The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 16—Year B
I Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
Tough passage in the gospel today. I don’t think Jesus took the Dale Carnegie Course on “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Actually, he did his best to offend his listeners. So, he’s in the synagogue in Capernaum talking to a Jewish audience, and here is how he begins—“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”—yuck—and then, he goes on to refer to himself as “the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, i.e that “manna stuff,” and they died. But the one who eats this bread,” i.e. me, “will live forever.” It’s bad enough that Jesus leads with an image of cannibalism; that’s hard enough to swallow, but Jesus goes on to usurp, to appropriate to himself, one of the core, foundational images of the Jewish people. This is not how you win friends and influence people.
When many of his disciples heard [this], they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” “Does this offend you?” Jesus asks. He knows that he has hit a raw nerve.
How about us? Does this offend us? If Jesus walked right into St. Luke’s this morning and said what he said in that synagogue in Capernaum, how would we react? Would our stomachs get queasy? Would the hair on the back of our necks stand up? Would our 21st century rationalism brush this aside as total bunk, just one more sensational, soundbite metaphor? Would we cry with the disciples, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ And would we hear Jesus say in return, “Does this offend you?”
Well, Jesus, in a word, “yes”—this is offensive. It assaults all our sensibilities. But let’s hit the pause button. Let’s sit with our offendedness, just for a while. What’s at the root of this offense? Why are we so offended? What’s the nerve that Jesus has just hit? I don’t think it’s the “cannibalism” nerve or even the “insult-to-our-ancestral-story” nerve. I think that’s all surface noise. No, there is something much deeper at work here. Any guesses?
I think it has to do with intimacy and our utter terror of being this intimate with Jesus. If you feed on Jesus, if you partake of Jesus, if you consume his being, you abide in him, you will be a part of him and he will be a part of you—not as a theoretical construct or an intellectual belief, but he will be intertwined so intimately with you that you and he can’t be pulled apart. Just as God took up residence in Jesus (John 1:14—“and the Word became flesh”)—Jesus will take up residence in you. Now that sounds all nice and flowery and poetic, except for one thing—if Jesus starts to live in us, then our life is no longer our own. And for us, as the rugged, independent, individualists that we are, that’s a hard pill to swallow, even harder than cannibalism. This is the part that’s offensive—because if he’s living in us, if his being and our being are one, then we’re going to live differently and talk differently and act differently.
Ephesians gives us a glimpse today of what this begins to look like. First of all, we learn that the real battle isn’t with flesh and blood people—it’s with spiritual forces. Think about all the spirits out there that are destructive—the spirit of greed, the spirit of divisiveness and dissension, the spirit of hatred, the spirit of cynicism, the spirit of seething resentment, the spirit of scarcity, the spirit of fear, the spirit of despair. Think of all the forces that get to swirling around these spirits. They can take on cosmic proportions and manifest in truly evil ways. And how would Ephesians have us combat these forces? With a whole lot of armor. But the armor of God won’t give us guns and bombs and weapons of mass destruction. The armor of God looks like this: standing firm, a belt of truth around our waist, a breastplate of righteousness, a breastplate of right relationship. For shoes—whatever makes us ready to proclaim what? The gospel of peace. A shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Did you catch that? These spirits that we encounter, they are throwing arrows at us—through Christ, we don’t fight them, we catch them with a faith that takes away their heat. We have a helmet of salvation, a helmet of wholeness. A sword not to kill, but of the Spirit, not a sword to destroy, but the word of God to pierce our own hardened hearts. A sword to slice through all the false choices so that a third way might be revealed—not the way of either/or, but rather, that creative both/and. We pray in the Spirit, we keep alert, we persevere, making known with boldness, the mystery of the gospel. Not the 100% certain no-questions-allowed truth, but the mystery of the gospel. The mystery of the good news of Jesus Christ whose love is big enough and broad enough and deep enough to contain all the forces of darkness in this world. He opened his arms to receive those flaming arrows, and he quenched their fire with his love. Unlike the armor we normally put on, the armor of defenses and preemptive shots across the bow, this armor is going to leave us pretty exposed.
That’s what we’re signing up for if we let his being become one with ours. Are you ready to sign on? It’s the kind of vision that we hear from Solomon this morning—even the foreigner’s prayers are heard by God. We can’t play the game our-God-is-better-than-your-God anymore. I think we find Jesus’ words offensive because we are flat out terrified of what it will mean if we really let him live through us, if we really let him speak through us, we are terrified of what it will mean if we really touch all that he dares to touch, if we really love all that he dares to love. It is going to completely and utterly change us and our lives.
And so we have a choice. The disciples had a choice. And some of them turned back and no longer went about with him. That had to be a sad moment for Jesus. He turned and looked at the twelve, he turns and looks at us, “Do you also wish to go away?” It was pretty quiet, each one contemplating their options. Simon Peter finally broke the silence, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
They didn’t know a lot, but they had been around Jesus long enough that they had come to believe and know, not that Jesus was the Jesus we meet in our credal confessions, but that Jesus was simply the Holy One of God. Those disciples just knew in their hearts and in their souls that Jesus was of God—they couldn’t spell that out in doctrine, but they knew it and believed it nonetheless. They knew that his words were life for them. They knew it. And they knew that they would be lost without him. He had gotten under their skin, which is what incarnation always does. He had taken up residence inside of them; they had nowhere else to go.
As anyone who has ever been in a deep relationship will tell you, you only discover the most exquisite gifts of intimacy when you plumb its depths, and that will cost you everything. At that point, your life is no longer solely your own.
Today, you and I, we’re invited to move through our offense, to risk losing our life as we are swallowed up in this Life, in his Life, which is so much bigger than our own. Today, we are invited to take Jesus into the heart of our being, so that we can begin to learn what it means to let his heart live through our being.
“Do you also wish to go away?”
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the life for which we long.”
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
August 26, 2012