Yr C ~ Creation 4 ~ John 1:1-5; John 6:41-51
I love how the gospel of John is so different from the other three in the bible. Matthew and Luke begin with genealogies and birth stories, and Mark hits the ground running with Jesus at thirty-something. But John is in a world of its own. Well, actually a universe of its own!
John begins with three magic words—in the beginning. Where have you heard those three words before? Genesis. The first book of the bible. The part where the ancients tried to poetically capture how the Holy Mystery we call God is somehow at the very heart of the universe. In the beginning. In the very beginning. Before anything else…God.
It’s not by accident that John begins that way too. The author is consciously trying to paint on a cosmic canvass. Earthy lines of ancestors and a flesh and blood delivery of a bouncing baby boy will not do for the fourth gospel. Jesus is born of the universe – in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. (We could take a couple of hours trying to figure that one out, but that’ll have to wait for another day.)
The universe, or the cosmos, is our theme for this last Sunday in the Season of Creation this year. I know that some people have trouble with the season because it appears to set us up as worshippers of nature. The technical name for that is pantheism—where you look at a tree and don’t just see it as an expression of sacred reality and blessing but you see it as embodying God. Pantheism is literally pan (all) theos (God). All is God. God is identical with the earth and the universe.
In some ways this is a welcome idea, especially if your entire concept of God is that God is a distant clockmaker who set the world in motion and sits apart from it all. The trouble is that pantheists tend to reject that transcendent expression of God, and theists tend to reject the embodied and immanent expression of God.
In good United Church fashion, I choose both/and! For me, God is transcendent AND immanent at the same time. God is out there, and right here at the same time. The fancy word for that is panentheism. It sounds a lot like pantheism but it’s different in a critical way. Pantheism says God is in all. PanENtheism says all is in God. If you drew a circle that represented the universe and everything and everyone in it, and then you drew a bigger circle around it all you would have God. But you also have to draw arrows in and out from the centre to show that God permeates every aspect of the universe.
So if God’s Sacred Presence is infused within every part of the entire universe then logically everything in that universe is at its core sacred.I’m not a science guy, but I know that everything in the universe has energy in it and that energy kind of vibrates. So you could say that the universe is vibrating with the Sacred. And the goal of religion, of the faith journey, is to align oneself with that energy and vibrate in sync with it—or, more accurately, to let it tune you in to its vibration. Another word for that is resonance, or harmony.
And for me, that’s the main theme in John’s gospel too – Jesus inviting people into resonant harmony with God’s Sacred Presence. Of all the gospels John is the one you should take the least literally because it’s intentionally the most poetic and theological. That’s its purpose—to paint grand pictures and invite us into their deep meanings. And that’s what makes it a perfect backdrop to talk about a special form of harmony with God – communion, and especially world wide communion.
If you take the passage we heard today from John 6 in a literal way you are left with a very unpleasant visual image—cannibalism. Jesus tells his followers they must eat his body and drink his blood. Now, clearly, only the most idiotic and obstinate critic of Christianity would actually believe that Jesus is promoting cannibalism. But that doesn’t stop some from calling the practice weird.
I want us to look at three verses in particular from John 6 to try to get at what I think John’s Jesus is trying to teach us about this weird and wonderful practice.
v.44 – “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.”
Ok, packed into this one verse there are two hugely important concepts we really need to take a poke at. The first is this word drawn. It is such a perfect spiritual word.
Jesus says, “No one can come to me, no one can follow my Way, no one can have a religious or spiritual experience…unless DRAWN by the Holy Mystery we call God. You can’t force it. You can’t capture it. You can’t will it. You can’t demand it. You can’t make it happen. Only God can.”
And how does God do it? Usually we say God calls, summons, nudges, commands—and those are all fine, God certainly does those things. But the thing John’s Jesus is getting at is that to have the kind of utter communion with the Sacred that Jesus has one has to be drawn by the Holy.
If you go to a quiet room and turn off all the noisy distractions of life and sit down and close your eyes and say “Ok God, here I come. Get ready to commune!” – I guarantee you the only thing you’re going to achieve is a headache, and maybe an ulcer. Jesus knew what he was talking about. God draws us in – we allow it. That’s the only way it works. We are drawn by Presence to Presence, and if we consent we commune.
The second really key idea is the second half of the verse: “and I will raise that person up on the last day.”
The Greek word for last day is eschatos from which we get our word eschatology. Usually we read that as being the end of time. But eschatos or eschatology also means completion or fulfillment as in the ultimate fulfillment of what Jesus is on about. It makes a massive difference to how we understand verses like this one.
If eschatos means the end of time then that’s when it says Jesus will raise up those who have been drawn by God. That makes Christianity all about what happens when you die—and that’s how lots of churches look at it. I think that’s such a diminishment of Jesus’ teaching here.
We (I hope I can say we) think Christianity is about what happens here and now—that we are being drawn to the Sacred not for some future payoff but for making our lives and the lives of those we interact with better NOW! We will be “raised up” – which I think means renewed, or reborn – when the eschatos happens – when this spiritual teaching is brought to fulfillment in our lives – when our non-understanding reaches its ‘last day’ – or in other words, when we “get it”!!!
Next I want to look at verse 47 – “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.”
First, “very truly” or “truly truly” in Greek is actually “amen, amen”.
Second, what’s the best synonym for ‘believes’? In our modern Western cultures we’d probably substitute the word ‘comprehends’ or ‘agrees with’ or ‘accepts the meaning of’. But the word in the biblical context is all about trust—believing “in”, not believing about. It’s about a relationship with a person, not an agreement with a concept. If a person ever asks you what your beliefs are they are asking what doctrines you like and what theologies you prefer. Has anyone ever asked you what your “trusts” are?
Third, we have to unpack the word eternal. Eternal life obviously means never ending, but it’s not so much about chronological time as the “quality” of that life. A never-ending boring life would be hell; who wants eternal boredom? No, eternal life in the bible means what Jesus called abundant life, and what I’d call Sacred life.
So, let’s go back and rewrite that verse. “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.”
How about if we said instead: “Amen, amen. Whoever gets it and trusts enjoys abundant Sacred life always.”
There’s one last verse I want to poke at, but it comes just after where we stopped in the reading today. It’s Jesus continuing to try to help his hearers understand communion.
v.57 – “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
And we’re back to cannibalism again. Or are we? Surely what we have in this passage, and in communion in general, is something much more profound. This wasn’t a new innovation from Jesus. Listen to this conversation in the Hebrew Scriptures between God and the prophet Ezekiel:
Ezekiel 3:1-4 (The voice of God) told me, “Son of man, eat what you see. Eat this book. Then go and speak to the family of Israel.” As I opened my mouth, he gave me the scroll to eat, saying, “Son of man, eat this book that I am giving you. Make a full meal of it!” So I ate it. It tasted so good – (as sweet as) honey. Then (the voice) told me, “Son of man, go to the family of Israel and speak my Message.”
Books are meant to be read, not eaten, right? So what’s the deal here? They’re trying to communicate a deep spiritual truth to us: spirituality stuff can’t just be on the surface. It has to be embodied – taken into your being in the most full and complete way possible – and for us that means eating it. You don’t just read scripture, you eat it—you gobble it up. Same goes for Jesus. (I probably should have saved gobbling up Jesus for turkey day next weekend!)
Have you ever eaten a baby? I bet you’ve tried! I bet just about every one of you has at one time been so enthralled by a little baby that you picked her up, held her close, covered her face with kisses and said, “I could eat you up!” That’s what Jesus wants us to do with him—metaphorically speaking!
Let me try this: A sacrament is defined as “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” It’s a tangible way to express something that is abstract. Now, what is the purpose of a sacrament (especially communion)? Why do we do communion once a month here? What are we trying to accomplish?
In a word, it’s remembrance. It’s about bringing it to mind, keeping it in mind, bringing it into our awareness and keeping it in our consciousness. What’s the “it”? God’s presence. Jesus’ life and teaching. The Spirit’s transformative movement in us. That’s “it”.
Remember, the universe is infused with God’s Sacred Presence, so in communion we are not adding something to us that isn’t already there, we’re awakening to something that too often we let go to sleep. In the sacrament of communion we are becoming present to Presence. We eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood – a deeply weird but wonderful act – in order to remind us to be present to Presence. And we eat him because talking about him isn’t enough.
The way some people describe communion you’d think it was magic, like somehow the dipping of a crumb of bread in grape juice has supernatural powers, or by saying magic words a celebrant does something magical to the elements. Well, I guess I’m saying it kind of does, in a symbolic or metaphorical way, but communion isn’t magical—it’s mystical!
Communion is a tangible, tactile way to express our hunger and thirst for union with the Sacred, but it’s the action that’s mystical, not the elements. The elements are only important because we attach so much awesome profound meaning to them. A person who goes out and lays under a tree and stares up at the sky and breathes in deeply to feel connected to the earth or something bigger than themselves is practicing the exact same kind of thing.
Immersion in the Sacred. Union with the Divine. Oneness with Ultimate Reality. Call it whatever you like, there is a fundamental human yearning to commune with “Something More” – and we name that Something More “God” – and we recognize that Something More embodied most fully and perfectly in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – and so to know that Reality in the most full way we can….we eat it!
And today, on World Communion Sunday, we are consciously connecting to something much larger than just us here. Today we seek to remember the universal church in all its diversity, and maybe even the universal faith impulse in all its expressions, because today, in communion with all who hunger and thirst for God, we seek to mystically know in the fullest way possible the Universal Sacred.
We are one with the One.
We are present to Presence.
We are in harmony with the universal music we call God.
And we live into the Sacred.