preached on November 14, 2010
Epistle: Colossians 1:11-20
Gospel: John 6:51-63
First off, we have to clarify that the earliest followers of Jesus were not a bunch of bloodthirsty vampires. He says, “My blood is true drink.” They don’t reply, “I vant to eat your blood.” Okay, we’ve got that off the table.
Over the years, I have encouraged us as individuals and as a community to face that which we fear. Today and next week, in this two-part homily series “Power in the Blood,” I take up that challenge. Certainly most of you have noticed that we rarely speak of or sing about the blood of Jesus. I avoid hymns with blood language. I don’t use the word “blood” in the communion liturgy, opting for the more feel-good term “love.” Substituting the word “love” for the word “blood” works well nearly every place in the Christian tradition.
But what is it we are avoiding and what is it we are missing in this practice?
Besides the fact that I get pretty queasy around blood, especially my own.
During my sabbatical, worshiping elsewhere and reading two books have caused me to reconsider whether returning to using the word blood would be helpful. The first book is Breathing Space by Heidi Neumark, the story of her years pastoring a church in the poorest and most violent sections of the Bronx in New York City. The second book is The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith, in which she meticulously calls into question the idea that anyone can live life without killing, without shedding blood, so to speak. We’ll look more closely at her ideas next week, when we consider how this all relates to the sacrificial system and what surprising relevance that has for us today.
Interestingly, both books are by women, the gender most likely to speak against using the word “blood” in the liturgy -- mostly because it’s been misused to justify abuse and cheap forgiveness: in essence, “Jesus died for my sins, I’m covered by his blood, so it doesn’t matter what I do. You have to forgive me even when I beat you.” Stephen Patterson, a professor at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, calls this bad credit card theology in which daddy always pays the bill. I couldn’t agree more.
But back to Heidi Neumark. She takes churches to task who omit blood language in worship (I summarized rather than read portions of this in worship, but cite it all here):
“‘This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you.’ These biblically recorded words are repeated in Christian churches of all denominations when Holy Communion is celebrated. At least that’s what I thought until i visited a megachurch in Las Vegas that featured a sanitized eucharistic prayer with no mention of blood. The pastor explained the ‘seekers,’ people unfamiliar with church traditions or people who’ve found the church irrelevant in the past and are searching for spiritual meaning in their lives, would be turned off by the mention of blood. I looked around at the gleaming floors and plush carpeting. No doubt, blood would be an unseemly intrusion.
The pastor continued to explain how we needed to take people’s culture and context seriously. On that note, he was preaching to the choir, but where we differed radically was on what that means. Is bloodless Communion really so culturally relevant? What culture would that be? People in Las Vegas don’t bleed? I know that most of the architecture is fake, but it seems an insult to imply that the people are, too.
Ignoring pain has serious consequences. If our sanctuaries remain bloodless enclaves of sweetness and light, we risk far more than offending spiritual seekers. Cutting, a form of self-mutilation most commonly practiced among teenage girls, is on the rise. Girls who cut often explain it as a way of externalizing pain that they don’t feel able to express otherwise. These girls sometimes describe the cutting of their bodies as a way to feel real, seeing their own red blood. Watching the blood is an important part of the behavior. It is often done by girls who have kept their pain long submerged
I think that bad theology -- and I put bloodless Communion in that category -- can carry with it an edge of pathology, however well-intentioned it may be. Communion is not about wearing a smile on the outside when you’re dying inside, like the decals plastered on broken buildings. It’s about finding life in a power that has proven to be stronger than any wounding force.
There are others who find offense in the blood and body language for very different reasons than those voiced by the pastor in Las Vegas. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza speaks for many feminists when she asks: “How can we point to the Eucharistic bread and say, ‘This is my body’ as long as women’s bodies are battered, raped, sterilized, mutilated, prostituted and used to male ends?” Some feel that lifting up the cross implies the elevation of victimization and abuse. Tragically, it is all too true that many women have suffered, and even died, as victims of domestic violence under the rubric of ‘bearing their cross.’ But that is a twisted use of the cross.
When we sing about ‘power in the blood’ here in the Bronx, we’re not glorifying suffering and advocating victimhood. We’re taking life seriously. Blood is not just death. From the womb, life and blood are inseparable. My babies came out shining with my blood. Burnice’s were born bright with hers. I’m sure it is also true in Las Vegas. I bleed every month. My heart bleeds with pain when blood is spilled. This doesn’t make me a victim. It makes me a woman. It makes me human. Jesus’ blood made him human. Without it, he’s no better than a molded action figure. Our faith is that he died in the fight for life -- and that he didn’t die in vain. He didn’t die as a passive victim. he died because of his powerful passion for us, resisting all dehumanizing powers. His blood doesn’t call us to lie down and rest in peace, but to rise in strength.
This is what drew me back to Christianity, knowing a God who could bleed to death and yet live. We who bleed in the Bronx want to live, too. We want ‘power in the blood.’ Middle-class megachurches have many good and necessary things to teach the rest of the church about mission. I admire their passionate, creative efforts to relate the faith to contemporary contexts. I applaud their removal of many sacred cows overdue to be toppled into the wadi. We try to do the same. I simply don’t know a context on the face of the earth where bloodless Communion is relevant to human life. It is precisely that cup that Jesus agonized over on the Mount of Olives. The anemic Eucharist prayer of a bloodless church dishonors Gethsemane where Jesus struggled and Golgotha where Jesus died. It dishonors those who have died in the fight for justice and truth. And it fails to take our own wounds seriously, whatever zip code we live in.
Before she died, before I realized she would die, my childhood friend Tracy and I made small cuts in our arms and rubbed our bleeding flesh together, mixing our blood, sealing our sisterhood. In Holy Communion, we also mix blood. Jesus rubs his flesh against our own in solidarity. It is not his death, but life that fills our mouth and enters our hearts with power” (257-259).
So what are we avoiding by not using the word “blood” in the Eucharistic liturgy.
Like the pastor in Heidi Neumark’s story, I do not want to offend those who might be visiting the church or considering (or reconsidering) Christianity for the first time. I’m very sensitive to the language we use and the power of words. When people walk in and hear us talking about eating the body of Christ and drinking the blood of Christ, we may sound like a bunch of cannibals.
I also worry about the children and what they’ll think. “How scary is this that we’re eating this guy! Maybe I’ll be next!”
I am also concerned about the tremendous amount of bad theology out there around the blood of Jesus. Most of this is related to the sacrificial model of atonement or the substitutionary theory of atonement, in which an angry God requires the blood of a perfect sacrifice and therefore kills his son (never hers). Not only does this require a God I don’t believe in and lead to the kinds of abuse I mentioned above, it also focuses 99 percent of one’s faith on the death of Jesus and the expense of the life and resurrection of Christ.
Ironically, by using the language of body and blood, however, the earliest followers of the Way were emphasizing the life of Christ. They wanted to drink from that same river, that same well, that same Spirit, that same lifeblood that enlivened the One who had given them new life. Even Jesus says, according to the writer of John in our reading today, “The flesh is useless; it is the Spirit that gives life.” It wasn’t about reliving his death over and over again. Neither was it about bathing in his blood, being washed clean from their stains and sinfulness. At the same time, it was about recognizing the bloodshed in their own life, often as a result of society’s injustice, and about recognizing the real danger that came in following one who was killed by the state.
As for the children, we too often underestimate their abilities, especially when it comes to the use of metaphor and imagination. They know it’s not the real flesh and blood of somebody. I’m reminded of Marcus Borg’s helpful categories when it comes to the life of faith: we usually begin in naivete (Jesus walked on water -- cool, neat), proceed through critical analytical thinking (often literalism: nobody can walk on water, that’s not how the world operates), and, if we’re lucky, come out with a kind of post-critical naivete (hearing again with the eyes, ears, and wonder of children the story of walking on water, asking what message the tellers of this story might be trying to communicate). I confess, I’ve been thinking in a critical literal way of blood. I want to call us to a re-imagining.
And for those returning to the church or new to Christianity, I would rather redeem the blood language than ignore it or substitute for it. While it’s clear in other parts of our liturgy that we do not ignore pain and bloodshed at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ, why not make it so in the Communion liturgy as well?
We live in a culture that has an aversion/attraction relationship with blood and bloodshed. Don’t let me see a real drop of blood anywhere, mine or anything else’s. But I will be fascinated by it in television shows, movies, and the news. By using healthy and carefully chosen blood language in the Eucharist, we can cultivate a new and more balanced relationships to this most basic element of life. We recognize again in this metaphor our union with Christ, the image of God, Sophia Wisdom. We recognize and honor, with Paul in his letter to the Colossians, our connectedness to all things, for all things are One.