Sunday, May 20, 2012

Digesting Jesus

John 6
Preached at 2nd Street Community Church (Friends)

Jesus feeds 5,000 men plus women and children, with 12 baskets of leftovers. “Surely this is the Prophet,” says the crowd. Jesus avoids the crowd because they want to seize him in order to make him king by force. Jesus crosses the lake partly on foot.

The crowd crosses the lake in boats looking for him.

Jesus says to them, “Honestly, all you want from me is plenty of bread; you have no understanding of what I’ve been doing.  The lesson is to work for eternal food, not for food that spoils.  I will give you that eternal food.”

They ask, “What can we do to obey what God wants us to do (to work for eternal food, see above)?”

Jesus says, “God wants you to believe in me because God has sent me.”

They say, amazingly, “We think you need to do a miracle so that we can believe you.  Moses gave our ancestors 40 years of manna in the desert. That feeding 5000+ was yesterday.”

Jesus says, “Moses gave you ‘bread’ but not the real bread from heaven.  My Father gives you the real bread—which, I will mention this again, is the one who comes from heaven and gives life to the world.”

They say, “Ok, sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, he who believes in me will never be thirsty.  I told you that you don’t believe in me.  Everyone who comes to me is welcome; I will never turn away anyone who comes to me because I am here to do only the will of God. And God’s will is to lose no one God has given me.  And my Father wants everyone to see me, his Son, and believe so that everyone can have eternal life."

“Hmm,” the crowd mutters, “this guy is not from heaven.  We know his parents.”

Jesus says, “Stop muttering.  The only people who can come to me are the ones God, my father, who sent me, pulls or pushes to me.  Those are the ones who are chosen: those who are taught by God, who hear and learn what the Father has to say.   Your 'chosen' ancestors ate manna in the desert and died; but the bread from heaven makes people live forever.  I am that living bread; whoever eats this bread will live forever; the bread is my flesh which I give so that the world may live.”

“That’s appalling,” they say to each other; “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”

“I am telling you the truth,” Jesus says; “if you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood, you are dead.  You have no life in yourselves.  But all who eat my flesh and drink my blood will live forever. My flesh is the real food; my blood is the real drink. All who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them.  My Father, the Father of life, sent me, and therefore I live; when you eat me, you will live because of me.  The 'chosen' ones who ate manna died; the ones who eat me will live forever.”

When I decided on a title, I chose “Digesting Jesus,” but the first phrase that came to mind for me was “Drinking Blood.”  You can see why I might have balked at using that title; it kind of grossed me out, to be honest.  I grew up in Central Africa, but when I was a teenager I heard about the Masai tribe in East Africa who regularly drink a mixture of blood and milk from their cows.  This is crucial to their diet, and who am I to quibble because I can’t drink it. 

But Jesus used just this phrase to describe how intimate those who want to follow him must be with him.  You have to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  What does this mean to us?

Blood is a dominant image in the Bible, from the murder of Abel in Genesis, when his blood cried to God from the ground to the image of Jesus in Revelation as “the Word of God” whose garment is dipped in blood.  Blood is typically identified as the life of the body; the Bible typically treats life as sacred to God.  The Hebrews exiting Egypt were specifically prohibited from eating or drinking any blood at all; if they did, the penalty was exile from God’s people.  The priests sprinkled the blood of offerings on the ground or poured it on the altar as part of the ritual of sacrifice. Moses sprinkled the blood of an offering on the priests to set them apart as holy.  So blood is a big deal in the Jewish religion, and drinking ANY blood is unthinkable.

This is the culture into which Jesus spoke the words, “Unless you drink my blood…”  Small wonder many of them could neither understand nor accept his words.  But if we understand that the blood of Jesus is his very life, it begins to challenge us where we live.

Other places where the phrase “drink blood” occurs in the Bible help us understand even more of what Jesus is saying to us.

First, there is a story of King David in 2 Samuel 23 and 1 Chronicles 11.  David and his soldiers were on a fortified hill, and the enemy Philistines had occupied Bethlehem, David’s hometown.  David said, “How I wish someone would bring me a drink from the well of Bethlehem.”  Three of his soldiers fought their way through the Philistines, filled a canteen with water from the well, and brought it back to David. Here’s the interesting part—David would not drink the water.  He said, “I could never drink this! It would be like drinking the blood of these men who risked their lives!”  And he poured it out on the ground instead, just the way the priests poured out the blood of sacrifices.  It was a gallant gesture, one a king does to value the people who fight for him.  It may also have annoyed the soldiers who risked their lives….

Jesus reverses the expectations we have for a king. Instead of us risking life and limb to bring Jesus water, he risks life and limb to bring it to us. We are cut off from our true home, and we thirst for its water. Jesus, a descendant of King David, fights his way through our enemies, fills the canteen, and brings water to us. Drink, he says, so you can live.  Because Jesus is the king and we are not, we need to drink what the king says to drink.  With great courage, He offers his own blood. “For my blood is the true drink; You thirst for home. My life in you is what you really thirst for. I am your true home.”

In the prophecy of Ezekiel, chapter 39, God tells Ezekiel how God will defeat the enemies of Israel, how their armies will be decimated and their bones will be scattered over the land.  In verses 17-19, God says, “Call all the birds and animals to come eat the sacrifice I am preparing for them.  They will eat meat and drink blood, until they are full of fat and drunk with blood.”  This will show the nations the power of God and how though God has first punished the nation of Israel for their sin and idolatry, God then will restore them to their independence and their homeland.

This again shows how Jesus turns things upside down.  Instead of telling his fans that God will destroy their enemies, the Romans, and restore Israel as a sovereign nation, Jesus says that he himself, their hope for political revolution, will be slaughtered.  They want to force him to be king.  Instead, he tells them, “I will be killed on a hill outside Jerusalem. You, like the birds in Ezekiel, must come and drink my blood. For my blood is the true drink; you thirst for restoration, and My blood, my life in you, is the only way to satisfy that thirst. I am your true restoration.”

The gospel passages that tell of what we call the Last Supper help us further understand the significance of what Jesus says here in John 6.  In Matthew 26:28, Jesus says that his blood is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins, sealing God’s covenant with human beings.  Luke’s version makes this personal:  “This cup is God’s new covenant sealed with my blood, which is poured out for you.”  When Jesus says, “You must drink my blood,” he tells us that we have a God who wants a new relationship with us, one in which we carry Jesus’s life inside us.  Once we have taken food and drink into our bodies, they become part of our cells.  We can’t purge every trace of them out of our systems.  The hopeful truth here is that once Jesus’s life is in us, we are permanently marked by the traces of digesting Jesus.  Everywhere we go, Jesus goes in us.  Jesus is always closer than the air we breathe, as Dallas Willard says.  That’s what it means that God has this covenant with us.

John 13 tells us how to prepare for this supper; just as Jesus humbled himself and washed his disciples’ feet, we also need to act as servants who help the guests feel comfortable and welcomed. Jesus says to them, “Now that you know this truth, how happy you will be if you put it into practice.” After the supper, in John, Jesus expands his vision of hospitality at the table of God, and says, “my commandment is this, love one another, just as I love you; lay down your lives for each other; this is what my friends at my table who have taken my life into them do.” 

When we are taking Jesus into ourselves, we know we are home, we know we are being restored, we know we are loved by a constant companion.  From that place, we welcome other wanderers home, we recognize that Jesus is restoring them, we acknowledge that Jesus lives in them, and we lay down our own lives because we love them and we love Jesus.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jesus, Jonah, and Authenticity

Preached at Homedale Friends Community Church
May 6, 2012

Jonah has to have been the least favorite prophet for Jewish folks who every day thanked God they were not Gentiles.  Jonah shows up running from God’s call to go to Assyria, to the city of Nineveh, to preach to non-Jews.  His efforts to avoid God’s call land him in cold water and then in the belly of a fish.  He personally repents, and God gives him another chance to obey.  When he does, the people of Nineveh repent so thoroughly that even children and animals wear sackcloth and ashes.  Jonah waits for God to destroy Nineveh, and instead God forgives them, to Jonah’s angry dismay.  So when Jesus brings up the sign of Jonah, he is not only talking about disappearing for three days and coming back  (his coming death and resurrection) but also about taking the possibility of reconciling with God to the enemies of the Jews, the Romans, and to other Gentiles as well, despicable as they are.  No wonder these references made people mad.  They understood he was saying that God loves more people than the Jews.

When I started thinking about Jesus referring to Jonah, the above was what I thought would be the main idea. However, each time Jesus mentions Jonah, he does so in the context of clarifying what is really important to God.  These clarifications take five main directions.

Here are the passages:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the Law say, “Teacher, we want to see you perform a miracle.”

“How evil and apostate, how faithless to God are the people of this day!” Jesus exclaims.  “You ask me for a miracle? No! The only miracle you will be given is the miracle of the prophet Jonah. In the same way that Jonah spent three days and nights in the big fish, so will the Son of Man spend three days and nights in the depths of the earth. On the Judgment Day the people of Nineveh will stand up and accuse you, because they turned from their sins when they heard Jonah preach, and I tell you that there is something here greater than Jonah!” (Matthew 12)

Jesus says, “You can foretell the weather from the sunset or sunrise, but you cannot interpret the signs concerning these times. How evil and godless are the people of this day! You ask me for a miracle? No! The only miracle you will be given is the miracle of Jonah.” (Matthew 16)

Jesus says:
“How evil are the people of this day! They ask for a miracle, but none will be given them except the miracle of Jonah. In the same way that the prophet Jonah was a sign for the people of Nineveh, so the son of Man will be a sign for the people of this day. … On the Judgment Day the people of Nineveh will stand up and accuse you because they turned from their sins when they heard Jonah preach; and I assure you that there is something here greater than Jonah!” (Luke 11)

Since each passage occurs in its own context, I looked for threads of meaning that tied the contexts together.  Here are those threads.

First, the context teaches us that God cares more about humans and their needs than about the Law.

Several Old Testament prophets condemned Israel to God’s judgment specifically for breaking the laws about Sabbath.  So you can imagine that folks who carefully followed the law like the Pharisees are shocked when Jesus’s disciples “harvest” and eat some grain from fields as they walk along on the Sabbath, and when Jesus heals a man with a paralyzed arm on the Sabbath. These actions and Jesus’s words make the Pharisees so angry they plot to kill him. Jesus reprimands those with a legalistic view of the Sabbath by reminding them of what Hosea the prophet said: God desires goodness, kindness, faithfulness, not sacrifices.  This means that the actions proceeding from a good, kind, faithful heart are what God has as a priority.  Jesus announces to the legalistic folks that even they would pull a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath, and that doing good to humans on that day is also important and perfectly lawful.  He asserts that he himself, “the Son of Man,” is Lord of the Sabbath. 

Second, Jesus shows that we cannot limit God’s generosity and grace to those who are like us, and that if we limit these for others, we limit them for ourselves.

Jesus heals a man whom an evil spirit has made unable to see or speak.  The Pharisees attribute this miracle-working power to the devil rather than to God.  Jesus says that this is first impossible, and second unforgiveable.  Why is it unforgiveable?  Because when the Pharisees refuse to welcome the healing and freeing power of God for others, they set themselves outside it as well.  I can’t be forgiven if I’m not willing for God to forgive others; I can’t be healed if I’m not willing for God to heal others; I can’t be the one God chooses to live in if I won’t allow God to live in others, also. And further, God does all the good we see—every good and perfect gift comes from God.  If the Pharisees had known God, they would have known this truth. When Jesus teaches about prayer, he gives his followers a model prayer and encourages them to persist in praying because God is good and gives good gifts.

Third, Jesus goes on to say that there is no sitting by and evaluating. 
Those who meet him have two choices—to gather close like fish in a net, or like folks welcomed into a home, or to run away in terror, to scatter. He also points out that we can tell what is in people’s hearts by what they say; perhaps this is like the psychological tendency to project on others what is actually true (and what we dislike) about ourselves. There is no way to stop this process except to admit the nature of our own hearts and open them for God to change. The gospel of John puts it like this:  this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people prefer the darkness because they think it hides their evil deeds.  C.S. Lewis puts it this way: God is the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from (Mere Christianity).

Fourth, Jesus warns his listeners to be authentic and make sure the light in them isn’t darkness.
He makes that really specific by accusing the Pharisees of hypocrisy—cleaning up their facades while carrying around greed and wickedness; tithing spices while neglecting justice and the love of God; loving status while being dead inside; loading up others with burdens while offering no help to carry them; building monuments for the prophets while planning to kill Jesus.

Jesus warns his followers about the yeast of Pharisees and Sadducees—their teaching and their hypocrisy.  Their teaching is that only by careful obedience to the Law can a person be redeemed, and their hypocrisy is that they teach this while allowing themselves loopholes and justifying their disobediences. God doesn’t like this:  God cares more about repenting for one’s own disobedience and being merciful to others, giving them room for God to work on them without attributing the work of God’s Holy Spirit in them to the devil.

Fifth, Jesus teaches that obedience is the identifying characteristic of the family of God.
When Jesus turns around and hears that his mother and brothers have come to see him, he spreads his arms wide to include all his followers and says, “All who do what God wants them to do are my family.” When a woman blesses Jesus’s mother, Jesus in reply blesses those who hear and obey God.

What might keep people from obeying God? The story of the sower and the four kinds of soil illustrates how having hard hearts, being unwilling to suffer, or worrying about money prevents people from hearing and obeying the good news.  But some accept it, let it sink into their hearts and grow, and bring forth the good, kind, faithful actions that show their hearts have changed into good, kind, faithful hearts. 

Religious hypocrisy separates people from knowing God; authenticity makes knowing God possible.  How can we become more authentic? The way to authenticity is honesty about our neediness before God and obedience to the voice of God’s Holy Spirit.

  • We can put human needs ahead of rules.
  • We have to keep God’s justice for ourselves and distribute God’s mercy on others.
  • We have to take our light out from under the barrel of politics and legalism and obey the mandate to be a light to the world.

Jesus says that the answer to our fears is to gather with him, to press closer to him, and not to split up and run for it.  Our stance toward those in need around us is to heal, to give food, to set them free from the evil one.  Our stance toward ourselves is to focus on the inside of the cup, not the outside, and be honest about what’s there. 

We are called to listen to God and obey, just as Jesus did.  Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit, who is voice of God to us, guiding us truly and guiding us closer to truth.  Jesus himself is the Truth.  Like Jesus, we point to a God who cares that all repent and be redeemed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This frees us to live at peace with God, reconciled with God, able to look into God’s eyes and see the love there, and to share that reconciliation with others.