A Sermon for Trinity 12, 26/08/12 by Roberta Berke
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”[i]
Several years ago I was having a very pleasant long lunch with friends. Towards the end of the meal, one friend suddenly said to me, “How can you Christians believe you’re eating Jesus’ flesh and blood? You’re no better than cannibals.” The table fell silent. I had been feeling quite, how shall we say, mellow. Now I had to attempt to reply to this question. Questions about our beliefs often come when we least expect them. Yet these questions are helpful because they prompt us to re-examine what we believe and to renew our faith. Of course, the standard answer to this question is that Jesus’ flesh and blood, as represented by bread and wine of holy communion, are outward and visible signs of Christ’s presence with us. Yet as important as answering the question is listening to the questioner. Why are they asking? What the questioner may be seeking is not a mechanical answer, not a memorised catechism response. Their underlying question may be, “Why are you a Christian? Why do you remain with Christ?”
Jesus’ disciples also had difficulty accepting his words. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”[ii]. If it’s taken literally, this claim seems crazy and repulsive. It’s particularly offensive to Jews, whose laws forbid eating any blood. There were other moments when Jesus made claims that seemed irrational. He told Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”[iii] This seems impossible, but the words “born again” can also mean “born from above”, in a spiritual re-birth. Jesus’ use of words with double meanings may be confusing, but these double meanings are also illuminating metaphors. In Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, there are themes which appear again in today’s gospel reading: “ascending and descending”, “lifted up”, “eternal life”. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he also made claims which seemed impossible. He told her, “…Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never thirst again. The water that I will give will become a spring of living water gushing up to eternal life.”[iv] How can anyone understand this? Jesus wanted his followers to look beyond obvious physical meanings and to understand his words with the spirit. He told the Samaritan woman, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”[v] Jesus emphasised the need to understand with the spirit in today’s reading. “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”[vi] We need to use more than our limited physical senses, our transient flesh, to comprehend eternal truths. We need to look beneath the surface of Jesus’ literal words to discover the spirit and life pulsing within them. He said, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”[vii]
Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman were outsiders, they were not part of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples. So it’s not surprising that they didn’t understand Jesus’ sayings. But among those who found it difficult to accept Jesus’ words were not only outsiders, or opponents, but also many of his own disciples. When Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”[viii], many of his disciples complained. “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”[ix] Then Jesus seemed to make things even more difficult by saying, “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”[x] If you think that’s difficult, then what about this? Jesus gave them a harder problem to solve. When he said, “ascending to where he was before”, Jesus was referring to his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven. The disciples could neither understand nor accept Jesus’ forewarning. In Matthew and Mark’s gospels, when Jesus tells the disciples of his coming death, Peter objects and is rebuked. Jesus’ disturbing prediction of his death was too overwhelming for His disciples to accept.
Jesus’ words, “abide in me and I in them”[xi] also puzzled his disciples. They had difficulty not only in understanding the meaning of these words, but of accepting their consequences. What would abiding in him mean for their lives? The word used for abide also means “to stand one’s ground”, “to remain firm”, “to hold fast”. For the disciples, being part of Jesus and remaining with him, abiding in him, would involve difficulties, dangers and death.
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”[xii] After this incredible and shocking statement, many disciples deserted him. Then Jesus challenged his remaining disciples: “do you also wish to go away?”[xiii] There must have been a dreadful silence as they watched their disillusioned companions walk away into the distance. Then Peter spoke up, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”[xiv] Note that Peter says, “come to believe”. When John states his purpose in writing this Gospel, he says, “But these [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.”[xv] “Coming to believe” in Christ is a dynamic, moving, growing process. Belief in Christ is seldom a concrete certainty.
Questions about our Christian belief often take us by surprise. How can we reply? We’re not professional theologians. First we can silently ask the Holy Spirit for help. Listen to the questioner: why are they asking? We don’t have all the answers in a tidy package. Our belief in Christ is a continual searching, not a final absolute answer. We can only reply with humility that we are still “coming to believe”. We are “practicing Christians” in the sense that we’re not perfect, we need much more practice. We are still “coming to believe”. We simply try to follow Jesus, stumbling along after his footsteps.
“Do you also wish to go away?”[xvi] Every day Jesus challenges us to remain with him. Until recently, being a Christian was simply one part of being respectable. Going to church on Sunday was just another thing that “nice” people did, like playing tennis or bridge. But every day of our lives being a Christian means difficult choices, struggles, doubts. Belief in Christ is more than a social pastime or a philosophical premise. We try to remain with Christ, both through our actions, and by receiving His body and blood through Holy Communion. This morning Christ invites us to share a meal with Him. He calls us His friends. He offers to share his very self with us. We know that we are not worthy even to pick up a crumb of His bread from the floor. Yet He says the word, and we are forgiven and healed. AMEN.
Copyright © 2012 by Roberta Berke. All rights reserved.