Trinity 12 – Will you stay or will you go? – Annemarie Woodward

St Mary’s, Hadlow

Sunday 23rd August 2015

(12th Sunday After Trinity)

John 6: 56-69

Will you stay or will you go?

May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘Does this offend you?’[1] Silence – a painful, sullen silence: the crowd that had eagerly flocked to hear Jesus are dumbstruck. They literally cannot believe their ears. Up to now, following Jesus of Nazareth has been exhilarating: they’ve heard Him preach; they’ve witnessed signs and wonders beyond belief; they’ve even seen Him stand up to the Chief Priests and the Pharisees. Up to this moment they were convinced that Jesus was ‘indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’[2]

But this – no, this is beyond belief.

Why the dramatic change of heart? Why did they turn their backs on Him and walk away – and how did that make Him feel?

Their reaction, surely, was more painful to bear than that of the Chief Priests and the Pharisees. This rejection had come from within, from those who had been his loyal supporters.

If we stop for a moment, and look at their reaction in context, we can see that St John deliberately sets this complex bread of life narrative against the backdrop of the great Feast of Passover.[3]

Feeding the five thousand with a handful of barley loaves resonates with echoes of Exodus when God rained manna down from heaven to nourish the Israelites in the wilderness.

Walking on the stormy waters of Galilee, calling out to His disciples ‘do not be afraid’[4] evokes images of the parting of the Red Sea when the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt.

Now, ‘teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum,[5] Jesus is taking the analogy of nourishment and trust one crucial stage further: ‘your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread[6] who came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’[7]

‘Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.’[8]

It is at this point that the spotlight falls on the disciples’ reaction, and all we can see (for the most part) is outrage and revulsion: to drink any blood, let alone human blood, is strictly forbidden by the Law;[9] in practice, the complex system of kosher butchering ensures that not a single drop of blood remains in the animal. Yet here is Jesus drawing a draconian line in the sand: ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;[10] ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.’[11] The men and women who had crowded round him simply can’t believe their ears; this is totally alien – it doesn’t stand to reason. Jesus’ words are deeply abhorrent to their ingrained culture of praxis: Judaic kashrut dietary Laws govern every aspect of family life, particularly at the time of Passover. Grumbling among themselves (echoing their ancestors in the wilderness) all they can come up with is: ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’[12]

Anxious to allay their fears, this is the moment when Jesus says ‘Does this offend you?’[13] But by now His words are falling on deaf ears: fixated solely on the literal letter of the Law[14], they are unable to grasp the innate reasoning behind the prohibition: blood is life and life-blood is sacred. Generation after generation they have celebrated the great Feast of Passover,[15] but they cannot see that Jesus is creating a New Covenant – a Covenant which will replace the Old; they cannot see that Jesus is, indeed, the Lamb of God, truly the Word made Flesh – God incarnate; they cannot take on board that Jesus will voluntarily make the full, final sacrifice of flesh and blood ‘in order that the world might be saved through Him.[16]  So, when He tells them that ‘it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless’[17] they can’t take it in. All they can see is a stumbling block too high, too deep, and far too wide. Deeply offended, joyous acclamation now curdles into outrage and disgust.

If we stop for a moment and consider this dramatic rejection I am convinced that surface anger and revulsion masked a very real fear: they were afraid of stepping outside their comfort zone, afraid of walking away from centuries of deeply ingrained tradition, afraid of losing everything they once held dear, and deeply afraid of being shunned[18] by those they loved. In silence they turn their backs and walk away, leaving behind just a handful of His closest disciples.

Just imagine, for a moment, that we had been there, that day in Capernaum. How would we have reacted? [I have to confess that when I first read this gospel passage my slightly irreverent thought echoed John McEnroe’s famous outburst[19] ‘You cannot be serious!’].  Just think, though, if we had been there would we have turned and fled, or would we have been brave enough to remain? Are we, today, prepared to trust in Jesus as Saviour, to walk the walk as well as talk the talk? Do we, when the going gets tough, shy away from ‘hard teaching.’ Are we prepared to live by the beatitude-blueprint, however subversive it proves to be? When we hit a stumbling block, when stubborn self-will threatens to overwhelm God’s will, what do we do? Do we silence that still small inner voice of conscience, and walk away, thereby grieving the Holy Spirit, or do we put our trust in God and stand firm, whatever the cost?

When Jesus asked the handful of disciples who watched, as the crowd melted away, if they, too, wanted to vote with their feet, would we, like Peter, have been brave enough to say: ‘we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God’.[20] Interestingly, Peter doesn’t claim to understand,[21] but he has grown in faith and is determined to continue his discipleship.

‘We have come to believe’ – we may not always understand (how can we possibly understand the eternal mystery of God) but we, like Peter, can make that leap of faith; we can trust, believe and obey. We can hold fast to the constant, abiding truth that Jesus Christ is the Eternal Word of God who ‘became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.’[22] As St John says in the closing words of his gospel: ‘these (things) are written so you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name.’[23]

‘Life in His name’ – these are such powerful words: when we trust and truly believe that ‘it is the spirit that gives life’[24] we can grasp the eternal truth behind the words ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,’[25] because surely this is what we yearn for: to abide in Christ and for Christ to abide in each and every one of us.

Sunday by Sunday, when we hear the words: ‘we break this bread to share in the body of Christ,’[26] we know, instinctively, that we will reply: ‘though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’[27] Sunday by Sunday, when we gather together to celebrate the mystery of the Eucharist,[28] the Prayer of Consecration will transform humble bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ Jesus. Through the sacrament of Holy Communion bread and wine[29] become outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. As we kneel at the altar, sight, sound, touch, taste, scent and feeling coalesce; the bread of life and the cup of salvation unite every fibre of our being with Christ Jesus. We live in Him and He lives in us. Our Eucharistic feast is precious food for the soul, essential life-giving nourishment for the body of Christ, because together we are the body of Christ.

As St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians: the cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’[30]

Sunday by Sunday, at the end of our feast we give thanks to God for our spiritual nourishment and we offer ‘our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice, (asking Him to) send us out … to live and work to (his) praise and glory,’[31] and just before we leave St Mary’s we hear the commanding words ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’[32]

How, then, do we – as the body of Christ – ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’? We are, after all, only human, and there will always be times when this teaching will be difficult. We, too, will come up against stumbling blocks. The constant pressures inherent in today’s society leave us wide open to temptation: the temptation to ring-fence Sundays, separating prayer, praise and holiness into neat boxes, and tucking them away until the following Sunday; the temptation to concentrate solely on the pursuit of success and material wealth in our increasingly secular society; and, above all, the temptation to value self-will above God’s will. If we are truly to be the body of Christ, then we must, like Peter, grow in faith so that we, too, can say ‘we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God’.[33] It is only then that we will see the image of Christ[34] etched into the faces of the sick and the suffering, the homeless, the refugees fleeing persecution, and the children who die, day after day, for want of clean drinking water.

When we set out, Sunday by Sunday, to ‘love and serve the Lord’ – to be His body here on earth – no words of mine could ever surpass those beautifully set down, some five hundred years ago, by St Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now, but yours.

No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which He looks

with compassion on this world.

Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are His body.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.’[35]

 

Amen.

[1] John 6: 61

[2] John 6: 14

[3] John’s gospel includes three narratives set against the great feast of the Passover: a) the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem [2:13-23]; b) the feeding of the five thousand, crossing the Sea of Galilee and the bread of heaven discourse in Capernaum [6:1-71]; and c) the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the crucifixion[12 through to19]

[4] John 6:20

[5] John 6:59

[6] This is the first of the seven ‘I am’ statements in St John’s Gospel [in Jewish culture the number seven equates to both physical and spiritual completeness – the pure essence of perfection. In addition to the ‘bread of life’ Jesus also said ‘I am the light of the world’ (8:12), ‘I am the gate’ (10:9), ‘I am the good shepherd’ (10:11), ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (11.35), ‘I am the way the truth and the life’ (14:6) and ‘I am the true vine; (15.1).

[7] John 6: 49-51

[8] John 6: 57

[9] Leviticus 3: 17; 17:14, Deuteronomy 12:23

[10] John 6: 53

[11] John 6: 56

[12] John 6: 60

[13] John 6: 61

[14] The Law, set down in Leviticus 17:11, clearly states that ‘the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.’ Blood is sacred – life giving. It is a common misconception that blood was seen as unclean.

[15] In Egypt, the Israelites (then in slavery) were told by God to mark their doorposts with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb. On seeing this sign the spirit of God would pass over their houses and their first-born would be saved.

[16] John 3:17

[17] John 6: 63

[18] To be shunned, under Judaic Law, was a fearsome prospect. Nobody would speak to you, deal with you, acknowledge you, even stay in the same room with you.

[19] In 1981, John McEnroe – tall, athletic 22 year old American tennis whirlwind, with a mop of frizzy hair tucked under a scarlet headband – erupted with volcanic fury when Wimbledon umpire, Edward James, refused to overrule the linesman at a crucial moment in the game: the ball was out. McEnroe’s explosion of angry disbelief is still quoted 33 years later, a powerful image of shock and outrate. He could not believe his ears.

[20] John 6:69

[21] Centuries later Shakespeare echoed St Peter when he wrote: ‘So have I heard and do in part believe.’ (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1)

[22] John 1: 14

[23] John 20: 31

[24] John 6: 63

[25] John 6: 56

[26] Anglican Service of Holy Communion (Book of Common Prayer p. 179)) During the Prayer of Consecration bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Over the last 2000 years theologians have debated the finer nuances of transubstantiation versus consubstantiation: the real presence versus the symbolic presence.

[27] Ibid

[28] Sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, especially one of the solemn Christian rites instituted by Jesus Christ to symbolise or confer grace. In the Anglican Church there are two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. In the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches there are seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, matrimony, penance, holy orders and extreme unction.

[29] At the moment of consecration, we engage all our senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell) – our whole being becomes part of the sacramental prayer.

[30] 1 Corinthians 10: 16-17

[31] Post Communion Prayer – Book of Common Worship p.182

[32] Ibid p.183

[33] John 6:69

[34] In her Homes for the Dying the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta decreed that the words ‘the body of Christ’ were written above each bed – a constant reminder to all who served.

[35][35] Extract from the prayer of St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). Born in Spain, Teresa entered a Carmelite convent when she was 18, and later earned a reputation as a mystic, reformer, and writer who experienced divine visions. She founded a convent, and wrote the book The Way of Perfection for her nuns.

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