I don’t have many bad memories from my youth. But recurring is one from exam time in highschool. This memory brings back desperate feelings of failure, despair, and shame. The exam was for a history or English course. And it was only a one-pager!
I recall sitting down in the large gymnasium at the start of the exam period looking down at the simple Part A question, and thinking to myself: ‘I got this one in the bag!’ Instead of writing my answer down on that page underneath the question, I wrote down about five pages on extra sheets I asked from the exam moderator. Usually, I took the entire allotted time to write my exams. I remember, however, with this one I finished much earlier.
After checking over my in-depth and complete answer, feeling satisfied and even smug with my work, I signed off on it and left the room with a hop in my step. I felt confident that I had performed to my usual high level of competency in a subject matter that I liked.
You might imagine the horror I felt shortly thereafter when I learned from others why it was that I happened to finish so early.
“Martin,” a friend asked me, “What did you write for the Part B question?”
“Yeah, on the second page.”
Alas! The one-pager was double-sided. I didn’t think to turn the question sheet over to do Part B. I had only completed the first half — Part A — of the exam. I didn’t finish the entire test. I. Was. Doomed.
In the Gospel for today (John 6:51-58), Jesus uses carnal language that borders on the cannabalistic. “Eat my flesh. Drink my blood.” What are we to make of this arresting, vivid, corporeal language?
Well, the Pharisees have an answer. But theirs is the usual mind-tripping, logical finagling. They take everything literally! “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask. This style of intellectual, rational mind-gaming is reminiscent of when earlier Jesus spoke of being born again — and again the Pharisee Nicodemus gets trapped in his head: “How can a man go back a second time into his mother’s womb and be born again?” (John 3:1-4).
The Gospel of John and especially this text (6:51-58) evokes images of ingesting, chewing, and gulping — and relates this to our relationship in Christ Jesus. Language like this pervades the Gospel, right from its inaugural, tone setting words: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14).
The Word is not just a doctrine or idea. The Word is not just a mental picture that we frame with rational explanations, logical arguments and eloquent words about Jesus. That is only Part A.
There’s a Part B that needs to be completed in order to get at the fullness of truth of Jesus relating to us and the world God creates. When we talk of Christian theology and even Christian discipleship, we must go beyond saying: “Let’s follow Jesus” or merely have conversations about Jesus, or think about Jesus, or construct nice ideas about Jesus.
We must learn to confess that Jesus not only wants our thoughts, Jesus wants all of me/us — every aspect of our lives including our bodies, our exercise, our diets, our play, our work, our relationships. Jesus wants more than our Sunday mornings. He wants Friday night and Wednesday morning as well. A local church had this message on their front-lawn sign last week: “Jesus doesn’t want weekend visits; he wants full custody.”
Worship is only Part A. Part B is when we walk out that door when worship is over. If our prayers and songs and statements of faith during worship on Sunday morning — as glorious and uplifting and inspiring as they may be — do not translate into meaningful, concrete action consistent with our faith Monday through Saturday, then our worship is really, in the words of Saint Paul, “a noisy gong or clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthian 13:1). The Psalmist confesses to God: For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)
“People often daydream, and even share their fantasies, about what they would do if they won the lottery. Still, most people choose to keep their money in their wallet. In response, lotteries south of the border run commercials reminding us, ‘You can’t win if you don’t play.’ In a sense, Jesus is saying something very similar: ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’ (v.56). In these verses, Jesus demands more than intellectual assent, more than fantasies of eternal life. Jesus asks for high-stakes, all-in participation, here and now.” (Sundays and Seasons, Augsburg Fortress, 2014, p.261) Jesus wants all of me. Part A and Part B.
I still passed the course, both because I did well during the term on assignments and such; and, because I passed the exam with a 50% score. Even though I messed up and had my blinders on, even though I did not complete the expectations of the exam, I could count on the grace of the instructor.
You see, I did not get a perfect score on Part A. Close, but not perfect. I should have therefore failed the exam. But the instructor knew me. Knew me well. And she knew I deserved to pass the grade. Despite my mistake, I still got credit for the course.
Where there is suffering in the real world. Where there is blood spilled and bodies broken. Perhaps it did take the Christian movement some centuries to work through their natural repulsion against the unadorned cross — an instrument of torture and death — to finally embrace the Cross as the central symbol of our faith. Because there is an important point to it.
That is where Christ is, in our lives and in the world. And it is there that we must go to find Jesus in the faces of those bloodied by war, by displacement, by injustice and violence — in whatever kind. It is there that we must go to witness by our giving and our own brokeness the truth and hope of the Gospel. It is there that we must go. The life stronger than death that God gives to the world in Jesus Christ always comes to us “in the flesh” and blood sufferings of the present time. It is there we must turn the page, and go.
Lord, you have searched me out; O Lord, you have known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting places, and are acquainted with all my ways. Indeed, there is not a word on my lips but, O Lord, know it altogether. You encompass me, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast. (Psalm 139:1-10)