August 19, 2012
As most of you know, Grace Church has embarked on a master planning process. I hope you will stay after services today to learn more about that process and begin imagining what our congregation might look like in five years. As I have said before in several contexts, this process encourages us to ask the questions: Who is God calling us to be as a congregation in the coming years? What is our mission in our particular context of Madison’s Capitol Square?
These questions are difficult ones because we don’t know what the future looks like. The people who designed and built this church more than 150 years ago, the people who built the Guild Hall over 100 years ago, and the people who added the education wing more than fifty years ago, were all creating spaces that corresponded to what they thought an Episcopal church should be and what an Episcopal church needed to be to carry out its mission. None of them could have imagined the world or the city that we live in today. None of them could have imagined how culture has changed—the declining role of religion in American life, the use of technology, the way we organize our lives. I daresay none of those people could have imagined a Gay Pride parade on Capitol Square.
It may seem foolhardy, even irresponsible to contemplate spending money on renovations. There are those who might say resources devoted to adapting our facilities would better be devoted in outreach efforts in our community or across the world. Others might say that the building is completely unimportant—that what matters is spreading the gospel, growing the congregation. These are important conversations in which to engage because they help us focus on what matters most to us, on our core values as a congregation, on how we live out our call to be God’s people. But to paint these as dichotomies, as binary opposites, is misleading. Whatever our mission, we need space in which to gather. In a very real sense, those who built this church on Capitol Square helped to define our mission in a particular way, as a downtown church anchored in its neighborhood, and called to witness to the city and to the state.
We may chafe at that particular context from time to time, when we struggle with parking or with all of the events that take place on the square on Sundays. We may struggle with the fact that our building requires extensive maintenance and stewardship, but all of that is part of what it means to be a downtown church, this downtown church. All of that is part of our mission and ministry in our community.
Our gospel invites us to reflect on the ways in which we make the body of Christ present in the world. For the past several weeks, we have been reading from the sixth chapter of John, which begins with the sign of Jesus feeding the five thousand and continues with a lengthy discourse in which Jesus invites his listeners to enter into the meaning of that sign. Today, Jesus’ words engage us with the very core of the sign’s meaning, and indeed with the heart of what it means to have faith in him.
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”
We hear these words and immediately think of the Eucharist, but in the first century, those words would have come across as confusing, even offensive, to Jewish ears. The thought of eating human flesh and drinking blood is offensive. In early Christianity, it gave rise to charges of cannibalism. Today, those who have never heard these verses before (the “unchurched” but boy I hate that term) might think of zombies or vampires.
These verses have always been offensive to our ears. We think about them eucharistically, but even then, we assume they can only be meant figuratively. To construe them in any other way offends our sensibilities. Oh, sure, those of us more theologically inclined might try to see them as evidence of the doctrine of transubstantiation, or try to interpret them in such a way to allow for a non-literal meaning of the bread and wine.
But any interpretation that fails to take the offense and scandal of these words literally, reaches far short of what the gospel writer intended. They were meant to shock Jewish readers or listeners. Their force has been lessened by two thousand years of Christian tradition. And, their force has been lessened by a translator’s decision. In the midst of this discourse, there is a significant vocabulary change. The word translated as “eat” shifts in the Greek from a word that refers to human eating, to one that was reserved for animals. We might better think of Jesus saying, “unless you chew my flesh.” The offense and scandal becomes even greater, as we, and Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors, imagine ourselves chewing, tasting, flesh and blood. It coEatnfronts them and us, with not only the scandal of eating human flesh and drinking human blood, but also the scandal of the incarnation. For the two are linked.
When Jesus uses the word “flesh” in these verses, it is the first time in the gospel that he uses the word. But we have heard the word before, in chapter one, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us. The scandal of the eucharist, the scandal of the incarnation are the same. They are the scandal, the offense, that God comes to us in ordinary things, in bread and wine, in human flesh like our own.
But to limit our focus in these words to abstract theological doctrines, as much as I may enjoy it, is to miss what is most important in this passage. There is more to it than the identification of flesh and blood with bread and wine. Jesus goes on to say, “whoever eats this bread will live forever” and later, “whoever eats this bread abides in me and I in them.”
This is one of the key ideas in the gospel of John, abiding with and in Jesus. It’s something I’ve talked about before in past months as we’ve read from John’s gospel. Here, one way of thinking about it is in terms of participation, sharing in the life that Jesus offers those who follow him. If we focus on the sign, on the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, or even if we focus on the sign of the words that are inscribed in John’s gospel, we miss their deeper meaning.
Jesus is inviting us to participate in his life, a life given for us and for the world, a life in which we abide in him and he in us. We are offered a taste of that life in the Eucharistic feast, when bread and wine become his body and blood. But it’s only a taste, a foretaste, really, of the abundant life he offers us.
Around us are all sorts of things offered to us that promise meaningful, abundant lives. We are inundated with those promises in the commercials and ads we see all around us. If we purchase that thing, if we go there on vacation, our lives will have meaning. We will experience full, rich lives. But of course, that’s not true. None of it’s true. We discover that in spite of the thrills of our vacation, when we return, it’s back to the grindstone. We learn that even if we purchase the latest ipad or smartphone, there remains a deep longing for greater meaning in our hearts. Jesus offers us water to quench that deepest thirst we have, bread that will satisfy our deepest hunger. Living, abiding in him, we find rest for our souls.
That brings us back to where we started this morning, with our church and our conversations about how we might make our physical space sacred space for our whole community, space where people searching for meaning and deeper relationship might find those longings met. How can our building become a sign of the abundant life that Christ offers the world, abundant life that we share with one another and with all those who pass by? How can our building be a sign and sacrament, making Christ’s love and body, incarnate on the corner of N. Carroll and W. Wash?