August 26, 2018 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here, and video of the whole service is available on St. Paul's YouTube feed.
Pieces of pie with meringue reaching up almost half a foot from the plate. Slices of cake beside abundant piles of whipped cream. Bright green and red and orange squares of Jell-O glistening under the florescent lights. Stacks of cookies on saucers just waiting to be devoured. Those are the things I remember about the line at Morrison’s Cafeteria. When I was a young child, going to Morrison’s after church was a real treat in part because it was the only place I knew that let you pick your dessert after you’d seen it. Sure, I had to pick a meat and some vegetables, too, but the only decision I really cared about was selecting a dessert. After making my choice, I was always discouraged to sit down at the table with my parents and unload my cafeteria tray, arranging each plate in its proper place, and be reminded that I was not permitted to eat that dessert until I had finished everything else. Having put so much emotional energy into the decision over which dessert I would choose, it felt like a crime to have to focus on fried chicken and green beans while the gigantic piece of coconut cake that I had chosen, a piece which was already reserved for me, sat temptingly close on the table.
It’s hard to find a Morrison’s or a Piccadilly anymore. The cafeteria approach to American dining, which satisfied our first national temptation of limitless choice, has given way to places like Ryan’s and Golden Corral, which cater to that second great temptation of limitless calories. But the cafeteria model is alive and well in other cultural institutions, and nowhere has it found as comfortable a home as in American Christianity. Is there a better image for contemporary religion in this country? We aren’t just Christians, we’re Episcopalians or Methodists or Baptists. And, more specific than that, we aren’t just Episcopalians but high-church or low-church or broad-church. We’re liberal or progressive or moderate or traditional or conservative. We take the stuff we like, and leave behind the stuff we don’t, and, if the new priest won’t let us, we just leave him behind and find a new church. How else could deeply committed Evangelical Christians and deeply committed liberal Christians represent opposite sides of the political spectrum? We follow our own brand of Jesus and, without realizing it, worship an idol of our own creation.
Jesus had something else in mind, and it’s hard to read John 6 and not get the feeling that we’ve wondered pretty far off track. For the last several Sundays, we’ve read gospel lessons about the “Bread of Life.” Each week, Jesus’ teaching has intensified as we’ve gone from loaves and fish to bread from heaven to flesh and blood. And, now, in the gospel account, we’ve reached a breaking point. After hearing him preach in the synagogue that eating his flesh and drinking his blood would give them eternal life, some of Jesus’ committed followers came to him with grave concerns and said, “Rabbi, this is a difficult teaching. Who can accept it?” They wanted him to cut them some slack. They needed him to give them some wiggle room, to explain to them in private that he was using hyperbole and that they didn’t actually have to practice cannibalism in order to get to heaven, but Jesus didn’t give them what they were looking for.
“Does this offend you?” Jesus asked in response. “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” Jesus often used exaggerated statements and analogies in parables in order to make his point, but this time he was serious. “Does this offend you?” he asked. Literally, “Does this scandalize you? Does it cause you to stumble?” I prefer it when sweet, reassuring Jesus takes me by the hand and says, “Are you having a tough time with something I said? Here, let me explain it in a way that makes you feel better.” But that’s not the Jesus who shows up in John 6. (In fact, that’s not the Jesus who ever shows up except in our imagination.) Instead, this Jesus goes for the rhetorical nuclear option: “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” In other words, what if God pulled back the curtain and placed his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘This is my Son; listen to him?’ Would you take me at my word then, or would you still want to grumble about what I have to say?”
Last week in our staff meeting, Fr. Chuck reminded us that the phrase “flesh and blood” in a Semitic context meant more than muscle tissue and red and white blood cells, platelets, and plasma. To a Jewish ear, “flesh and blood” meant “the whole person” or what we Greek-thinkers might call “body and soul” or “body and spirit.” So Jesus wasn’t only asking his followers to consume literally his body and blood but to take into themselves everything that he offered them, physically and spiritually. He wanted them to follow him not only in theory but also in practice. He was trying to tell them that true life in this world and in the next comes to those who follow Jesus with body and mind and spirit. You can’t pick which teachings you like, the ones that suit your preconceived notion of who God is and what God wants for your life. If you want true and abundant life, life that never ceases, you must accept the realities of Jesus’ instructions in this world so that you can experience them in the world to come.
Given what Jesus had already said and done in the first five chapters of John’s gospel account, this shouldn’t surprise us. By this point, he had already chased the money changers out of the temple, challenging the religious apparatus of his day. He had told Nicodemus, a leader among the Jewish people, that he must leave behind everything he knew and loved in order to be born again. He had ministered to the Samaritan woman at the well and offered her and her people the good news of salvation. He had healed the invalid by the pool on the Sabbath and had equated his own work with that of his Father in heaven. In other words, he had demonstrated over and over that God’s saving work must be as much manifest in this life, in this world, in this way of being, as it will be in the next, when God’s reign comes in its totality. And those who pretend that they can honor the reign of God in their hearts and minds and prayers without honoring it in their work and life and relationships have fooled themselves right out of the kingdom. That is a difficult teaching, indeed. Who can accept it?
“Because of this,” John tells us, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Losing followers in droves, Jesus apparently cared more about the content of discipleship than the quantity of disciples who followed him. Can we say the same about ourselves and our church? There is admirable integrity to leaving. If a church or a charity or another organization upholds a philosophy that we cannot accept, it is an honorable thing to leave instead of pretending that those fundamental differences don’t matter. When Jesus asked his closest disciples whether they, too, wished to go away, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Could we say the same thing to Jesus? Do we recognize in his teachings a cafeteria of philosophical options from which we take the ones we want while ignoring the ones we find less palatable? Or are we taking him and his way completely into our hearts and minds and souls and bodies?
Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Forgive without limit. Sell everything that you have and give it to the poor. Take only the shirt on your back and the staff in your hand. Become like little children. Hate your father and mother and even your own life. Take up your cross and follow me. Whoever loses her life for my sake will find it for eternal life. The words that Jesus says to us are spirit and life, but will we hear them? Can we hear them? If we hear them only with the ears of our flesh, we cannot receive them. If we pretend that they are only a guide for our spirits, we can have no share with him. But isn’t that why we’re here? Aren’t we here because we want to be a part of something that matters—something more than a preacher talking about Jesus and a congregation pretending to follow him? We’re here because we want to bring the whole life and ministry of Jesus into ourselves—body and soul, heart and life, belief and action—and join in the work of following him. May that be who we are as a community of faith and as individual disciples of Jesus.