Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Ego of God

A few months ago I had the privilege of giving the homily for the Province VIII gathering of Episcopal college students in Tempe, Arizona. A few people asked for copies, so I thought I would share. The Gospel reading was from John 6:60-71.

Uploading the PDF wasn't working for everyone, so I will just post it. (Apologies for the stiffness of the text - I can assure you I didn't read it word-for-word!) I hope it isn't too long!

Jesus always seems to be up to something, doesn't he? Here we find him in the synagogue, the house of prayer, among his disciples and followers, and surely a few curious newcomers. The landscape outside is not unlike the one found outside these walls.

At this point, Jesus' fame and notoriety have been growing for some time. Just previous to this story, we hear the tale of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with a small bit of fish and bread – a story involving faith. The faith that allowed all the hungry people to be filled and fed. In fact, some of these people hunt Jesus down, pleading with him to perform the miracle again. He says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

And this sets the stage for the conversation that follows.

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 [...He goes on...] “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?”

Many preachers will take this opportunity to pontificate about the nature of the Eucharist. It is literally the Flesh and the Blood of Jesus. That's what his followers have difficulty with, it's so obvious! It is a symbol of the Flesh and Blood of Jesus. That's what his followers have difficulty with, it's so obvious!

Fortunately, we are the Episcopal church – and it is not an either/or question. It simply Is. However, we must admit that Jesus says an odd thing – “eat my flesh” – then immediately follows this by saying, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

The Greek word that we translate as “flesh” is sarx. (Apparently. This insight is obviously not mine, since I do not speak Greek and have never set foot in a Seminary!) Soma is the Greek word most often translated as “body”; sarx here is translated as flesh. Soma is used more often to refer to the physical body of bones and sinews. However, St. John uses sarx not so much to indicate material things as to indicate those patterns of behavior that arise from within us that are opposed to the will of God. Envy. Pride. Anger. Lust.

The “body” is the created physical thing with arms and legs; the “flesh” is that ego which would place itself above the creator. This distinction is important. We hear that Jesus' words drove many away. Because the deserter is not just interested in bodily things; he is more interested in putting his own priorities over God’s.

Many of these people would – in fact - have been more than willing to sacrifice their physical bodies to bring about a political kingdom with Jesus as the head. But Jesus’ priority was to magnify his Father’s love.

One of the things Jesus says to drive them away is “Does this offend you? Then, what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” In other words, "How much more offensive it will be to you when I am lifted up, crucified! When your Messiah, the prophesied Holy One of Israel - hangs naked and bloody and pitiful - gasping for breath on a cross."

Yes, Jesus' priority was to magnify his Father's love, upwards and outwards, until this love resounded throughout the whole world. No exceptions. This will turn hierarchies upside down, topple earthly kingdoms and liberate the oppressed, both spiritually and otherwise. If there is a theme to be found among Jesus' followers – us included – it is that of surprise. Certainly, this was not the kind of “change” the disciples had been looking for.

These are people who had followed Jesus for quite some time. Certainly after the mountaintop experience of feeding 5,000 people, this desertion must seem like a letdown to the remaining disciples.

And so, Jesus turns to his twelve apostles and says, “Do you also wish to go away?” They respond, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

There seems to be an air of finality in those words. They have decided. They know the end is coming. A conclusion to Jesus' earthly ministry is being foreshadowed. “Lord, to whom can we go?”


We have decided to follow Jesus, in one capacity or another. We have allowed Christ to show us the way to God. We walk by faith, not by sight.

And yet.

And yet I often wonder if my faith is genuine. Do I really believe in God? Do I really believe that Jesus is God? Some days, the answer is nowhere to be found. Doubt and question hang over us like a dark cloud.

Reading this, I asked myself, do I believe that Jesus has, as Peter says, the "words of eternal life?" Or am I ready to desert him?

Napoleon...wrote about Jesus. Napoleon Bonaparte – a man with many admirers and many critics. If nothing else, his relationship with the Church (let alone the peaceful teachings of Jesus) was complicated. And yet he says, “I know men and will I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.”

Our physical lives are not enough – we must surrender not our bodies, but our flesh. We try to love as Christ loved. Genuine faith cannot walk away. Eventually, we come back. The Bible is full of characters with this peculiar genuine faith. Jonah, for instance.

Or the parable of the Prodigal Son, whose broken heart and sincere repentance was rewarded above that of his brother. Even – perhaps, in the end - Judas.

Jesus demands much more than our physical bodies. He wants our flesh – our passions, our urges, our desires, our egos. He tells us to eat of his flesh – his passion. God's passion.

J. Sidlow Baxter, an Australian theologian, writes this: “Fundamentally, our Lord's message was Himself. He did not come merely to preach a Gospel; He himself is that Gospel. He did not come merely to give bread; He said, "I am the bread." He did not come merely to shed light; He said, "I am the light." He did not come merely to show the door; He said, "I am the door." He did not come merely to name a shepherd; He said, "I am the shepherd." He did not come merely to point the way; He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."



JN1034 said...

Eric: Your PDF is not accessible (maybe I'm doing something wrong?). The link provides an error message: "The page cannot be found. The page you are looking for might have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable." Help. We'd like to read your homily, and learn. Thanks.

JN1034 said...

Good morning, Eric (12 noon, Constantinople). Thanks for posting your entire homily. Apologies for not responding sooner.

"Fortunately, we are the Episcopal church – and it is not an either/or question. It simply Is." Wonderful affirmation! Jesus gives the Eucharist as The True Is of True Is.

And I admire your "If there is a theme to be found among Jesus' followers – us included – it is that of surprise." Yes! A surprise in all ways, many of which are yet to be disclosed since life in Christ is an eternal experience, a continuum of surprise without end.

Surely your homily touched many people there. Yes, your soma bears the Spirit. Thatsa soma sacred body you havva. (my bad).