St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Midlothian
26 August 2018 + Lectionary 21B (Pentecost 14)
John 6.56-69, [70-71]
Jesus has said a lot of unusual, stunning, even downright shocking things these past five weeks we’ve spent reading our way through John 6:
“I am the bread of life.”
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”
“The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
And these sayings have solicited just as many scattered reactions:
Misunderstanding: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
Complaining and offense: “Does this offend you?”
Disbelief: “Among you there are some who do not believe.”
Abandonment: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
Betrayal: “…Judas son of Simon Iscariot…though one of the twelve, was going to betray [Jesus].”
Jesus has said a lot of things, and he’s gotten some strong reactions. This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? It’s not as though Jesus’s followers were along for the ride, keeping up with the bizarre things he’s been saying, and then suddenly one teaching gives them pause. This momentum has been building. We’re only six chapters into John, and yet there is precedent for this hesitance to Jesus’s teachings. Jesus’s earlier conversation with Nicodemus by night leaves Nicodemus asking, “How can these things be?” Misunderstanding, disbelief, even complaining and offense to the point of betrayal and abandonment, are all hallmarks of the reaction of the crowds to Jesus’s teachings in John.
And yet, what is it exactly that elicits such strong reactions? Granted, the Bread of Life discourse, as this chapter from John we’ve been reading for five weeks is called, is notoriously difficult to understand. Jesus is repetitive. He speaks with metaphor and language we might not otherwise encounter in normal conversation. Yet, it’s the crowd’s initial reaction that holds the key.
This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? …might better be translated more literally as: This word is hard; who is able to listen to it?
This word is hard to listen to. The Word is the starting point of John’s gospel. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… begins John 1. Then a few verses later: The Word became flesh and lived among us.
This Word is hard to listen to! This is the message of John’s gospel: The eternal Word of God has become flesh to live among us, entering into all of our reality and the grit of human existence. This is the great I AM who is beyond all time and space who has become one of us, the Creator becoming the creation, crossing thresholds and subverting boundaries, drawing all people to himself and calling them friends.
Oftentimes, John’s gospel gets a reputation for being the hyper-spiritualized gospel with a head-in-the-clouds Jesus whose divinity outweighs his humanity. That couldn’t be further from the truth. John’s Jesus is literally a down-to-earth Jesus, 100% human even as he is fully divine.
And that, I think, is why this teaching, this word, is so difficult to listen to and accept. It is inconceivable that God should become like one of us, fully human and experiencing everything that entails. It is inconceivable that the extraordinary God should enter into the ordinary stuff of human existence: bread and wine and even human flesh, our very bodies.
This is the perfect and the holy entering into the imperfect and the flawed. God becoming flesh has implications that are offensive to us, just as much as to Jesus’s first followers:
God became flesh in the body of a 1st-century, dark-skinned, Palestinian, Jewish carpenter living under the occupation and oppression of the powerful Roman Empire.
God became flesh in the body of one of society’s nobodies.
God became flesh in the body of someone we would rather ignore for who they are or what they look like or what they believe or where they live or where they come from.
For the past two weeks, I have served as the event coordinator for the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) Orientation, a program of our denomination that sends young people from across our church to ministry partners around the world to live and work alongside bodies that are different from their own for a year. At closing worship during orientation, hours before these YAGM would board their flights for their countries of service, my colleague and friend preached a sermon that reminded us: Wherever God calls us into this work of ministry, in whatever form that work takes, we are enough, just as we are.
Before we leave these precious few weeks of abiding in John’s gospel, let this be our reminder today, too: The God who has become human flesh and entered into the ordinary stuff of human existence in the body of Jesus Christ calls us enough, just as we are.
The bodies of society’s nobodies are enough. Our bodies are enough, not in spite of but precisely because of what they look like and what they believe or don’t believe and where they live and where they come from.
Our bodies are enough because they are enough for God herself.
Indeed, that is the message of John’s gospel and the whole point of this thing we call the incarnation, the “taking on of human flesh” — that God loves God’s world so much that God became one of us, giving us God’s very self as the bread of life, sustenance for the sake of our life, life abundant, life eternal, life and liberation and flourishing in relationship with each other here and now.
This word is hard to listen to and understand. But that’s exactly the point. If ever this mystery of God becoming flesh and everything it implies starts to make sense to us, something has gone wrong. It is nothing that can be or even should be understood. It is an act of love. It is an act of grace. It is enough. It just is.
There’s one last reaction to this word, this teaching, today: Peter’s confession of faith and trust. When asked by Jesus, “Do you also wish to go away?”, Peter’s response is stunningly simple yet profound: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Where else can we go? When the world degrades our bodies and calls into question our existence and self-worth, when our bodies hurl insults and violence at one another, when our bodies are told they are not good enough. Where else can we go but to the one who took on an imperfect, flawed human body and in so doing implicitly called it enough?
The Word became flesh and lived among us. The Word became flesh and called it very good. The Word became flesh and said it is enough.
Thanks be to God.