The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

Welcome, again, to John’s account of Jesus’ debrief after the feeding of the multitude. Last week we focused on one of its two primary themes, Jesus as God’s definitive word, and, goosed on by Paul, looked at what that word encouraged us to do (and not do) with our tongues. Today the assigned verses focus on the second theme, Jesus as received in the Holy Eucharist. We’ll start and end there, and in between notice what the other readings do with the theme of wisdom.

In contrast to the other three Gospels, John, as you probably recall, does not narrate Jesus’ introduction of the Holy Eucharist the night of his arrest. In John’s Gospel Jesus’ introduction of the Holy Eucharist is in today’s text. The language is explicit, perhaps too explicit for our translators, for in v.54 Jesus switches from the normal verb ‘to eat’ (esthiō) to trōgō, which in most contexts we’d translate as ‘gnaw’ or ‘chew’. But perhaps the more important observation: this sacrament is fundamentally relational: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” So while there’s some truth to Ignatius’ description of it as “the medicine of immortality”—Ignatius the bishop martyred in the 2nd century—it’s a potentially misleading description if it distracts us from the relationship Jesus is seeking to nurture.

This relational character of the Eucharist dovetails with Jesus’ extended vine/branches metaphor. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” If we had only this metaphor, we might think that bearing fruit was an automatic process. But, of course, we have the stories of the disciples, which make it clear that the process is hardly automatic. We need to pay attention to Jesus as God’s definitive word (last week’s theme), acquire—to use the Bible’s language—wisdom. Which brings us to our other readings.

Solomon. Solomon asks for an “understanding mind.” That’s not a bad translation, but misses a lot. A literal translation: “a listening heart.” We often associate wisdom with the mouth, and it’s certainly true that we can show ourselves to be wise or foolish by what we say. But the mouth isn’t the organ through which wisdom is acquired. That, Israel and its neighbors were convinced, is the ear, and they might have something to teach us.

A listening heart. Listening doesn’t come easily to us. Here’s William Stringfellow, who entered into glory March 2, 1985, too recently to be included in our calendar. “Listening is a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters may have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered. Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love, in which a person gives self to another’s word, making self accessible and vulnerable to that word.”

A listening heart. The New Testament doesn’t say much about a listening heart, not because it’s not important, but because it’s assumed.

Moving on to Ephesians, there are a couple of things we might observe about its focus on wisdom. The first is found just before today’s reading as well as in v.17:

10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.
17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

“Try to find out.” I like what one commentator, Markus Barth, does with this: “a careful examination is carried out: it is not only man’s mind that is engaged in the scrutiny, but also his eyes, his hands and sometimes an instrument.… [it] implies much more than merely an intellectual procedure and achievement; it describes a personal, existential, perhaps critical relationship between him who searches and decides, and the person or object that is scrutinized.” It’s learning by doing, reflected in Jesus’ words “When any man’s will is to do his [God’s] will, he shall learn whether the teaching [of Christ] is from God” (Jn 7:17) (Ephesians 4-6, p.605).

What does that mean? It means that there are important things that I don’t know. There are important things that I don’t know. Let’s try saying that together: There are important things that I don’t know.

There are important things that I know. And there are important things that I don’t know, including important dimensions of “what is pleasing to the Lord,” of—returning to Jesus’ metaphor—bearing fruit.

Speaking of important things I don’t know, there’s v.20: “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything.” At all times and for everything? If we asked Paul why, I think he’d give us two reasons. First, because it’s in the hardest moments that we learn about ourselves things we wouldn’t learn otherwise, things we need to know. Second, because there’s no moment which cannot be the starting point for God’s love and glory to be experienced. Not that I easily remember either of those answers…

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” So I come with gratitude to the Table, for with Jesus there is life, and my best shot at continuing to learn.

Let’s give the last word to the Fifth Gospel, Isaiah:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food. (Isa. 55:1-2)

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