishment. This may be the greatest contribution of French structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss. His first book on the science of mythology was called The Raw and the Cooked, and he showed quite definitively that many, many myth cycles were all about what it safe to eat and what is not, and how cooking, and the transformation that cooking entails, can make food that is not safe to eat safe to eat. Think about the transformation of the Eucharist, or Genesis Chapter 2, when we ate a fruit before we were ready. Maybe we’re being warned that we’re less ready than we think.
- In much ancient literature, sacred words were literally seen as food. “Eat this scroll,” God tells the prophet Ezekiel. In Revelation, Chapter 10, the narrator “took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.” Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, says our scripture collect for Proper 28.When Isaiah was called as a prophet, a seraph touched his tongue with a burning coal.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
So here’s what I say. Cherish your stories. Don’t be afraid when they become difficult, contradictory, sad or outrageous. God seems to be most expert at what confounds us the most, for he sent us his only son to confound us with love. AMEN.
1 Wallace W. Bubar “Reflections on the Lectionary” Christian Century, 8/21/2012
2 Harper’s Bible Commentary, 1988 ed., p. 1058
3 Greg Sarris, Keeping Slug Woman Alive, p. 33