Our Offensive God

Lectionary 21 (12th Sunday after Pentecost), Year B
Sunday, August 23, 2009
John 6:56-69

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

There are three things about which we rarely speak in polite company –
    money, politics, and religion.
Our rules of etiquette govern that we avoid offending others,
    and that includes steering clear of personal matters.
In our culture these three – money, politics and religion –
    are taboo topics for conversation
        for fear that by talking about these matters we may offend others …
    even though we may wear crosses around our necks
    or post political signs in our yards
    or live in a manner that reveals a certain level of wealth.
We just don’t go there … we don’t talk about such things.
We don’t want to offend.

This is evident in our churches, too.
Many a pastor climbs into the pulpit each fall and,
    in addressing the church’s stewardship drive,
    says loud and clear, “I don’t like talking about money.”
Indeed, at our last stewardship meeting there was some anxiety
    about how we as a church talk about money,
    about how we invite Christians to give in response to what God has given them.
Even though Jesus and the prophets
    frequently address issues related to economics and money,
    we have a hard time doing so.
Don’t want to offend.
And of course we appropriately steer clear of preaching partisan politics from the pulpit,
    but our fear of partisan political conversation
    usually leads us to fail to discuss the issues at all!
Sadly, as our country engages in a discussion on health care reform,
    few of our churches have asked how faith and the Christian tradition
    might inform our understanding of how our society should manage its health care needs.
Rather than being places of faithful discernment – even faithful disagreement –
    we are largely mute on the issue and allow other voices in society to dominate the conversation.
Because we don’t want to offend.
And so, the church is largely in step with society, sadly,
    when it comes to two of the three  taboo topics of conversation,
    money and politics.
But what about religion, the third topic we are to avoid in polite conversation?
Even though we are a community of faith that quite publicly
    gathers around Word and Sacrament,
a church that confesses a particular faith using ancient words of belief,
many in the church are uncomfortable talking about our beliefs,
    perhaps unsure of what we really believe,
    perhaps anxious about stepping on toes or prying into others beliefs,
    or perhaps concerned about how we measure up to the official teachings of the church.
And so, few of us attend forums or small groups to talk about and grow in our faith …
The rules of etiquette which place religion on a “do not talk” list, ironically,
    have become part of a creed of etiquette in the church,
    stymieing our growth and weakening our witness.
We don’t want to offend.

Jesus said, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” …
A few of his disciples –
    and in this passage, John uses the term disciples broadly, not limited only to the Twelve –
a few of his disciples hear these words about flesh and blood, and they object …
    “this is a difficult teaching,” they say.  “Who can accept this?”
Because of this, the text tells us that
    “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
“Does this offend you?” Jesus asks.

Offense.  With these words Jesus offended some of his disciples.
Obviously Jesus did not get the memo from the etiquette police,
    nobody told him that rule #1 of social etiquette is to avoid, at all costs, offending someone.
But what is so offensive about his words?
The problem here is not a teaching but a reality,
    not a rule or a moral code or a law,
    but the radical presence of God in our midst.
It offended and continues to offend the theological sensitivities, the world view of some
    that God would come to us and gives himself to us,
    that God would break down the walls between sacred and profane,
    interrupting our separateness from the holy
    and bridging the gap between heaven and earth.
This is what is offensive … this is what is so disruptive,
    a radical reorienting not only of the heaven-earth relationship,
    but of our understanding of God,
    a God who no longer is far off, up in the clouds, sitting only on a heavenly throne,
    but a God who now comes to earth, enters our existence,
        and gives of himself – flesh and blood that we are to eat and drink.
No wonder outsiders thought the early Christians to be cannibals!
Eat his flesh?  Drink his blood?  Just the thought offends most human sensibilities.
But that is the way with God. 
The disciples said, “This is a difficult teaching.  Who can accept it?”
But this is more than a difficult teaching … it is a difficult God.
The disciples who turned away that day were not turning away from a teaching,
    they were not troubled by a theological principle,
    but instead they were disturbed by a God who offends the sensibilities,
        refuses to allow us to stay in isolation from the divine,
        a God who dares to enter our lives in flesh and blood,
        a God who doesn’t know the rules of etiquette.
Our God offends.  It’s the nature of God.

There are many who were offended this week in Minneapolis,
    as leaders from our Lutheran Church meet in their biennial Churchwide Assembly,
    the highest governing body for our church.
When they met this week they discussed and voted on a variety of issues …
    including a full communion agreement with the United Methodist Church,
    an ambitious initiative to eliminate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa by 2015,
    and, as you may have seen reported on the news,
        a social statement about human sexuality,
        and policy changes to allow gays and lesbians in committed same-gender relationships
            into the leadership of the church.
Most of the offense that took place this week,
    as you can well imagine, surrounded this issue of human sexuality.
Many of the pastors and lay people who gathered this week in Minneapolis took offense
    at a church that seemed to be leaving them behind,
    going in a direction with which they could not agree,
    fearful that the church in which they had spent their lives
        was abandoning Scripture, tradition, morality.
Gay and lesbian Lutherans took offense at the prohibition
    that has kept them from ordained ministry,
    and a tradition that has not recognized their relati
onships.

The debate was civil – there were no disruptive protests or massive demonstrations –
    but at times the words were harsh,
    unbecoming of a church whose founding pastor calls us,
         in his teaching on the 8th commandment,
    to “interpret everything [our neighbor] does in the best possible light.”
Advocates for full inclusion of gays and lesbians into the life of the church
    offended and were offended.
Advocates for adhering to traditional teachings on sexuality offended and were offended.
It was not the church’s finest hour.

But then the whole church gathers this Sunday and hears Jesus ask, “Does this offend you?”
Does it offend us that harsh words were said?
Does it offend us that the church is moving to accept gays and lesbians
    into the ordained ministry of the church?
Does it offend us that there are many who will leave the church over this issue,
    who cannot accept these changes?
You bet it does.  This is a week when passions were heated,
    when a heaping of offense was shared equally by folks on all sides,
    when hurt was a common experience.
But hurt wasn’t the only common factor.

As painful as these divisions are for the church,
    and they are painful,
    let us be comforted knowing that those 1045 voting members
    were gathered in flesh and blood
        by the God who promises to be with us in flesh and blood.
Let us be comforted knowing that those 1045 voting members
    stood in a common faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,
    they spoke, voted, and acted in that common faith,
    to do what they prayerfully and sincerely felt was faithful to Christ and his church,
        even when they came to disparate conclusions.
In a society where “whateverism” reigns supreme –
    that widely-held inarticulate ambivalence about religious belief –
        an ambivalence that leads adherents to “whateverism” to avoid
        any specific confession of faith or particular beliefs about God,
    an ambivalence designed, perhaps, to avoid offense –
in a society where this non-offending “whateverism” reigns supreme,
leaders of our church gathered not in the name of “whateverism,” but in the name of Christ,
    seeking to be faithful to the Gospel,
    seeking to continue following in our Lord’s footsteps
        on a journey that surely leads us to the offense of the cross,
        a cross that scatters and divides disciples because of its sheer repulsiveness,
        yet a cross that simultaneously gathers the hurt and offended
            who see in it a familiar pain.
Our church is there today,
    scattered and divided at the foot of the cross,
    turning our face from the cross’ offending nature.
Our church is there today,
    gathered and united at the foot of the cross, looking up at a great pain
        with which we can partly resonate,
    looking up and hoping that the cross ain’t the end of the story.

Dear friends, the cross ain’t the end of the story.
The difficulty and division it causes, the pain it gathers to itself,
    these things are temporary; they are not the stuff of eternity.
For we know that Christ has died and was buried,
    and that he rose again in flesh and blood on the third day,
    and that he lives to this day to feed us on his very own gift of new life.
Christ offends us by coming to us in our divisions,
    by entering into our brokenness and in our pain,
    and by not allowing these to define us.
For what defines us is not our division, brokenness or pain, but Christ Jesus our Lord,
    a definition freely given to us in baptism,
    an identity rooted in baptismal drowning
    a calling emerging from the life-giving waters of the font. 

Let us walk together in Christ, humbly and faithfully,
    from the death and new life of baptism,
    to the renewing meal of our Lord’s supper …
    let us walk as a church offended at times by God,
        offended quite often by each other,
        yet held as one by the promise of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Amen.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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