Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 19, 2018
John 6:51-58 Commentary
In her short story “The River,” Flannery O’Connor depicts a child who actually drowns when trying to baptize himself in a river. After this startling story was published, someone asked O’Connor about this grotesque depiction of baptism. O’Connor’s critics thought this story was too extreme. But her goal was to remind her readers of how vividly powerful baptism is, that the Bible really does tell us it involves the death of the old self and the resurrection of a new self in Christ. So when people criticized her for such a startling depiction, O’Connor replied, “In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.”
In John 6, and particularly in this snippet of verses from the Year B John 6 marathon, Jesus is also drawing a really big caricature to make his point. As I mentioned in the Sample Sermon on John 6 that I posted on this website a couple of weeks ago, Jesus seems quite determined to magnify the shock value of his words here via the specific vocabulary he used. Up until verse 54 he had used the more ordinary Greek word for “to eat” (phagein) but in verse 54—seemingly in reaction to the questions being raised by the crowd—he toggles over to the lesser used verb of trogein, which appears to have carried with it the connotation of “chewing with your mouth open.” Picture a cow chewing his cud. Picture an elementary school child smacking up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, her mouth yawning open widely between each smacking chew.
Commentator Raymond Brown says that across the centuries, a few commentators have disputed the idea that there was anything particularly distinctive about trogein over against the more common phagein. But Brown and others are convinced that this is very intentional on John’s part, magnifying the vividness of the real “feeding” that takes place in the Eucharistic meal (and that Jesus/John so clearly intends here). If you chew with your mouth open, there is no doubting the food that is in your mouth. You cannot pretend to be chewing something if people can see into your mouth. That kind of eating shows you the real deal, the actual substance of what’s in a person’s mouth.
So in one sense Jesus may have been purposely exaggerating the “Yuck!” factor here. He has already knocked people off kilter by suggesting something that sounds vaguely cannibalistic and now seems intent on making that already gross-sounding scenario more intensely repugnant. Jesus is not bandying around empty words or rhetoric.
No, what Jesus is talking about really is a matter of life or death. To have any Life worth talking about, you really do need to enter into the Life of the Father through the Son. What Jesus is offering here is nothing short of an access to the Life of the Triune God. Think of that! Jesus is saying that union with him (signified by Eucharistic participation in Christ) allows us to enter into the rhythms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, into the Life that existed before anything like the Creation existed and that even now is the bright center to everything in the universe.
Most weeks when we come to church and when we take to ourselves the bread and the wine of the Holy Supper, our thoughts are far too small. We cannot exaggerate what we’re getting through that meal. Mostly our imaginations are simply not big enough, our expectations are pedestrian and trivial. What Jesus is offering us is a slice of Life Eternal, of the very Life force that pulses as the heartbeat to everything that exists, that ever existed, or that ever will exist.
In his commentary on John, Frederick Dale Bruner points out that Jesus does not want to entertain us with interesting ideas or thoughts. He wants to touch us, to become part of the whole human person because making us into whole new human beings is precisely what Jesus is all about. This in turn led Bruner to remember the John Denver love song in which Denver croons about having his senses filled up, giving his life to his lover, drowning in laughter and being consumed with love (this is “Annie’s Song” and you can view it here: Annie’s Song ). Something of that total filling-up and getting engulfed by something (or Someone in this case) is just what Jesus means.
That’s why he didn’t cash out his own rhetoric here by smirking a bit before finally saying, “OK, OK, folks, I know you are scandalized by what I seem to be saying here. I know you’re thinking I am talking about a big backyard barbeque at which people will be gnawing not on chicken wings and pork ribs but my own arms and these here ribs under my tunic. But listen here: I am talking SYMBOLICALLY! Haven’t y’all ever heard of a metaphor? What I want you to envision here are little wafers of bread and little cups of wine that will stand for my flesh and blood. So calm down. I’m not talking about anything REAL here!”
No, that wouldn’t have helped. Not really. In truth, the last thing we’d want Jesus to do is scale all this back so as to make it neat and tidy and acceptable. We do a pretty good job of that on our own as it is (as mentioned above, just witness the average communion service today, which has about all the wonder of making out a grocery list some weeks). What we need is to be stretched, to be pushed out of our comfort zone, to be shaken out of our complacency so as to see again the radical nature of faith and of the union with Christ it makes possible by the grace of God.
I wonder if there is a lesson here for us preachers. It seems that we are forever doing exactly what we should be glad Jesus did not do here; namely, we domesticate the gospel, we make what is hard apparently simple, we reduce the grace of God to a little helper added to our own efforts. In the legal realm, a cardinal rule for lawyers in a courtroom is “Never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer.” I myself do not think that is a very good idea for preachers. In the mysteries of faith, I believe we do now and then need to ask questions to which we don’t know the answer because there are some things we need to leave in the hands of our sovereign God.
Or as Fred Craddock noted in one of his last sermons some years ago before becoming ill with Parkinson’s Disease, too many sermons give the distinct impression that the preacher had walked all the way around God and had taken pictures. Too many sermons are neatly folded, all the ends tucked in, no mystery, no grandeur. And hence such sermons leave no one scratching their head or with mouth agape over the awesome nature of God’s glory.
Those of us who preach maybe need to pay more attention to the Savior whom we proclaim and take a cue—at least now and then—from his own willingness to radicalize the gospel in words chock-full of the mind-boggling things of God.
When John reports that Jesus’ offer of his flesh to eat provokes the Jews to “argue sharply among themselves,” Raymond Brown suggests that the Greek “suggests a violent dispute.” This, then, is no gentle disagreement. We almost get the sense that the Jews are ready to physically attack Jesus for making this shocking claim. Might this be another hint of Jesus’ coming passion?
I believe it’s the most amazing piece of cinema I’ve ever seen, and my friend, Roy Anker, who is an expert on cinema, agrees. It is the final scene of Robert Benton’s lyric film Places in the Heart.
Set in the 1930s, the movie portrays Edna Spalding, who is suddenly widowed in the film’s opening scene when a drunk young black boy named Wylie accidentally shoots Edna’s husband (the town sheriff) to death. Wylie is quickly lynched by the white townsfolk even as Edna is left with a load of debt thick enough to choke a horse and two very young children to raise. Eventually Edna meets Moze, a black migrant farmer who knows how to raise cotton and is hired by Edna to make enough money to save herself from foreclosure at the hands of the local (but very heartless) bank. And it works. Edna does make enough money to save her farm. But the white townsfolk are not happy that Moze is around and so, dressed up in their Ku Klux Klan outfits, they come to the farm one night, beat Moze up, and force him to flee.
As Edna watches Moze leave—and as the question of whether she could be successful again next year without Moze’s help hovers in the air—it looks like the movie is over. But then there is one last scene, in church. It’s Sunday morning. The pastor delivers a sermon on I Corinthians 13 and then they serve communion.
And that’s where the film becomes surreal and deeply, deeply theological. First you notice that the church—that had been at best half full in earlier shots of the congregation—is now quite full. But then, to the startlement of us viewers, suddenly we see the bread and wine being taken by a woman who had died in a tornado earlier in the film. The town prostitute is there, too, sitting next to the banker who had been so unfeeling in the face of Edna’s fear of foreclosure. Then we see members of the KKK taking the Lord’s Supper and, what’s more, they pass the trays of bread and wine to no less than the black man, Moze, who is suddenly sitting there in church with Edna and her family. Finally, Edna takes the bread and wine and passes it to . . . her husband who is suddenly sitting next to her again and, next to him, Wylie, the young black boy who had killed him and been killed himself as a result. As the sheriff and Wylie eat the bread and drink the wine, they look at each other and say, “The peace of God.”
It’s a mystical and mysterious but moving glimpse of the “eternal life” of which Jesus speaks in our text. When these people share in the Lord’s Supper, they begin to experience something of the eternal life Jesus promises to those who somehow eat his flesh and drink his blood. And yes, the film seems to be saying, this sacrament really just IS this amazing, every time, if only we have the spiritual eyes to see it.
Watch this arresting scene here: Places in the Heart clip.
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