A sermon on John 6: 51-58 and Matthew 5: 3-10 by Alison Sampson
Last week we had some visitors who brought back, for many of us, memories of a very painful time in our church history. Their presence revealed a wound which many of us hoped had been healed. But time alone does not heal all wounds. In response to our visitors’ presence, the wound made itself known once again; the wound re-opened. Rifts between individuals opened up; rifts within individuals became apparent as people felt themselves torn between their hurt and their longing to forgive; torn between wanting to offer hospitality and yet knowing their duty of care to keep the church safe. And so, with the help of some external Solomons, the host group has spent the week praying, thinking, and talking about our wounds.
Like suffering and death, which I touched on last week, we don’t like conflict. We would prefer to ignore it, or to make nice. We would prefer an easy forgiveness, an easy reconciliation, with the things and the people that threaten to tear us apart. And we would prefer to gloss over our wounds, as if a church should be a clean and unblemished body, and not the battle-scarred victim that it always is.
Much better to pretend that we are not hurt, that we are not wounded, and that relationship can be restored with no effort.
But what is the church? Like it or not, it is the bloodstained, hole-in-side, scars on hands and feet body of Christ. When we participate in the life of the church, we become part of this wounded body. That is our identity as Christians. The church is a scandal. The church points to a way, Jesus’ way, of suffering and death, and says that it is only by going through these things that we may find healing and redemption.
As much as we can, we make this message nice. We bind our wounds, and hope that, in time, they will heal; we proclaim Jesus’ way in beautiful rituals that sustain us, and we hope that will be enough. And often, it is.
But every now and then, something happens to remind us of the wound, that aching scar in our side, that rough tissue that never quite heals. And then we need to be reminded of our identity.
In tonight’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus offered us a revolting image. We’ve heard lots of readings lately about bread: I am the bread of life. But this time, Jesus takes it a whole lot further. He is sitting in the synagogue, that Jewish house of worship and teaching, and he says: “Whoever munches my flesh – and he doesn’t say dine, snack, on or nibble – whoever munches on my flesh, and slurps down my blood is the person who is making a home in me, and I am making a home with that person, too.”
Jesus is in a synagogue. He is a Jewish man teaching Jewish people. And what does a Jewish person eat? Well, certainly not blood. In Leviticus it is clear: “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the strangers who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood…” (Leviticus 17:10-11a). An observant Jew does not consume blood in any way, shape or form; he never eats his steak rare.
Partly, it’s an observance of the law. And partly, it is cultural. In many cultures there is a belief that the blood contains the soul, or the life-force, of an animal. When you consume the blood, you consume the soul, and that soul becomes one with yours. And so there are ancient Jewish and other texts cautioning against this terrible fate. Consume cow blood, and you will slow down, becoming coarser and more bovine in your thoughts and habits. Consume chicken blood, and you will become silly and scattered, darting for cover at every shadow.
It is into this context that Jesus speaks: munch my flesh, drink down my blood: and I will make a home in you, and you in me. You will become like me.
Every time we gather together and affirm the words, “Let us receive what we are // let us become what we receive: The Body of Christ”, we are wishing upon ourselves, our church, a fearful fate: to become that bloodstained, scarred victim who lives, not for himself, but for the life of the world.
And so it is in our woundedness, this woundedness we try to avoid and would rather not acknowledge, that we find our identity as the body of Christ, our identity as the church.
In Christ, our existence is no longer about ourselves, and our own desires. When we become the body of Christ, we exist for others. And we give a special priority to those whom Jesus loved so dearly and blessed so greatly.
We exist for the poor, and the poor in Spirit: for those whose bellies are crying out for food and drink; for those who are ravenous for story and meaning and acceptance and love.
We exist for those who weep: for the widow, the orphan, the refugee; for the parents of a dying child; for the lonely and the broken hearted; for those who have no community to call home.
We exist for the humble, for every person who has had their vulnerabilities exploited by those in power: for every child who is abused; for every person who has been hurt by a church leader; and we exist for those who have been so hurt by church leaders that they cannot show their faces in a church anymore.
This is our identity in Christ. We gather here to feast on him, to find a home in his identity and let his identity inhabit and shape our own. And in our weakness and our foolishness, in our very woundedness, we are transformed into a people equipped to serve the suffering, and the humble, and the vulnerable, as we enter into love’s purpose for the world. This is the calling for which we have been gathered into this wounded and suffering body of Christ.
It doesn’t sound like much fun. This calling demands that we put aside our privilege, our pride, and our priorities, and let God’s priorities take over. But with this calling, with this new identity, comes promise. Jesus says: Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for justice, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for you will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for you will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers – not the conflict avoiders, but the peacemakers, those who are willing to work for peace –, for you will be called God’s children. Blessed are you who are persecuted because of justice, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
When you gather together to munch on his flesh and slurp down his blood, when you make a home in Christ’s identity, when you allow Christ to inhabit you and let Christ’s priorities become your priorities, then I promise you this: you will be greatly blessed. You shall see the face of God in those whom you serve, and your lives will overflow with an abundance of goodness, and mercy and freedom and love. Ω