First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
August 19, 2018
Scripture: John 6:51-58
This is not an easy teaching we approach this morning in the text of John. “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Those around him who had heard the words were right to say, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” I mean, seriously?
It is difficult to hear let alone unpack 2,000 years later. I was reminded of a quip Dr. Leonard Sweet shared with me in a letter after sending him thanks for a series of sermons I had the privilege of attending. He wrote, “There was once a man who went to a seafood restaurant and when the server came to take his order he said, ‘I’d like a nice lobster tail.’ To which the server looked a little perplexed and then said, ‘Well, once upon a time there was a very nice lobster…’ It is not always easy to communicate exactly what we mean and even when we try our best, sometimes things get lost in translation and not heard as we intended to speak.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” So, what are we to do with the language of flesh and blood, body and blood in the life of the 2018 church when it no longer holds meaning for us? Now, I will grant, for some this language is still the preferred language to use as the words shared at Eucharist, communion, the celebration of the last supper of Jesus. They are words that can still hold deep and profound meaning if we understand them outside the connection that many in the church tie them to regarding substitutionary atonement, that Jesus shed his blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
This connection to the blood atonement is often the objection to using this language. John Shelby Spong in his book, A New Christianity for a New World, writes of understanding the Eucharist in this vein as well as the sacrificing of the paschal lamb. “The blood of Jesus, shed upon the cross, was seen as breaking the power of death for all people.” In this way, the significance of Jesus’ death was explained as being like the death of the paschal lamb that had protected the Jewish people from their final enemy in a past moment of national crisis. “It was then but a short additional step,” he writes, “for Christians to develop a sacramental act, which could recall that death and recreate it in the present, symbolically enabling the gathered peoples to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the new lamb of God. It was inevitable that these symbols would in time be literalized.” “But,” he asks, “do these symbols, literalized or not, still convey meaning in a postmodern world?”
“Connecting this death of Jesus, the shedding of his blood, to the satisfaction of God’s wrath against humankind, makes God into a sort of medieval potentate who cannot forgive without the sacrifice of a human being… blood offering Jesus willingly offers… sounds strange to modern ears,”1 Spong writes. I think it was a bit of an understatement.
I would say too, that the reaction to using the language of flesh and blood, body and blood, in a simpler vein can have less to do with the connection to substitutionary atonement and the satisfying of an angry God, and more to do with just the language itself. Words matter, and in a community of faith where there are form gathering to gathering, from one celebration of communion to the next, a community has different attendees, with various levels of understanding, as well as children present, and to use the language of body and blood, can be a constant challenge. “…do these symbols, literalized or not, still convey meaning in a postmodern world?”
I believe it is an important question to ask and important imagery to consider as we continue to make meaning of the faith we profess. At least one, but an important one, aspect of progressive Christianity is to wrestle with the faith, the journey, and the language we use to convey that faith. To make the life, ministry, of Jesus… the life and ministry of the community of faith more assessable and meaningful for we who practice such a faith and for those we encounter in the world around us.
Let me begin broadly and work my way back in. I have long appreciated Marcus Borg’s discussion on the panentheistic understanding of God. Not pantheistic but panentheistic… if you don’t get the “en” in there and just say pantheistic, one is saying all things are God… the tree is god, the bird is god, you are god, I am god… rather, Borg speaks of the Presence of God as “panentheistic” … God is “in” all things. Richard Kearney, in his book Anatheism, Returning to God after God shares, “Panentheism, the view that God is in all beings, was condemned as blasphemy by many orthodox Christians before and after Saint Francis. But for Francis, it was a way of restoring God to the world, of rediscovering a living God amidst the ashes of a dead one. ”2
It is a rather incarnational understanding of God’s presence among us. For our understanding of Christ, the embodiment of God in Christ, and for us… we offering an incarnational ministry… we…WE…are the body of Christ in the world today. God is within, around, above, below… us… all things. Including the body and the blood… the bread and the cup… in that sense… we take the very presence of God into us as we share the table as we live and move and breathe as Paul might say.
Another piece I would raise up are some of Marcus Borg’s thoughts on the bread and the wine, body and blood, bread and cup from his book, Speaking Christian, “…bread and wine were the staple food and drink of the Mediterranean diet. Though a meal might include more than bread and wine, they were, and also symbolized, the material basis of existence.” (might be something like blood that we need to live?) “Moreover,” he continues, “early Christian sharing of bread and wine didn’t consist of a wafer and a sip, but occurred in the context of a real meal, a full meal. It is worth thinking about the fact that the primary Christian sacrament could have been something else. But it is based on food, the sharing of the staff and stuff of life.”3
So, to think of communion, Eucharist, this table as “a material basis of existence” a “staple of life” in which God inhabits as God inhabits all things can place a better understanding to Jesus words of “eat my flesh and drink my blood.” “Can” I said, “can.” And yet, as I said earlier, words matter, and the message and language we use on Sunday morning matters. And flesh and blood… body and blood… can still be problematic.
Let me share just one last understanding as we wade through this topic… a favorite book of mine I ran across several years ago, Saving Paradise, How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker, it is a 10-year-old book now, but I believe such a gift to the church. In their writings they studied the ancient artwork of Christianity and put forth, I believe, a convincing argument that prior to Constantine, up to about 1000ce, Christian art portrayed primarily the resurrected Christ, proclaimed Jesus as the Lord of Paradise. Christian Art turned deadly around 1000ce, focusing on depictions of the crucifixion. Therefore, Christianity had more openness to violence after 1000ce. This shift in focus affected the Eucharist and celebration of communion as well. Many scholars suggest that prior to Constantine’s conversion and declaration of Christianity as the religion of the Empire, the continued celebration of the sacrament was, as previously noted, a full meal, a feast! After Constantine, those same scholars suggest, was when the sacrament was “controlled” and as a result the people as well, by reducing the sacrament to a little bread and a little wine. It also shifted to the understanding and focus on the shed blood and the crucifixion rather than the resurrection and new life.
Brock and Parker point out, “Eucharistic prayers went out of their way to make it clear that the Christian observance was not about shedding blood of any sort. Cyril of Jerusalem repeatedly emphasized that the Eucharist was ‘the spiritual sacrifice, the worship without blood.’ The prayers underscored the Eucharist was a ‘living sacrifice,’ a ‘bloodless offering,’ a ‘sacrifice of thanks and praise.’ Cyril represented a long tradition already in place. Cyril insisted on accepting the reality of the crucifixion, but it was not the focus of his Eucharist. The remembrance of the crucifixion was not central to what the Eucharist memorialized, instead, the Eucharist focused on incarnation and Resurrection. The feast remembered how Jesus overcame death with life!”4
So what preacher? What does all this mean for us at First United Methodist Church-Omaha, August 19, 2018 and beyond? Here is where my progressive theology and practice brings me. I know for some of us perhaps body and blood language may be important. I hope it is important in a progressive sense in terms of meaning pointing to basic existence, staff and stuff of life, that for those who continue to embrace this language it is this sacrament that continues to give life to our journey, feed our body, heart, and soul.
I also understand, for me and for many, the language of body and blood, flesh and blood is too tethered to violence and in particular the substitutionary atonement describing a violent God unable to forgive without the shed blood of Jesus, as well as just the untenable and difficulty of the body and blood language. And in that sense, the cup of blessing and the bread of life or how ever we might point to the basic nurturing and nourishing of our journey of faith that is still deeply rooted in the tradition of sharing the table and the staff and stuff of life.
It is soul food of sorts. I had a good friend in seminary who would invite me to try new foods out every now and then. One evening he came knocking on my room door and said, “Let’s go get some soul food!” I said, “Sure!” I had never had soul food before.
Now you have to understand I was a kid from rural western Kansas. We arrived at the soul food restaurant and stood in line for the buffet. I was trying to see what was on the line and what was in store for dinner. When I finally could see it was quite obvious I had had soul food before; fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, bread pudding, gumbo, about the only thing on the line new to me was the collard greens… which were really a like the spinach my mom used to fix… out of a can. I looked at Mark and said, “I’ve had soul food before.” He said, “Of course you have!”
Shortly after that TruDee introduced me to a book in which the author said, “Any food that takes you home, is soul food.”
Whatever the imagery one needs to know, without condition, you are welcome at this table, there is a place for you, to partake and feed your body, mind, heart, and soul… here is home… there is soul food here for you. In this cup… In this bread… in the eyes of your neighbor… in the touch of a hand… in the prayer of a hug… in the gentleness of a greeting and the warmth of a smile. God is here. We are here.
Thanks be to God.
1 Spong, John Shelby (2001), A New Christianity for a New World, Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. HarperSanFranciso, Harper Press.
2 Kearney, Richard (2010), Anatheism, Returning to God after God. Columbia University Press, New York.
3 Borg, Marcus J. (2011) Speaking Christian, Why Christian Words have Lost Their Meaning and Power and How they Can be Restored. HarperOne, Harper Collins Publishing, New York
4 Brock Nakashima, Rita, and Rebeca Ann Parker, (2008). Saving Paradise, How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts.