Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and with the comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
The prayer I just read comes from Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Prayer book tradition. Those are the words from 1549. We read this Collect, the prayer we pray at the beginning of the service, toward the end of November, but when I read today’s Gospel, today’s very strange Gospel with an invitation eat Jesus, to eat his flesh, this prayer came to mind. I remember the words of this prayer from being a little kid serving as an acolyte at church services, because the image is so strong. Let us “inwardly digest” the scriptures, “inwardly digest” them? As a little kid, that struck me as odd. It put in mind the image of Ezekiel eating the scroll. That we would ask God to help us “inwardly digest” our scriptures struck me as odd.
Kids can be quite literal, and I was a very literal little child. When I was three or four years old, my mother left me in the car with a cake she had baked for my grandfather’s birthday. She just needed to run into the house for a moment, having left something behind on the kitchen counter. Everything would have been fine, except that before she went into the house she told me the kind of cake she had baked. The cake, it turned out, was a pineapple upside down cake. By the time she returned to the car, I had turned the upside down cake right side up. My mother has never baked that kind of cake again.
So as a very literal minded child, this image of “inwardly digesting” was strange. The image is powerful, but to get past the “weird,” we have to grow up a bit. To hear Jesus tell us that we must “eat his flesh” if we are to have “life within us, we have to see the scripture as more than literal.
In the early days of Christianity, rumors spread through the Roman Empire that Christians were cannibals. Think about it, they claimed to gather each week to eat the flesh and drink the blood of their savior. These rumors, based on a loose misinterpretation of John chapter six, fanned the flames of persecution against the early church.
John 6, this chapter we find ourselves so deep in this week, the chapter we have been reading all month at Saint John’s, is not LITERALLY about flesh, or even about bread. This is an extended mixed metaphor, and if you are having a hard time following what Jesus is saying, take heart, you are in good company with your priests, and with our seminary professors. Even the disciples, in the next few verses will say “This teaching is difficult.”
BUT, the invitation, however strange, is profound. Jesus invites us to eat his flesh, to inwardly digest HIM. Jesus OFFERS his flesh for the life of the world. Jesus offers his life to us, that we might have life. The words are gruesome, there’s no way around how gruesome the words are, but at their heart is a profound offer, an offer of life, an offer of sustenance. I believe our world desperately needs the sustenance of Christ, needs to learn to inwardly digest this message of self-offering, of self-surrender.
This has been a summer of violence. This week just down the street from St. John’s Church, at 8th and G a gunman tried to charge into the offices of the Family Research Council. Nine blocks from where we sit right now, a gunman yelled at a security guard, “I don’t agree with your politics” before opening fire. Thankfully he was stopped. But in Aurora Colorado, near where I grew up and in a house of worship, not unlike this one, belonging to a Sikh community in Oak Creek Wisconsin the violence had incredibly tragic results. This summer our flags have spent too much time at half-mast.
What have we inwardly digested, as a society? I think we have to ask this question. When attackers fill their packs with neo-nazi music or Chik-Fil-A sandwiches to make a point with violence, something is terribly wrong in our society. We have taken in a message of hatred and division, we have inwardly digested an acceptance of violence. Our society has digested a level of division and hatred that is causing major problems for our social health. Hatred is not a neatly partisan issue, as the events of this summer show.
I wish the answer to these terrible events was simpler. I wish I could stand up here and tell you that passing a particular piece of legislation would solve this crisis. I wish solving hate and violence was that easy.
Jesus also lived in a culture of violence. The Pax Romana was hardly peaceful for the peasants subject to the rule of the Romans. Massacres in Palestine under the Roman Empire were commonplace. Jesus himself would be caught up in the violence, labeled a threat to peace, and executed.
In the midst of this violence what did Jesus do? He ate with people. Jesus ate with ALL the wrong people. Jesus ate with Jews and Romans, women and men, tax-collectors, prostitutes, little children, and samaritans. Jesus ate with people he disagreed with. Jesus dined with Roman soldiers and pharisees. What would that look like today? What would it look like for the House and Senate leadership to come together for a potluck? What if in response to the attack in downtown Washington this week, the leadership of the LGBT Center of Washington and the Family Research Council sat down for dinner?
This is why we come here each week. At St. John’s Church, we do not agree about everything. We are from different parties, and backgrounds, and we just do not agree. But we come, we gather around this table. We received Jesus, and we practice his radical table fellowship each week. To borrow a phrase from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, we participate in “solidarities not of our own choosing.” We come to break bread together, and to eat with people we don’t agree with, that we might learn the grace, forgiveness, and peace of Christ.
There is an old Cherokee legend about a Grandfather teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.“
The story is about what we choose, in this world, to inwardly digest. Do we feed on the anger and hatred and violence of the world, or do we choose the love and forgiveness of Christ?
Six years ago this October another massacre occurred in Lancaster County Pennsylvania. A gunman walked into an Amish schoolhouse. The news from this story, more than the others, was not dominated by the gunman, but by the Amish community. Members of that Amish community, from the moment the news broke of the shootings, sought to forgive the gunman. They visited his widow. Members of the Amish leadership attended the funeral of the killer. Around the country, around the world, people were moved by the example of the Amish, a people who had inwardly digested Jesus’ command to love their enemy, had inwardly digested the idea of forgiveness.
The gift Solomon receives from God in our story this morning could describe the Amish Christians of Lancaster county. Our translation (and it will come as no surprise to many of you that I have quibbles with our translation) but our translation has Solomon asking for an “understanding mind,” and that’s a nice thing to ask for, but that is not what actually in the Bible. The Hebrew actually has Solomon ask for a “listening heart.” A “listening heart” is what Solomon receives from God, the gift that helps him discern right from wrong. I think “listening hearts” well describes the Amish Community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. This gift comes from years of taking in a message which is counter-cultural, inwardly digesting the forgiveness and love of Jesus. This isn’t easy in a society dense with hate and division. Listening hearts are the root of wisdom, and the product of a lot of inner work, a lot of inwardly digesting the Word of God, the message of Jesus.
Jesus tells that we will know those who eat his flesh because they will have “life within them.” Six years ago we watched with awe the amount of life there was in that little Amish community. How can our stories witness to that kind of life? How can the life of Christ be known in our lives?
We have before us a complicated Gospel this morning, a Gospel proclaimed in a world with few easy answers. But at its heart is an invitation to receive the life of Christ, to inwardly digest the Word of God, and to be transformed.