Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Those of you who were in church last week probably remember that, sitting in the first three rows on one side, were about 16 members of my family. The first ones arrived on that Wednesday, and they stayed until last Tuesday.
Now, I like to keep the parsonage clean most of the time, so there wasn’t more than a day or two of cleaning to be done in preparation for hosting people—my parents and the dogs stayed with us. But there was a lot of work to be done to prepare for the cook-out we had last Sunday for my family and the congregation. We bought paper products, cups, plastic silverware, 48 hamburgers, 48 hot dogs, bratwursts and buns, 2-liters of pop.
We strapped one of my uncle’s grills to his truck so we would have a second one. We frantically tried to finish cutting the grass with a half-working lawn mower (that has since been restored to full working order). We finally noticed that, sometime between Wednesday and Friday, a tree came down in our back yard. We set up tables and coolers and a truckload of chairs.
And then, we threw an amazing party. My dad and uncles cooked up all the food, and we almost went through all the hamburgers. We lit a campfire, we had dessert, and it wasn’t until about 6:00 p.m. that everyone left, because they were having such a good time. When it was finally over, Debbie, my parents, and I collapsed in the living room—we were exhausted! Being hospitable is hard work.
We are now in the fourth week of study in the sixth chapter of John. Remember, this whole chapter comes right after the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus feeds the people with bread and fishes. Then he leaves, and in their wonder, they follow him, to see if he could do it again. And Jesus instead lays it all out for them.
He talks to them about what he is doing, that it is the same thing that happened to the Israelites in the desert, when God sent “bread from heaven”, manna, so that every day, the people could gather it from the ground and receive sustenance for that day. They were starving, and God provided, literally, for their lives. Jesus claims to be the same thing, “bread from heaven”, sent by God to a people starving for life.
We’ve heard this text before, and we’ve heard Jesus talk about being “bread from heaven” for a few weeks now. We heard how God uses the ordinary and unimportant to do great things. We’ve heard how Jesus is in the business of doing the impossible. And now, Jesus gets to put his money where his mouth is.
Throughout the long speech in John 6, Jesus makes frequent comparisons between himself and Moses, himself and God the Father, and himself and bread. Moses called on God when the Israelites were starving, and God produced literal bread from heaven. Jesus calls on God when the Judeans are starving, sometimes for bread, but also for something more, a deeper hunger. And God provides, sending Jesus Christ, God’s own son, to fill the hunger that food cannot sate: hunger for a life that means something.
And this is where it starts to get weird. These are, perhaps, some of the most uncomfortable verses in the Bible that we’re familiar with, aside from the brutal massacres and genocides of Joshua or frequent rapes.
Having just explained how he is the bread from heaven, how he has come to fill the hunger of the people who crave more than just a taste of the life God provides, Jesus draws the next logical conclusion. Now, for food to have any sort of effect whatsoever, what do you have to do with it? You have to eat it. And so Jesus says, “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 … Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
This would normally be a great jumping off point for the Lutheran belief about the Eucharist, about how we take Jesus at his word, at his plain-faced word, that the bread and wine are in fact his body and blood, but let’s sit on that for a moment.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink from his blood, you have no life in you.”
Does that sound a little barbaric to anyone? It should. We as a society and culture abhor cannibalism, and that’s what Jesus seems to be advocating here. In fact, that’s one of the charges laid against the early church in the Roman Empire, that they were cannibals—they heard Christians talking about consuming the body and blood of their Lord, and their minds went to the logical place—oh my gosh, they’re eating parts of his body. The Judeans are right to scoff and question Jesus when he says such nonsense.
But I don’t want to focus on eucharistic theology today, at least, not right now. Instead, I want to ask a question: what could possibly motivate someone as powerful as God to give up and sacrifice their own body for others?
Earlier, I talked about how much work it was to set up a party on a single day for a bunch of people, especially when I didn’t know how many were coming. It felt like Wisdom, from Proverbs. Wisdom, the divine feminine, builds her own house, carves out the support pillars, cooks a feast, sets the table, makes a ton of preparations; then, she goes out and calls in people, any people to eat at her table. It’s a lot of work and, as I admitted, took a great deal out of me.
But after a few days, even though I’m still not quite fully recovered, life returns back to normal. Debbie and I made a small sacrifice for family and friends, giving of ourselves for others, but it was only temporary, and it was only part of us.
Contrast that with Jesus. Some people will give of themselves to help another. Others will give you the shirt off their back. Jesus gave his back, and his side, and his arms, and legs and hands and feet and head. He gave everything.
What could possibly motivate someone like Jesus Christ to give up everything, to sacrifice everything?
This is who Jesus is. This is who God is. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”, that which sustains, provides life for those who have none. And when the question came up, “Just how far are you willing to go for these people, this world, this… nothing good before you?”, Jesus’s answer was clear. There was no distance Jesus would not walk. There was no obstacle he would not face. There was no weeping he would not turn to joy, there was no pain he would not alleviate, there was no feat he would not perform, even going to his own death, that would keep him from giving that life. Jesus went all in, put everything on the table and on the line, and said, “This is how far I’m willing to go.”
This is what the eucharist means. This is what we mean when we say that the very real presence of Christ’s body and blood are in, with, and under the bread and wine. This is what we receive when we eat and drink as we were commanded to do. We receive Jesus, everything that he is, everything that he’s done and continues to do, because Jesus held nothing back, not even his own body and blood, his life.
What could possibly motivate him to do that?