Tag Archives: Walter Brueggemann

Chew on This – Sermon on John 6:51-58 for Pentecost 12B

August 16, 2015

One afternoon, more than 30 years ago, I picked up my son from his day care center. It was a good preschool, and we all really liked my son’s teacher, Miss R. As I pulled up to the entrance, I saw my son visiting with his teacher, and it was obvious they were both enjoying the conversation. I signed him out, thanked Miss R., and we headed to the car.

As I buckled him into his seat, I asked, “What were you talking about?”
“Oh, I was just chewing the fat on Miss R.,” he said.

Apparently, he had just learned a new idiom. Almost. It would take a few more repetitions before he could use “chewing the fat” appropriately, and apply it to his everyday life with confidence. In today’s reading, John gives us the chance to learn a gospel truth by repeating something we’ve already heard, so we can apply it to our everyday lives with confidence.

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 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. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 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 forever.” (John 6:51-58)

Here we are in week four of this sixth chapter of John’s gospel, and it’s a hard slog, isn’t it? Wading through John’s repetitions, I see my 10th grade English teacher, Miss Kidd, waving her red pencil and shaking her head, saying, “Redundant, redundant, redundant!”

Just how much more do we really need to hear this? How many more times must Jesus say, “I am the true bread from heaven” and “feed on me”? Apparently, John thinks we need to hear it again, and again. Only this time, the message is getting more intense, more graphic, and more alarming. In fact, Jesus is getting downright disgusting.

Our reaction might be very much like that of the little girl who suddenly found herself paying close attention to the Communion liturgy one Sunday. As the pastor recited the words of institution, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you; take and drink, this is my blood, poured out for your sins,” the little girl interrupted the somber moment with a very loud, “Ew, yuck!”

And then there’s the more personal question about this reading: “So what? What does all this repetition about bread and flesh and blood have to do with my life in the here and now? How do these words, full of symbolic meaning 2000 years ago, matter in my present situation?

The Judeans who are listening to Jesus are becoming more agitated, too. Last week, we heard them grumbling among themselves. This week, the grumbling has turned into an argument. Not only has Jesus claimed to be sent from God, now he insists that anyone who believes he is God’s Son must eat his flesh and drink his blood. The Judeans are repulsed by this idea. Beyond the images of cannibalism, consuming blood of any animal violates Jewish dietary laws. What Jesus is telling his listeners to do is not only disgusting, it’s illegal, immoral, and unethical. It’s just plain wrong.

And it gets worse.

English translations don’t always make it clear, but Jesus starts using more grotesque language partway through his answer to the arguing Judeans. “In verses 49-51, Jesus had spoken about “eating” the bread from heaven, using a very common word (esthio). In verse 53, however, Jesus switches to a less common word, trogo, a … word that has a connotation closer to “munch” or “gnaw.” It is a graphic word of noisy eating, the sort of eating an animal does. The [noisiness] of the eating, however, is not the important point; this is eating that is urgent, even desperate. It is eating as though life depends on it, because it does.” (Brian Peterson)

This is where Jesus gets to the heart of his message. Unless we take him into ourselves urgently, desperately, gobbling him up and gulping his life blood, we are dead. “Unless you do this,” he says, “you have no life in you.” It really is a life or death matter to claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ. In Hebrew tradition, it is the blood that carries the life force of any living being. Unless we take Christ’s life force into ourselves, we die.

John’s gospel doesn’t give us The Lord’s Supper. There is a final meal with his disciples, but it isn’t a Passover meal, and Jesus does not speak the words in John’s gospel that we hear in the other gospel stories. He does not say, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you. Take this cup and drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood poured out for the remission of sins. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you remember my death until I come again.”

Instead, John gives us these words about Christ’s flesh and blood in the context of chapter six, long before the Passion story. This is a passage that begins and ends with life-giving bread. In John’s gospel, the words we say at Communion are less about remembering Christ’s death, and more about taking his life into ourselves.

Jesus says he is the living bread — catch that? The key word here is living, not dying. … this same [word] will be used to describe the Father later in this passage, “just as the living Father sent me” (6:57). What difference does this make? Jesus as the bread of life is connected to the living Jesus, not the dying Jesus. Rather than offering himself on the night he was betrayed, he offers his flesh to eat in the middle of his ministry.” (Karoline Lewis)

It’s all about life, and according to John, eternal life means abundant life (10:10). Throughout this passage, Jesus’ concern is less about getting us to understand and more about getting us to eat. Jesus isn’t making explanation so much as he is making a promise. (Craig Satterlee)

This life isn’t something you can postpone until the future. It’s your promise in the present. This life is the promise of unity with God, abiding in God as God abides in you. This isn’t a memory of what Jesus did in the past, or a dream of what he will do at the end of time, but life lived fully in this moment, receiving “grace upon grace” (1:16).

This is what it means to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood in the here and now. As we consume him, taking his life force into ourselves, this is what Christ promises us: full life in the present, and to be raised on the last day (v 54), to abide in Jesus and have Jesus abide in us (v 56), to live because of Jesus (v 57) and to live forever (v 58).

Next week, we will conclude this march through John 6 with Peter’s recognition of who Jesus really is. All the conversation since Jesus fed the 5000 four weeks ago has been about bread – explaining, defining, and naming it. But Jesus hasn’t really been talking about bread at all. He’s been talking about his own identity.

Ginger Barfield writes: The point missed in the feeding sign was who Jesus was. The sign was to point to Jesus. Instead they got full of food and went back to how things were before. They went back to the literal level and missed the depth and riches that were right in front of them. …
But another miracle was in that first text. Embedded there was the short story of the disciples’ simple recognition of Jesus in the dark once they heard his voice. That voice was enough to take away their fears. No grand miracle. Just a simple recognition of who Jesus was. …
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God, sent from above, to feed the world for all time. Jesus is he who sustains the world in a way that makes living possible. Jesus is the one who speaks and we know he is here.”

As we chew on this awareness of who Jesus really is, we must also hear the demand he makes on all who believe. There can be no half measures, no lip service. It’s all or nothing. Life, or death. We must gulp him down and become part of him as he is part of us, or we die. Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls this the “hard, deep call to obedience.” Jesus wants all of us, just as he wants to give us all of himself. It’s a full commitment to life in Christ, and Christ in every aspect of our lives. Nothing less will do. Let us pray.

(Prayer: Brueggemann’s “A Hard, Deep Call to Obedience”)

Thanksgiving Eve 2013 – Thanks and Praise

For the past couple of years, I have seen a lot of gratitude postings on Facebook during the month of November, as many of my friends participate in 30 Days of Thanks.[1]  You may have seen this, or even participated yourself in the practice of consciously engaging in (at least) one moment of thankfulness every day during the month of November.  It’s a great exercise, and it warms my heart to see so much gratitude being expressed.  But something also bothers me about this little internet meme, and it took me a while to put my finger on it.

At first, I thought it was the limitation of thirty days.  What, you aren’t grateful the other 335 days of the year? You have to save up your gratitude for the month of November, only? But that wasn’t it.

I pondered that it might seem just a bit self-congratulatory to announce to the world how wonderful one’s life is every day. “I’m so thankful that I’ve been blessed with the best husband ever” or “the most amazing children” or even  “the ability to do so much for others who are less fortunate.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11, who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” ? But that wasn’t really what bothered me, either.

Then it hit me as I read the Psalm for the day, which happened to be Psalm 106 that particular day, but really, almost every psalm has at least one verse in it that expresses this same idea. I realized that all this “I’m thankful for…blah, blah, blah…” floating around Facebook was missing something really important.

Who is getting thanked? Who is receiving all this gratitude?

Being thankful all the time is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It helps us stay humble as we recognize the many blessings we experience in life, blessings for which we can take no credit whatsoever. That is important.

But even more important, I think, is remembering that just being grateful isn’t really going to change us into Christ-like people. Because being grateful is all about me and how feel. But giving thanks is all about the One to whom I owe gratitude. Actively thanking God puts the focus on God, where it belongs.

And that’s how our thanksgiving becomes praise.

The Psalm for today, Psalm 100 gets it in verse four, and to make it even clearer, I’m going to replace the pronouns with the proper noun to which they refer: “Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless his name …”

Thanks and praise go hand in hand. Thanking God is an act of worship. Psalm 100 goes on to tell us why we should thank and praise God: “for the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” We thank God for what he has done, and we praise God for who God is. We worship God in both our thanks and our praise. For, when we thank God for his goodness to us, how can we not praise him? And when we praise God for his mighty work, how can we be ungrateful?

Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes: “Faithful gratitude believes that the God who has given good gifts has more good gifts to give.” But Brueggemann adds a warning: “While God’s gifts are welcome, in fact they do disrupt.”[2]  Brueggemann goes on to explain how God’s gift of truth disrupts the dishonesty that finds its way into every corner of our culture. God’s gift of generosity contradicts our stingy selfishness that puts our own interests ahead of others. God’s gift of mercy interrupts our hard-hearted indifference to the many needs around us, needs that would break our hearts if we really paid attention to them. God’s gift of justice exposes the injustice of our social structures. God’s gifts amount to an inconvenient reality among us; they remind us that what we have come to regard as “normal” actually promotes a deep abnormality in God’s design for the world he made and loves. What a different world that might be if God were truly at the center of it, if God were truly the focus of our thanksgiving and praise!

In our various congregations, as we celebrate Holy Communion, which might also be called Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, depending on which church you attend, we draw on ancient words that Christians have repeated through the centuries in one form or another, in what we call The Great Thanksgiving. In fact, the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word that means “to give thanks.” As we celebrate our life together as the Body of Christ, we may say something like this:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

These ancient words, spoken over countless Tables for countless centuries, introduce the Sacrament of Communion to Christians throughout the world. They serve as a universal reminder that we commune not only with Christ, who welcomes us to his Table, but also with one another, and with Christians we have never seen nor will ever meet. We are one in Christ’s Body. As we join together to remember Christ’s sacrifice for us, it is right to give God thanks and praise. It is right and a good thing to remember that God has provided for us, and will continue to provide for us. We give God thanks and praise, not because God needs to hear it, but because directing our thanks and our praise toward our Creator changes us, making us into better human beings, making us more and more like Christ.

And it is good to do this together, being Christ to one another as we offer bread and cup. You see, giving God our thanks and praise works best when we do it in community with others, multiplying our gratitude and our praise exponentially by offering our worship as part of the family of God.

If we look back to the origins of Thanksgiving – and I mean way back, past the Norman Rockwell image, past the post-Civil War declaration of a national day of Thanksgiving, even past the Pilgrims and Indigenous People who gathered for that first multicultural feast – we hear the words of Deuteronomy calling us to worship, calling us to give thanks and praise to the Lord.

Every single year, when people gathered in their crops, they took the first fruits of those crops to the temple, offered them up, and then they did a powerful thing: instead of gobbling up the good food they had just brought in from the fields, they took some time to think about their history. They remembered, together, a time when they couldn’t grow crops, a time when they couldn’t live in their own places, freely and peacefully. They remembered what it was like to be torn out by the roots, denied the rights of citizenship, treated like slaves. And they remembered, there in the temple, surrounded by the fresh produce of their own precious fields, that their freedom and their land and their harvest were all gifts from God.[3]

In this passage, we find a curious detail that deserves our attention. Seven times in these eleven verses the author uses the word “to give” (nātan). In verses 1, 2, and 3, the verb refers to God’s giving of the land and in verses 9, 10, and 11, the reference is to the good gifts provided by God. The seventh use of the verb “to give” occurs in verse 6, and our English translations might make it difficult for us to recognize that the same word is being used. The text reads, “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing (nātan) hard labor on us.” Literally, that might read as “by giving us hard labor.” In the six other usages, God is clearly the subject of the verb, yet in verse 6, the subject changes. Israel remains the recipient, but it is Egypt who carries out the action.  Instead of land or good gifts, Egypt “gives” Israel hard labor and oppression. These two very different uses of the word “give” offer us a fuller understanding of gratitude. The gratitude for the land being given by God can never be understood apart from the hard labor “given” to the entire community while they were slaves. The One who delivered them out of Egypt with a “mighty arm” is the same One who has delivered them safely into the land flowing with milk and honey. The produce harvested and brought as first fruits is never offered apart from the remembering of deliverance.

Maybe that’s why those 30 Days of Thanks comments rub me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because I don’t get a sense that the gratitude being expressed has any element of what we’ve been delivered from, as well as what we are being delivered to. We don’t like to dwell on the past, especially if our memories are painful ones. We don’t like to remember the struggles and hard times we have experienced, the times we have doubted God’s goodness, or suffered unbearable pain. And yet, it is those harsh memories that anchor our remembrance of blessings and give them a sharper focus. It is the backdrop of our pain that highlights our joy.

So, as the children of Israel brought their first fruits to the temple, they did a remarkable thing. They sat down, “together with the Levites and the aliens” who lived among them, and they celebrated with all the bounty that the Lord God had given to them. They sat down together. They sat down with Levites, who had no land of their own, who depended completely on the other tribes for food, as they ministered in the temple. They sat down with aliens, or foreigners, who had no land of their own, and who were completely dependent on the generosity of the children of Israel as they lived and worked among them. They sat down together and feasted on the bounty the Lord had provided to them.

Maybe thirty days of thanks isn’t such a bad idea. If that seems too much, perhaps you will consider the 24 days of Advent, the season of expectation that will begin this Sunday. As we wait expectantly for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, perhaps we can contribute something toward making that a reality. Perhaps we can offer our daily thanks to God for what he has done, and our praise to God for who God is. Maybe remembering that God has delivered us from slavery to our own desires can help us remember to give God thanks and praise. But be warned: this daily practice of praise and thanksgiving may change you!  Taking time every day to offer God thanks might turn you into a person who finds more goodness around you, a person who praises God more and more. You might even become more and more like Christ. Thanks be to God. Praise the Lord! Amen.


[3] Paraphrased from Sermon for Nov. 24th 2013 (Thanksgiving C) “Milk and Honey & Zombies and Aliens” – the copyrighted work of Rev. Holly Morrison and used with permission of the author.