Too Much to Stomach
A sermon on John 6:56-69 by Nathan Nettleton, 24 August 1997
The Gospel made known in Jesus draws us, body, mind and spirit into the full life of God. This totality of involvement scares off many people, but there is no other way to life.
In the first and second centuries of the life of the church, you will have heard that the church suffered some serious persecution. Even if you know almost nothing about the persecution, you will have heard phrases life Christians being thrown to the lions and things like that. Well one lesser known fact about the early persecution of the church is that one of the frequent accusations brought against the Christians was the charge of cannibalism. Now it may come as something of a shock to you that you are part of the continuation of a group whose forbears were accused of cannibalism, but when you consider the gospel reading we have just heard you may realise where these accusations were coming from.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Whoever eats me will live because of me. In a world that was full of religious sects with a huge range of bizarre practises, you can easily imagine how outsiders hearing such words could conclude that this strange new sect was involved in the eating of human flesh.
The passage we have just heard, which starts in such shocking fashion, cannot of course be taken on it sown. It comes as the conclusion of one of the major sermons in the gospel of John - a sermon usually identified as the Bread of Life discourse, and over the last five weeks we have heard the whole of it read. It began with the story of the miraculous feeding of five thousand people with bread and fish, and then continued with a long discussion which began with Jesus describing himself as the bread of life and ends with what we have just heard. Now ideally, to get a feel for it we would have it all read in one sitting, because breaking it up over five weeks makes it a bit hard to get the flow of the thing, but I suspect that most of you would not be happy with having readings that go for ten minutes on there own. But I would certainly encourage you to read it in one hit at home sometime soon. It is the whole of John chapter six, and it is quite central to the understanding of Johns portrayal of Jesus Christ. Anyway, what I want to say this morning really relates to the whole chapter, none of which Ive actually preached on in the last five weeks.
In this sermon of Jesus, he challenges two distortions of his message, one explicitly and the other by implication. They are the flip sides of each other. The sermon begins, after the feeding of the five thousand when the people come looking for him again and Jesus says You are only looking for me because you got a free feed, not because youve got any idea what Im on about. And then he gives the challenge, Dont bother working your guts out for food that perishes, work for the bread that lasts for eternal life.
So what he is challenging right up front is an approach to religious faith that goes no further than seeking the gratification of basic needs. Lord, give me a good job. Lord give me a parking space. Lord give me a boyfriend. Lord, heal me of my flu. Now its not that there is anything wrong with those prayers. When Jesus teaches us to pray he includes the prayer Give us this day our daily bread. What he is challenging is the type of religion where Gods influence is confined to those areas of our lives. Hes saying that ultimately life is not there. You can be hungry and lifeless, or well fed and lifeless, and while the later is preferable to the former, both are sad failures of human life.
So what is the alternative that Jesus is calling us into? Well, when the people asked that earlier in the passage, Jesus answered, What God wants you to do is believe in the one he sent. Perhaps the answer lies here then, believing in Jesus Christ as the one God sent. Just what is to be believed could still cause some debate. You see the people were seeking Jesus out because they believed that he had miraculously fed them and that presumably he could continue to perform similar miracles with similar benefits. Was this belief enough. Evidently not, because that puts us straight back in the previous position, a faith that just seeks that gratification of basic needs. Jesus says, You seek me because you know what I have done, but you dont understand what it means.
So is understanding what it means the answer, the missing ingredient. Well there is certainly great value in knowledge and understanding, but if our capacity for understanding is what matters then we find ourselves at the mercy of an intellectually elitist God who is going to be very dismissive of those whose capacity to comprehend is limited. And anyway, understanding and believing in themselves have no moral value. As it is written elsewhere, even the devil believes that Jesus is the Son of God, but that does not mean that he is doing what God requires.
Perhaps the key lies in todays extract, It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. This verse has frequently been latched onto by those who preach the ancient heresy that says that spirit and flesh are irreconcilable opposites. This has usually expressed itself as either the flesh is irrelevant so it doesnt matter what you do with your body because only the spirit matters, or as the flesh is evil and has to be rigorously disciplined and punished in order to beat it into submission the higher values of spirit. Most of the major religions have been guilty at various times of being anti-body and spiritualising our relationship with God to the point where it loses contact with real life.
But this cant be what Jesus was saying, because it would be totally contradictory for him to go on about the importance of receiving his body and blood in order to receive life, and then turn around and say that the body is either irrelevant or evil. This might be the logical opposite of a religion that is only about gratifying basic needs, but it is in fact the opposite that Jesus is also by implication rejecting. He is rejecting religion that is only concerned with bodily needs and religion that is so spiritualised it ignores bodily needs.
He is pointing us again to the absolute centrality of the incarnation to Christian faith. The Word became flesh. The Spirit of God became known to us in the body of Jesus Christ. Jesus is calling us to see the significance of this inseparable union of spirit and body, and then calling us beyond just recognising it to actually participating in it. Jesus is calling us into a faith that is expressed in body, mind and spirit, a faith that involves us totally, that cant be confined to some little compartment of our lives. Jesus is calling us into a faith that is as real when youre eating a pie at the footy as when youre eating bread at this table. A faith that is as real when youre in bed with your lover as it is when youre on your knees in prayer.
Jesus is giving himself to you so totally, body, mind and spirit, that the only image that seems to capture the extent of the involvement is that of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. When you respond to Christ in faith you do not just receive a gift of life from Jesus, you receive the gift of Jesus, his very life given to you as fully as if you ate him. And the totality of this gift calls for a totality of response - a full life offering of yourself back to God, body, mind and spirit.
And it is this to which we are told many of the disciples reacted saying This teaching is too difficult, who can accept it? and many of them turned back and would no longer follow him. It is a tragic but not surprising incident in the gospels, no doubt one that was repeated frequently in Jesus life. There are so many who are attracted to Jesus offer of life, but who are unwilling to pay the price. They are unwilling to face the challenge of integrating their lives. They want a religion that is like a beautiful ornament in a glass show case - a treasured possession but only significant when you are looking in the show case. They dont want a religion that is like yeast, to use another of Jesus parables, a religion that ferments its way through your entire life and transforms it all. And so they walk away from the offer of life. Its all too hard. And go back to living fragmented purposeless lives, clutching desperately for some easy way to bring meaning where there is none.
But we stand with Simon Peter, who when Jesus said to the twelve, Do you want to go too?, replied, Lord, to whom can we go. You have the words of eternal life. It doesnt mean that we are always happy with the extent of Jesus call to us. It doesnt mean that we find it easy. It just means that we know that its worth it because there is no other way. All life comes from God, and Jesus has been sent from God to show us the way of life.
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 life that is so much more that merely existing. This is being drawn into the life experience of God, being drawn into the lived experience of the relationships within the trinity itself. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them, says Jesus. It is essentially relational talk. This is not some kind of detached question of whether or not you have received a certain gift, this is about ongoing participation in the life of God; about a continual receiving of all the life God is offering to you. This is about living the whole of life as if receiving it from the hands of Christ at the communion table.
The word Eucharist means thanksgiving, and expression of gratitude for the gift received. And when we gather at this table to express our gratitude for the life we are being given, it is not just an isolated act that we carry out, it is the centre point of our lives because it symbolises the whole of our lives, a giving and receiving relationship with God filled with gratitude, mystery, celebration and wonder. As people who live our lives as sacred gift we find our whole lives expressed, symbolised, and made holy here at this table.
We come because we have hear Christs call, because we want to abide in him, to rest in him, and to open ourselves to him so that he might abide in us. We come because we want to be intimately related to the one who gives us life, because we want to live our life in the same spirit that we receive bread and wine here. We come because we want to receive what we are, because we want to become what we receive. We come because the Word has become flesh, and through word and flesh we will find life in all its fullness.