Michael Warren, a consultant in youth ministry, describes beautifully the assumption that many young people make about what it takes to be a Christian, but I invite you to listen carefully and see if you don’t think he describes what many–if not most–people who are no longer “young” also believe–
Many of the young people I meet
[he writes] believe religion, particularly Christianity, is an area of life requiring no special skills. Religion, they think, refers to an optional interior attitude. It consists of having nice, loving thoughts about God. The idea that a religion requires a discrete set of practices that forges a distinct way of being in the world–that religious practices, like an athlete’s training, are more geared to developing abilities than a set of thoughts–is something many have never considered. If there is a practice to religion, they think, it consists of a single activity–an activity they reject: attending religious services. In their equation, if you love God, God knows of your love and you don’t have to be part of a religious assembly to show that love. If you do attend church but don’t love God, you’re a hypocrite. So the best way to avoid hypocrisy is to avoid going to church. (Warren, “Christian Skill Set,” The Christian Century, Sept. 7, 2004, p. 25)
See what I mean? Lots of people, especially in the West, think the same way–that religion, in particular Christianity, is primarily an interior attitude. It’s about thoughts and “beliefs,” rather than actions or skills. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters may add taking communion or going to confession or saying the rosary to the set of practices, but even then, my guess is those practices are wrapped up in attending religious services and less to do with developing skills which forge a distinct way of being in the world. In fact, we’re a little leery of people who appear “too religious”–who do things–or won’t do things–in their daily life that may set them apart from others. We’d like everyone to “fit in” and not make anyone too uncomfortable.
“If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Jesus certainly didn’t seem to go out of his way to make people feel comfortable. This long discourse in the 6th chapter of John–which may have been at least as much John’s understanding of what Jesus said than what Jesus said–is a case in point. “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Really, Jesus? No wonder the early Christians were accused of cannibalism!
“What was Jesus thinking?” as one pastor asks. He has just fed over 5000 people with a few barley loaves and a couple of fish, and they are so excited they’d follow him anywhere. Instead of meeting them right where they are, pointing out the lilies in the field maybe, like Jesus does in Luke’s gospel, or continuing to nourish them with food that will sustain them and let them see that this teacher is worth following, maybe with a few beatitudes like Jesus does in Matthew’s gospel, here in John he launches into this long discourse about being the Bread from heaven and about their having to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
“This teaching is difficult,” they say in masterful understatement. “Who can accept it?” “Does this teaching offend you?” Jesus asks his disciples. “Uh, yeah. It’s a little creepy.” “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” “Honestly,” my pastor friend writes, “it’s a wonder Jesus had any followers left. Maybe the real miracle in the sixth chapter of John wasn’t that 5000 people were fed at the beginning but that a dozen were still left at the end.” (Wallace W. Bubar, The Christian Century, 8/22/12, p. 20)
“This teaching is difficult.” “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” These words–this image–force an in-your-face confrontation with the incarnation. This is not about thinking nice thoughts about God. This is not a strictly internal thought process. This is about the very life blood that flows through our veins that results in a new way–a distinct way– of being in the world. If you think that’s comfortable and safe, remember the image that Paul–or probably someone writing in the same spirit–used in his letter to the Ephesians–
[he wrote] be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Now this may be a little more militaristic and a little more supernatural than we’re comfortable with. But the image of armor would certainly have had currency in Ephesus, with Roman soldiers in armor all around. And while we may not like to think of them in terms of “cosmic powers of the present darkness, or spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” we do know that there are forces at work beyond any individual or even collective human power–forces of greed or fear, forces of disease or prejudice, economic forces, geo-political forces. Paul refers to them as the “powers and principalities,” and it’s as good a description as any.
When we are up against cancer, or heart disease, or addiction, or any other disease or condition not readily eliminated by a pill or tonic, it can feel like we are engaged in a battle. When no matter how hard we try, no matter how many resumes we hand out or job fairs we attend, and we still cannot get a job, we can feel as though we are up against the powers and principalities. When we see pictures of hungry children, or craters and smoldering vehicles left by bombs or other explosive devises, when we watch glaciers melting and polar bears stranded on shrinking ice floes, when wild fires rage and devour homes and forests and everything else in their paths, or rain and wind batter coastlines and even river lines, we can believe in powers and principalities over which we have no control. Heck, there are quieter days when it can feel like we’re up against forces that simply are too strong for us–in frustration with our children or elderly parents, when our bodies just won’t behave or work the way we wish they would, when the bills just keep coming and the balance in the checkbook keeps going down, when we find it hard to find energy or meaning in life. “Beloved, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of God’s power…Put on the whole armor of God…”
The armor described, except for the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of the Lord, is all defensive–the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness (or right relationship with God), shoes to help us preach the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation. None of those can take on any real meaning if they’re just abstract, interior thoughts. When you’re up against powers and principalities, thoughts will too easily disappear. It has to be in your blood, so to speak, in your muscles. The rhythms of worship and prayer, living eucharistically–that is, giving of yourself and recognizing that your life depends on others, the practice of fasting–either from food or other forms of consuming–all hone our skills and abilities to act differently in the world. Doing the work to sort through all the layers of limitations, fears, and constructed self-images that we’ve layered on and around our true, inner core takes time and effort. “The whole armor of God is a matter of worship, ethics, character, prayer and lifestyle,” writes Bruce Epperly, which then become “resources to creatively respond to–and confront–the present darkness…Our primary protection in a world of threat is prayerful God-awareness and constant alert, being spiritually centered.” (The Adventurous Lectionary, 8/21/12)
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” Jesus said. There is real intimacy in this kind of relationship that is able to remain with us, even in and through death, both our final death and the little deaths that we experience everyday, in the loss of a relationship, even in the letting go of a child who moves on to the next stage in life–whether that’s a new school or college or marriage or the service–, or the little deaths we might experience in illness or incapacity, in giving up a home, in the loss of the job. “Those who take in my life [which is what blood represented] abide in me and I in them.”
And Jesus knew that the giving of his blood and flesh would not only come through the meal that we celebrate in communion but also, especially, in his death. The way to “eternal life,” which is both now and in the days to come, is through death, through the giving of oneself, in the giving up of the ego, or one’s selfish desires, including the desire to be in control. “This is a difficult teaching,” they said. You bet.
When some of his disciples left and no longer went around with him, Jesus did not try to make them stay. He knew the way was difficult, and that no one could be forced to follow. “Among you there are some who do not believe.” I know that this is not what you expected the way of truth or salvation to be. This is not what you wanted in a messiah. It is when those in whom we place such hope–whether as messiah or political candidate–when they do not live up to what we thought they were going to do, that we feel betrayed. Judas couldn’t believe Jesus was who he said he was–the Son of Humanity–because Jesus was determined to go through death, not around it, and so Judas felt betrayed. Surely the messiah doesn’t have to die. Others simply left. It’s not clear whether Jesus felt betrayed here. One commentator writes, “Jesus is not the victim of misguided hopes, who at the end dies disillusioned because good does not triumph over evil. All along, with eyes wide open to the presence of unbelief and destruction, he follows the plans given him by [God].” (Texts for Preaching, Year B, p. 483)
Jesus asked the twelve remaining, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” You have the words of eternal life–eternal life, right here and now. “Could these words [of eternal life] be the vibrations of divine creativity,” asks Bruce Epperly, vibrations from “the big bang and the evolution of the universe? Could these words be life-changing affirmations whose repetition creates the songlines of our lives, opening us to hope and energy despite life’s challenges?” (Op cit.) Could these words be the whole parable that Jesus’ life told and continues to tell–of Divine Love living in human flesh, healing, teaching, connecting us, suffering, dying, and rising into new life?
To whom can we go other than this One, this Way, which, deep down, if we truly are honest with ourselves, ring true? Have we found such truth, such strength, such hope, such peace in any other way? In the way of self-centeredness, the way of money or power or stuff or success? To whom can we go in the midst of cancer or loss or heartbreak or discouragement? “Lord, you have the words of eternal life. To whom can we go?”
There are practices, there are skills we can acquire to help us live this way, centered and grounded in the love of God–practices of gratitude and forgiveness, practices of prayer and meditation, practices of taking care of our own and others’ bodies, practices of caring for the earth and her creatures, practices of worship and study and eucharist and healing. But all these practices–all these efforts–really just make us more susceptible to grace. “Be strong in the Lord” might more accurately be translated, “be made strong”–it is God who gives the strength. It is the Source of Life who courses through our veins and limbs that keeps us in divine intimacy. It is ultimately the mystery of Love that transforms bread and wine, that transforms our lives, that confounds our sensibilities and our logic, that even offends us at times. But it is Love that walks beside us and within us and before us, so that even in the present darkness, we may find the way. May these words be strength, and hope, and courage for us for the living of these days. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark