Does this offend you?
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
Matthias Grunewald’s great Isenheim Altarpiece, powerfully depicting the offensiveness of the Cross.
A Sermon Preached on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2012
By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, The Parish of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut
Texts: Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Does this offend you? For the last four weeks, we have heard Gospel lessons and sermons based on the perplexing, scandalous, confusing, and outrageous words of Jesus: “I am the bread of life.” We began way back in July with the story of the feeding of the five-thousand. Today, at long last, we reach the conclusion of this discussion, and the climax of Jesus’ startling teaching. It may be that you’ve been sitting out there through four weeks of this, and you’re still wondering what on earth is going on. It may be that this is your first time at Christ Church, or perhaps your first time at any church, and you’re wondering why Christians are, apparently, proponents of cannibalism.
Whatever the case may be, this morning I’d like to ask each of you the same question that Jesus asks his disciples: “Does this offend you?” Does this offend you? When you hear the pronouncement of the Lord Jesus that “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” are you offended, as those early listeners were?
I expect that most of us aren’t. Twenty centuries separate us from those first disciples and these strange words. Twenty centuries of interpretation and explanation; twenty centuries of pious reflection and ponderous sermons; twenty centuries of reading these words, praying these words, singing these words, thinking these words, have made them palatable, and respectable, or at least innocuous. You could say that twenty centuries have worn away the rough edges of Jesus’ statement.
And so I’d like to set for us a strange task this morning. I’d like to make Jesus’ words offensive once again. I’d like to crack these statements open and let their ragged, sharp edges make us uncomfortable once more.
In order to do that, however, we need to understand what so offended the biblical crowds in the first place. Because they don’t start out that way. The five-thousand people fed by Jesus with just a few loaves and a couple of fish recognize that they are in the presence of someone remarkable. And they want to stay with him. After Jesus leaves the place of his miraculous feeding, walking across the Sea of Galilee in the night and terrifying his disciples in the process, the crowd that he has fed gets into boats themselves to follow him.
These are good and pious men and women. They have seen Jesus heal the sick. They have eaten bread and fish blessed and multiplied by his hands. They continue to follow him with hopeful, eager hearts. When they find him in the synagogue at Capernaum they eagerly seek his teaching, asking for more signs, more wisdom. They even point out a food-based precedent for such signs: “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness,” they say. The implication is clear: “When the prophet Moses led our people out of Egypt, God filled their bellies with the bread of heaven. With what wisdom, with what teaching, with what signs and wonders will you fill our hungry hearts and souls, Jesus?”
You see, the crowd that followed Jesus is looking for a teacher, a leader, a prophet, perhaps even a Messiah. They want someone who will nourish them out of the riches of God’s word, someone who will feed them with solid teaching, someone who will strengthen their hearts and minds, and souls, so that they will be able to do the work set before them. They want someone who will equip them, and then perhaps lead them himself, as they fight to free their homeland from Roman oppression. They want someone who will reveal to them the wisdom, the works, and the words of God.
But when they finally track Jesus down and start talking to him, they get more than they bargained for. In the Gospel readings we’ve heard over the last four weeks, Jesus turns all of their expectations upside down. It’s as if he looks at them and says, “You want to be fed the rich food of God’s grace? I am that food. You want to receive the bread of God’s wisdom? I am that bread. You want to drink the wine of God’s teaching? I am that wine. You want to hear the words of God, spoken out of the mouth of some prophet? I am the Word of God, the One about whom all the prophets spoke.”
Jesus’ claims are outrageous, and the crowd begins to grumble against him. You may remember the reading from a couple of weeks ago, when folks murmured, “Wait a minute, who does this guy think he is? We know him, we know his parents, Mary his mother, Joseph the carpenter, his father; Where did he come up with this ‘bread of life’ nonsense?”
Yet in spite of their grumbling, in spite of their confusion and frustration, the crowd stays. Notice how significant this is. Jesus has the audacity, the outrageous, blasphemous presumption, to identify himself with God. The famous “I AM” statements, spoken throughout John’s Gospel, echo the name of God revealed to Moses in the Book of Exodus: “I am who I am.” When Jesus announces “I am the Bread of Life,” he is subtly but purposefully revealing his true identity. And still, in spite of their surprise and confusion and even their annoyance, the crowd stays. They keep listening to Jesus.
It’s as if they’re almost willing to accept it. They’re trying to wrap their heads around the idea that this guy they know, this guy whose family is still there with them might actually be divine; might actually be God. It boggles their minds, but they try their best to figure out Jesus’ identity.
But the trouble is, Jesus doesn’t stop with identification. He goes beyond outrageous. He becomes offensive.
And that’s what we encounter today. In this morning’s passage, he does not simply claim unity with God: today he dares to invite others into that unity. In this morning’s reading, he does not simply identify himself as the bread of life: he urges his followers to receive and eat that bread, that they may “abide in [him], and [he] in them. In this morning’s reading, Jesus does not simply point to his own divine origins: he indicates his own divine purpose, the ends for which he came to earth in the first place. This morning, he points to the Cross.
And this, my friends, is the great stumbling block. This is what causes such offense in his listeners. Though Jesus does not say it here, we know that his flesh must be pierced before it can be eaten. His blood must be spilt before it can be drunk. He offers the people, not simply God, not simply unity with God, but unity, oneness, mutual abiding, with the crucified God, with the God hanging from the tree. That proclamation is what made Jesus’ words so offensive to his first hearers.
And that proclamation is what makes Jesus’ words so offensive to us. Beloved people of God, we are not that different from Jesus’ first followers. We want a teacher. We want a leader. We want someone we can admire, someone who inspires us to be better people, to fight injustice, to care for the poor, to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. You may come to Jesus seeking a preacher, a prophet, a priest, or a prince. He is all these things. You may come to Jesus seeking a mighty God to worship and adore, and he is surely that as well. But behind and beyond and beneath all these things, you will find the rude fact of the Cross, the bare announcement of God’s self-offering love.
Before we can look to Jesus as an example, before we can regard him reverently as a teacher, we must see him as he reveals himself today: we must turn our eyes upon the scandal of his self-giving death. We must see him as the God who goes up to crucifixion for our sakes. We must see him as one who does not seek merely to teach us, but to transform us; one who does not wish merely to make us right in our thinking, but righteous in our very being. The Cross is what accomplishes this, and the Cross is what causes such offense.
Does this offend you? It offended those standing with Jesus in Capernaum and it has offended many since. At the very heart of our faith stands the supreme paradox, the impossible promise that God’s love for us is so great, so vast, so earth-shattering, that he was willing to take on our flesh, he was willing to live like us, he was willing to suffer hunger, and pain, and doubt, and fear, he was willing to enter into the darkest corners of our human condition, and to carry all that we are with him to the Cross of Calvary.
Does this offend you? It is offensive. Does this perplex you? It is perplexing. And yet the promise of the Gospel is not that we shall understand all of this, not that we shall know every detail, not that we shall have every question answered or that we shall have every problem solved. The promise of the Gospel is that “Those who eat [the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood] abide in [him], and [he] in them.” The promise of the Gospel is that those who share in the death of Christ will live in the power of his Resurrection. The promise of the Gospel is that those who come to this font, and who are baptized here by the power of Christ’s crucifixion, will rise from this grave, this gate, this tomb, this womb, as new creatures—citizens of a new kingdom, a new creation, with the very life of God living and breathing in them. The promise of the Gospel is that those who receive the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, who boldly proclaim his death at this table, will share in his everlasting life. The promise of the Gospel is that those who live within the fellowship of his Church will be equipped and empowered to do battle against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness—to do battle, and to rise victorious!
Beloved people of God, I pray that you will go forth from this place eager to tell all you meet that you heard something offensive at Christ Church Greenwich today. And if someone asks you what it was that you heard, I hope that you will answer: It is the message of the Cross, the promise of the God who died and rose again, who willingly offered himself for us and who, as he spoke them two-thousand years ago, speaks still the shocking words of promise: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”