Violence of Communion
A sermon on John 6:51-58 by Nathan Nettleton, 20 August 2006
Jesus invites us to find our communion in the violence done to him instead of in doing violence to others.
If you are feeling a bit grossed out by the cannibalistic language of tonight's gospel reading, you are not alone. This particular speech by Jesus produced the biggest example of negative church growth in his whole ministry. His listeners, previously among his followers, were offended and walked out in droves. Jesus goes from being the crowd favourite to having just a handful of followers left, and even they don't sound too sure.
One of the ways that the Church has coped with these words from Jesus is to quickly spiritualise them and talk about the consuming of bread and wine in communion. These words do take us there, but they take us there via a deliberately violent and gory route, and we won't really understand what it is saying about our communion at the Lord's Table unless we recognise why he takes the route he does.
The word "communion" is, of course, closely related to the word "community" . The concept of communion is about how we are bound together; about what holds us together as an identifiable and cohesive community. In his words here, Jesus is pointing out something about how human communities bind themselves together, and it is not popular. He is shining the light on some harsh home truths, and the people are offended and scandalised. They desert him in droves.
What he is spotlighting is that we bind ourselves together as communities by doing violence together to a common enemy or scapegoat. In some communities in ancient times, this literally involved ritual cannibalism. The enemy or scapegoat was sacrificed and eaten by the community, and the shared participation in the killing and eating strengthened the bonds of unity in the group. One of the reasons people are so offended at what Jesus says is that he uses this language and imagery of them, and they think they are way more sophisticated than the primitive barbarians who did such things. But Jesus is saying no. You may look more sophisticated, and you may not literally kill and eat your enemies, but in fact you target scapegoats and chew them up and devour them just as truly as did your cannibalistic forebears.
When you begin to look at examples, it is hard to argue with him. Look at the way the so-called war on terror has united people against a common enemy. Look at the ugly riots on the Sydney beaches earlier this year. The ritualised hatred of a chosen scapegoat united a mob and gave them a sense of identity and belonging. Look at how refugees and asylum seekers have been scapegoated to unify the so-called "true Australians" and bind them to their elected border-protecting leaders. And among those of us who have opted out of that particular unity, look at the way a common hatred of those same leaders functions as a more obvious and effective point of unity than love of actual asylum seekers. It is always easier and more popular to unite against someone and barricade ourselves against them, than to unite around the practice of breaking down the barriers and extending love and reconciliation to outsiders.
The stunning and shocking thing that Jesus does here, is to recognise that this system of unifying groups through scapegoating others is virtually unavoidable, but instead of defining who he is against and calling others to unite with him against them, he offers himself as the victim, and calls us to unite in solidarity with the victim, instead of solidarity with the victimisers. And so his gruesome talk of offering his flesh to be devoured does not take us straight to the Lord's Table. It takes us first to the cross, to the place where he was lynched. It takes us to the place where Jesus offered himself as the victim and was devoured by his enemies. And it is from that gruesome place that he takes us to the table, where we find that his self-offering becomes the true food and true drink that unites us in a new and radical communion with him and, through him, with all the victims of the world's systemic violence. Here at the table, as we participate in an expression of the world's violence, we find the most astonishing transformation taking place. In the very same moment that we enact the violence of tearing apart and chewing up the victim, we find that we become what we receive, we become one with the victim. We abide in Christ, and he abides in us, and now we are united together in him, offering ourselves to be broken and poured out for the ending of the scapegoating and violence, and for the life of the world.
But before we come to the table tonight, we have another related ritual which tells a similar story. We are about to welcome someone into the membership of this congregation, into the membership of a body that is not defined by who it is against, but by its solidarity with the victim of all defining against. And we will be recalling a baptism, another symbol of the violent death of the Christ, and of our being united with him in that death and burial, for it is only when we die to the systems of violence, and at the hands of the systems of violence, that we can be raised by God to life without limit in Christ. The good news in Jesus is never a soft option of pie in the sky for those who lack the courage to face the harsh realities of life. There is no way to follow Jesus that doesn't take us into the pit of hell before we arrive at the promised land of love and life. But arrive there we will, for Jesus has borne the brunt of the world's bitterness and rage and opened up a way through for us to follow. So let's stand and affirm our faith in the one who offers himself that we might be done with the ways of death and unite instead in love and life.