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Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 23, 2015

Imagine that you are a Nats fan with tickets to a very important game, perhaps the first playoff game of a series. The Nats have been doing well – remember I said imagine – and you have high hopes for this game. You stand for the national anthem and sit down with anticipation, waiting for the game to begin. But the game does not go the way you want it to. There are errors. There is bad pitching. There is great offensive play from the other team and no defense from the Nats. You are upset. You are angry. You are losing your faith in the team. You don’t know whether to stay at the park or give up and go home.

Jesus’ teachings on the subject of bread are like that Nats game. He has wrapped up a long discourse on who he is – the bread of life which means eternal life for his disciples. And people don’t get it. They are offended by his teachings.

First he teaches that he is the one sent from heaven. He commits an error in their eyes. How can he be the one sent from heaven? First, it is blasphemy to claim that kind of relationship with God. Second, everyone knows who he is – Mary and Joseph’s son. He might claim to be a prophet, but not someone sent from God. That is too much.

Then he says that no one can come to him unless drawn by the Father. The other team hits a home run. What does he mean by that, the disciples say. This group is not just the twelve, but a much larger group, filling the stands as it were. Many of them partook in the miracle of the loaves. They don’t like the implication that they don’t have the control over what they think and what they will believe (Amy C. Howe). They don’t like the idea that though they have a response to make – because God always gives us choice – it is only after God does the inviting. The control issue is very important to them. They want to control their own lives and not have God do it for them.

Third Jesus says he is the bread of life and people must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. This is truly offensive. The Nats defense breaks down and the other team’s offense comes to the fore. First, Jews and most other people would never dream of cannibalism, which is what this sounds like, and second, they are forbidden from drinking any blood at all. The law says it is a capital offense (Douglas R.A. Hare). Remember when we think of this phrase, we think of the Eucharist, but those disciples didn’t have any point of reference except exactly what Jesus said. They were to somehow eat Jesus like a cracker and that wasn’t going to happen.

Second, the disciples didn’t like the idea that eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood connoted the idea of sacrifice. It was near Passover, and they remembered the sacrifice of the lamb. Jesus’ words didn’t speak of power; they spoke of weakness and vulnerability. They didn’t speak of victory over the Romans, but only defeat. Jesus was not the kind of Messiah they wanted, words of eternal life or not.

Finally, Jesus tells them that the spirit gives life, that the flesh is useless. What are they, they grumble. They are flesh – bone and sinew and blood and organs. Yet Jesus is saying they can’t have this eternal life in themselves. They have to trust Jesus. Well, it is now the bottom of the ninth and the opposing team is ahead by five runs, more than a grand slam home run, should someone hit such a thing, could overcome. The disciples are overcome by a crisis of faith. They drift away from Jesus or leave in a huff as thousands of fans leave the ball park. No matter what the promise, they cannot accept the teaching. It is too baffling for them. They do not wait for Jesus to explain or even hope that the meaning will become clear later if they only hang on to relationship with Jesus. Suddenly, Jesus has few disciples present, and it must make him said because he truly has something to offer.

The twelve are still present, just like the few in the stands are, and he asks them if they too will leave. Peter says, “Lord, where will we go. You have the words of eternal life”. You have the gift to give us that we need to overcome death and be with you forever. We don’t understand what you mean, but we will stay with you, because we trust that you will make meaning for us in the long run.

We are disciples like the first ones. These teachings of Jesus are hard. They are like the “pick up your cross and follow me” lessons that are in the other gospels. They require hard decisions and hard actions. It is easy to fall into the category that leaves Jesus – that leaves the ballfield. We are baffled by the evil in the world and why Jesus does nothing to stop it. We are not sure we can accept all the church’s teachings whole-heartedly. We cannot prove this eternal life beyond death promise and sometimes, especially in moments of deep grief, we wonder if it could possibly be true. We have to live in a world we most definitely do not control that is defined by everything the church stands against, from violence to racism to homelessness, hunger and manipulation by the political elite. We receive the bread and wine, wondering if Jesus’ promises are true and know that sometimes we find ourselves in the group that leaves and sometimes – perhaps less often – we find ourselves in the group that stays.

But there is good news in the gospel, both for the readers and for us. Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh, the human and divine savior living as a man, but filled with the Holy Spirit. The gospel is not about his miracles or his preaching or his teaching. It is about who he is (Charles Hambrick Stowe), and he is the One who has come down from heaven. He is the bread of life. We can know this through his death and resurrection, his atonement for our sins, reconciling us to God. The good news is about Jesus and his life death and resurrection. That is what the apostles preached to bring people to Christ. That is what these men, who deserted Christ at the time he most needed them, came to believe after the resurrection. And they stayed faithful to the message. By eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood through his gift of the Eucharist, we can live forever with God, even though we must first pass through death, just as Jesus did.

When we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, offered us in the Eucharist, we know we will never be hungry and thirsty again. And we know this through the Spirit. Jesus’ incarnation was about God coming to us in the flesh to experience what we humans experience and in the Spirit as the Word made flesh. That is why finding intellectual meaning in Jesus’ teachings is impossible for the disciples. The Spirit is necessary to understand the things of the kingdom. And sometimes we still don’t understand. We search for meaning instead of relationship and trust (John Proctor). God and God’s ways are mysterious and we don’t have to understand. We just have to believe that Jesus is the Word of God and follow him, abiding in him and letting him abide in us.

The few faithful souls remaining at Nationals Stadium saw their team win the game and renewed their faith in the Nats. We are constantly renewing our faith in Jesus’ team through Word and Sacrament. Let us trust Jesus, so that he may be for us the way to eternal life.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
Amy C. Howe, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 382
Douglas R. A. Hare, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 383
Charles Hambrick Stowe, Feasting on the Gospels, John, vol. 1, Theological Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), p. 206
John Proctor, Feasting on the Gospels, John, vol. 1, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), p. 211