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Offended by the Gospel

Sermon - 8/27/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 6:51-60

We are continuing our reflection this morning from the 6th chapter of John's gospel that I actually began last Sunday.  So let me just check and see:  who many were not present last Sunday?  So I will do a little brief re-cap.  And while I'm asking, since football season is about to begin, let me check to see if we have any Beaver fans present?  We love our siblings, you know, Corvallis, who, after all, baseball college world champions, since I see there are a few Beaver fans present, I'll use small words J.  I've been forbidden from Duck jokes, so I'm going to tell Beaver and Husky jokes instead.

The 6th chapter of John's gospel is the longest chapter in John by at least 12 verses.  And so it's very significant.  And it follows a very typical pattern in John, that is of a lengthy conversation between Jesus and various others in which Jesus teaches in response to questions and complaints.

The chapter begins with the feeding of the 5,000 and then the crossing of the Sea of Galilee, which I mentioned last Sunday is probably an illusion to the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses.  And after that, Jesus compares himself to the bread that he has just given to the people to the manna provided by God in that wilderness experience after the crossing of the Red Sea.

He says "I am the bread of life", the bread that has come down from heaven.  And that was the focus of last week's sermon.  Well, that stirs up the religious leaders who think it's rather ostentatious for the son of a local carpenter to make such an outlandish claim.  And so it is in response to their objection that Jesus expounds further and takes this bread metaphor to a whole new level, creating even more objections in the process.  So, listen in, from the 6th chapter, versus 51-60:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ 53So 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. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This 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 for ever.’ 59He 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?’  But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you?".


Every year in our household, we seem to find a television show that captivates us, we have to watch that show.  A couple years ago it was American Idol, then it was Lost, and now it is House, on Fox.  How many are House fans here?  Several.  This drama features British comedian Hugh Laurie in a very serious role as a brilliant physician who must correctly diagnose some baffling illness in each episode, and along the way offend every other character in the show.  He is one rude, crude, lewd, though not nude, dude.

It is the most popular show on T.V., it has been nominated for 4 Emmy's, which will be aired tonight.  But Hugh Laurie was not nominated for an Emmy, which has created all kinds of criticism of that whole process -- how could they overlook such an incredible actor.  That somehow seems strangely appropriate for a character who snubs everyone else routinely, but grossly unfair to the actor who's incredibly good at doing it.

Well, John's portrayal of Jesus is a lot like Hugh Laurie's portrayal of Dr. House (maybe that's got your curiosity and now you've got to watch the show to see what I'm talking about).  Jesus is a brilliant diagnostician, as is Dr. House.  He cuts to the chase.  Remember in John 4 that conversation with the woman at the well, Jesus says 'Go and get your husband and come back', and she says 'Sir, I have no husband', and He says 'How rightly you have answered, because you have had 5 husbands and the man you're living with now you're not married to'.  He outsmarts all of his critics, is openly critical of other authorities.  He says to Nicodemus in that conversation about being born anew in John 3, I think rather sarcastically, he says to him 'Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand this?'.  He's not shy about making claims about himself -- I am the bread of life.  He's not the least bit hesitant to speak the truth no matter how offensive it may be, as we see in this text this morning.

And of course he heals the sick, so does Dr. House, he has a small group of disciples that follow him around, as does Dr. House, and he is brought back to life as even is Dr. House in one of the episodes.

Now, of course, you can always take comparisons too far, because those who watch the show know that Dr. House is also addicted to pain killers, he lies regularly in his effort to get his will done, and occasionally gambles.  Hardly Christ-like qualities.  But I'd be interested in your thoughts -- read the gospel of John and take note of how Jesus is portrayed in this gospel and then watch House and see.

My point is that whereas we want a Jesus who is warm, and fuzzy, and makes everyone smile, a teddy-bear in the flesh, that's not always what we get.  John gives us a Jesus who sounds, if I may be so crude, Count Dracula.  I vant you to drink my blood, right?!  Well, does that offend you?  I mean, it should.  It's one thing to say 'this bread is my body', but it's another thing altogether to say 'eat me, eat my flesh, drink my blood'.  I mean, it's gross.

And when you add to that the Jewish context, for whom drinking blood is a strict taboo, that it goes against the very essence of kosher, and is mentioned several times in the Torah as a 'no-no'.  So this idea of drinking human blood would be abhorrent to many Jews.  And I think it's rather abhorrent to us. 

It is only when we understand how offensive this is that we begin to understand the power of the image, and the radical nature of the call of the gospel.  So having offended everyone by comparing Jesus to Dr. House and Count Dracula, hopefully I can redeem myself now, and the story, by reflecting on what I think John is trying to tell us in this text about Jesus and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

But first, we need to skip ahead to John's account of the last supper, found in Chapter 13.  Take a look, open it up, and check me on this, because I find this to be a fascinating comparison.  In chapter 13 of John's gospel, it begins by setting the context of Passover, we're at the beginning of the festival of Passover, just before it is to start.  Yeah, we remember that from the story of the Lord's Supper.  And Jesus gathers the disciples for a meal, and first they've got to wash up, right?  So Jesus washes their feet, remember that story?  Told only in the gospel of John.  And then they have the meal, and in the course of the meal, later on if you skip through after the foot-washing, you'll see there Jesus reveals Judas as his betrayer.  Judas goes off to do his dastardly deed, and then Jesus begins this long soliloquy at the end of chapter 13 that's essentially a farewell speech.  And it continues through chapter 14, chapter 15, chapter 16, and then finally in chapter 17 they have a concluding prayer to wrap it all up.  And then in chapter 18, Jesus goes into the garden where he's arrested.  Now that's John's account of the last supper, so tell me folks, what's missing?

The communion!  The communion is missing!  How could John leave it out?!  There's no reference to 'this is my body', 'here is the bread', there's no reference to the cup of blessing, the cup of salvation poured out.  It's all missing.  Has John lost his marbles here?!  It's the essence of the last supper, and it's not there.

In the liturgical language of the church, there's no Eucharist in John's version of the last supper.  Now 'Eucharist' is the name -- Eucharist literally in Greek means "blessed", to say 'thanks', thanksgiving -- and it is the name by which the Lord's Supper became known in the 2nd century.  It is the name by which most of Christendom knows what we observe here every Sunday.  in our own particular tradition, Christian Church Disciples of Christ, we call it the Lord's Supper, preferring to use biblical names for biblical things, which has been part of our tradition.  But it's known as the Eucharist, and the Eucharist is missing here in John's account of the Last supper.  John has substituted, then, for the Eucharist, this story of the washing of the feet.  The sharing of the bread and the cup, and his body and blood with the act of service, of washing feet.

And instead, he takes the Eucharistic language and imagery and places it here earlier in the story, in the 6th chapter, in the context of the feeding of the 5,000.  And the bread from heaven.  And he says "I am the bread of life.  Those who want that life, the life that comes from God, must eat my flesh and drink my blood, and when you do that, you abide in me and I abide in you".  A very literal kind of notion.

For those of us who are used to seeing the Lord's Supper as about remembering the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for our sin, this is a stunning and profound move that reveals the Eucharist not as something we do to remember the death of Jesus, but that which we do to participate in the life of Jesus.  

In other words, to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus is not about a religious ritual on Sunday mornings, it's about absorbing Jesus in our everyday life.  To follow Jesus is to make the presence of Christ real, tangible, in our lives and in our world.

And the real kicker, as evident in this story, is that presence of Christ in our lives and our world, can be, and often is, disturbing, challenging, even offensive.  

In verse 66, we are told, because of this teaching, many of the disciples turn back and no longer went with him.  I mean, if Jesus can't draw everybody in, how can we?

Ben Girardi, a Disciple of Christ minister, eventually became a regional minister in Nebraska, went to his first church after seminary and was fired.  He went to his mentor and professor at Phillips Seminary, Fred Craft, the eminent Disciple & preacher, very popular, and cried on Fred's shoulder.  You know, "I was just being faithful to what you taught me, and look what happened!".  And Fred comforted him, and said "Ben, unless you're fired at least once in your ministry, you're probably not being faithful to the gospel".

So Ben left feeling much better, until it dawned on him 'Wait a second, Fred Craft has never been fired from anything!'.  

Sergeant Joseph Darby was named the most inspiring person of the year by BeliefNet.com in 2004.  You may not recognize his name, but I assure you that you know his pictures.  Not actually his, but the pictures he turned over to authorities that began the Abu Gharib investigation and subsequent scandal.  Darby was a small-town auto mechanic that joined the Army Reserves to make some extra cash.  And found himself in the Military Police and in Iraq in 2003.  He wanted some digital pictures to send back home to his family, but he didn't have a digital camera.  So he asked a colleague for some pictures, and he gave him two discs.  The first disc was what he thought he was getting -- tourism pictures of Iraq.  

But the second disc was filled with hundreds of images that shocked him to his core.  Pictures of various humiliating acts of prisoners naked and forced to do all kinds of obscene things.  And by the way, keep in mind that the majority of those prisoners in those pictures were later found to have been arrested for no legitimate reason, and were released without any further charges.  Darby said 'it violated everything I personally believed in and all I have been taught about the rules of war'.

He agonized for an entire month before he decided finally to do the right thing, to blow the whistle on his comrade in arms.  And when he did that, he initially thought he would remain anonymous, because he realized this would be a dangerous thing to come out with.  He was successful in doing that until Secretary Donald Rumsfeld revealed his identity in a Senate hearing and referred to him as a hero.  He was not treated very heroically.  He did not feel like a hero.  He and his family received death threats.  They had to be ushered out of their own community and moved to an undisclosed location, put under protective surveillance.  

Doing the right thing, standing up for one's beliefs, can be and often is very costly. 

While the language of Jesus and John comes across rather harsh -- even the disciples call it difficult to accept -- it is a stark reminder to us that we are called to an intimate relationship not with a spiritual entity who remains above the fray.  But with a historical person in the flesh who got his hands dirty, and often met opposition.

We don't like opposition in church very much.  We're not very good at it, we get all nervous when there's dissenting opinion.  We avoid conflict like a skunk on the highway.  And believe me, it creates a stinky mess when we're not successful in avoiding it!  But the truth is, the gospel was not just born in conflict, it was born of conflict.  Had Jesus not offended anyone, indeed if he had not offended a lot of people, we would not be here today.  

If you live your life in morbid fear of stepping on anyone's toes, well then it's best to stay out of the dance, right?  But if you want to follow Jesus, if you want to live in the fullness of life promised by Jesus, and you want him to live in you, then there are risks we must be willing to take.  There are times when we must stand up and be counted.

I've tried, in my life, to always do that, to live that out, to take that seriously, and that has included at times taking some very public stands for things like gay rights, or against things like the war in Iraq.  I've done that because those are things I feel led to do by the Christ who abides in me, very deep in my heart.  And I know that we've lost a few people because of that, and that grieves me terribly.  I also know we've gained a few as a result.  But you know what grieves me most is when we cannot, or do not, speak up for that which we believe for fear of those we might offend.  Because what matters most to me is not that we agree on such things, but that we are faithful to our convictions.  And we are not afraid to share them.  And that requires creating an environment where it's safe to share what is on your heart.  And to express disagreement.  For only then can we truly learn from one another and show the depth of our love, that healthy disagreement and debate will not tear asunder.

And that is too what I love about this story in John.  For in John, the disciples are not portrayed as bobble-head followers of Jesus, you know, just always nodding and saying 'Yes Jesus, whatever you say Jesus.  Eat your flesh, drink your blood, when do we begin, Jesus?'.  That's not it at all.  When they have a problem with something Jesus said, they express it.  They get it on the table, right there with the bread and wine, so they can talk it out.  And it becomes part of that sacrament.  

And in the end, Jesus asks "Have you had enough, too?  Do you want to leave?".  And Simon Peter answers for all of us:  "Where would we go?  You have the words of eternal life, you are the Holy One of God".

So they, and we, remain.  For it is in Christ that we have our unity.  By consuming the body and blood of Jesus, we overcome all divisions, all disputes, all differences, uniting even with those with whom we have conflict or those whom we have offended or have offended us.  

Become one with Jesus, in love.  May it be.


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