On Saturday 21 June, I joined the Church of the Holy Paraclete in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A., in the Rhode Island Pride Parade. On the following Sunday (Feast of Corpus Christi / Gay Pride Sunday), I preached at their Mass. Below you can read my sermon.
The Gospel according to John is Saint John’s way of making sense of his relationship with Jesus. He starts his book with words that might sound rather abstract: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” For someone who had known Jesus personally and had been very close to him, you might have expected a more personal account. But John was not an average guy – and neither was Jesus.
Although that first line might sound rather cerebral, John continues a little further by saying: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Here John gets more down to earth. The Word comes down to earth. He takes on a body and becomes physically available to us – to look at him, to eat with him, to touch him, to hold him close.
John is different. In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus uses the word ‘body’ at the Last Supper: “This is my body.” But John has Jesus here using the word ‘flesh’: “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world”. Flesh is more ‘skinny’. The skin: that part of our bodies – well, it’s ‘all over the place’ – the skin is a site of both individuality and relationality: our skin marks the boundary between what is me and what is not me; but at the same time it is the place where we can make contact with other bodies. And when bodies touch one another, boundaries can seem to fade away.
Some people find other bodies disgusting. When people express this feeling of disgust, through facial or verbal expressions, this is because they feel threatened by this other body. That is also what seems to happen when Jesus says they need to eat his flesh and drink his blood to gain eternal life. Jesus’ teaching had been offensive, but now the word becomes flesh and the flesh gets close. Words can be listened to and be put aside, but just the idea of eating his flesh is too much.
It is that disgusting, scandalous practice that has become the Church’s foundational sacramental ritual: the Eucharist. In one of the Eucharistic prayers there is this phrase: “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.” Although the human race knows as many colours as there are in a rainbow, although we differ in many ways and maybe even don’t always know how to make sense of these differences, we not only celebrate this diversity, but also the unity of being one body in Christ.
When John narrates how Jesus spoke of his ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’, he draws a connection to a future event. That event is, however, not the Last Supper or the Eucharistic practice of the early church. It is the event that is re-enacted in the Eucharist: Jesus’ crucifixion. When John has Jesus speaking of his flesh and blood, he sees the body of the one he loved so dearly, and whom he was loved by so dearly, hanging on the cross. He sees a wounded body and the blood that comes out of its side when the soldier pierces it.
This is the body of the one who was considered disgusting by many of his contemporaries. Jesus’ crucifixion is, therefore, a kind of cultural abjection, an act in which Greek, Roman and Jewish social bodies tried to displace that which they considered a threat to their integrity. One could go even as far as to suggest that his crucified and dismembered body turns out to be the excrement of these social bodies. They thought they needed to get rid of him in order to survive. “Let’s expel this wicked flesh and we will have eternal life.”
The Church, however, believes that this body is not a threat to the community, but actually intrinsic to the community’s integrity. At the same time we need to remain aware of the scandal of this belief. We need to remain aware that this beloved body is interrelated to other bodies – both desired or disgusted. In the Gospel of Mark we read that it is not what one ingests that causes uncleanness, as that passes out into the sewer. It is what is generated from within that causes uncleanness. If we dare eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood, we can start to believe – or continue to believe, but in a more radical sense – that indeed what is unclean is not something outside of the body; if there is any uncleanness, it comes from within our own hearts. When Christ evokes in us a desire for his body, we can learn to desire all bodies as they participate in his glory.
Note: This sermon contains a few citations from: Hugh S. Pyper, “The Offensiveness of Scripture.” Lecture at the Conference of the Society for the Study of Theology, York, 11-13 April 2011, which was later turned into a chapter in his book The Unchained Bible: Cultural Appropriations of Biblical Texts (New York: T&T Clark, 2012).