August 22, 2021

Pentecost 13 - Year B

 

You'll find a video of the entire service at

https://www.facebook.com/StStephensSLO/videos/2634692043493030

 

The sermon, preached by Rev. Karen Faye Siegfriedt, begins about 25 minutes into the service.

 

Click here for the Service Booklet and Hymnal & Psalter for June-August Sundays after Pentecost.

 

Below is text of the sermon.

 

Dealing with Difficult Readings in Scripture     
Reading: John 6:56-69       Proper 16B    8-22-21
By the Rev. Karen Faye Siegfriedt; St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, San Luis Obispo, CA

 

Jesus said: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 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… When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”... and many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6)   How do we deal with Scriptural passages that are just too difficult to understand, or too difficult to follow, or ones that seem to undermine our rational thinking?  And how might we interpret today’s difficult gospel text of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood?  This is the subject of today’s sermon.


When I studied college physics, one of the sections focused on electricity, magnetism, and circuits.  Understanding and building circuits is a fairly concrete enterprise, unlike some other aspects of science.  If a student focuses on the basics of electricity (like voltage, current, and resistors), doing circuit calculations should be fairly straight forward.  However, instead of focusing on just the circuit in front of me, I began to be concerned about the entire power grid.  I began to worry about how power was being generated at the plant, how the voltage was being maintained and transformed throughout the power grid, and how storage capacitors, voltage transformers, and alternating current worked together to deliver electricity to the circuit before me.  As a result of being distracted by too many things in the delivery system, analyzing the circuit before me started to become “difficult” for me. 

 
Sometimes in our own faith journey, we get distracted by too many things rather than just focusing on the path before us.  Instead of giving our attention to the basics, (like our connection to God or following the way of compassion or embracing the sacredness in all creation), we try to create a religious bullet-proof system of thought which reduces God to our limited way of thinking.  Instead of concentrating on how to love God and our neighbor more fully, we get entangled with philosophical arguments, fuss over church rituals, and argue about doctrinal issues.  Before we know it, Christianity becomes a puzzle to be solved rather than a life style to emulate.  


The same distractions can happen when reading the Scriptures.  Have you ever asked yourself, why do I read the Scriptures in the first place?  For me, I read the Scriptures in order to deepen my relationship with God and to understand my tradition.  I am often inspired by this Holy Book which strengthens my resolve to become more faithful.  Because I believe that the Scriptures contain everything necessary for salvation as well as much that is not necessary for salvation, I try to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them so I can discern between what is necessary and what is not necessary.  The more I understand the history and context of Scripture, the less troubled I am by the blood and guts and dysfunctional behavior of many of the characters in Scripture. I don’t need to dismiss the Old Testament readings which portray God as an angry man in the sky, motivating people to kill one another.  Instead, I understand these writings as the story of the Jewish people, written by Jewish authors, portraying their struggles, and describing their relationship with YHWH.


The Bible contains the story of God and God’s people (in particular the Jews and the early Christians).  It covers a period of less than 2000 years.  It tells the story about an oppressed group of people seeking freedom from slavery; a people who failed miserably on their faith journey and yet never lost hope in seeking the life that God willed for them to have.  The Bible concludes with the story of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection followed by the founding of the early Christian Church.


Like the Old Testament, the New Testament also contains many challenging passages.  For instance, read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he calls his disciples to turn the other cheek and love one’s enemies.  Talk about a difficult passage!  Then there are the passages about the atonement (the ones about Jesus needing to die in order to save us from our sins).  I can’t relate to this particular interpretation of atonement.  However, I still can accept that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  So I follow him as my Savior, not because he died for my sins but because I believe his path of compassion leads to abundant life, for me and for all of humanity.


There are many other difficult passages in the bible that people struggle with such as the virginal conception, the resurrection, and the sacrificial demands of living a Christian life.  And while we do not have to understand everything in our tradition, we do need to remain faithful to the promises we made in baptism- to resist evil and to strive for justice, peace, and the dignity of ever human being.  If I had the time, I would love to address each one of the passages in Scripture that you find difficult.  However, today, I will focus my attention on the gospel text and what it means to me to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood.


For the past five Sundays, our lectionary has presented Jesus as the “Bread of Life.”  Today, we hear the words, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me.” When you hear this, what image comes to your mind?  Do you think of cannibalism and how the early Christians were accused of this by their pagan oppressors?  Do you think of the gentiles who ate meat with the blood still in it, causing disgust among the Jewish people?  Does the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation come to mind- the belief that the consecrated elements of bread and wine are actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ?  Maybe these words bring to mind our own eucharistic celebration, where worshippers experience the spiritual presence of Christ during Holy Communion.  As you might predict, there are many different interpretations of this biblical passage.


However, if you read the five chapters that the gospel of John dedicates to the Last Supper, you will notice that he downplays the central rite of the eucharist.  In John’s gospel, there is no blessing, breaking, or sharing the bread with the disciples with the words, “this is my body.”  There is no taking of the cup, giving thanks, and sharing the wine with the disciples with the words, “this is my blood.”  No, according to the gospel of John, the main ritual that is celebrated at the Last Supper is the washing of the feet, after which Jesus commands his disciples to become servants to others.  While there is no focus on the bread and wine in John’s description of the Last Supper, there is a lot of discourse about loving one another.  Jesus tells his followers:  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13)  


So after reading the gospel of John, “to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood” must mean far more than to simply participate in a Eucharistic Rite.  For me, this passage calls us to a deeper level of intimacy with Christ, fully abiding in his Spirt in thought, word, and deed.  And one of the most powerful stories that reflects this understanding of what it means to fully abide in Christ, is the story of the village of Le Chambon, in southern France.  During WWII, the residents of Le Chambon turned their tiny mountain village into a hiding place for Jews from every part of Europe. Between 1940 and 1944, Le Chambon and other nearby villages provided refuge for more than 5,000 people fleeing Nazi persecution.  About 3,500 of them were Jews.


Magda Trocmé, the wife of the local minister, explained how it began:  “Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done—nothing more complicated. It was not decided from one day to the next what we would have to do. There were many people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and this and that. We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people would ask me, “How did you make a decision?” There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help!”


    Almost everyone in the small village took part in the effort. Even the children were involved.  “The majority of the Jewish refugees were children. The villagers provided them with food, shelter, and fake identity papers. They also made sure that those they sheltered were involved as much as possible in the life of the town, in part to avoid arousing suspicion from other visitors. Whenever residents of Le Chambon learned of an upcoming police raid, they hid those they were protecting in the surrounding countryside.”


In the summer of 1943, the Gestapo offered a reward for the capture of André Trocmé, the village’s minister and spiritual leader. This forced him into hiding for ten months. Many knew where he was, but no one turned him in. After the war ended, the Rev. Trocmé was asked about his motivations for risking his life for others.  He answered:  “If Jesus really walked upon this earth, why do we keep treating him as if he were a disembodied, impossibly idealistic, ethical theory.  If he was a real man, then the Sermon on the Mount was made for people on this earth.  And if he existed, God has shown in flesh and blood what goodness [looks like], for flesh and blood people.”


Abiding in Christ, eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and following his commandment to love, require a lot more courage and commitment than simply consuming the wafer at communion.  For me, this difficult passage is best understood in the words of pastor André Trocmé’ who inspired his congregation by ending each of his sermons with:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Go practice it!”


The decision that today’s gospel calls us to make is this:  Will you walk away from this difficult teaching or will you remain a disciple of Christ and persevere with God’s grace?  Like the early followers of Jesus, the choice is yours to make.

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