Monday, August 20, 2018

Triple Dog Dare

In our house, we are divided. Half of us adores A Christmas Story, and the other half despises it. It becomes a real source of contention not only at Christmas time, when one can watch 24 hours of that sacred movie, but also throughout the year when someone (usually me) brings up a cultural reference or makes an analogy using the film. It is a cinematic tour de force of such richness, such splendor, that one would struggle to name a top five favorite moments much less a single favorite. Among my many treasured scenes is the part when Schwartz dares Flick to stick his tongue to a metal flagpole on a frigid day. Schwartz "double dares" his counterpart, who hesitates, before offering the "double dog dare." As the narrator reminds us, Schwartz "created a slight breech of etiquette" when he skiped over the "triple dare" and jumped right to the "triple dog dare" but the stage was thus set for the showdown that ended when the fire department was called to help remove Flick's tongue from the pole.

In Sunday's gospel lesson, Jesus looks at his disciples and triple dog dares them to take him at his word. For the last several weeks, he's been elevating the rhetoric each Sunday, raising the theological and gastronomic stakes, and, finally, this week, as we end the bread of life discourse (finally!), he pulls out all the stops.

In John 6:56-69, Jesus finishes his challenging sayings to the crowd and then steps aside with his disciples for some reflection. Remember how we got here. Week 1: Jesus multiples the loaves and fish. Week 2: The crowd follows Jesus, and he tells them to seek the true bread from heaven that gives eternal life, which he identifies as himself. Week 3: Jesus doubles down on the image and tells the grumbling authorities that whoever eats his flesh will live forever. Week 4: Jesus seemingly strips away the metaphor and declares that his flesh and blood are true food and true drink. And now it's week 5. Jesus gets a quiet moment with his disciples, when he has a chance to say, "Hey guys, I'm just kidding. But did you see how upset they got?" but he doesn't. Instead, he pulls out the triple dog dare.

John writes, "When many of his disciples heard it, they said, 'This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?' But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, 'Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?'" To be honest, given how literal this flesh-eating had become, I am partly relieved that Jesus didn't take out a knife and start slicing off pieces of himself. But Jesus' response is, perhaps, no less controversial. Those of us who know how Jesus' ministry ends--with the resurrection--may not find it as unsettling as the disciples, but Jesus' "what if" is provocative. By inviting them to consider the possibility that they might seem him ascending into heaven as the glorified Son of Man, Jesus invited them to take literally the comparisons that had been made between Jesus and Moses, between Jesus and Elijah, and between Jesus and God's anointed one, whose divinely appointed job was to usher in the end times. It is, in effect, the ultimate trump card. If Jesus were to ascend back to heaven, then nothing he claimed would be unreasonable. Everything he said would have to be taken seriously. You can't back out of a triple dog dare, and you can't disagree with one who comes from heaven.

In effect, Jesus said, "Take it or leave it. You either accept everything I've told you as gospel truth or give up on the lot. You don't get to pick and choose." John tells us that many of Jesus' disciples left him because of his difficult teaching. In earthly terms, Jesus had pushed it too far. He had used the metaphor of his flesh being the bread of life one time too many. But Jesus went to the disciples and asked whether they, too, would leave, but Peter replied, "To whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life." And they stuck their collective tongue out and allowed it to get frozen right on the flag pole.

These are challenging words, but they are also comforting words. Later this week (I think), I'll look at this passage as Jesus' great words of relief: "You don't actually have to eat my flesh." But that's for another day. Still, the triple dog dare is in effect. If you think eating Jesus' flesh is difficult, try believing everything he teaches. This isn't the most difficult by far.

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