11th Sunday After Pentecost, Year B
The Temple is long gone, its cedar beams burned by General Titus, its massive pillars pulled down, its porticoes crushed, the altar in the inner sanctum long ago turned to ash, and blown away by the wind.
The days were evil. The Empire, long tolerant of Jewish dissent, once perhaps, even humored by it, was intent on assimilating the Jews, making them good, loyal citizens. And that troublesome little minority of Jews and their Gentile converts who followed the dead preacher from Nazareth, they were hated the most of all. The Empire did not care about their arcane theological struggles with mainline Judaism. The Empire, as empires always do, wanted loyalty and its sycophant, order. These people were the enemies of loyalty, refusing to drop even a pinch of incense and say the pledge of allegiance to the Dominus et Deus, the Lord and God, Caesar Domitian.
Into those dark and evil days came a writer of extraordinary power. He was schooled in the classics, making use of Heraclitus and Philo, writing grand and mythic poetry for the little groups of Christians who were trying to hold on to their hope that soon and very soon they were going to meet the Lord. There were many Jesus books making their way through the underground networks that bound those Christians together. Some of them were stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Some of them were collections of things that people remembered him saying. Three of them, written for particular communities of Christians, seemed to be gaining credence as the real thing: historical accounts of Jesus, as he walked the dusty streets of Palestine 70 years before.
John wasn’t happy with any of them. They were too ethnic perhaps, or too literal. He wanted to tell the world less about what Jesus did than about what Jesus meant. He doesn’t have anything to say about the circumstances of his birth or his early life. He breezes past most of his early ministry as if it wasn’t really important. In John, Jesus starts out by cleansing the Temple, and it is the resurrection of Lazarus that seals his fate, not the overthrowing of the Temple capitalism. There is no Sermon on the Mount, no foretelling of the end of the world. The Last Supper scene doesn’t even mention what they ate or drank, it’s all about foot-washing and hymn singing. There is no ascension, no waiting for Pentecost.
John is not trying to write another history of Jesus—there were enough of those. He wants people to understand just who Jesus is and why his mission is so important. He lists seven great signs or miracles, and seven great statements of identity—John wants us to understand the centrality of Jesus, the universality of Jesus and the absolute necessity of Jesus.
I am the bread of life.
I am the light of the world.
I am the door.
I am the good shepherd.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the way, the truth and the life.
I am the true vine.
The Church for whom John wrote was in deep, deep trouble. But it was not because the Empire wanted it exterminated. The blood of the martyrs would continually be the seed of the Church. Every wave of persecution would be followed by a wave of new conversions.
No, it was the struggle within the community that had John concerned. There were groups popping up everywhere, claiming that they and they alone had secret knowledge of salvation and the only true understanding of who Jesus was: a cosmic figure, true God but not truly human, whose wisdom alone would set humanity free. There were the faithful Jewish Christians, who saw in Jesus the fulfillment of the prophetic dream of Israel’s Golden Age and they were sure that Jesus would return any day to the Temple mount, this time all the angels with him. And there were the Gentiles, who saw in Jesus the one true hope for all humanity to be liberated from sin and death.
That was the struggle that threatened to destroy the Church. And it is to heal those rifts that John tells his version of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
He dispatches the Gnostics, the secret societies within the Church, by insisting that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Food plays a central role in John’s story, from turning water into wine, to the resurrected Jesus, serving roast tilapia on the beach to his astounded disciples. Jesus, he wants the Church to know, came from God, but was as human as we are. There is no secret knowledge: eternal life comes from knowing God and the one whom he sent forth, Jesus Christ—and that knowledge is for everyone, not just a select few.
The deep rift between the faithful Messianic Jews and the Gentile believers and their defenders was not so easily healed. The Jewish Christians blamed Paul and his associates for the erosion of Jewish values, a denial of the authority of scripture, and finally, and worst of all, the destruction of the Temple.
It had started quietly, with Stephen, one of the first deacons, who had baptized a black man on his way back to Africa. Later Peter would welcome an uncircumcised Italian army officer into the Church and then Paul would traverse the Empire, baptizing unclean and sinful Gentiles, insisting that they too, were now descendants of Abraham by just believing in Jesus.
As the years passed, some of the Gentiles became deacons and presbyters, and some even bishops (though Holy Orders were still in formation, at the start of the second century). It was one thing to say that God loves everybody, and that all the nations would stream to the house of God in Jerusalem, and quite another to simply abandon the moral and biblical underpinnings that had held Judaism together for a millennium and a half. And when the Romans destroyed the Temple, Jewish believers lay the blame at the feet of those who had polluted the Church with Gentile leaders.
It is into this storm that John inserts his story of the Jesus who eats with us and asks us to eat him. He has fed five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. The crowd has followed him into the synagogue in Capernaum, begging for more of the bread from the miracle baskets. Jesus confronts them: “You have come because you ate the bread that perishes, you need to eat the bread that lasts forever.”
Then he makes a series of remarkable claims, he is the bread of life, believing solely on him is the way to God. The crowd pushes back, stunned, who does this guy think he is? Jesus is relentless: “I have come down from heaven, just like the manna in the wilderness. You need to believe that.” The crowd is puzzled, angry. “That’s ridiculous. God gave the manna in the wilderness, you’re just a carpenter’s son. The Bible says the Messiah will come amidst signs and wonders. Show us some of that, and we will believe you.”
But Jesus presses on: “I am the bread from heaven. Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you cannot live. You are going to shrivel up and die.”
On that statement, the entire Gospel of John turns. It is Jesus who is central to our very life, it is Jesus who is the sign itself, the wonder of all wonders. It is Jesus upon who we must feed, not tradition, not religion, not laws, not prophets. Jesus. Nothing but Jesus.
John did not tell the story of the Lord’s Supper in his Gospel, because he was trying to tell us what that Supper is about. It’s about Jesus. Take this bread, it’s my body. Drink this wine, it’s my blood. It’s all about Jesus.
It’s not about who has secret knowledge. It’s not about who has the weight of scriptural authority on their side. It’s not about who gets circumcised or whose ancestors wandered about in the desert. It’s about Jesus.
Now, here we are, two thousand years later. There have been ten thousand heresies since Gnosticism, all of them claiming that they alone had the truth about Jesus. There have been those who stayed as ritually pure as any human possibly could, and those whose sins were piled clear up to heaven. There have been schisms and reformations, great awakenings and great apostasies. There have been concordats and ecumenical movements and full communions. But the Church is still as broken and divided today as it was at the end of the first century when John wrote his marvelous book. Because we keep forgetting what it’s about. Jesus. Nothing but Jesus.
Anglicanism, born in the ferment of the Protestant Reformation, was not born because Thomas Cranmer and Henry VIII had a purer vision of Jesus than did the Pope. It was born in an argument over sexual ethics, specifically the sanctity of marriage. The English church adopted Protestant theology, retained Catholic liturgy, and tried to build a bridge between the two. But like the original purity argument of Christianity, the one around circumcision, the argument over sexual ethics keeps coming back, each time uglier.
Can Christians divorce and remarry? The Bible unequivocally says no. Anglican theology asked deeper questions, weighed the authority of scripture, the meaning of grace, and the certainty of human frailty and said, yes.
Can Christians practice artificial birth control? There is a pretty good scriptural argument that the purpose of human marriage is for procreation. But Anglicanism asked deeper questions about the nature of divine and human love and decided that was a matter for each couple to decide on their own.
Can someone be homosexual and Christian? One would be hard pressed to find in scripture any positive statements about homosexuality. But Anglicanism asked deeper questions, and in 1998, the Primates, gathered at Lambeth Palace stated:
There are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God’s transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.
Of course that statement only led to more questions: if gay and lesbian people are full members of the Body of Christ, what happens if one of them is called to Holy Orders? It was starting to feel like the first century again: it’s one thing to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch (barred from the Temple because of his race and his sexual mutilation) and quite another to make one a presbyter or bishop. But of course, it happened. Gentiles, even those who had been ritually polluted, eventually were raised up as leaders of the Church.
The Church as a whole eventually accepted that, because it came to understand that salvation is not about us, it’s about Jesus. Nothing but Jesus.
After Lambeth 1998, the question never went away for Anglicanism. Gay and lesbian people were called into Holy Orders. Like the crowd in Capernaum’s synagogue, many in the Church were stunned and angry, “How can these things be?” The answer came back:: “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
Whoever eats me. Ethiopian eunuchs, womanizing kings, slave owners, revolutionaries, and we ourselves. Whoever eats Jesus.
In 2003, Gene Robinson became the first openly homosexual man to serve as a Bishop in the Episcopal Church. The past six years have witnessed a level of turmoil in Anglicanism unmatched since Oliver Cromwell beheaded King Charles I and tried to get rid of bishops completely. And just a few weeks ago, gathered in General Convention, the Episcopal Church moved to settle the issue.
Resolution D025 recognized “that gay and lesbian persons… have responded to God’s call and have exercised various ministries in and on behalf of God’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and are currently doing so in our midst…and that God has called and may call such individuals, to any ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church, and that God’s call to the ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church is a mystery which the Church attempts to discern for all people through our discernment processes acting in accordance with the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church.”
Quite simply, the Convention said, “Look, we don’t understand how and why God calls people to Holy Orders—it’s a mysterious process, a road on which we travel down in discernment together. And God calls the most unlikely people, because He has called all of us to follow Jesus, and we are all the most unlikely people. It’s not about us, it’s about Jesus. Nothing but Jesus.”
I know that many among you are confused today by all the controversy. I know that some are concerned that our neighboring Diocese is nearing a decision to divorce itself from us, and the rest of the Episcopal Church. I know you have family, friends and neighbors who are saying to you: “How can you be in that place? How can you accept that gay and lesbian people are called into ministry?”
Before you answer, I ask you to think on some other mysteries:
How can you believe that there is one God, who exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? How can you believe that God knows everything, even what you will do tomorrow or a decade from now, and you still have free will? How can you believe that a Virgin gave birth, or a dead man rose to sit at the right hand of God? How can you believe that there even is a God, when you see the pain, suffering and madness of the world?
I don’t know your answer, but I know mine. “It’s a mystery. But I believe it because I’ve fed on Jesus’ body and drunk his blood. It’s about Jesus. Nothing but Jesus.”
You can see that mystery clearly in your own clergy: four of the most unlikely people—a lobbyist, a banker, a doctor and a former religious cultist. Three of us are divorced and remarried. All four of us are broken. What mystery worked in us? What mystery called you to call us into your midst?
As the controversy continues—and it will, beloved, it will—remember the mystery of faith, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. It’s not about us. It’s not about Gene Robinson, Rowan Williams, Katherine Jefferts-Schori or Dorsey Henderson. It’s about the mystery of faith.
It’s about Jesus. Nothing but Jesus.