Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Gospel of John: A labyrinth leading to the center with the Risen Christ

Here is my sermon from today:

“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
John 6: 51-58

This morning, I would like you to consider for a few moments the ancient Romans, and I would like you to consider the Romans sympathetically.

The ancient Romans considered the Christians to be Barbarians. Worse than Barbarians.
When the Romans heard passages like this one – “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” – what do you think they concluded?

That the Christians were cannibals. And why wouldn’t they?

If that were not enough, imagine what the Romans thought when they heard this line:
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
Or, consider for a moment the ancient Jewish leaders of the Temple, and I’d like you to consider them sympathetically.

When they heard “eat my flesh” they were repulsed, and no wonder. The Hebrew Scriptures forbid eating human flesh, and, in fact, the title of the devil in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is translated as “flesh eater.”

So I want to stop right here, right in the middle of this big messy, bloody knot of words. Let me point out that anyone who says they take the Bible literally, that every word means exactly what it says, will end up in a tight box with this passage and others like it. It takes interpretation to get out of the box.

There is another way to hear this, but it takes work, and it takes understanding the images and structure used by the Gospel of John.

I do not want to sound overly academic, but there is a very good – and short – book that details what I am about to talk about. The book is entitled The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel, by Bill Countryman.

His thesis is that the Gospel of John is like a labyrinth; the gospel takes the listener on a twisting path that leads from the outer edges of being merely acquainted with Jesus, to the very center of existence and union with the Risen Christ.

The language of John, like we hear today, is designed not to encourage cannibalism, but to push us into seeing and feeling with all our senses that Christ Jesus is all around us, and with us and in us. This is about more than belief, but is about experience.

John pushes us to go beyond mere doctrines; the language of John is designed to knock us off center, and out of our conventional ideas of religion by pushing us into seeing that the life of faith is about touching the presence of Christ everywhere and in everything we do.

This business about “eat my flesh, drink my blood” in John is really an invitation to a physical experience of the spiritual. We are invited to use every sense we have in this experience: taste and smell, touch and sight, and hearing.

We are invited especially to make this experience real in our Eucharist, in the sharing in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. That is what Jesus is really getting at with these words we hear today.

This in-dwelling of the Spirit is like a good meal, and like a good meal, it is for not only nourishment but for our enjoyment. We can have a frozen dinner or a gourmet meal. Both will feed us, but which would you rather have?

To get the most out of our meal, we need to train our palette. The more intentional we are in our walk of faith – and the more we train our spiritual palette – the more we will be aware of the Risen Christ amongst us, and all around us
This walk of faith starts from the beginning of our existence. God walk with us even when we are infants, and God continues to walk with us throughout our life, even in those times we don’t see it – maybe especially in those times.

A major step along the path is baptism, and in baptism we celebrate with physical symbols – water and words – the inward work of the Holy Spirit. For us, baptism is not a magic act but is a gateway to a life journey of faith. In a few moments, we will celebrate baptism with a new baby, and with her, renew again the promises and hopes of our own baptism.

And baptism leads us to another physical sign of our faith, the meal we share together in Holy Communion. It is that meal Jesus asks us to celebrate today, to bring inwardly into our very souls his abiding presence.

He offers us something to eat that will last forever because he promises to abide within us forever. That is the meaning of these words we hear today from the gospel. This sacred meal of bread and wine is a gift to each of us, and I pray as we gather around this Holy Table, we will once again experience with every sense we have the Risen Christ dwelling amongst us and in us.

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