An intolerable message, a reflection on John 6

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Gracious God, disturb our calm, unsettle our understanding, and shake us loose from all we hold precious that we might receive you. Amen

 

communion

This is intolerable language, how can anyone accept it? The shock, the outrage, it was clearly intolerable, clearly wrong. Eating flesh and drinking blood? Gross, no way! Who would say such a thing, let alone do it. Sometimes I think we have grown too used to such language; it fails to shock us as it would have shocked Jesus’ audience that day. I think that to really get a good idea of how shocking this was we need to know that kosher meats always have the blood drained out them. Blood was mysterious. It embodied life itself. No one would think of eating something that literally carried life within itself. It was unconscionable

 

And can we hear threads of Philippians in this, God emptying himself out, becoming less, pouring forth and allowing himself to be diminished. Can we hear the thoughts of the Syro-Phoenician woman also, if I but touch the hem of his clothing some of his power, his vitality, his being will pour forth and heal me. Can we hear the fear of loss and vulnerability that made this kenosis, this melting heart, ooey-gooey, emotional stuff feel just too scary? Kenosis being the Greek word used over and over again for the compassion Jesus has for the crowds, for the towns, for the people he meets. This way of speaking, of the pouring out, the emptying, the loss of control and vulnerability is at odds with our understanding of God the Father Almighty. God, who is in control. God who demands retribution. God who’s sovereign identity requires we make good on the debt we owe him, one which, we can never repay. This God, the one who is invulnerable, is at odds with the god we see in Jesus Christ. Who came to us as an intensely vulnerable child born in poverty to an unwed mother.

 

I wonder if perhaps, Jesus didn’t come in order to change God’s mind about us, about the debt we owe and need for retribution. I wonder if Jesus might have come in order to change our minds about who God is.

 

And I wonder if, in John’s gospel, Jesus isn’t trolling the righteous religious people of the day. Those good and upright people who have studied the scriptures long and hard, who have kept every rule and are ever so careful to maintain their scrupulous behavior. Jesus wants to shake us loose from all our rigidly held ideas of right and wrong, of correct and mistaken. I wonder if Jesus isn’t asking us to think very deeply about what really does matter and how too often we let those things which are really side issues interfere and take us off track from the truly significant and why is it we do that?

 

One of my internship supervising pastors took his first call in Scotland. He used to tell many tales from his time there and his deep love of the country and the people resonated through these stories. There was one story though, that brought some uncomfortable laughter. One of the oldest Presbyterian churches in the area had gotten involved in worship wars. They argued over the correct hymnal to use, the correct liturgy, the correct use of liturgical props, you all know this story, right? We’ve all seen it, which, I suspect, is why some of that laughter was a little uncomfortable when he would tell this story. This story is our story, although this church made a choice that few of us would. They decided to split the church right down the middle and so, in the middle of the sanctuary they erected a wall. Sort of like when my sister and I were little and we used to draw an imaginary line down the middle of our room. “You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine and we’ll get along just fine.” And they did. They chose a side and they stayed on it.

 

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who live according to the ways of the world. It is a messed up, intolerable message. And then, Jesus tops it all off with, and take up your cross if you would follow me. Uh huh, take up a cross and die to the ways of the world. Die to the dream of making it, of maintaining your own security, of taking care of number one first. Let all that go.

 

Is it any wonder that we prefer to focus our attention on whether the correct colors are being used on the communion table? Or whether our liturgy is correct and proper? Dying to all that we know, to our certainty and security is frightening. And so, as we struggle to get everything right and correct, Jesus comes along and says, here is my body eat it. Go on chew it up, feel the toughness, the gritty-ness of my body and then, wash it down with my blood, for all that I am is poured out, broken up for you. There is no correct way to say that. There is no right way, no proper way, nothing in our human understanding that can make that OK. Is it any wonder that our text goes on to say, “after this many of his disciples went away and accompanied him no more.” Following Jesus is to have our certainties removed, again and again. It is to be startled into newness, thrown into vulnerability and to have all that we think we know for certain thrown into doubt and questioning.

 

God invites us again and again to move out of certainty and our attempts to capture God, to hold him in some contained way which falls apart again and again, and we are thrown into mystery. We are too prone to wanting to capture God, to having the correct theology and the correct responses, the correct way of living and being so that we can rest in certainty, but the God we meet in Jesus won’t let us do this. The God we meet in Jesus is one who defies our expectations over and over. He hangs out with the most unsuitable sort of people, the unclean, the dirty and morally suspect. He breaks all our rules which give us a simple and predictable life. He heals on the Sabbath, he allows unclean women to wash his feet, he chats women up at the watering hole. The righteous people must have wondered if there was anything he wouldn’t do!

 

A pastor once served one of those churches who solved the worship wars by holding two services, a traditional and a contemporary. Both were still compromises as there were lots of people who held very strong opinions about what proper worship was, but he did the best he could. He was really surprised and, admittedly felt a little justified, when one of his more conservative and traditional parishioners began attending the contemporary service. He approached this lady feeling just a bit smug because she had been so adamantly opposed to the contemporary service. “I see you’re attending second service now,” he said, “I guess you’re enjoying it after all.” “Oh no, Pastor,” she replied. “I hate it. But a few weeks ago you preached about how important it is to be hospitable, to meet people right where they are, and all of the young kids were going to the contemporary service and I realized I didn’t know any of them. I realized I hadn’t been very welcoming to them so I started attending that service so that I could better support them, get to know them, and be hospitable.” Instead of erecting a wall whether the physical kind or the temporal kind, that hour of separation, she crossed over to where those whom she was called to love and serve were.

 

The root of wisdom is awe and wonder of God. It is to engage the mystery knowing we are about to have the lid blown off our attempts to contain and limit God. We are about to be drawn into the unknown and to strange and new places, strange and new relationships, and we are asked to respond to this again and again with love, with kindness, with compassion.

 

I want to tell you about Syeda Ghulam Fatima. You can read about her on the Humans of New York Facebook site although Syeda lives in Pakistan. She has been shot, electrocuted, and beaten many times for her activism. She is most certainly a woman who knows what it means to take up one’s cross. In the deep rural areas of Pakistan there are brick manufacturing companies which use bonded labor. In return for a small loan an unsuspecting individual will promise to work for a while, only that while never ends. The loans are rigged and there are fees and additions such that keep these workers in debt for the rest o their lives, and when they die their debt transfers to their children. Syeda has worked tirelessly, literally putting her body between the owners and the workers. Syeda does not say that it is too much, too dangerous, too risky. She knows it is and yet she returns again and again. She pours out her life with deep compassion and love for those she would protect. She speaks truth to power and she keeps hoping that love will win, and she doesn’t stop. This is the intolerable message of the gospel, that following Jesus asks us to take up our cross and give of ourselves and all that we have and are, out of love for one another.

 

It would be easy for Syeda to say that these people are foolish and they got themselves into this situation, they can get themselves out. It’s really not her problem. Except that we have been called to love one another. Except that we are all a part of one another. Except that we are called to be food for the world. This is who Jesus has shown us that God is, this food for the world, this joining with those who suffer and are oppressed or cry out. Jesus has forever changed our understanding of who God is. The god we see in Jesus is not aloof, is not distant from our suffering, but is deeply vulnerable to us, has forsaken anything that would keep us separated from God’s self. This is not the angry God who demands retribution, but God who feeds us with God’s very self, standing between us and all that would harm us, all that would separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

 

Knowing who holds our hand, how can we be afraid? Yet we are so often, and it is easier for us to focus on who is right, who is wrong, is this correct, or that. We nothing if not masters of distraction but the invitation is ever before us, let go of your certainties, your securities, and prepare to let God carry you into the unknown where life is renewed, where grace becomes tangible, and where the invitation to love radically is ever extended.

 

Perhaps Jesus did not come to convince God to let us off the hook, on a debt we could never pay, to give us another chance. Perhaps Jesus came to invite us into a new kind of relationship with God. One in which we are fed and nourished in our inner being that we too might be food for the world. May it be so.

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