“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” the Jews ask one another, in response to Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life. Good question, right? How is that possible? And who, exactly, would one to eat another person’s flesh?
Well, it turns out that the sentiment behind that question is partly the reason why, once Jesus’ band of followers began to grow and grow, they began to be accused of cannibalism. After all, Jesus does talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. It’s kind of a gory description, but at least you can understand how outsiders would come to that conclusion. Of course, it wasn’t exactly what was going on–at least not in the way they were thinking–but it was the perception that mattered and that made people think twice about joining this new movement.
If it had made the 1st-century version of a newspaper, the headline would have read: “Strange new group eats one another, considered cannibals.” Again, there’s some truth in it, but it’s not the whole story.
This week, the headline pertaining to the church read, “A bombshell hit the Catholic Church,” a title that referred to revealed yet even more sexual abuse in the Catholic Church what was covered up for decades.
When I first read about it this week, I wanted to beat my head against the floor. It makes me really angry at the church. And to be honest, if I were Roman Catholic, I wouldn’t have been at church today. Now, I know I’m not Catholic, but we’re closely enough linked as institutions that it still makes me wonder what I’m doing, working for an institution that has done so much harm in the past. My Roman Catholic colleagues, mostly women who work for Roman Catholic nonprofits, are asking the same question and seriously considering whether they can continue in their positions without feeling like they’re enabling a corrupt system and church.
Of course, that’s not the only bad press we get. We’re hypocritical and exclusive and racist. Sadly, we could go on and on. The history books are full of examples of the church behaving in hurtful, destructive, and embarrassing ways. It really does make me–maybe you, too–wonder why we’re here and what we’re doing. It also helps you understand why people are hesitant to invest in the church, an institution that people interpret as a community of faithful believers who should be living the Jesus way.
It’s not a bad definition of the church, is it? I mean, it’s what we are, right? A community of believers who live the Jesus way?
Well, sort of.
We’re a community of believers who try to live the Jesus way. And that little word “try” makes a big difference and contrary to what some might think or hope, the church is not perfect. It’s not perfect because it’s made up of human beings, and all of us are far from being perfect.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not defending the church or making excuses for the grievances of the church. The church has messed up. Big time. The individuals complicit in the harm need to be held accountable. What I am saying, though, is that it may not be accurate to believe that the church is any different from any other human institution. We are, after all, a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints. And just as the claims that members of the early church were cannibals was not the whole story, the headlines that make the news today do not comprise the whole story.
If you were to focus only on the cannibalistic nature of the early church, for example (and yes, I know that sounds really weird), you’d miss out on the fact that Jesus, in this part of John’s Gospel–the part that comes the closest to a Last Supper in John’s Gospel–is saying something very important about God’s gift to the world of life in the flesh of Jesus.
At least that’s the message that Jesus wanted his followers to hear, a message that, sadly, has been drowned out by negativity, corruption, and all the other evils that come with being human.
It’s hard to believe at times, especially in light of negative news stories, but we are never too far gone that we cannot work to tell a different story of the church. At least that is my prayer and my hope. Because when I read the words of Jesus and other words in our sacred texts, I hear promises of a gift that will sustain this word, correct its path, and lead it into a future of hope. I also hear a suggestion of our purpose as the church, and particularly for our congregation, and I hear advice on what we should be doing as the church, even if we are not a perfect group of people, which we are not.
Our failures and inadequacies are never our full story. Yes, they are part of the story, but never the full story. Instead, we are who we are, we do what we do because we have been formed and shaped by the hope of Jesus.
Our first reading today came from the book of Proverbs, which is not a particularly familiar book of Bible or one that becomes the focus of preaching and teaching. And yet today we’re given this beautiful passage from Proverbs 9, a passage that speaks of a character called Lady Wisdom.
This character has been interpreted in a lot of different ways, including as part of God’s creation, a part of God own self, or maybe even Christ himself. No matter how it is interpreted, though, Wisdom’s actions come to us as advice, as if drawing us back to the heart of God and calling us to remember who we are as well as our purpose on this earth. T
his character–Wisdom–calls people off the streets to feast in her house and at her table. Notably, she does not invite the social elite; she invites everyone, with a particular invitation to the so-called “simple” or “those without sense.” We might interpret these people as those who live on the margins with nowhere else to go.
Today, Pride Sunday, is one day of the year when we are given an incredible platform by which to retell the story and purpose of the church. It’s a day that calls us to remember why we’re here as Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. And when we go out into the streets of the festival, as some of you did yesterday, or march in the parade today, we go out as Lady Wisdom’s servants to call people to “turn in here”–in this church–and to eat the bread and drink that she has mixed.
Of course, the author of Proverbs had no concept of what would later be the Last Supper or Holy Communion, but we can’t help but read the Lord’s Supper into this passage and know that in this house and at this table, God calls people to eat and drink and that God does not discriminate between who is welcomed and who is not because there is a place at the table for all people.
It is hard being the church in the time of the media that looks for the juiciest and most scandalous headlines. And it really does make me want to bang my head against the floor every time I read a new one that makes the church look bad as well as any time the church does harm. But then I read the Bible and I remember why we’re here.
Join me today at the Pride parade as we shift the story of the church back to one of hope and promise. It is the story of Jesus’ life for the world and the promise that there really is a place at the table for everyone.