By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 22, 2021
John 6:56–69 (ESV)
56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” 66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
The past couple of weeks I hope I have challenged how we think about some of the traditional icons of Christian worship. When we mention things, in a meeting for worship, like bread or blood our mind usually goes to the sacramental elements. And for those of us that have been part of Friends for a while know that these elements are not common in our tradition of worship. For those of us that have not been part of Friends for long or have only attended a meeting for worship a few times might have noticed these things are not common among Friends.
I want us to know the deepness of what Jesus is telling us. Life is deep. The words that we use within a conversation are usually chosen to convey a specific meaning to those that we are speaking to. I grew up in a very rural part of North Central, Kansas. I will sometimes joke about where I lived as being a mile from the middle of nowhere because on a rainy day my uncle and I were bored and we got a map out and found the spot near where we lived that was the central point between the towns in our area, that point was about a mile from my house. And its also fun to say because I also grew up not far from the geological center of America. If you were to make an x across the United States where the lines meet is about twenty miles from where I lived. I mention this because it is very rural, most of the people in my class in school were in the same classroom with the same students every year from kindergarten through their senior year of high school. I was not that student. My family moved back home after my mother completed her degree, so I transferred into elementary school in my hometown in the third grade. When I first started, I did not know many people. I could not laugh at the same jokes, because I did not have the context of what was being said. I spent that first year of school struggling to make friends, because the only people I knew were my cousins.
All of us have been in that position. When we start a new job, we must learn the language of the workplace. When I moved from Walmart to target it took a year of constant corrections from my team leaders before I was able to refer to the patrons of our facility in the proper way. Just so you know Target does not have customers they have guests, Sam’s Club has members, and customers go to Walmart. Its all the same but until you really learn the difference of the language you feel like an outsider. Maybe you joined a social club and someone made a comment that you did not understand and everyone laughed except you. In that situation you might have felt as if those around you were making some reference to you personally, but the reality is that you were outside the inside joke.
I bring all this up because sometimes we use and see words being used and we consider the words in a context that may or may not work. That is what happens with the passages we have been reading the past couple of weeks. Jesus speaks about bread and automatically our minds are drawn not to look at the words on the page but they are taken to a tradition practiced by expressions of faith. Jesus says he is the bread that comes down from heaven, our minds think communion and we miss the context.
I have spent the time focusing on these things. We need to know why bread, flesh, blood, and drink are important in the context of those within Jesus’s contemporary culture or we will miss something. And the things that we miss skew our perception of faith.
Again, we begin where we left off last week. Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” First off this is an extremely shocking statement, not only because of the obvious cannibalistic image it gives, but because Jesus was saying consumes my blood. Today it is not as shocking because we have romanticized vampires to such a degree that they are no longer horrific legends but instead the heart throbs of teen magazines. Is Jesus wanting us to become vampires? See how easy it is to begin looking at scripture out of context. But vampirism is not why I say this is shocking, the shocking part is the concept of consuming blood in general. This was forbidden in the dietary laws of Israel. The blood was offered to God in sacrifice, and what was not offered was to be buried in the earth. The taboo of consuming blood was so important that kosher meat is often rubbed with salt, so that the salt will draw out the most minute amounts of blood left within the meat. Why was such great care given to this one portion of the body? Blood symbolized the life force.
We can understand that concept, but do we understand the significance? I do not think we fully understand the concept in our culture today. My ancestry comes primarily from England, with some seasoning from other European regions. In England they do not hold blood in the same regard. I have never even been to England and do not even know much about their colorful history but I can say this knowing I am right for one reason, the traditional English breakfast. The traditional English breakfast consists of bacon, sausages, eggs, black pudding, baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, toast, and a beverage like tea. This does not sound too bad, except beans on toast sounds a bit weird. But what is black pudding? To put it simply it is a type of sausage made from blood, why they call it pudding is beyond me, but I will let someone else tackle that. The bacon and sausages are not the thing of this traditional breakfast that would make Hebrews quiver, even though we all know that pork products are not kosher, but the black pudding. There was a different approach to handling of this one organ.
One group took great care in removing all traces of blood from animals prepared for human consumption, and then disposed of it in an almost ritualistic manner to bring honor to the animal that gave its life to feed a family. The other group looks upon everything as food. One group expresses honor and the other consumes. I do want us to let that sit in our minds for a moment. The handling of that one organ within the body speaks volumes into the differences within the cultures.
The Hebrew people respected all creatures with blood. Those creatures were given life by God and that life which was given to them by the same God that created us should be honored and respected. One should not take life unnecessarily and when we do, we should still honor the life and praise the one that gives all life.
There are other cultural groups that express this type of ritualistic honor toward animals. And I respect that concept. I am not saying that I am vegan, far from it. But I respect life and the one that gave life. As I mention often, I grew up in rural Kansas, and one of the greatest attractions to Kansas is the wildlife. Every year people from all over the country will make special trips to Kansas to have the opportunity to hunt pheasants. I have participated in pheasant hunting, but in my mind, chicken is a whole lot easier to obtain. I have this bad attitude mainly because I am left-handed which meant that I was always delegated to a certain side of the group. If you have not hunted pheasants, you might not understand, but when there is a group hunting together, they will usually form a line and walk through an area. I was left-handed so while walking I would carry my gun differently which made all the right-handed people nervous. I was put on one end. The problem was that if I was on the end, if I shot a bird so did everyone else. I rarely claimed anything. But there were times I did kill a bird. When this happened, I always felt something profound, yes, I was going to eat this creature, but I also respected it. Pheasants are beautiful birds, one of the most beautiful birds in North America. There was one year when I was hunting and I was unable to find the bird that I shot. This was laid heavy on my heart. I had taken life in vain. That animal lost its life without honor and I felt wasteful. I am not advocating a diet plan but we should not waste meat. Those creatures that gave their lives so others can survive should not have their lives wasted, but they should be used properly.
Jesus said he is the bread from heaven. As I studied bread, I realized that there was more to that statement than mere bread. Jesus was saying that he was the one that sustained life. He was also saying that he was the one from which wisdom came from because the manna became a symbol of the wisdom of God which also sustains life. But it does not stop there, bread was also a significant part of the worship, along with flesh. Jesus moves on from speaking about bread, saying that the bread he gives is his flesh. I connected the bread and the flesh with the one offering to God that the worshiper fully participated in, the peace offering. Which represented the worshiper and those invited, sharing a meal with God. Jesus is saying that he is the one that came down from heaven, and that he is the bread and the flesh. He is the peace offering.
But there is more to it. He says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” Blood was not mentioned until the end. Why, because blood is life. During this whole conversation that Jesus is having with these religious leaders he is telling them, using their own symbolism, that he is God incarnate. He gives and preserves life, but he does this in a strange way.
For me I just wished Jesus would have said it simply, it almost offends my Quaker testimony of simplicity that Jesus uses so many words to express what could have been summed up in three. He could have just said, “I am God.” But he does not do that. He forces them to think about it what he is saying. And then he goes into this weird tirade about eating him. What does that all mean?
Those that listened to him during that conversation had trouble as well. They responded, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” And many turned away from Jesus at that time. Who wants to be associated with this weird guy that talks about people eating human bodies and living forever? Even the twelve were confused.
It is deep. Who gives life? Who sustains life? How do we obtain the things that maintain our life? Who do we share those things with and why? Many will say that everything spoken in this passage is speaking of the ceremony of the Eucharist or the elements of communion. Many would say that Jesus is introducing the idea of his own death and resurrection in this passage even though this is many chapters prior to the last supper. But I do think it is connected to some degree, and I say this as a Friends pastor.
I make this distinction for a reason. Our faith tradition emerged during a troubled time in England, the English civil war. During this time people of faith were battling to the death over expressions of faith and how to do them properly. There was a great deal more than that as well but the church was right in the middle and the clergy were inspiring the people to participate in the cause of war. Our spiritual ancestors were seekers during this time. Seeking to make sense of this troubled world. They were asking where is God in all of this? George Fox and the others found that if we truly seek God and are silent before him, he will be our ever-present teacher and guide. These early Friends formed a group or society that would meet to worship in silence expecting to be led by the Spirit of God. Many would be inspired to speak and to teach others were inspired to start businesses or ministries to promote greater devotion. But everyone developed an understanding that rituals of faith are empty unless the Truth is not in it. They were watching Parliamentarians and Monarchists battling against each other and both battling under the banner of their faith. They both claimed Christ, but where was Christ? Their faith was empty because their lives and lifestyles did not reflect the words they uttered by their mouth. Those early Friends lived lives of faith. They promoted simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality three hundred years ago and we still promote that today. And we do this because that is what we believe Christ taught.
The rituals are empty without the truth. The early Friends did not wish to diminish the truth. They saw countless people confessing faith and participating in the rituals of the church on Sunday, and on Monday they were out brutalizing and extorting the others. As a result, they took the advice of James, show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works. How can one claim Christ and eat at his table on Sunday and live contrary to the Spirit of Christ? Those early Friends removed the rituals, not because they opposed the truth but because they loved the reality of the truth to such an extent, they did not want to minimize it.
The truth of the bread and wine is that there is a real presence of Christ in and among all things that sustain and maintain life, because life is in them. We should honor that life and praise the life giver. We should do this privately at every meal, and we should do that when we eat within a group. But even that is too small. When Jesus speaks of eating, he means even more. He asked his disciples if they too wanted to leave, and they answered you have the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God. Eating is more than maintaining life. Eating is sharing life with others. If we share life with Christ his life becomes ours and when we share life with others, we share Christ. This is what James means about faith and works. Life with Christ should compel us to live for Christ and share the grace that he has given. You are what you eat.
No, we do not make it a custom to serve the elements of communion as a ritualistic part of our worship, because the reality is that God is with us already. We are not the ones that bring home the bread, but it is God. We have him in the words of scripture and in the prayers of the holy ones that speak his name. He is present as we share a meal around a table on Thanksgiving, and in the breakroom at work. God is with us if we believe, if we repent, and walk with him. And we can do this because Jesus became the peace offering for us through his life, death, and resurrection. Amen.
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