Gnawing flesh, drinking blood

26 August 2018
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16B (RCL)

1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43
Psalm 84
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

The way the Hebrew Bible comes to be arranged (as distinct from the Christian Old Testament), it serves as an etiology of the Second Temple, ending as it does with Darius’ decree at the end of the second book of Chronicles. Here, the story of David ends, and that of Solomon begins as an etiology for the First Temple. In the reading we had last week, all of David’s crimes are whitewashed, and he becomes the ideal king, and Solomon prayer for wisdom, and God granted it, despite the fact that he used to offer hecatombs at the high place at Gibeon, married foreign queens, set up an Asherah, and all the rest that subsequent kings would be accused of. I guess as long as you build a beautiful temple, you can be forgiven much.

The Temple will be the dwelling place of THE NAME on earth, and anyone, even a foreign, can be confident that a prayer will be heard as long as it is offered facing the Temple. In reality, the Temple is the sign of an absent God. The ark is in the inner sanctum, inaccessible to all but the high priest, and him only once a year. The cloud of smoke that fills the Temple obscures even that from ordinary mortals (that’s a lot of incense!). Since the Hebrew Bible serves as an etiology for the Second Temple, it must also serve as an apology for the destruction of the First Temple, answering the question, “Why would God destroy the Temple and send us into Exile?”

In some regards, the Christian New Testament serves as an apology for the destruction of the Second Temple (Mark’s Gospel is particularly stark in this respect, blaming its destruction on ‘the Jews’ who killed Jesus), and as an etiology for the Christian community. John’s Gospel sees that Christian community as replacing the Temple as the locus of the encounter with God. Jesus says as much in Chapter 2. Here, the Christian community is drink the blood of the Son of Man, who is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This is a daring theological move. In the Old Testament, there is an absolute prohibition on the blood of sacrificial animals. The blood is the life and the life belongs to God. It was to be poured out on the altar, or on the earth, and in this way returned to God. If we are to drink it, we have become divine, at least the altar, if not God.

No wonder some of the disciples find this a hard saying. God is no longer in the Temple, serenely in control of history, answering prayer for all who come, but here in this all-too-human community. In verse 54 John switches the verb he uses for “to eat” from phago (a pretty standard word) to trogo, which is typically used of animals chewing rather noisily. David Bentley Hart translates it “feed.” Whoever feeds on my flesh. I would translate it “chew.” This adds to the hardness of the saying. We not only eat the flesh of the Son of Man (the Human Being), but we chew it. Within this human community, we are to feed on flesh and drink blood, to ruminate on each other’s lives. Of course, we are told that the flesh is useless, that it is the Spirit that gives life. I think this is to guard against a too-mechanical understanding of the efficacy of the eucharistic bread. It is the gnawing on Christ’s humanity and the hard work of living in community that gives life, not some magical sacrament.

The passage from the Letter to the Ephesians warns us that our warfare is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. We much too easily turn against one another (flesh and blood), when we should be looking at systemic evils. But the only way to see those systemic evils is to chew on the lives of our neighbors, of those we don’t like, those who appear against us. The divine life is there.

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