A sermon on John 6:56-69 given by the Rev. Teri Daily on August 22, 2021…
The year before we were married, Dave and I lived in different states. I was finishing school in Connecticut, and Dave was working and teaching here in Arkansas. It was a twenty-three hour drive from here to New Haven, but a lot cheaper than a plane ticket. Dave made several trips to Connecticut that year and, more often than not, those trips were marred by mechanical problems for Dave’s 1985 Nissan Sentra. But on one occasion, Dave borrowed his father’s truck. They had routine maintenance done beforehand to ensure the truck could make the trip. But it was an oil-burner, so he had to check the oil with every stop. And the first stop for gas was Earle, Arkansas. When Dave looked under the hood, he immediately noticed that the mechanics hadn’t replaced the radiator cap after they checked the fluid level. It was almost night, all the auto part stores were closed. Dave finally found a man at a truck stop who happened to have caps of various sizes in his possession, caps he was willing to sell for a mere $15 a piece. So they went to the truck to figure out the size that would fit, and opened the hood. There was the radiator cap lying right beside the radiator opening where the mechanics had left it. It had been sitting there all along. But Dave only saw what was missing, and so he completely missed what was right there in front of him.
In this respect, Dave would have fit in perfectly with the characters in the gospel of John. John constantly paints pictures of people confronted with the truth, but who fail to see it – it’s all summed up in John’s story of the Passion, when Jesus stands before Pilate and Pilate asks the question that haunts this entire gospel: “What is truth?” Well, truth is standing right there in the person of Christ, but Pilate can’t see it. Just like Nicodemus can’t understand a “new birth,” the Samaritan woman at the well can’t understand “living water,” and the Jewish crowd in today’s reading can’t understand “the living bread of heaven.” Sometimes we just miss what’s right there in front of us.
In the gospel of John, it seems as if people are divided into those who see and those who do not, into those who believe and those who do not, into those who understand and those who do not – there’s an in-group and out-group phenomenon going on. Too often in the history of the Church, we’ve seen these groups in John as prescriptive of who will be saved, and who will not be saved – of who will go to heaven, and who will not. But I think that’s an unnecessarily harsh reading of the gospel of John. Because we need to take into account the context in which John is believed to have been written.
It’s thought that the gospel of John was written in the late first century, maybe in the 80s or 90s, fifty or sixty years after the death of Christ. And it’s thought to be the work of Christian Jews who had been rejected by their Jewish brothers and sisters – perhaps they were believers who were being pushed out of the local synagogue. Whatever the exact situation, the gospel of John struggles with the painful reality that some Jews believe in Christ as the Son of God, and some do not. And, unfortunately, this separation produces some harsh rhetoric. In today’s gospel reading, this division cuts right through the heart of the disciples themselves.
Jesus says to the disciples: “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 abide in me, and I in them.” Now I don’t think any of us would have trouble understanding why Jesus’ words here might be hard to swallow – they are strange words. Cannibalism was just as offensive then as it is now, and Leviticus contains an injunction against drinking blood of any kind. So it’s easy to see why these words might have offended those with Jesus that day.
But even if the disciples had fully understood who Jesus was and to what his words referred, they may still have had a hard time believing them. Because maybe just as scandalous as the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood is the idea that this all-powerful, great God could dwell in us.
Israel had always believed that God dwelled with them. The Ark of the Covenant was seen as God’s presence with them. It traveled with them in the wilderness, and went before them into battle. And finally, in today’s reading from I Kings, the Ark is brought into the inner sanctuary of the Temple. But even as this takes place, King Solomon struggles with the concept that this omnipotent God could live with Israel. “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?” Solomon says. “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” Solomon struggled to understand how God could really dwell with them; and in our own way, I think we wrestle with the same question, too.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” If we grasp what it is that these words really mean, are they any less strange in our own time and place than they were to the Jews and to the disciples with Jesus? I don’t think so, because it’s still a hard concept to grasp. We say Jesus lives in us, and yet we’re constantly faced by loneliness in our own lives. We say we believe Jesus is always with us, yet we live in fear – fear that we won’t have enough, or that we don’t have what it takes in some way or another. We say Christ is at home in our hearts, and yet sometimes we find ourselves seeking him with absolute desperation. The question is: Are we any more able to see what’s right here with us than the disciples were that day?
And yet, maybe we’ve glimpsed enough of Jesus’ presence with us to know, like Peter, that that’s where we find eternal life. I’m not talking about just immortality, but rich, abundant life in the here and now a – life lived without fear, a life lived not just for ourselves, a life lived in the recognition that God is closer to us than the air that we breathe. Maybe we’ve seen just enough to say, with Peter: “Lord, to whom else shall we go? For you have the words of eternal life.”