Monday, August 17, 2009

Flesh and Blood

Bible readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost include I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

The life and times of King David have been a real page-turner, this summer. Today we hear how the kingship passed to Solomon, his second son by Bathsheba. But that is a much more intriguing story than we get in these few verses.

Many wives, many children. Last Sunday, one of Solomon’s half-brothers, Absalom, a man of war, ended his aspiration to the throne when he, riding his mule, passed beneath the branches of a great oak and Absalom got stuck in its branches, allowing his adversaries to strike him dead. A man of war who knows only how to fight is indeed stuck, with few good options.

With Absalom gone, his brother Adonijah prepared to replace their old and ailing father on the throne. But while the elders of Judah and Israel, the old guard, were preparing Adonijah’s victory party, Solomon’s mother Bathsheba and her ally, the prophet Nathan, persuaded David to swear an oath, on his deathbed, that Solomon would become king.

So while Adonijah’s victory celebration got underway, sounds traveled from another ceremony, where the priest Zadok was anointing Solomon king. Listen to this commentary:

“This was a new way of kingmaking. There was no charismatic experience on the part of Solomon, no popular approval, and no demonstration of the ability of the anointed one (on the battlefield). There was no specific divine act or precept, except possibly the oath sworn by David or the participation of the priest and the prophet of God. It was only the word of David which brought the final solution to the problem of succession. Solomon owed his position to the fact that he was the son of the favorite wife of David, not to any marked gifts or military prowess. He was a victim of palace diplomacy and had not the slightest conception of the tremendous price paid by his father for the kingdoms over which he bore rule, and this fact is apparent in almost every act recorded of his administration… He had other qualities, however, which he doubtless developed in… his youth and which he would not have acquired had he not had the advantages of a favorite boy in the royal court.”

One of these other qualities was a cast-iron stomach. He arranged for the elimination, one by one, of his opponents whom he could not trust. There was blood on the hands of even this wisest of kings, as there has been blood on the hands of most kings and queens across the long cavalcade of history.

A tribute to his wisdom is his famous prayer. In it he speaks of himself as only a child in such matters as running a kingdom. “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” God’s reply indicates that Solomon’s attitude is one that God can work with. Asking for understanding to discern what is right is a request God will honor.

We meet this theme of understanding in the Letter to the Ephesians. “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil… understand what the will of the Lord is.”

Understanding is also demanded by our Gospel portion today, if we aren’t to blow it off as crude and disgusting.

There is a high “eee-yew!” factor in these lines about how, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” To help us understand the message here, I’m going to draw on a classic, William Temple’s “Readings in St. John’s Gospel.” Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, a unique time to reckon with flesh and blood.

We may like what the Prologue to John’s Gospel teaches, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Archbishop Temple says, “The term flesh was chosen there to stand for fullness of humanity down to its lowest element. It is by his humanity that He offers us life: if we receive that humanity and it becomes our own, it is found to bring with it eternal life. ‘The bread which I will give is my flesh for the Life of the world.’”

We may like the image of Jesus as the living bread. That, too, brings the message down to a basic element of common life, bread. For his Jewish hearers, that image would call to mind their ancestors’ experience of God’s grace in the wilderness, when some sort of sweet sticky substance they called manna fed them. Jesus alludes to that in our portion today, and when he likens it to bread he captures the fact that some of their ancestors despised that manna because it was just too much of a good thing (like eating Wonder Bread three times a day): it was all there was to eat, and they got good and tired of it. And to others of the ancestors, it was an indelible sign of the lovingkindness of God, and their dependence on the manna taught them dependence on God, for man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

But soon we run out of images that we like, and have to deal with what could sound like cannibalism. We know that doesn’t fit the Jesus we know… though doesn’t it fit the Jesus who tells parables? The Jesus whose metaphors and similes are so vivid, even strange, that they leave us in some doubt about the message and what we are to do about it, teasing us to think and understand?

One thing we learned about King Solomon is that in addition to the blood he had on his hands from dispatching his enemies, he also used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on the altar at Gibeon. That’s a lot of bloody livestock. And such was the prevailing religion of old: the blood of calves and lambs and doves sacrificed to God was thought to be pleasing to God, required by God.

Our biblical ancestors didn’t have blood transfusions in their health care system, but they knew that the blood is the life. “Be sure thou shalt not eat the blood; for the blood is the life; and thou shalt not eat the life with the flesh,” command the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. (So much steak tartare!) But these same books commanded blood sacrifice, for the blood is the life released by death so that it may be offered to God, offered as the most priceless substance known to man.

In this context, Jesus’s words shock his Jewish hearers. It sounds like horrifying news, that this eternal life Jesus offers must be received as a drinking of his blood. But what he is offering is unimaginably good news: that a wholly new understanding must prevail, declaring unnecessary the flow of sacrificial blood of other creatures in the name of God. No more killing to the glory of God. Rather, a call to understand what the will of the Lord is.

The Archbishop explains: To eat the flesh of the Son of Man is to receive the uttermost power of self-giving, Jesus’s kind. To drink the blood of the Son of Man is to receive, in and through self-giving, the life that triumphs over death and unites us to God. Both elements are needed for communion with God. Says Temple: The life that gives itself even to death; the life that rises from death into union with God: these are the divine gifts without which ‘you have no life in you.’ But you who receive and make those gifts your own ‘have eternal life.’ For those gifts are true food and true drink for humanity; whoever receives them ‘abide in me, and I in them.’

Archbishop Temple sees Jesus’s words today expressing the substance and the goal of the Christian life. They are not about momentary eating, but about permanent abiding. They are not about transubstantiating bread into flesh, but about changing lives. The one thing that matters is that we should feed upon Christ in our hearts, and there understand what is right, what care our living requires, what care the living of our loved ones requires, how to make the most of the gift of time, how to give thanks at all times in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But why the need to shock his hearers? Because we’re told, just verses earlier than the ones we hear today, that the people were about to take Jesus by force and make him king. That was not his calling. If his public ministry was degenerating into kingmaking, then it was time to take the material-minded and the wishful thinkers and shake their firmament. Just a few verses later, John tells us that even some of Jesus’s own disciples were sifted-out by all this language of flesh and blood, and they left him.

Archbishop Temple wonders if perhaps it was worthwhile that a bunch of people should be momentarily puzzled or even alienated, in order to secure for all generations an understanding of spiritual dependence on Christ that makes clear the good news that we have in him not one more king with blood on his hands, but our one redeemer who gives us power to do what he does and be as he is.

And all that qualifies us for this is that we receive what is freely offered.

(Commentary on Solomon’s accession is from J. M. Myers’ article on Solomon in “The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible,” Abingdon Press, 1962. William Temple’s “Readings in St. John’s Gospel” was published by MacMillan & Co. Ltd., 1950.)