BIBLE READING: John 6: 51-58
Have you ever read the essay "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift? Written in 1729, the essay examines the issues of poverty and squalor in the Ireland, along with the growing problem of overpopulation. Swift's tone in the beginning - and in fact throughout the essay - is that of a calm, dispassionate and self-righteous sociological observer.
After he analyses the problems of Irish poverty, he moves into his "modest proposal," which is to fatten up the malnourished children and then feed them to their parents or, better yet, to their parents' absentee landlords.
As he veers into this outrageous idea, his calm, dispassionate tone never once wavers. Swift's essay was actually a satire designed to produce horrified reactions in his readers, as a way to cause people to think about the ways that unthinking mistreatment of the poor led to inhumane conditions.
But let’s think about this for a moment – what is your reaction to Jesus' words in today's bible reading. First century critics of Christianity pointed to words like these to claim that Christians were cannibals and therefore, deserved death. In fact, immediately after this passage, we're told that many of Jesus' followers left him until he was left with only a handful of disciples.
And who could blame anyone for that initial reaction? Don't we get that same queasy feeling when we read Jesus' words? "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."
Yes, unlike those early Christian critics, we understand that Jesus is speaking metaphorically. We know that cannibalism is not one of the Christian virtues and yet there is clearly an eeewwww-factor associated with this metaphor. We want to know why Jesus couldn't have come up with a more elegant-sounding metaphor to make his point.
And clearly that wish is nothing new. Jesus' listeners on that day were all good Jews, who had been raised to follow the law of Moses. And that law taught that it was a sin to eat or drink blood since that was where the life of the animal resided and that life belonged to God. Therefore, if anything, their reaction to Jesus' words would have been even a stronger negative than our own. We think his image is rather gross; they believed that he was inciting them to sin.
So that raises the obvious question: Why did Jesus say what he did if he knew he would get such a strongly negative reaction to his words? The simplest way to explain it is to remind you of an old expression that says, "You are what you eat."
That saying is quite literally true. Those things we eat are full of nutrients that are transformed into energy to restore and repair cell structure as well as to provide the fuel for carrying out the functions of the various cells. So we can literally be considered what we eat.
Extending that idea - if we “eat” Jesus, then his grace, his compassion, his love for others and his self-sacrificial spirit can become a part of our character as well.
"[...] what sort of life was [Jesus' life]? A life in which the normal markers of success - money, status, favour - were completely absent. A life which ended in a shameful, cruel death -- apparently a complete failure. Who would want to share that life? And yet he says it is only this way which leads to life that really lasts, life worth living, life that ultimately cannot be destroyed." - Anne Le Bas
I'd like to share a true story told by the grandson - Rev. Don Hoffman, of the missionary E. R. Moon. “He was a missionary in what used to be Belgian Congo, and [...] is now [...] the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was an area on the central Congo River, right at the equator, where just a generation before, cannibalism had been widely practised.
"After World War I ended, and the missionaries were able to return, and travel up and down the river became easier, there was a great Christian rally held, and tribes from all over the Congo basin were invited to attend. Hundreds of people were present to worship in a large, open, roofed-over shelter. The chiefs of two different tribes had been selected to be the elders presiding at the communion table. One of the two was in his place. The other was not.
"As my grandfather looked around the shelter, he could not see the missing chief. Then he spotted him outside, walking back and forth, back and forth.
"It was a long service. It went on for hours. And the chief continued to pace: back and forth, back and forth. When it came time for the communion service that one seat was still empty. One of the native evangelists noticed that something was wrong. He had the congregation sing a hymn. Then they sang another. By now most of the people present became aware of the delay. They sang a third hymn. And the chief came into the building.
"He strode down the long centre aisle to the communion table, and turned and faced the people. He pointed at the other elder at the table, and he said,
"'Many years ago our two tribes were at war. And that man killed my son. And they ate him. And when I knew I had to preside at the table with him, I couldn't do it. I have been pacing the ground for hours trying to decide what to do. Over and over I prayed for Jesus to give me a way to escape without sacrificing my honour or killing my enemy.
"'And finally, as I paced and prayed, Jesus said to me, 'Every day you kill me again, and I forgive you. Every Sunday you eat my flesh, and I forgive you and love you. Can you find it in your heart to forgive another as I have forgiven you?'
"'I knew I had no choice. The old days are behind us, and the new days of forgiveness in Jesus Christ are here. I cannot be a part of Christ and keep this hatred inside me.' He turned to the other elder, the other chief, and said, 'You are my brother in Christ. I forgive you.'
"The two old men hugged each other and cried in front of that crowd. Then they said their prayers and distributed the communion. My grandfather said it was the most wonderful communion service of his life.
Jesus takes us from our addictions and our wars. He asks us to stop eating ourselves up and devouring one another. He asks us to stop sucking the blood from the poor and unfortunate victims of our society. He gives us instead himself to eat."
Think of the tremendous amount of courage it took to offer that forgiveness. He had suffered beyond anything most of us can even imagine and yet, through Christ, he was able to offer a complete and unconditional forgiveness to the one who had caused his suffering and even accepted that man as his brother. I believe that without Christ, that level of forgiveness is simply be impossible.
The only way violence and hatred can be stopped is by courageous people who are willing to follow the example of Jesus by forgiving and embracing their enemies, understanding that while their own pain is very real, the other person's pain is equally painful and equally real.
The only way to build a future beyond the cycle of violence is to intentionally break the cycle by turning the other cheek. Does that mean that a Christian is expected to be a wimp - that is, to allow those with bad intents to simply run over them without any check or accountability? No, it doesn't mean that at all.
People still need to be held responsible for their actions, but we as Christians are not to seek vengeance, even for very real wrongs. Instead, we are to offer those who harm us a chance for a better and more-fulfilling life than the one they have embraced by their actions.
To do that, we have to somehow acknowledge our anger, but not act upon it. And reach out to our enemies in love.
Those are hardly the actions of a coward. Instead, they are the actions of one who has fed on the bread of Life, to offer grace because they have themselves received grace and have been transformed by the gift of that grace to reach beyond themselves with an offering of Christ to any who need it, even those who may have hurt them.
That takes far more than mere courage. That requires us to take into ourselves Christ's own self-giving grace in order to even begin to care about the needs of our enemies.