Imagine for a moment that you live in a society of the near future, one in which everything is geared toward efficiency. The taller the building, the faster the transportation, the cheaper the labor, and the more uniform the ideas the better. The country you live in is one of the more prosperous nations of the many that were formed when the United States was divided at the end of a great civil war. Despite its prosperity, social inequities have not been addressed. Those without jobs or homes, referred to as “lowcontribs,” share the streets with “stim” addicts and others thought to need “neuropro” – extreme and involuntary mental health treatment. The moral voice for treating these individuals more kindly has been silenced – because world society has thrown off the illogic and harmful fantasy of what it calls “metafiz.” In this realm, the last 11 Christians worship in a dilapidated historical building on the top of a hill dwarfed by high rises and preserved only as a historical monument to humanity’s primitive past. This is the world of J.F. Alexander’s “I am Sophia” and the name of that place is Grace Cathedral.
Bishop Marc recommended this book to me, and I have found it both fascinating and difficult to read. The story is told from the perspective of the last bishop, Peter, and involves the appearance on the steps of the cathedral of a lowcontrib who calls herself Sophia. The question, of course, is whether she is the second coming of Christ or – something else. The first half of the book describes Peter’s struggle to understand who Sophia is and what her appearance means for the dying church and the world. Like the biblical Peter, Alexander’s Peter is a stand-in for us. He is always well-meaning, but he struggles with his own ignorance, arrogance, and inability to let go of what he has been taught in favor of the truth that is in front of his eyes. Sophia is gentle, kind, loving, and generous, but her words are often hard and troubling, especially for the existing Christians. When Jesus-like words come out of Sophia’s mouth, it is perfectly clear that the people who have the hardest time understanding them are the ones who have heard them before. In contrast, the people who have no knowledge of Jesus’s teachings understand and accept Sophia’s words instinctually and joyfully. Peter’s confusion and resistance to Sophia’s wisdom makes it clear that the so-called “faithful” Christ-worshippers have not benefitted from generations of interpretation of scripture. Instead, the opposite is true; church teachings, they find, are not necessarily Jesus teachings. So, I guess you know why I’ve been having a hard time reading it.
Think about how different it would be to hear some of the things Jesus said as if for the first time - not the way we usually listen to them, barely paying attention because we have heard them over and over again. Try, for example, to really focus on Jesus’s language in today’s passage from the Gospel from John. Use your imagination to hear it as if you have never been to Sunday school, never received Holy Communion, or never even heard of Christianity: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” So, first of all, “What”?! and secondly, “Yuck!”
The reaction of the Jews who had been following Jesus would not have been much different. “Cannibalism was no less offensive in that day than in our own. Furthermore, to Jews it was unthinkable to drink animal blood, a capital crime according to [Jewish] law. How much more scandalous to drink human blood!” And, if you can’t quite grasp the full grossness of what Jesus is saying, you might want to know that the Greek word that Jesus uses for “eat” in this paragraph is actually closer in meaning to our word for “chew,” - so it is clear that when he asks his audience if he has offended them that he has meant to. The question then is not really why some of his followers stopped following him, but why the core group of disciples didn’t – and what Jesus’s challenging offensiveness means for us today.
I recently saw an article on the internet entitled, “Do these words describe Jesus: offensive, scandalous, arrogant”? The author’s response to her own question is a resounding “No!” Jesus, she says, cannot be offensive because, even though he offended people, that was their fault for not understanding what he meant to say! Really? Because for a Jewish rabbi who knows Levitical law to tell his followers that compared to chewing on his flesh Moses’s miracle of the manna in the wilderness is nothing, it seems to me like he would know what he said was pretty scandalous. So I think it’s fair to suggest that his graphic description of the nature of Holy Eucharist is in there for a reason.
Let’s start with what it wasn’t there for. It wasn’t there to establish the ritual of Holy Communion. Remember, the Gospel of John is the newest of the four gospels by about one hundred years, and there is no story of the Last Supper in this gospel. The audience who heard this gospel were like us. They had already heard of and practiced the ritual of Holy Eucharist – but unlike us, they were persecuted for doing so. They didn’t need to be told what to do to remember Jesus. They needed to be reminded of what happens when we do it. When we share Holy Communion, we don’t just remember Jesus; we take his essence inside us, becoming intimate partners in sharing his way of living his willingness to die for a perfected humanity. Actually believing that you are ingesting part of God is an unprecedented, lifechanging, revolutionary and, yes, offensive idea that is contrary to socially acceptable notions then and now. Or at least it should be.
That was not something many of Jesus’s disciples wanted to hear – and I don’t think a lot of his disciples want to hear it now. This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? Certainly not the author of that internet article. We want our Jesus to be clean and white-robed and gentle. We want him to comfort us when we are sad and provide spiritual justifications for pursuing our earthly desires, the way people have repeatedly and very recently used today’s passage from Ephesians to justify aggression in the name of God. But that is not what the letter says. It actually argues the exact opposite. “Our struggle,” Paul writes from a prison cell, “is not against blood and flesh” but against enemies of the spirit – enemies like hatred, prejudice, and exclusion - and our weapons are not guns, knives, and arrows, but faith, love, and prayer.
It is easy to find individual phrases in scripture to support what we already believe or what we want to do. It is much harder to face the challenging, frightening, and sometimes downright distasteful content that forms its overarching theme of God’s deep and abiding love for a flawed creation. And it is perhaps hardest of all to allow ourselves to know our Savior in all his maddening, confusing, and awesome complexity. Imagine, Peter tells his congregation, that God has come near to you- and you know God’s call to be true. You will have to let go of all your earthly needs and desires. You will have to let go of your comfortable thoughts and lives. You will have to let go of your “rightness.” It will be very hard. But imagine what it would be like to really feel Jesus in your body – in your very soul. Imagine the chance to be that close to the living God – for eternity. Would you choose to turn back, thinking it was simply too much? Or would you say Peter’s words: Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We will serve you, for you are our God. Imagine that. AMEN.
Douglas R.A. Hare, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3 Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16)), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 383.
Shari Abbot (January 8, 2017) in Reasons for Hope*Jesus, https://reasonsforhopejesus.com/do-these-words-describe-jesus-offensive/.