26 August, 2012

Homily for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (B) 2012

John 6:56-59

…whoever eats me will live because of me (John 6:57). 
If you remember my previous homilies on John 6, you may also remember that in those occasions I have tried to highlight how Jesus disputed first with the crowd whom he had fed on the mountain-side, and then with a group of “Jews” whilst teaching at the synagogue. 
Today, as we come to the end of John 6 after five weeks of exploring this chapter, we find Jesus still teaching in the synagogue and ready to engage another group of people in the debate about the Bread of Life; this group are his own disciples. It seems that John’s Jesus is really not afraid to question people’s beliefs, and to do something typically un-Anglican, that is to open windows on people’s souls, whoever they might be. 
From the pattern of John’ story it transpires that Jesus moves his debate about the Bread of Life in concentric circles; initially he approaches the wider crowd who looked for him, then the approaches those who considered themselves already committed to faith, and lastly he addresses his own disciples. John’s construction of this three-fold debate is aimed at provoking a scandalised reaction first, in the wider community that looks for Jesus, which today we may interpret as the world; secondly, among those either already engaged in religion or who may oppose the message of the gospel; thirdly, this debate is aimed at provoking a reaction within the Christian community, that is among us all. 
However, let us not lose heart. As I mentioned in the past weeks, although Jesus challenges individuals and groups with his debate on the Bread of Life, he does not turn anyone away. It is those who are not willing to make an effort to understand his words, and those who turn away from the Father’s grace that simply stop following or questioning Jesus. 
If John 6 does not provoke a reaction like the ones of the crowd, of the Jews or of the first disciples it is probably because we struggle to grasp these words in their particular context. It is probably also means that we are very much still in need of the Father’s grace to draw us into an ever deeper faith. 

Do any of you remember the words of John the Baptist as he points to Jesus in John 1?  
Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29). 
These words characterise Jesus’ ministry throughout John’s gospel. However, when the are spoken by the priest in the context of the Eucharist they become the teaching too difficult for some disciples to accept; they echo Jesus’ promise of giving his own very self as the sacrificial victim for the life of creation, and they make a connection between the words of today’s gospel, the liturgy of the Jerusalem Temple, and the Eucharistic meal that we share. 
In Temple customs any concept of human sacrifices was rightly branded as an abomination and associated with paganism. Animals and other things were sacrificed instead. In particular, the Passover Lamb was sacrificed once a year as a solemn offering for sins. Oftentimes, the flesh of the animals was burnt on the altar of bronze or eaten by the priests. However, the blood of the victims was sacred to God and no-one was permitted to consume it because it represented the life of the being. It was offered either by pouring it out over the altar or used for ritual sprinkling. Indeed in the case of the Passover lamb the blood was sprinkled on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant within the innermost part of the Temple. 
And yet, here we have Jesus, the new Passover lamb, saying to his disciples and consequently to John’s community and to us all, that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood. 
Indeed, when in our story Jesus uses the words whoever eats me (John 6:57) he makes a specific choice of words aimed at dispelling any possible allegoric or metaphoric interpretation. More literally He affirms that whoever munches on his flesh, and whoever crunches his body with his teeth will live because of Him. Similarly, as we have heard already in the past three weeks, Jesus invites people to actually drink His own blood offered for the world, like the blood of the Passover lamb, once sprinkled on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant. 
Of course, in today’s story Jesus is not expecting his disciples to attack Him with their teeth there and then. Rather, he instructs them about the boundless gift He will bestow on them in giving his own self in the Eucharist as the true Bread of Life and as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Under signs of separation, like at the Jerusalem Temple where the flesh of the Passover lamb was separated from its blood, here we receive the Lamb of the new Passover sacrifice, Jesus Christ himself. It is little wonder that the disciples, like many Christians throughout the centuries, found this teaching very difficult. 

Does this offend you? …Do you also wish to go away? (John 6:61; 67)
Jesus is here to debate with us, and to encourage us to believe. He is not here to turn anyone away. Moreover, in today’s passage, St Peter is able to answer to Jesus with words that should sum up the Church’s eagerness to believe Jesus’ teaching even when we find them difficult. Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68). In these words we find enough strength to affirm our initial commitment to Christ as we wait for the Father’s grace to draw us into an ever deeper faith in Jesus.

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