'This Teaching is HARD. Who Can Accept It?': A Sermon on Eucharist
A Reading from the Gospel of John 6:22-45-60
Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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.’
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So 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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 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. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This 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.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’
(To read the entire "Bread of Life Discourse" from John 6, click HERE.)
Editor's Note: Listen along to Nadia's sermon on John 6 below or click HERE.
In the last couple weeks, many of us here have been lucky enough to see a musical called The Book of Mormon. It’s an irreverent and profoundly funny look at the culture of religion in general and the origins of a distinctly American religion in particular.
I personally thought it was hilarious and found myself snickering at what feels like some of the crazier ideas of Mormonism — such as (and I could be wrong about this, but) the belief that good Mormon men get to eventually have their own planets.
But it didn’t take long for me to stop snickering and lean over to my husband Matthew and say…yeah but the thing is, we claim to eat the flesh and drink the blood of a guy who lived 2,000 years ago.
Who’s crazy now? I mean, all religions are weird, we’re just used to ours is all.
Every three years, the assigned readings during the summer include five weeks of working our way through the Gopel of John, chapter 6, and what is called the "Bread of Life Discourse." And let’s just say that if Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote a musical called The Book of John they’d have plenty of material from just this chapter alone.
In the last five weeks we’ve gone from the feeding of the 5,000 to Jesus walking on water in the middle of a storm at sea — by the way, Jesus walks on water during a storm at sea so often in the gospels that I’ve started thinking it was less about being miraculous and more about just getting in some cardio — anyhow, the crowd chased him down, demanding more bread, and then he goes and says that he is the Bread of Life come down from heaven (which angered the nice religious folks), and rather than backing off, he makes it even weirder by saying whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life.
Which is where we pick up today when some of his disciples are like, “Uh Jesus, that teaching is HARD…who can accept it?” And many of them leave. And I have to say, I don’t really blame them.
This teaching IS hard. But honestly, Jesus had a lot of sayings that were HARD. Sayings such as, " Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," "You who are without sin cast the first stone," "Sell all you have and give it to the poor," "The first shall be last and the last shall be first," and "If you seek to save your life you will lose it."
I totally understand the reaction of these disciples who say these teachings are hard, who can accept them?
But this week I started to wonder if maybe those disciples didn’t have to leave Jesus … I mean, when we make the accepting of hard teachings the litmus test for being a follower of Jesus, I wonder if we are perhaps missing the point altogether.
Recently I was describing how many different types of people come to this church and a colleague asked me what it is that unites all the people here at House for All Sinners and Saints. They asked: Is it a certain belief? I looked at them and was like, What, as in a doctrine? Of course I answered, No.
I mean, I have a very clear and perhaps shockingly Orthodox Lutheran theological perspective, but honestly, you guys believe all sorts of stuff. Trust me on that. A few of you are theologically Lutheran, but the rest of you guys are everything from agnostic to evangelical, and strangely I think some of you are both at the same time. So while we are pretty Christocentric here — I mean, pretty into Jesus — accepting a certain doctrine is ultimately not what unites us.
I think what unites us isn’t a doctrine, it’s a table — a table that is open to all, in which we receive this Bread of Life come down form heaven. The body and blood of Christ is what unites us and makes us a church. Hopefully not in a prideful see-how-inclusive-we-are way, but in a Lord-to-whom-shall-we-Go? way. In as You-have-the-words-of eternal-life way.
We all are welcomed each week with the news that we have an open table at House for All and that means that everyone without exception is invited to receive the bread and wine, which for us is the body and blood of Christ. And some of us have perhaps grown so used to this that we don’t realize how radical that is, given the history of Christian practice.
For as much difference there is in the Christian church — Roman Catholicism, snake-handling Pentecostalism, polite Presbyterianism, emotional evangelicalism, intellectual Lutheranism — and for as much as we differ, the one thing most Christian traditions actually have in common is some form of communion, which makes it all the more ironic that the very thing we all seem to have in common is the thing that so often divides us.
A lot has been spilled in the history of the church over issues of who gets to take and serve communion — a lot of ink and a lot of blood.
Sadly, the way we as Christians historically have responded to the gift of the Eucharist is to make sure that we understand it, then to make sure we put boundaries around it, and then to make sure we enforce both the correct understanding and the correct boundaries. But on the night Jesus was betrayed he didn’t say, “This is my body broken for you…UNDERSTAND this in remembrance of me." He didn’t say, "ACCEPT this or DEFEND this or BOUNDARY this in remembrance of me." He just said, "DO this in remembrance of me."
It IS a hard teaching.
That God would be made human and walk among us, that this Christ would offer his own flesh for the sake of another world, that he would do this knowing what scoundrels sat around his table the night he was betrayed and that he would do it anyhow saying, "Take and eat — this is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me."
And when we at House start to feel even slightly self-congratulatory about our inclusivity, we might do well to remember two things. One: the 12 disciples who sat around that table included Judas the Betrayer and Peter the Denier, and the reason Judas and Peter makes us cringe is that there is that of the Christ betrayer and the Christ denier in all of us. And it is precisely THAT part of us that Jesus seeks to make whole with his own broken body.
And Two: Every time we enter this space, we pass the mural of the Last Supper that we created last year. The disciples in the mural were created out of images of people (or that within ourselves) that we wish were not invited to the table. [Editor's Note: See a photo of the mural below.]
This teaching is HARD. Who can accept it?
It is hard to accept that our enemies receive the same forgiveness and grace and redemption as we do, but sometimes it’s even harder to accept not just that God welcomes all, but that God welcomes ALL of me and ALL of you. Even that within us which we wish to hide: the part that cursed at our children this week, or drank alone, or has a problem with lying, or hates our body; the part within us that suffer from depression and can’t admit it, or is too fearful to give our money away, or is riddled with shame over our sexuality or cheats on our taxes.
ALL the parts of us we wish Jesus had the good sense to not welcome to his table are invited to taste and see that the Lord is Good. ALL of who we are is welcomed to his table to see that the gifts of God are free and for all and for ALL .
This teaching is HARD. Who can accept it?
As your preacher today, please hear that I am not asking you to accept it. I’m only asking you to do it.
Because here at this table, you can bring the most broken pieces of your life. Here you can bring the most broken pieces of this world. Here you can bring the most broken pieces of yourself. And you can receive, with no payment or worthiness on your part, the equally broken body of Jesus Christ.
You need not understand it or accept it. You need not put boundaries or defenses around it. You need only do it.
So come with all of who you are and receive the living bread come down from heaven. Receive life and forgiveness and salvation with all the other broken saints and gleaming sinners, for it is this that unites us in the love of a powerful God.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.nadiabolzweber.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.
Photo credit: Bread and wine image by IngridHS/Shutterstock.