John 6: 52-68
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “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. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
As we heard the Apostle Paul pray this morning, “Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. Amen.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not the least bit surprised that Jesus’ disciples found this teaching to be difficult. Who could accept it? It was ghoulish really. It kind of makes you squirm. Eat my flesh. Drink my blood. My flesh is true flesh, my blood true drink. It’s no wonder the disciples complained and that many who had been following him found this pronouncement to be completely over the top.
John’s gospel says that the disciples seemed offended by the teaching. It must have seemed quite a shame to them really. They had been working so hard. They could see that they had momentum on their side. Jesus had been going about the countryside healing the sick, raising the dead, satisfying the hunger of five thousand people with only 5 loaves of bread and a couple of fish. The day before he had even walked on the stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee. They must have had a hard time understanding how Jesus could blow all the positive press they had generated by spouting such crazy talk. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and me in them.” Clearly, Jesus had lost it. He had gone over the edge. And he said all this, at the heart of religious establishment and authority – in the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus was proposing that people forget about the bread that they depended on daily, the familiar bread that they knew would nourish them, and choose a bread that would offer true life, life everlasting. No wonder that many of Jesus’ followers chose that moment to pack their bags and go their own way. They could see that the man had clearly gone insane. The twelve, Jesus’ closest disciples, would probably have left as well had it not been for Simon Peter’s realistic appraisal of the situation, “Lord, to whom can we go?”
Jesus talk of offering his own flesh as a substitute for their daily bread must have seemed as crazy to his followers as it does to us now. Fredrick Buechner reflects on the question of Jesus’ sanity in the following way. “If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter… The world says, Law and Order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get, and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under the cross than under a delusion. (Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner)
If you would, bring your attention 2000 years forward, to another part of the Middle East – to war-torn Iraq. In Baghdad, and in much of Iraq, the traditional bread is diamond shaped, puffy and doughy inside, often stuffed with cream cheese and ripe tomatoes or used to accompany succulent bits of rice and lamb. This was the same sort of bread that figured so prominently in the gospel readings today and in the last few weeks. Not too different from the kind of bread that has been eaten in the Middle East from Jesus’ time to the present. The sort of bread Jesus used to feed the 5000. And the kind of bread for which he offered himself as a substitute. The people of Baghdad depend on this bread and on the bakeries that produce it. Unfortunately for the citizens of the capital of Iraq, the number of active bakeries has diminished as the war and the sectarian violence has increased. Most of the bakers in Baghdad are Shiite and poor. The insurgents, aware of the dependence of a normally functioning society on a ready supply of bread have targeted the Baghdad bakers – executing them one by one, compelling most of the bread bakers to leave the city or engage in a less vital occupation. But a few brave or foolish bakers, in some neighborhoods, remain – risking their lives for meager wages.
Two thousand years after Christ offered his body as living bread, we’ve created a society in Iraq, where when a baker doesn’t show up for work, it is likely that his body will later be found in a ditch, multiple bullet holes in his head – executed for the crime of kneading dough and sliding loaves in and out of ovens. No one in Baghdad is under the illusion that “whoever eats of this bread will live forever”. In fact, in war torn Baghdad the bakers have no assurance that those who eat of their bread will even make it through the afternoon. Perhaps the remaining bakers of Baghdad continue at their time honored task, because they need the money to feed their families. Or maybe they continue baking bread while bombs explode around them because Baghdad is their home and if they were asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” – would answer as Simon Peter did, “To whom can we go?”
As you may know, I am the Bentonville church planter and I bring you a report, as Paul might have brought word back to earlier church plants – like this one in Siloam Springs – that all is going well. We are meeting in small groups, usually in people’s homes. I’ve been in Bentonville 3 months and we have 5 groups of 12-15 members each meeting regularly. I have been received with graciousness and hospitality in Benton County. The time is right to start a church in Bentonville and the Holy Spirit seems to be moving in our midst. But much of the initial success of this early phase has been due to the particular message we have proclaimed.
The message is a simple one, “Whether you are black or white or brown, rich or poor, gay or straight, you are welcome at the Episcopal Community of Bentonville. We refer to it as a kind of radical hospitality. We accept people as they are. Now that didn’t really seem to me to be a particularly radical notion. It seemed like gospel to me. It seems to me that, that’s what Jesus did – reaching out to the people on the margins – to those that society found unacceptable – to the prostitutes, the tax collectors, to the poor. It is easy to love people who are just like us, but Jesus asks us to do more. Jesus asks us to love people who are different. And we are spreading that message.
Fortunately, for this church planter, a reporter for the Benton County Daily Record heard that message, and found it different enough to write a story about it. The response has been amazing. I am still answering the many inquiries that resulted from the article describing our notion of “radical hospitality.” People, who for one reason or another, felt that the existing churches had rejected them, have reached out to us and have found a home. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to the parishioners of Grace Church, Siloam Springs, but not everyone who lives in a community feels completely at ease with the values of the dominant culture. Likewise, in Bentonville not everyone embraces the values of Wal-Mart, Incorporated. Many people have come to the Bentonville-Rogers area from other parts of the country and from many other countries. Not all have settled in easily. Many members of the gay and lesbian community have been rejected by the society at large and long – ache really – to be accepted by the church that often nurtured them as children. Bentonville likes to pretend that the poor don’t exist. Yet, the poor cry out to be acknowledged as significant even when they don’t share in the economic abundance of an affluent society. People have been wounded by the church. A young woman named Sarah told me of the humiliation she still feels a decade later when she recalls how a fundamentalist preacher compelled her, when she was 15 years old, to stand before the congregation of her church and apologize for being unmarried and pregnant. Still others have discovered that the mainstream churches of which they have long been a part have shifted theologically to the right and have left them behind.
After a few weeks in Bentonville I was growing comfortable with the mantra I heard myself saying over and over to those that I met, “We are creating a church where all can feel welcome- the rich, the poor, black, white, brown, gay and straight, no matter where they are from – all are welcome.
Then one afternoon, a phone call, and an arranged meeting at a local coffee shop, and a simple inquiry challenged me to expand our notion of inclusion. The question was posed to me, “What do you know about Alcoholics Anonymous”. My admission that I knew relatively little resulted in an invitation to attend a specially constructed AA and Alanon meeting. A meeting designed for the precise purpose of acquainting me with the experience of alcoholics and the church. We met at a home on the shores of one of Bella Vista’s lakes. The group shared a delicious pot luck dinner with me and then I listened to one painful story after another of people who no longer felt that they had a home in the church. These are people for whom church had once been a very important part of their lives. The church, however, had failed them. The church had failed to provide them with an alternative to the world that was as compelling as the allure of drugs and alcohol. In seeking to escape from this world, they had found that the senses could be dulled and that the thirst for God could be, at least temporarily, quenched by grain alcohol.
After following, and then with much, much struggle rejecting, the destructive path of addiction, these people had found wholeness through the community support of fellow AA members and a submission to a higher power. For these people the world of spirit that Jesus offered to his disciples in this morning’s gospel was not an abstraction. Rather it was the clear alternative of sobriety – a chance to awaken to a new life.
But even though they were now sober, most could find no home in the church. They often missed the music, singing in the choir, the feeling of being in church, the comfort of hearing prayers that they had known since childhood, the smell of incense. But few had found church to be the transforming medium that they had found through AA. The church had not offered them life. The church they knew offered condemnation, exclusion, and a narrow literalist conception of God that they had trouble reconciling with the more inclusive and broader idea of a “higher power” to which they had learned to submit control.
In AA meetings they felt at home. In churches, they imagined that they would be about as welcome as some old drunk stumbling into the worship services, sinking into the back pew, stinking of urine and cheap whiskey.
Maybe it’s all crazy talk, this idea of creating a church where all are welcome – where brown, black or white or rich or poor or gay, or where the addict and the alcoholic are equally offered the transforming power of Jesus’ love. Maybe it’s as crazy as the troubling idea that Jesus’ flesh is true food and Jesus’ blood is true drink. But if we who strive to be Christ’s church don’t offer a “welcome home” to those at the margins of society, then “to whom can they go?”
Siloam Springs, Arkansas