Jesus, the self-offering way: Jonathan Daniels and Inward Digestion

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and with the comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen

The prayer I just read comes from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Prayer book tradition. Those are the words from 1549. In The Episcopal Church, we read a modern version of this Collect, the prayer we pray at the beginning of the service, toward the end of November. But when I read today’s Gospel, today’s very strange Gospel, this prayer came to mind.

I remember the words of this prayer from being a kid serving as an acolyte at church services, because the image is so strong. Let us “inwardly digest” the scriptures, “inwardly digest” them, I thought? As a kid, that struck me as odd. Maybe it strikes our acolytes as odd. The image comes from Scripture. In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet eats a scroll given him by God and licks his fingers afterward. But to twelve-year-old me, that we would ask God to help us “inwardly digest” our scriptures struck me as odd.

Kids can be quite literal. My mother likes to tell the story that when I was three or four years old, my she left me in the car for just a few seconds with a cake she had baked for my grandfather’s birthday. She just needed to run into the house for a moment, having left something behind on the kitchen counter. Everything would have been fine, except that before she went into the house she told me the kind of cake she had baked. The cake was a pineapple upside down cake. By the time she returned to the car, I had turned the upside down cake right side up. My mother has never baked that kind of cake again.

So as a very literal minded child, this image of “inwardly digesting” was strange. The image is powerful, but to get past the “weird,” we have to grow up a bit. We have to see scripture as more than literal.
In the early days of Christianity, rumors spread through the Roman Empire that Christians were cannibals. Christians claimed to gather each week to eat the flesh and drink the blood of their savior. Cannibalism, it turned out, wasn’t popular. You can see where their fellow citizens got the idea, but the accusations came, and fanned the flames of persecution.

John 6, this chapter we find ourself so deep in this week, the chapter we have been reading for so many weeks in the Church, is difficult. It should catch us off-guard, make us pause. Jesus says, “eat me.” Even the disciples, in the next few verses will say simply “This teaching is difficult.”

Still, the invitation, however strange, is profound. Jesus invites us to eat his flesh, to inwardly digest HIM. Jesus OFFERS his flesh for the life of the world. Jesus offers his life to us, that we might have life. The words are gruesome, there’s no way around how gruesome the words are, but at their heart is a profound offer, an offer of life, an offer of sustenance.

It’s such a profound offer, that we remember it each week around this table. “This is my body, given for you.” “This is my blood, shed for you.” Those words, they are still pretty gross if you take them literally. If we’re paying attention, they should still cause us to pause. There’s another phrase that follows in the Eucharistic liturgy. “Do this in remembrance of me.” I think we need to pause with that one a little more as well.

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Maybe you’re like me, and you always assumed that “Do this in remembrance of me” meant, “come to church. Receive the Eucharist.” Before seminary, I really thought that’s what the words meant. Then I had a professor ask, “What is the ‘this’?” My liturgy professor in seminary was a feisty Roman Catholic nun, a sister of St. Joseph. She convinced me there was more at stake in the Eucharist. “What is the this?” she asked.

Sister Koernke wanted all of us priests in training to ask whether Jesus had more in mind when he talked about offering his body and blood. When Jesus said “do this” did he not mean, “I’m offering my life for the world. My followers follow me by offering their lives for the world, just like I do.” It’s a radical vision. That’s what’s at stake when we walk up to this altar rail each and every Sunday. What is the “this” that we do?

Following Jesus can put you at odds with the world. Following Jesus can put you at odds with you friends, and your denomination, and your political party. Following Jesus can get you in trouble. Daniel Berrigan, the famous Jesuit activist, likes to say, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.” Christ-following is costly, he wagers.

This week The Episcopal Church remembers the fiftieth anniversary of a martyrdom. When we talk about martyrs in the church, we often mean centuries ago. Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a seminarian at Episcopal Divinity School (then the Episcopal Theological School) in Cambridge, Massachusetts in March of 1965 when he heard news of Dr. Martin Luther King calling students to join him in Selma, Alabama. At first, Daniels didn’t think much of the call, but something happened during a service in the seminary chapel. He heard words from Scripture anew. Daniels wrote about the experience later:

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat…Then it came. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” I knew then that I must go to Selma.

Daniels went to Selma and stayed in Alabama through the rest of the Spring Semester, and into the summer. The seminarian made people angry. He upset the status quo. He marched with those who were risking their lives each day for civil rights. You have to know, he wasn’t particularly welcomed by the Episcopal Churches in Selma. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was partly addressed to the Episcopal Bishop of Alabama who wasn’t integrating his churches, and had asked King to quiet down. While he was in Alabama, he tried to integrate one of the parishes, against the will of the rector. Jonathan came to Alabama to march, and to stand with Dr. King.

Eventually Jonathan was arrested with some other protesters. After six days in jail they were released unexpectedly. No one had arranged transportation, so they walked over to a nearby grocery to make a call and wait for a ride. As the protestors came up to the front door, a man appeared with a shotgun and pointed it at Ruby Sales, a 16-year-old black girl. Daniels pulled her out of the way just as the shot was fired. The seminarian died instantly. His killer was later acquitted by a jury made up of only of white men.

Jonathan Daniels in his own day was a divisive young seminarian, and today is face is carved in the ceiling at the National Cathedral in Washington, in a group of modern day martyrs. He is remembered in the calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church. Jonathan Daniel’s didn’t set out to be a martyr. Thankfully most people of faith don’t end up martyrs, but Christians are followers of Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was put to death for his preaching.

Jonathan Daniels' bust in the National Cathedral.
Jonathan Daniels’ bust in the National Cathedral.
I don’t think Jesus just wanted all his followers to offer their lives so dramatically. Often “do this” is slower. Sometimes offering our lives means dedicating ourselves to education, or health care, or doing our best to make sure that day in and day out people get a fair shake in our justice system. Often “do this” means making room in your life to volunteer, to engage the political process, to help a neighbor struggling to raise kids on her own. There are a lot of ways of “offering your life.” There are many ways to put your flesh on the line, to have skin in teh game. There are people in this congregation who have put a lot of blood, and sweat, and tears into their work, paid and unpaid. When you make sacrifices for life of the world, that’s following Jesus too. That is also offering your life.

I think this self-offering way of life is what Jesus really has to offer our world. We live in a society that is pretty selfish. We think a lot about ourselves. We take a lot of selfies. We live in a society that is extremely violent. We live in a society that often seems to reward greed. The way of self-offering isn’t popular.

There is an old Cherokee legend about a Grandfather teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” the old man says to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”

What will you choose to inwardly digest? Will we feed on anger, greed, division and violence of the world, or do we choose the self-offering way of Christ?

I have to confess, I am still learning this way of Jesus. If my sermon makes this choice seem simple. I can tell you, it’s not. Choosing what to inwardly digest, choosing to “do this” and to offer our lives for the world, really these are decisions we make cumulatively. We choose the way of Jesus in small ways each minute each and every day. I often make the wrong choice. We all do. It’s why I think it is good to come here to church, to confess our sins, to say our prayers, and to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the words of scripture. It’s why I come here, to be fed by the One who offered his life for the world. And I come to hear again and again, his invitation, to offer my life as well.

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