Monday, August 13, 2018

So Much For Metaphor

Yesterday. I had the luxury of preaching on the part of Jesus' bread of life discourse in which he wants the crowd and the authorities to understand that he is the bread of life that has come down from heaven. They seem to have misunderstood his message. Jesus mentions bread that endures for eternal life, and the crowd wants to find the bread. Jesus says to them, "I am the bread of life," meaning not the kind of bread you could buy in the market or make at home or even gather up in the wilderness when God sends it down from heaven to sustain God's people but Jesus himself. Jesus is the bread of life.

It makes a good image or analogy. Jesus is the bread of life. He is the basic physical sustenance for God's people. The spiritual nourishment that he provides is as foundational as bread is in their diet. God provided manna in the wilderness, and God is providing the bread of life in Jesus. One is actually eaten by God's people, and the other is internalized in other ways. It's a nifty analogy, and last Sunday was a chance to refocus from real bread to spiritual bread.

And then there's this week's gospel lesson.

Jesus tells the crowd and the authorities, "...the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." Again, maybe it's a metaphor that links the upcoming crucifixion with the spiritual sustenance that God is giving the world through God's Son. But then Jesus doubles down and leaves me confused and slightly sickened.

The religious authorities, still unable to perceive metaphor, ask, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" And, just when we're expecting Jesus to say, "It's a metaphor, you twits!" instead, he declares, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 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."

My flesh is true food? My blood is true drink? In contemporary parlance, the word "literally" has become itself an analogical intensifier. "That is literally the worst thing I could ever imagine," someone would say sympathetically to a friend not actually (literally) meaning that it was the worst thing imaginable. But that practice wasn't familiar to Jesus and his contemporaries. When he said, "really food" and "really drink," he meant it. Really?

Sometimes it's fun for the preacher to say, "According to this week's readings, everything you heard last week is wrong." That wouldn't be a bad place to start. I'll spend this week trying to figure out when to hear Jesus speaking in metaphor and when he's speaking literally literally. I'll have some time to explore how his flesh is true food, and how "true food" might be different from "food indeed." And, hopefully, by Sunday, I'll be ready to hear what, in the gospel reading for the following Sunday, the disciples will call "a difficult teaching." Because then I'll have another week to preach on it.

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