Pentecost12B John 6.51-58 Sunday, August 15, 2021 Theologian and minister, Martin Copenhaver, describes well the elephant in the room when reflecting on the gospel text for today. Jesus continues the discourse that we have read over the past four weeks. He again refers to himself as the bread that came down from heaven. We hear these words and think immediately of the sacrament of the table. Eucharist. Communion. As well we should. However, Copenhaver’s description should give us pause. He writes:
The communion table was draped, as always, in starched linen and set with silver chalices and plates and crystal flagon. The congregation was silent, even somber, as the pastor began carefully to read the words of institution in a solemn tone meant to add dignity to the proceedings. And when he repeated Jesus’ familiar words, ‘This is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you’ a small girl suddenly said in a loud voice, ‘Ew, yuk!’
The congregation looked horrified,” he continues, “as if someone had splattered blood all over the altar — which, in effect, is just what the little girl had done with her exclamation.”
Copenhaver’s example may be a bit unsettling and startling. Yet, because the meal of the altar is something that we share week in and week out, and, because for many it is a ritual that we have practiced for years or decades, it may not be as easy to hear the offense of the words of institution. However, the girl’s response must have crossed our minds at some point over the years. Perhaps, every time we read John 6.51-58? Jesus lays it out pretty starkly, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Sounds like cannibalism to me. And I know that there are not just a few people who didn’t grow up with the sacrament, for whom the words of institution are a bridge too far. They can’t get their mind around what is happening so that it would be strength and solace for them, rather than shock and deeply unsettling.
Thus, we might benefit from a little unpacking of this particular text and the weekly meal that we share. On the one hand, sharing this meal and the tradition from which it was born possesses a very incarnational focus. And, at first blush, we may nod our assent with as much critique as we give to the words of institution. Of course, Christianity is incarnational. Of course, we believe the Word made flesh is critical to the way God engages the world and our lives. Of course the corporeal reality of the divine is fundamental to how we see the world and our lives. Of course . .
Yet, the implications of such a simple term--incarnation--possesses powerful and profound consequences. Enfleshment, embodiment are synonymous terms with equally evocative ramifications. On the one hand, we like to create and maintain the image of the altar that Martin Copenhaver described: starched linens, fine crystal and silver, a place for everything. In a word: order. Yet, incarnation possesses the disturbance and the disorder of the little girl’s cry. We want a world that is orderly, rational, and dependable. The world in which we live is anything but. The fact that we have returned to only livestream for our worship services painfully underscores this truth of incarnation in this moment. The chaos that we witness from Afghanistan highlights the instability of our world and flesh. The ongoing violence in cities and in homes is further evidence that in our bodies, in this world, it is not necessarily safe or secure. Indeed, the fragility of our very bodies and the uncertainty of our health stresses the reality of how we might confess that incarnation as a core tenet of Christianity, but we may not be so enamored of it. Try as we might, we cannot escape the realities of being embodied, enfleshed.
Yet, that is what Jesus gets at in today’s lesson and his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. David Lose notes, “Jesus speaks of giving us his flesh and blood for “flesh and blood” is a Hebrew idiom which refers to the whole person, hearts, minds, spirit, feelings, hopes, dreams, fears, concerns, everything. In Jesus, the whole of God meets us to love, redeem, and sustain the whole of who we are, good, bad, and ugly.” Thus, incarnation is concerned less with denial of reality and running from the things that scare us or disturb us or perplex us and more concerned with the world and life as it is good, bad, and ugly. And such frankness rooted in reality is a breath of fresh air in times like these. We do not spout spiritualist notions of life divorced from any connection to reality and the world we live in. We are not deniers of existence offering, like the individual interviewed this past week, “I don’t need no vaccine. Jesus will save me.” Rather we recognize and are honest about the world around us, vaccines included.
Theologian, William Willimon, writes: I have a friend who teaches theology at Oxford. He says that his toughest task is to ask and answer the question, “What is theology about?” His students tend to respond that theology is about spiritual matters, or about religion, or deeper meaning in life, et cetera. No, he instructs them, theology (at least Christian, incarnational theology, theology in the mode of the sixth chapter of the Fourth Gospel) is about everything. We tend to compartmentalize things. Again, looking for order and meaning in ways that we can control it and make sense of our world. And we should. However, when we structure things too much, we create the illusion of control. That which we possess precious little of. What we are invited into in today’s text and at the meal of the altar week in and week out is the profound and astounding message that we are met there in our totality by the totality of God communicated in simple elements of bread and wine. What Luther called the Real Presence. Christ present to us and for us amidst the wonder of the world as well as the chaos. Christ present to us and for us in the beauty of connection and the pain of division. Christ present to us and for us while our hearts sing and Rome burns. For, in the incarnation, there is no place that God is not. And the eternal life of which Jesus speaks is the life that we are engaged in right now, life in its fullness, life with ALL that it has to offer, good, bad, and ugly, and life that we engage in as we journey more fully into the life that is God.