Holy Cross Day: It’s a Trap!

Holy Cross Day: It’s a Trap!

John 3:13-17

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

It is becoming harder and harder for me to read the third chapter of the Gospel of John without worrying about the dangers embedded in a few beautiful lines. The image that comes to mind is Admiral Ackbar shouting, “It’s a trap!” during the Battle of Endor in the 1983 film “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.” That may sound odd. After all, our pericope for the day contains one of the most popular lines in all Holy Scripture. The sixteenth verse, specifically, was thrust into the pantheon of American iconography thanks to Rollen Stewart, an eccentric and troubled man who would hoist signs during major sports broadcasts in the 1980s emblazoned with “John 3:16.” Introducing the Gospel to millions appeared to be Stewart’s goal, but as I have discovered in my own study, pulling this one verse out of the rich context of John’s entire story is dangerous business indeed.

Falling into the trap of focusing solely on the oft-confused and maligned sixteenth verse can result in wielding a weapon of exclusion and elitism rather than the life-giving tonic that it was meant to offer. John’s message was intended for a closed group of persecuted believers. This is a message of Good News and inclusion, meant to provide life and hope during dark days. The author would not have imagined that it would one day be wielded to exclude people from the faith or even worse, the basis for which violence might be conducted in efforts to “purify” and expunge infidels.

This well-worn passage also risks a superficial gloss by even the most careful of preachers. For those raised in the Church, it is one of the first memorized lines of scripture for even the youngest of disciples. We think we know it so well that there is nothing more left to reveal. In cases such as this one, it is helpful to heed the advice of Barbara Brown Taylor: “Whenever you come up on something about God, the Gospel, or the life of faith that everyone knows is true, step back from the reverential crowd whose gaze is fixed on it and look in the opposite direction—because nine times out of ten there is something just as true back there, though largely ignored because its benefits are less obvious and its truth harder to embrace.”[1]

For the discerning preacher, gazing in the opposite direction means exegeting one’s own community before wading into the waters of this text. What is your community’s current understanding of this passage? How much of John’s world and context do they understand? Are they even aware of the critical seventeenth verse?

Additionally, the preacher will need to have a solid understanding of how their community understands the cross. Within the lectionary cycle, this passage is the stock Gospel text for the Feast of Holy Cross Day (September 14). This holy day provides the Church with an opportunity to celebrate the cross itself as the instrument of salvation. The collect for the day recalls that Christ “was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world unto himself,” and prays that “we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him.”[2] It has been my experience that congregations tend to be unbalanced when it comes to their glorying in the mystery of their redemption which offers preachers an opportunity to expand the possibilities of the cross and thus, humanity’s salvation. I have experienced some churches that spend most their salvific exploration on Good Friday and the crucifixion. Even on high holy days, these congregations tend to revel in the mortification and humiliation of the cross. These folks like sing about the grave on Christmas (just Google “cradle and the cross” Christmas lyrics.) On the other hand, I have experienced as many communities that rarely glory in the mystery of the cross because “it makes everyone feel bad.” In these congregations, Good Friday services were sparsely attended and during the few sermons that dealt with the topic, everyone squirmed uneasily in their seats, anxious for it to be over so that brunch plans could begin. Understanding where your community resides will help you determine the preaching path forward that might expand their approach to salvation.[3]

Holy Cross Day provides an opportunity to celebrate Christ’s redeeming death on a cross. One might ask if it is more honest to the Gospel message to balance the agony of the cross with the ultimate outcome–the resurrection of the One crucified for the salvation of all the world (v. 17.) To accomplish this task, the preacher might benefit from theologian Gerard Sloyan’s identification of the Johannine “double ‘upraising’ in crucifixion and resurrection” (8:28, 12:32, 34) throughout the book .[4]

For the church that inclines toward a more punitive atonement focused on Jesus’ death, they may need reminding that “God wills life and not death for all who believe in the only Son. That indeed is why God gave him (v. 16), not for the world’s condemnation but its salvation (v. 17) [emphasis mine].”[5] For the church that hesitates to acknowledge the cross, unpacking the true power of the cross during a feast day celebration, or perhaps more appropriately, in a small group teaching time, may deepen the faith by exploring the mystery of how a symbol of shameful systemic oppression was converted into a sign of hope and life.

This balancing act of the cross’ role in salvation is a perfect opportunity to draw out J.R.R. Tolkien’s brilliant description of the birth of Christ as the eucatastrophe of human history and the resurrection the eucatastrophe of the incarnation.[6] This imaginative phrasing of the paradox of salvation allows for a preacher to resist the trap of focusing solely on John’s sixteenth verse and instead, to invite the congregation to hold in tension both the crucifixion and the resurrection. To further emphasize the mysterious enigma of the cross on its feast day, singing the hymn “Lift high the cross” can highlight this that the cross is a sign of resurrection rather than one of death and shame, and that John’s Good News is that “once lifted on the glorious tree, as thou hast promised, [Christ will] draw the world to thee!”

[1] Brown Taylor, Barbara. “Entering the Dark Cloud of God” Festival of Homiletics. 25 May 2014, Central Lutheran, Minneapolis. Address.

[2] The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer, Oxford UP, 2007.

[3] I find that in one-on-one and small group settings, inviting people to tell their earliest memories of Church and how the cross was introduced to them as young children, adolescents or even adults provides for the beginnings of exegeting their current understanding of the cross. These stories can aid a skillful preacher in contextualizing sermons on atonement for their congregation.

[4] Sloyan, Gerard. “John” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, 1988, 46.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Oxford UP, 1947.

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The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Annual Conference, Boundaries, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus Christ.

Proper 18(B): Humility and Jesus

Proper 18(B): Humility and Jesus

Mark 7:24–27

By: The Rev. Charles Cowen

In my days working in the professional theatre, there was an apocryphal tale actors loved to share about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. During the filming of the film Marathon Man, Hoffman showed up to the set looking sickly, weak, and sleep-deprived. Olivier looked at his costar and asked if everything was ok. Hoffman replied that since his character, at this point in the film, had been awake for 72 hours, he, too, had stayed up for 72 hours. Olivier, in his droll English dialect, replied, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

This story always will make an actor laugh because we know first-hand the incredible power of imagination and empathy. Many Hollywood types get caught up in political debates and demonstrations because they spend their days imagining what it is like to be someone else–what  it means to be the other.

Perhaps more than any of the Gospels, Mark invites the audience to imaginatively walk not only with Jesus but with those whom Jesus encounters.[1] In today’s lectionary selection, we are given the opportunity to imagine two encounters with Jesus. Through these encounters, we, along with our first-century siblings, come closer to knowing the living God in the person of Jesus.

In the first story, I cannot help but place myself in the shoes of the Syrophoenician woman. I do not have children, but I have worked closely with children as a teacher and as a summer camp chaplain. The deep, deep love I have for those children gives me a tool for imagining and empathizing the fear, despair, and sadness a parent must feel when their child is threatened. This woman, who has heard the many stories of Jesus casting out demons, healing withered hands, and feeding over 5000 people, approaches Jesus in her desperation and begs for healing for her daughter. What parent wouldn’t? Every time I hear this story, I am jarred to my core at Jesus’ response: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27 NRSV).

Ouch!

Not only does this pain me as I imagine the children in my life whom I love, but it pains me as a 21st Century American who has heard our leaders refer to immigrants and their children as animals. Just as those who have sworn to protect our country see children of foreign birth as somehow lesser-than, Jesus, a Jew, here sees this Gentile as something lesser-than.[2]

Then something truly miraculous occurs. This incredible woman out of her love, her fear, her desperation, teaches Jesus—Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Son of God (Mk 1:1)—teaches Jesus a lesson about humanity.

Can you imagine the embarrassment of hearing a mother reply to your callous comment, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28)? We, the listeners of this story, are invited to consider the bravery and lovingness of this desperate mother while we also consider the humanity of Jesus as his arrogance is transformed into humility through an honest encounter with another human being: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter” (Mk 7:29).

As if this story does not already give us enough to imagine and reflect upon, we then immediately get another story where Jesus heals a deaf-mute. Just as the Syrophoenician woman speaks for her child, this man’s friends speak for him. Jesus, performing all the motions that healers of his time would have performed, does what other healers were unable to do—he loosens the man’s tongue and unstops his ears.

I invite you to undergo the same imaginative practice we underwent with the Syrophoenician woman with this man, with his friends, and with Jesus. It is a practice, simple in principle and powerful in deed. Congregations can be taken on this imaginative journey through preaching or in small-group Bible studies. As a matter of fact, this imaginative practice is exactly what we do when we participate in the remembrance of the Last Supper through the sacrament of bread and wine.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus commands his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). These familiar words are absent in Mark’s Gospel, perhaps because the entirety of Mark’s Gospel is an extended anamnesis—a sustained remembrance of who Jesus is and what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus, truly human and truly divine, brings with him truth of the coming of God’s new kingdom. Its unfolding brings healing and freedom not only to a specific people in a specific time and place, but to all people. Jesus himself learns this through the prophetic voice of the Syrophoenician woman and lives fully into it through his healing of the deaf-mute.

I admit freely that Year B brings me much joy. The theatre artist in me loves telling this story given to us by Mark. I love imagining alongside my parishioners and friends as we remember Jesus’ life and we remember the life of the Markan community. As Mark reminds us in the opening line of his Gospel, this is “good news” that cries out to be shared. How will you and your faith community remember these stories, empathize with its characters, and spread that love and empathy throughout God’s emerging kingdom?

[1] For an excellent resource in imaginatively engaging with Mark, I highly recommend Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel by David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie. 3rd Edition. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012).

[2] Please do not read anti-Semitism into this. The point is that humans are always looking at ways of categorizing others as “other.” I imagine a Gentile would have the same suspicion of a Jew.

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The Rev. Charles Cowen

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen is a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church and Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish in Wilmington, Delaware. He received his M.Div. from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, and prior to seminary was the Associate Director for the Marley Bridges Theatre Company in Newport, Rhode Island. In addition to his church work, Charles has worked as a playwright, actor, improviser, puppet builder, puppeteer, storyteller, director, comedian, and Emcee.

Proper 17(B): What About the Rules?

Proper 17 (B): What About the Rules?

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

My spouse and I have a niece who is bright, glib, cheerful, and curious. From an early age, she’s one of those kids you want to listen to because everything that comes out of her mouth is unexpected and often hilarious. Yet, like so many extremely bright children, she has a particular penchant for seeking out precisely what she is not supposed to do. We talk about her as being the textbook example of obeying the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. Not supposed to go past this point on the driveway? Well, she’s going to play exactly on that border. Need to sit down for meals? She can figure out the most complex and uncomfortable looking squat that is hard to classify as either “sitting” or “standing.” I watch her parents constantly have to decide whether she’s pushing the boundary too far, or whether her precise but hardly innocent obedience to their instructions is, technically, within the rules. Suffice to say, she’s awesome.

But what is cute in an exasperating child isn’t so attractive in full-grown adults, and I see Jesus tackling that impulse as he verbally spars with the Pharisees in this passage. They look to a clear law and can’t see any reason to flout it; why would Jesus’ followers be so careless about their ritual washing? It’s tradition; it’s presumably not that hard to do. In the disregard for this one law, I imagine, they see more than just eating with unwashed hands; they fear (or maybe hope to find) that this is evidence that Jesus and his followers aren’t as good of Jews as others think they are. Maybe this relatively innocuous choice reveals them as disdainful of tradition, or ignorant of it; maybe this choice is all the confirmation they need to be able to dismiss this band of misfits as nothing more than a group of troublemakers who don’t really care about their religion.

I wish it were harder to think of modern equivalents, but I know all too well how this plays out in my Catholic tradition. You don’t go to Mass every Sunday? Well, you must not have any real idea of what Catholicism means. You don’t go to the sacrament of Reconciliation twice a year like the bishops recommend? Then how can you expect anyone to take you seriously when you claim to love the Church? You’ve decided to use a method of birth control that the Church condemns? You’re not a real Catholic.

I’m endlessly frustrated when my faith tradition is regarded (by insiders or outsiders) as somehow nothing more than a collection of rules to follow. It’s something I hear often from my undergraduate students, especially those who weren’t raised in any religious tradition. Christianity, from their perspective, is a set of strict beliefs that one must wholly accept and flawlessly adhere to, and anyone who marches out of time is sent packing. It worries me that that is what they’ve seen modeled. The letter of the law, in this interpretation, has no room for humanity, for context, for imperfection, or for conscientious dissent – it is synonymous with the whole religion. To be Christian is to follow orders.

This is why I am so heartened by the way Jesus teaches following this tiff, calling attention to a person’s motivations and intentions as far more important than the rules they follow. He refuses to argue about the specific rule and instead pushes his learners to think beyond compliance into the much harder space of morality. What does it mean to be greedy, or deceitful, or lewd? That’s tougher to answer than the question of whether one washed one’s hands properly before a meal. Sometimes it’s easier to “round down” and to obey a rule rather than to try and figure out why that rule exists in the first place, what it’s supposed to encourage and discourage within a person’s heart. My niece will, at least eventually, understand that the boundaries her parents impose are usually about safety (stay on the sidewalk!) or compassion (you can’t hit your sister and take her toy) – if she somehow grew up without realizing this, and without trying out the values for herself (my friend is upset; is it more compassionate to let her vent, or to help her come up with a solution?), we probably would say something went wrong in her learning. In the same way, rules make great litmus tests; moral discernment, by contrast, is messy, awkward, and fraught with mistakes. You can be a great rule-follower by, well, obeying the rules; it’s darn near impossible to be a moral person without screwing up a lot because so much of our moral development happens by observing and acknowledging our errors.

Personally, I think that any work we can do as religious professionals or ministers to de-emphasize “rules” and talk in more expansive ways about moral decision-making is worthwhile, and not because the behavioral guidance passed down in our tradition is worthless. Far from it; to comprehend the “rules” is to understand more about virtue and vice and how earlier Christians have wrestled with the same questions. But we do ourselves a disservice when we forget to dig in, when we let our tradition be reduced to a series of boxes to tick. The goal for my niece is that she’ll come to understand what the rules are about (safety, boundaries, love, compassion); same deal for us. Jesus seemed to think so, anyway.

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Dr. Emily Kahm

Dr. Emily Kahm is a Teaching Fellow in Religion at Augustana College in Illinois, where she teaches courses on contemporary Christianity and Catholicism. She resides with her spouse, Chris, in Iowa, along with their dog, Bosco, and rabbits, Exodus and Hildegard.

Proper 16(B): Jesus’ Adaptation in Context

Proper 16(B): Jesus’ Adaptation in Context

John 6:56-69

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

Has this ever happened to you? You’re watching a movie, and right at the pivotal moment, the big plot twist, the major reveal, someone enters your space. This person knows nothing about the movie, and in the hope that you might be able to convey enough information in a short amount of time so that the new person might join in on the experience, this kind soul begins to ask you questions: “Who is that? What’s her story? Why are they fighting?”

FYI: If you’ve never experienced this, it’s possible that you might be that person!

This is exactly what I feel like when reading John 6:56-69. The lectionary throws the reader into the middle of a pivotal moment, without all the information. If read simply as the lectionary would have it, one might be under the impression that the disciples’ response in 6:60 is aimed specifically at Jesus’ statement beginning in verse 56, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

In reality, the disciples seem to be responding to a great deal more! Jesus’ teaching stretches back to 6:25. And the central gravity of the passage seemingly comes to a head at 6:35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus says a few more things that seem to hold some weight. Things like:

“…‘This is my Father’s will: that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day’…” (6:40)

“…‘No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me’…” (6:44)

“…‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you’…” (6:53)

Only after a lot of teaching do we finally reach today’s lectionary’s selection.

…‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.’ Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Many of his disciples who heard this said, ‘This message is harsh. Who can hear it?’… (6:56-60)

While Jesus’ graphic wording in this paragraph is hard to digest, the same can be said for the whole chapter. Jesus’ entire message is difficult! And what is that message? From my perspective, it seems to be this: Jesus is the bread of life, and the way to God. Unless one believes, one may not be raised up on the last day.

In seminary, I participated in an exercise that drew an imaginary line. On one end of the line was Exclusive Christianity (Christianity is the one, true religion.) On the other end, was Pluralistic Christianity (Christianity is one among many pathways to God.) And in the middle—Inclusive Christianity (Christianity is my pathway to God, and there may or may not be others.) We were then asked to figure out where we stood on the spectrum.

Through my first few years of ministry, I thought about that line a great deal, and I couldn’t help but notice that my place on that line tended to shift depending on my context. It still does.

For example, when involved in a deep discussion concerning Christian doctrine with someone who might stand on the Exclusive side, I find myself somewhere in the Inclusive space (possibly approaching Pluralistic.) Likewise, when in a similar discussion with someone who more closely identifies toward the Pluralistic range of things, I end up standing in between Inclusive and Exclusive. It all depends on context.

Similarly, if I participate in a religious conversation, it is going to sound a lot different with a believer than a nonbeliever. We adjust based on context.

This is something I love about Jesus. He is contextual. He adapts to the moment; to the people; to the context.

The same can be said for Jesus in John 6. At the very end of this long passage (in 6:64-66), we finally reach a break in the action, and we find out that Jesus has been aware from the beginning that some of his own disciples may not believe. In fact, the author of John writes that Jesus actually knows the specifics of who would not believe AND who would end up betraying him. Jesus actually states, “Some of you do not believe.”

Since context is important, we need to recognize that Jesus is not addressing the 12. He is addressing a larger group of disciples. A group that seems to include some who are much more committed to the movement than others, and even some who do not believe. And because some disciples do not believe but continue to “follow” Jesus, he declares this to be the reason for his “harsh” teaching, essentially serving to “weed out” the unbelievers from the believers, much like Organic Chemistry seeks to do with Pre-Med students. He’s testing for commitment. His teaching occurs in a context. Thus, the reason for the hard teaching.

I wonder if Jesus would address a crowd of “sinners” in the same way. I wonder if Jesus might address a group of Pharisees more harshly. I wonder if Jesus could say the same deep and difficult teaching to a group of new, post-modern followers. Or would he change the way he said it? Or would he use action? Or simply listen?

We serve an adaptable God, with an adaptable message, and ever-adapting manner by which the gospel makes its way into the world. But that same message of forgiveness, and hope, and love of Jesus Christ will always be the same. God will always be reconciling the world to Godself. But it may look/sound/feel different.

May your reading of Scripture look for context.

May your ministry take note of ways to adapt.

And may you know that God is a God of creativity, innovation, adaptation, and ultimately, love.

 

Andrew
The Rev. Andrew Chappell

The Rev. Andrew Chappell has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.

Proper 15(B): Irrationally Incarnational

Proper 15(B): Irrationally Incarnational

John 6:51-58

By: The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews

“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

This appointed text is week four (of five) of John 6 in Year B, the “Olive Garden unlimited breadsticks” of the Revised Common Lectionary. This chapter from John is directly and indirectly why I am an Episcopalian and why I am a priest. I’m also fairly certain that I didn’t encounter this chapter from John, certainly not verses like these, until I was in college—and I grew up in a tradition that emphasized knowing the Bible.

Today’s passage comes between Jesus saying that eating this bread, unlike eating manna, brings life eternal and the disciples saying that Jesus’ teaching is difficult to understand. This is a difficult teaching! It is mystical, spiritual, and irrational—but undeniably tangible, physical, earthy, and incarnational. Jesus is talking about heaven and eternal life, but he’s also talking about bread: a basic substance of human subsistence in almost every culture around the globe.

Jesus says that he is the living bread that has come down from heaven. Jesus says that whoever eats of this bread will live forever. Jesus says that the bread that he gives for the life of the world is his flesh. Then there are complaints and questions. The structure of John 6:51-58 is suspiciously similar to John 6:41-51, which may indicate that this is a different tradition of the Bread of Life discourse added to tease out and emphasize Eucharistic themes.[1]

In the verses before this, there is no mention of blood. Furthermore, the requirement for reaching or having eternal life shifts in 51-58. Previously Jesus has talked about belief. (v. 35, 47) In this second, more clearly Eucharistic version of the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus changes the standard saying, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (53)

John’s tone toward Jewish leadership and how the church has used that to enable anti-Semitism over time must be acknowledged whenever it arises. This is no exception, even as Jewish leaders serve as a counter point to Jesus, inviting him to elaborate on his flesh and blood in the tradition of rabbinical debate. Jewish leaders have complained (twice in this chapter) about Jesus saying that he brings the Bread of Life. He has now upped the ante that unless one engages in cannibalism, eating flesh and drinking blood (see Brown for why the Greek is not metaphor here)—against most social taboos across centuries, and anathema to his first century audience—one cannot have eternal life.

This is a difficult teaching! That’s probably why I never encountered it until college, despite growing up in a tradition that emphasized knowing the Bible. In these passages Jesus repeatedly describes his real flesh as real food, and his real blood as real blood. He says that by eating him his followers abide in him and he in them. It’s not rational, but it is incarnational. Eating—whether Jesus is eating or his followers are eating him—is an inherently embodied act. Jesus says it is this act that brings eternal life, and without this act, one has no life in themselves.

The irrational, mystical spirituality of this passage is probably why I didn’t encounter this text growing up in a modernist, rational American Protestant tradition. Looking at the Eucharist as an act of works-righteousness, and not a sacramental gift of God’s grace, doesn’t leave a lot of room for the mysticism of how completing the action, feeding on Jesus’s true flesh and true blood, brings salvation. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Jesus’ direction to eat his flesh and drink his blood is deeply spiritual, but necessarily incarnational. There is a paradox here that modernist rationalism has difficulty with. There’s a willingness to engage the paradox of the incarnation itself, but a resistance to engage with the idea that the plain and ordinary bread could be the flesh of God made human. Better to ignore it…despite Jesus’ promise that by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, his followers abide in him and he in them. This is a promise that stands, even if they don’t always have special, warm feelings. He promises to show up in Bread, to be a body, to be held in hands and tasted on tongues.

It was this promise of showing up, this assurance of ongoing relationship, this deep abiding, that brought me to The Episcopal Church through the Eucharist, and to the priesthood to say week after week, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” This isn’t manna that keeps you alive just as long as your body lasts. This is the true bread, the real bread of life, the bread that brings eternal life. It’s not praying a prayer, or getting a warm feeling. It’s showing up in a body and doing a basic human act: eating.

As an out, gay man who grew up in Alabama in a modernist, rational American Protestant tradition, this passage has not only brought me deeper into my faith and helped me find a tradition, it has helped me — like the way John uses the Jewish leaders in this text — invite others to wonder about their blind spots in their biblical knowledge, or to notice ways that they aren’t as literalist as they think they are.

As an out, gay man from Alabama I still encounter those wielding scripture in an effort to clobber my vocation and call. For the last number of years, however, when confronted (in varying degrees of friendliness) with those clobber passages, I ask the person opposite me what they do with John 6:51-58. Are they familiar with it? What do they read into (or read out of) it? Do they know it the way they know Romans 1, as they emphasize “the whole body of Scripture?”

Jesus saying that the only way to eternal life is to eat his flesh and drink is blood isn’t easy to understand; it is mystical and spiritual. Abiding in God by eating and drinking is also deeply incarnational. Feasting on Jesus’ Flesh and Blood and it yielding eternal life is irrationally incarnational.

[1] Raymond Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1966), 284-287.

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The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews

The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Joseph-St. John Episcopal Church in Lakewood, Washington. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their two cats Maggie and Stan. Joseph is an avid baker (but not eater of Olive Garden breadsticks) and enjoys lifting weights, trivia, show tunes, and refereeing very amateur adult soccer.

Proper 14(B): The Cosmic Jesus

Proper 14(B): The Cosmic Jesus

John 6:35; 41-51

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

This is the passage that’s turned more than one Baptist I know into Catholics. If you’re inclined toward the more literal end of scriptural interpretation, it’s a little hard to ignore Jesus’ words about his flesh actually being the bread that will save you from death. For many people, my friends included, these words translate directly to “transubstantiation.”

It’s true that the author of the Gospel of John often comes across as significantly more literal than the other Gospel writers, perhaps because the goal is to convince us that Jesus isn’t simply God-like, but one with God—the pre-existent, cosmic Logos. (See verse 45a, “They shall all be taught by God.”) But even for those of us who tend toward the metaphorical in our interpretations, this passage yields some really good stuff.

First up, there is verse 35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Bread was it in the ancient world—if you were a poor peasant with nothing else between you and starvation, you’d still eat bread. (See the widow of Zarephath, 1 Kings 17:7-16.) The symbolic centrality of bread is reflected today by phrases such as “breadwinner,” “bread and butter,” and “breadbasket;” as Christians we double down on this imagery during communion.

So despite the fraught nature of our modern Western attitudes toward carbs, the phrase “I am the bread of life” still resonates deeply with the basic longings we as humans have for relationship with something (or rather someone) that gives us sustenance. Who among us—who in our congregations—hasn’t yearned for a greater sense of meaning in our lives, for freedom from our past mistakes and healing for our wounds, for assurance that we are loved just as we are? In short, who hasn’t hungered for a relationship that feeds us?

Despite John’s affection for stating things directly, Jesus is obviously not saying he is a loaf to be sliced up and made into sandwiches; rather, the very figurativeness of Jesus’ words here reminds us that connection with God nurtures us in a more profound way than any physical manna we might eat, any worldly pleasure or status we might seek.

Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, a great introduction to the Ignatian Examen, explores this spiritual sustenance more fully. The book gets its title from a story about traumatized children in World War II refugee camps who were finally able to sleep by holding a piece of bread in their hands—a powerful reminder that they would go hungry no more. The authors’ approach to the Examen invites us to see what gives us life during the day—how God is feeding us—and to hold on to that bread through all the things that might distract or drain us.

Or, as Blaise Pascal put it (rather more dramatically): “What else does this craving…proclaim but that there was once in [humanity] a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?” This so-called “God-shaped hole” we humans try “in vain to fill with everything around [us],” only to find that nothing quite satisfies, “since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God[’s own self].” –Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)

Really, there’s a whole sermon in just that one verse!

Some of what’s there to unpack gets Jesus in trouble with the religious establishment—they hear in Jesus’ words an audacious claim to divinity (vv. 41-42), and, no doubt, blasphemous echoes of the Creator’s “I AM” statements (e.g. Exodus 3:14).

But Jesus declares it all a wash: whether God is drawing interested followers closer to the Divine through Jesus (v. 44), or they are being drawn to Jesus because they are already close to God (v. 45), the end result is the same—people are being fed spiritually in a way that gives life, beyond even death.

Plenty of early Christians had already indeed eaten of this bread and died—see 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff—so it’s likely that despite the tendency to interpret John literally, the gospel writer is speaking figuratively of life after death; or, if we want to get even more metaphorical, of avoiding spiritual death in the here and now.

Which means it’s time for a little biblical Greek. The NRSV’s “forever” in verse 51 – “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever”—is the Greek phrase eis ton aiōna, or “to/in/towards/for/among the age.” Aiōn, from whence we get the English word “eon,” is often translated as “forever” or “eternal,” but as Rob Bell so elegantly explains in his book “Love Wins,” that gives a false sense of how it was used in other Greek sources from the time. Rather than being chronological in nature, aiōn was qualitative in nature—meaning not so much time-without-end as “timeless.” The English phrase “for the ages” captures part of it—something recognized as having value long past the current moment, something that lasts.

So we might think of Jesus’ words as more along the lines of “Whoever eats this bread will live with meaning far beyond the current moment; they will live a life of eternal value instead of one full of spiritual deadness.”

A little more biblical Greek: the “flesh” Jesus asks us to eat, sarx, can literally mean body; or it can mean human nature. I love thinking about verse 51c this way: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my humanness.” It turns the traditional sense of this verse as a reference to the cross (complete with morbid overtones of cannibalism!) into an invitation to embrace Jesus as the incarnation of a God who knows our human experience intimately; a God who has taken on such experience precisely to nourish us, to help us know how deeply we are loved.

(Just to make it a biblical Greek trinity, remember that pisteuōn, so often translated as “believe,” is much closer to our word “trust.” I find that a really helpful insight for parishioners who get caught up in what they think they have to believe about Jesus rather than how to trust in Jesus.)

We’ve gone from the mystic transubstantiation of eating the literal flesh of divinity so we’ll live forever to the ordinary humanness of eating bread so we’ll remember what’s of sustaining, eternal value in the here and now. Perhaps this thoroughly metaphorical interpretation is a sign that the cosmic weight of John’s gospel is just as well understood symbolically as literally. Perhaps it’s a reminder that, just as in communion—no matter how you view it—ordinary words and symbols are God’s invitation to access the spiritual sustenance we all crave.

 

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The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves a run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 4-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.

 

Proper 13(B): Transcendent Things

Proper 13(B): Transcendent Things

John 6:24-35

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

I always find it interesting (and, if I’m honest, somewhat frustrating) that in many instances when Jesus performs a great miracle or work he tells people not to say anything about it, or kind of begrudges their being impressed by it. I always want to be impressed by them. I always want to appreciate the “wow” factor involved. That isn’t always a bad impulse, but getting consumed by the superficial, material-level “wow” factor in religion or in something important that God does in the world can really cause you some problems now and again (just ask Lot’s wife.) It seems like Jesus sometimes does these things, manipulates the physical realm, to draw our attention more deeply into transcendent things.

I don’t want to go down the road that leads to declaring the physical world meaningless by establishing some either/or relationship when it comes to physicality and spirituality. In fact, I think that this text leads us to consider a more transcendent, Eucharistic idea that God’s presence in the world both involves material things and presses beyond them.

When the people who were impressed by Jesus feeding the five thousand came to find him the next day, they discover him on the other side of the sea (away from the place where he had just made his big splash.) They are curious about this, as many would be. Who doesn’t like to bask a little bit in the glory of their own accomplishments? But that wasn’t Jesus’ style.  Somewhat surprisingly to those searching for him, they found that Jesus had removed himself from the location of all the action (and all of the social glory that would have come with it.) As soon as they get to him to see what’s going on, he comes at them with a mini-sermon. He says they aren’t coming to find him for spiritually significant reasons, but rather for practical ones—they know he can give them food, since they know he has done it before.

Jesus cautions them about this. He reminds them not to let their life’s work be consumed by food that perishes, but to orient themselves towards that which endures forever. This is one of those times when Scripture really hits home. How many of us let our life’s work get consumed by things we are going to in-turn consume? Industry and economics are built on these very concerns. This isn’t to say that having food or other things is bad, but it is a question of priorities and of ensuring that we do not get consumed by our quest for consumption. Jesus doesn’t want them to confuse temporary things with eternal things.

This could be a great challenge for some. They might wonder, if not blanket consumerism, what would we use to drive the economies and wealth of nations? How would we define meaning in one’s work or life accomplishments, if not by salary, investments, homes, and so on? If one isn’t careful, it could cause an existential crisis. Even so, perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Repentance is, after all, about renewing our minds.

For others, this message may be a great consolation. For the poor, the dispossessed, and the oppressed, it can be a blessing to hear that their worth isn’t wound up with physical or material or social capital, but rather in something more transcendent and divine. Additionally, when times are troubled, as ours are now, there is a great temptation to equate what we have in the moment with what will always be. What we have now, in this moment, may be less than perfect. It may be bad. It may be flat out wrong or evil. Fortunately for us, this is the bread that perishes. In this passage, Jesus declares himself not just bread that sustains life, but the bread of life, that is, the very essence of life itself. He invites folks to come to him and find in him that they will never hunger or thirst again.

This is a blessing and a challenge to consider in light of increasing poverty and humanitarian crises all around the globe. It is also a hopeful thing to consider. As the bread of the world perishes, the bread of heaven is in the world, with us, keeping us and sustaining us beyond the shallow things that simple materialism and consumerism can satisfy. We hunger and thirst for food and water, but also for love and compassion, for justice and goodness, for peace and support. We may turn to many places for consolation in a hungry world, but Christ directs us to his eternal, Eucharistic presence as the reliable source of divine endurance and sustenance in a world which is, by nature, always perishing.

 

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The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The Reverend Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Mebane, North Carolina where he lives with his husband, Logan, and dog, Dandy. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.