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Proper 15, Year B

Proverbs 9:1-6 - link to NRSV text
John 6:53-59 - link to NRSV text

I must confess that I find the Gospel According to John to be the most difficult of the canonical gospels, and I have to scratch my head sometimes when I hear people say things like, "If always tell people who've never read anything in the bible before to start with John -- it's the clearest of the gospels." The community that produced the Gospel According to John is the same community that produced the biblical book of Revelation, and the imagery that resonated with them as they sought to discern who Jesus is and how they're called to respond to his call in the midst of their profoundly difficult circumstances is at times strange, to say the least, if not not disturbing. This Sunday's gospel reading is an excellent case in point:

"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."

No wonder early Christians faced accusations of cannibalism! This is gross. And yet we recall this kind of imagery every time we participate in the Eucharist. As I receive the bread, I hear the words, "the Body of Christ," and then another phrase, usually, "the bread of heaven." As I receive the wine, I hear the words, "the Blood of Christ," and then usually "the cup of salvation." These four phrases have at least one thing in common:

Their meaning is obscure -- unless, minimally, you've spent a fair amount of time hanging out with and hearing from Christians. "The bread of heaven"? How would those words be understood by us were it not for their association with Christian liturgy and tradition? Another way to think about it is to ask how a hypothetical tourist from Mars who'd memorized a decent English dictionary but had little other exposure to Earth cultures might hear those words. "Bread from heaven," our Martian visitor might muse, "it surely can't be about its origin, as that woman over there bought it from a store called a 'church supply house,' and its ingredients -- none claimed to be extraterrestrial in origin -- are listed on the box. Perhaps they mean 'heavenly,' as in very good or pleasant -- but this stuff tastes like cardboard!" The phrase "cup of salvation" isn't much clearer to those without either significant association with religious people who use this language or at least significant study of them.

And that's half the point, I'd say. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out a great deal of John's "antilanguage" -- language used by members of a marginalized in-group that only they understand fully, and that both expresses and furthers their sense of close relationship with one another -- in their Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel on John. Both "flesh" in this context and "blood" evoke imagery of sacrifice, and Christians in John's community understand Jesus' sacrifice on the cross to be THE sacrifice, like those commanded in the Mosaic revelation that made the Hebrews a people of the living God, a revelation accomplishing something even greater, broader, and more lasting than what Moses revealed.

When I say that I don't mean to participate personally in any "my tribe's miracles are better than your tribe's," but as difficult as it may be for us to accept in our scriptures, it is quite understandably present. Remember, the community that produced John was experiencing direct, severe, and life-threatening persecution from some of their neighbors and perhaps even family members in their synagogues. While it's very easy for me typing in my comfy chair in Cambridge to cluck about supercessionism, it's well worth remembering how different the impact of such language is in a society like John's, in which Christians were the smallest of minorities, and their 'alternative lifestyle,' which many Romans and Jews, also perfectly understandably, saw as anti-family and dangerously disruptive to the social order. In a society like mine, in which those who self-identify as Christian are a large and very powerful majority -- witness our country's very, very evangelical president and the religious leaders he invites to confer with him on matters of "faith-based" policy -- a powerful majority adopting "antilanguage" like that of the Johannine community, which was written to give comfort to a tiny, powerless, and persecuted minority, can wreak great destruction in God's name. Let the reader of the Left Behind series understand! But I digress.

My digression isn't entirely purposeless, though. I think the point is important to raise not only because of the prominence in American political discourse of powerful people making much of their identification as Christian and purporting that they are being marginalized and even persecuted because of it (leading Jon Stewart to muse on The Daily Show, "I dream of a world in which people -- even the president, or a Supreme Court justice -- may openly practice Christian faith, perhaps even openly wearing symbols of their faith in jewelry in public ..."). Jesus' shocking image of his flesh and blood as food and drink is significant not only for what it says about the closeness of its "antilanguage" community at the margins, but also because of what it says about the quality of relationships members of this community are called to live into.

Malina and Rohrbaugh hint at it when they rightly say that the language of "flesh" and "blood" evokes language of sacrifice, the fat and blood which is perceived as the "seat of life" -- life bestowed by God, and therefore belonging rightly only to God, not to be claimed by any other. But I don't think their discussion goes quite as far as I would on that point.

Yes, the Gospel According to John, as all the canonical gospels do to a greater or lesser extent, point to the cross as Jesus' sacrifice. But I find it particularly moving when the Johannine community -- a community keenly feeling fear, isolation, and betrayal in light of the persecution they are experiencing -- speaks of Jesus' sacrifice. John's gospel is one with a lot of bitter words for "the world" from which the community feels so alienated and threatened, but they are painfully, consistently clear in affirming nonetheless that "the world" that hates them is still "the world" which God so loves that he sent his only begotten son (John 3:16).

Flesh and blood are the seat of life -- life belonging only to God, life that can be claimed rightly only by God. And yet in Jesus, God has willingly poured out that life for the sake of the world -- not just the good people, the people who try hard to do the right thing, the people who praise and encourage the saints, but as much or more for the people who hate, and who act on their hatred, even to the point of killing a righteous woman or man, an innocent child. The biblical book of Revelation from this same community imagines what total and final vindication of a victorious judge of the nations and his followers might look like, and it pictures Jesus as anything but a cuddly and approachable pal (even the "Lamb of God" imagery isn't about a cute little sheep, as I've blogged about before), but even in the context of the final judgment, the Johannine Christians are given a "call for the endurance and the faith of the saints" in the strongest of terms that regardless of the violence their enemies inflict, they are not to resist with the sword (Revelation 13:9-10).

In other words, the community that produced the Gospel According to John produced testimonies to Jesus that underscore the community's tough circumstances, but that call for a response that, especially in their cultural context, would look anything but "tough" in the traditional, macho sense. And I'm grateful to those who crafted our lectionary for drawing attention to a point that J. Massynbaerde Ford writes about eloquently in her book Redeemer, Friend, and Mother: Salvation in Antiquity and in the Gospel of John: that there is potentially some strong feminine imagery in John's language about Jesus that we'll read together this Sunday.

Our lectionary's editors make their point in their choice for our first reading. It comes from Proverbs, which like other books in the genre of "Wisdom literature," personifies Wisdom as a woman. This Sunday, we receive in both our first reading and our gospel reading an invitation to see God acting toward humanity in ways associated specifically with the feminine. It's an apt pairing, Wisdom literature with the Gospel According to John; from the prologue to John's gospel (1:1-18) in its association of Jesus with the logos through which all Creation came into being to the gospel's conclusion, we find a great deal of language echoing Wisdom literature like Proverbs, portraying God in traditionally feminine roles of preparing dinner and laying the table, as in our first reading for this Sunday, or nursing children, providing nourishment for them from her own life, her own substance, her own breasts.

That's milk, of course, not blood. But Ford points out that in rabbinic writings and some ancient medical texts, the idea was expressed that breast milk WAS the mother's blood, transformed into milk for the child's benefit, with what was left becoming menstrual blood -- in either case, an expression (literally!) of a mother's pouring out of her own life in her love for her child.

In other words, when our next Presiding Bishop preached at General Convention of "mother Jesus," she was using imagery which is scriptural in John and other canonical portrayals of Jesus as Wisdom, as well as traditional in writings like those of Julian of Norwich. But there's no need to get hung up on the gendering of imagery if that's going to obscure the point -- the point of John's gospel, the point of the book of Revelation, the example of our crucified and risen Christ:

God so loves the world that God poured and pours out God's very life, very self, for our sake -- not because we were so good, but because we were hungry and thirsty and dying, and God made us to share God's wholeness, love, and eternal life. That pouring out of God's self for us is revealed most clearly in our tradition in Jesus the Christ crucified, but our scripture and tradition hold that it is far from a one-time event in the distant past of a distant land. It is a continual and eternal expression of who God is by God's very nature. God poured out God's self in birthing Creation, which teems with the life God gave. And God continues to pour out God's self for us in the call of Wisdom, the love we experience in the Body of Christ as we receive Christ together, in countless daily miracles as lives are transformed in the image of a loving God.

If that's "insider" language, then let it always be coupled with the invitation to come inside, to taste and see this limitless, self-giving love of God.

Thanks be to God!

August 17, 2006 in John, Nonviolence, The Cross, Wisdom (the aprocryphal book), Wisdom Literature, Year B | Permalink

Comments

Good thoughts. I just finished a seminary paper on the Gospel of John that touched on similar things, including this very text.

No Longer Wanted

Posted by: Jared Cramer | Aug 17, 2006 10:09:59 PM

Dylan: I struggle between the knowledge that while the forms of Christianity (or perhaps "Christendom") are promoted, the culture appears to more and more reject the substance of the Christian faith. So, are we a marginalized minority or a whiney majority? It is so much easier to play the "culturally persecuted church" card in preaching. Is that valid?

Posted by: Tom Sramek, Jr. | Aug 18, 2006 5:39:27 PM

Tom,
I am a lay person in the Episocopal church, and I have a perspective that could be helpful in response to your question. I deeply value the scholarship in the Episcopal church that allows me to see my own cultural limitations and how God has reached through them to call and find me. But, I find it almost an inescapable situation that that "knowing" that I carry with me, makes me, simply by definition, perceived as subversive and dangerous. (Try explaining to a human resource director of a 21st century organization why it is important to have a fair and just grievance system for hourly employees--wanna be viewed as subversive and dangerous? Give that one a try.) I simply see things so differently, because I follow Jesus Christ, that I can't help be in the situation of the Johannie community. I really think that there are people listening to your sermons who find themselves in the same situation and need to hear the other message that Dylan lifted out of John's Gospel--that the response is always, always to recognize that God loves the very world that sees so at odds with that loving, giving God we love and worship. Using a cultural perspective is useful in "reading through the noise" to see the transcendent message in scripture. But that same perspective can hide important perspectives, too. Of course the "persecuted minority" perspective is valid because it is definitional of Christianity--not as a cultural phenomenon, that is noise, that's where some of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters have gotten lost, I think--but as a deep statement of what it means to be "salt of the earth." And the knowing part, as the Johnnaine community may have found, that is the easy part--the painful part is to always, always, always remember God's love for the world and think and act in ways consistent with that love. At least, for me, I find that the struggle, and need so much to hear that message from the pulpit that supports me in that response. Sure, you can preach about being members of a "whiney majority" if the people are, like me privledged and white. But, I would bet that there are many like me who need to hear that "response to the world" message because we have to find that response within us for each breath we take and each act we make in the world. It is inescapable.

Posted by: Carey | Aug 22, 2006 10:31:45 AM

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Dylan's lectionary blog: Proper 15, Year B

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Proper 15, Year B

Proverbs 9:1-6 - link to NRSV text
John 6:53-59 - link to NRSV text

I must confess that I find the Gospel According to John to be the most difficult of the canonical gospels, and I have to scratch my head sometimes when I hear people say things like, "If always tell people who've never read anything in the bible before to start with John -- it's the clearest of the gospels." The community that produced the Gospel According to John is the same community that produced the biblical book of Revelation, and the imagery that resonated with them as they sought to discern who Jesus is and how they're called to respond to his call in the midst of their profoundly difficult circumstances is at times strange, to say the least, if not not disturbing. This Sunday's gospel reading is an excellent case in point:

"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."

No wonder early Christians faced accusations of cannibalism! This is gross. And yet we recall this kind of imagery every time we participate in the Eucharist. As I receive the bread, I hear the words, "the Body of Christ," and then another phrase, usually, "the bread of heaven." As I receive the wine, I hear the words, "the Blood of Christ," and then usually "the cup of salvation." These four phrases have at least one thing in common:

Their meaning is obscure -- unless, minimally, you've spent a fair amount of time hanging out with and hearing from Christians. "The bread of heaven"? How would those words be understood by us were it not for their association with Christian liturgy and tradition? Another way to think about it is to ask how a hypothetical tourist from Mars who'd memorized a decent English dictionary but had little other exposure to Earth cultures might hear those words. "Bread from heaven," our Martian visitor might muse, "it surely can't be about its origin, as that woman over there bought it from a store called a 'church supply house,' and its ingredients -- none claimed to be extraterrestrial in origin -- are listed on the box. Perhaps they mean 'heavenly,' as in very good or pleasant -- but this stuff tastes like cardboard!" The phrase "cup of salvation" isn't much clearer to those without either significant association with religious people who use this language or at least significant study of them.

And that's half the point, I'd say. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out a great deal of John's "antilanguage" -- language used by members of a marginalized in-group that only they understand fully, and that both expresses and furthers their sense of close relationship with one another -- in their Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel on John. Both "flesh" in this context and "blood" evoke imagery of sacrifice, and Christians in John's community understand Jesus' sacrifice on the cross to be THE sacrifice, like those commanded in the Mosaic revelation that made the Hebrews a people of the living God, a revelation accomplishing something even greater, broader, and more lasting than what Moses revealed.

When I say that I don't mean to participate personally in any "my tribe's miracles are better than your tribe's," but as difficult as it may be for us to accept in our scriptures, it is quite understandably present. Remember, the community that produced John was experiencing direct, severe, and life-threatening persecution from some of their neighbors and perhaps even family members in their synagogues. While it's very easy for me typing in my comfy chair in Cambridge to cluck about supercessionism, it's well worth remembering how different the impact of such language is in a society like John's, in which Christians were the smallest of minorities, and their 'alternative lifestyle,' which many Romans and Jews, also perfectly understandably, saw as anti-family and dangerously disruptive to the social order. In a society like mine, in which those who self-identify as Christian are a large and very powerful majority -- witness our country's very, very evangelical president and the religious leaders he invites to confer with him on matters of "faith-based" policy -- a powerful majority adopting "antilanguage" like that of the Johannine community, which was written to give comfort to a tiny, powerless, and persecuted minority, can wreak great destruction in God's name. Let the reader of the Left Behind series understand! But I digress.

My digression isn't entirely purposeless, though. I think the point is important to raise not only because of the prominence in American political discourse of powerful people making much of their identification as Christian and purporting that they are being marginalized and even persecuted because of it (leading Jon Stewart to muse on The Daily Show, "I dream of a world in which people -- even the president, or a Supreme Court justice -- may openly practice Christian faith, perhaps even openly wearing symbols of their faith in jewelry in public ..."). Jesus' shocking image of his flesh and blood as food and drink is significant not only for what it says about the closeness of its "antilanguage" community at the margins, but also because of what it says about the quality of relationships members of this community are called to live into.

Malina and Rohrbaugh hint at it when they rightly say that the language of "flesh" and "blood" evokes language of sacrifice, the fat and blood which is perceived as the "seat of life" -- life bestowed by God, and therefore belonging rightly only to God, not to be claimed by any other. But I don't think their discussion goes quite as far as I would on that point.

Yes, the Gospel According to John, as all the canonical gospels do to a greater or lesser extent, point to the cross as Jesus' sacrifice. But I find it particularly moving when the Johannine community -- a community keenly feeling fear, isolation, and betrayal in light of the persecution they are experiencing -- speaks of Jesus' sacrifice. John's gospel is one with a lot of bitter words for "the world" from which the community feels so alienated and threatened, but they are painfully, consistently clear in affirming nonetheless that "the world" that hates them is still "the world" which God so loves that he sent his only begotten son (John 3:16).

Flesh and blood are the seat of life -- life belonging only to God, life that can be claimed rightly only by God. And yet in Jesus, God has willingly poured out that life for the sake of the world -- not just the good people, the people who try hard to do the right thing, the people who praise and encourage the saints, but as much or more for the people who hate, and who act on their hatred, even to the point of killing a righteous woman or man, an innocent child. The biblical book of Revelation from this same community imagines what total and final vindication of a victorious judge of the nations and his followers might look like, and it pictures Jesus as anything but a cuddly and approachable pal (even the "Lamb of God" imagery isn't about a cute little sheep, as I've blogged about before), but even in the context of the final judgment, the Johannine Christians are given a "call for the endurance and the faith of the saints" in the strongest of terms that regardless of the violence their enemies inflict, they are not to resist with the sword (Revelation 13:9-10).

In other words, the community that produced the Gospel According to John produced testimonies to Jesus that underscore the community's tough circumstances, but that call for a response that, especially in their cultural context, would look anything but "tough" in the traditional, macho sense. And I'm grateful to those who crafted our lectionary for drawing attention to a point that J. Massynbaerde Ford writes about eloquently in her book Redeemer, Friend, and Mother: Salvation in Antiquity and in the Gospel of John: that there is potentially some strong feminine imagery in John's language about Jesus that we'll read together this Sunday.

Our lectionary's editors make their point in their choice for our first reading. It comes from Proverbs, which like other books in the genre of "Wisdom literature," personifies Wisdom as a woman. This Sunday, we receive in both our first reading and our gospel reading an invitation to see God acting toward humanity in ways associated specifically with the feminine. It's an apt pairing, Wisdom literature with the Gospel According to John; from the prologue to John's gospel (1:1-18) in its association of Jesus with the logos through which all Creation came into being to the gospel's conclusion, we find a great deal of language echoing Wisdom literature like Proverbs, portraying God in traditionally feminine roles of preparing dinner and laying the table, as in our first reading for this Sunday, or nursing children, providing nourishment for them from her own life, her own substance, her own breasts.

That's milk, of course, not blood. But Ford points out that in rabbinic writings and some ancient medical texts, the idea was expressed that breast milk WAS the mother's blood, transformed into milk for the child's benefit, with what was left becoming menstrual blood -- in either case, an expression (literally!) of a mother's pouring out of her own life in her love for her child.

In other words, when our next Presiding Bishop preached at General Convention of "mother Jesus," she was using imagery which is scriptural in John and other canonical portrayals of Jesus as Wisdom, as well as traditional in writings like those of Julian of Norwich. But there's no need to get hung up on the gendering of imagery if that's going to obscure the point -- the point of John's gospel, the point of the book of Revelation, the example of our crucified and risen Christ:

God so loves the world that God poured and pours out God's very life, very self, for our sake -- not because we were so good, but because we were hungry and thirsty and dying, and God made us to share God's wholeness, love, and eternal life. That pouring out of God's self for us is revealed most clearly in our tradition in Jesus the Christ crucified, but our scripture and tradition hold that it is far from a one-time event in the distant past of a distant land. It is a continual and eternal expression of who God is by God's very nature. God poured out God's self in birthing Creation, which teems with the life God gave. And God continues to pour out God's self for us in the call of Wisdom, the love we experience in the Body of Christ as we receive Christ together, in countless daily miracles as lives are transformed in the image of a loving God.

If that's "insider" language, then let it always be coupled with the invitation to come inside, to taste and see this limitless, self-giving love of God.

Thanks be to God!

August 17, 2006 in John, Nonviolence, The Cross, Wisdom (the aprocryphal book), Wisdom Literature, Year B | Permalink

Comments

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