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This is a story about Cinderella. That is not her name, of course, nor is she named Ella or Elaine or Eleanor. Her name might be Choolwe, or Luyando. Perhaps Beauty, although that is a different story. We will call her Choolwe.
The story begins with death. This story always begins with death: the mother dies. Perhaps the father marries again, and the stepmother does not like Choolwe. Or perhaps the father already has a second wife. But the mother most likely died of AIDS, which means that the father is also dead, or will be soon. We do not need to introduce a stranger into Choolwe’s story; her own relatives will do just as well. Choolwe is sent to live with an auntie: the sister of one of her parents, or perhaps their cousin. Perhaps the auntie is kind, and loves Choolwe as one of her own. But perhaps she does not, because the auntie has many children already, and she does not know Choolwe, who is just an extra mouth to feed.
Choolwe’s life with her auntie is not so different than that with her parents. She still cooks nshima and relish, washes clothes, sweeps the house and yard, fetches water. There is more work to be done, but also more hands to do it, even if more of it falls to Choolwe than to anyone else. The uncle has more money than her father did, a bigger house and a herd of cows. Her uncle’s house has electricity, and a television, but what money there is is spent on his own children before Choolwe, and her clothes do not fit, her breasts are shoved into a too-small shirt and bounce when she runs, but she is not yet a woman, to have a woman’s clothes. If there is no money for her schooling, perhaps that is just as well, because the auntie needs help with the children. Perhaps there is less love — there are many children — but perhaps Choolwe was never accustomed to love. How do you know your parents love you? They feed me.
Any story about Cinderella needs a prince. The prince is white, of course, a mukuwa, a muzungu. The prince is always white. Haven’t you seen Disney? He would not need to be, because there are men in Choolwe’s village who have enough that they could spare a little, but she would not ask them — they are not white — and they do not see her. Perhaps if she asked, they would find charity in their hearts — it is Christian to share with one’s neighbor — but perhaps they would not. After all, there are many mouths to feed.
The prince is white. The prince must be white, because in the stories we tell each other, like the stories the bakuwa tell themselves, the prince who steps in is always white. If only someone would give me some money. If only someone would give me a tractor. If only someone would pay for the mortar — of course someone means a mukuwa. Who else would it be? Your relatives do not have money like that. The government? When has the government ever done anything for you? But look, that church, that school, that pump — they are all gifts from the bakuwa. It is not impossible. If you ask, and you are lucky, he will step out of his country — Fairyland, Holland, Canada, England, United States — and give you what you need.
The prince does not need to be male, but English pronouns are complicated, and ‘he’ is easiest. One day, Choolwe meets a prince.
Good morning, how are you? Please, I am asking for money for my school fees. I am asking for books. I am asking a pencil. Please, I am asking, one pin — five hundred kwacha! Please, I am hungry. Please!
It is not so much money. A bus ticket. The price of a few restaurant meals. The prince is inclined to be generous — why else is he here? He takes a few pictures, proof of his kindness. Ndalumba, ndalumba! The prince smiles. ‘Thank you’ is one of the few words he knows. He cannot say ‘You are welcome,’ but that does not matter. Princes need not be polite. They exist only to give money.
Perhaps the money goes to Choolwe’s school. Perhaps it does not. Even if it does, what does it matter? She is already behind, and there are 63 other children in the class, and half of them are boys. Her English is not so good, and perhaps the teacher did not come today anyway. The dishes need washed, and the uniforms, and there is no money for candles. She does not have a uniform. It does not matter. She can be late today, and perhaps tomorrow.
The prince has gone, back to his country, to Europe or America, by next week, or the week after, when Choolwe is again asking. Perhaps she finds another prince. Perhaps he is again generous, but it does not matter. If she is lucky, if it is luck, she will be married, and keep her husband’s house, polish his shoes, feed his children. He has a good house — four rooms — and does not mean to be cruel, and surely that is all a girl with no parents can hope for. But there are many children more important than Choolwe, many daughters to be married, and surely it is easier to keep Choolwe at home to help with the house.
Choolwe becomes pregnant. How does not matter — the uncle, the cousin, the boy in her class with his hand down her skirt. By the time the prince might think of marrying her, he will not. What prince wants a woman with a baby at her suckles and a toddler in each hand?
The auntie is no longer so pleased with Choolwe’s help, and Choolwe goes to live with another relative who does not yet dislike her, but nothing changes. Choolwe is tired, and thin, and the children cry with hunger. A prince would not look at her now; emaciation that is charming in a child is merely displeasing in a grown woman.
This story ends in death. It does not end in suicide, because Choolwe is a woman, and only a man has the agency to end his own story. But she dies. AIDS, childbirth, tuberculosis. It does not matter.
Choolwe’s oldest daugher is sent to live with an auntie.
Drink my Blood
John 6: 51-58
Drink my blood. Eat my flesh.
The communion scene is often an illusion to this less than pleasant idea. We usually chalk it up to metaphor. But, here in this text, it’s hard to get past this direct statement from Jesus. “My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Everyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I in them.”
It sounds pretty real to me. No so metaphorical. It sounds a lot like…vampires.
With Alan Ball’s provocative HBO series, True Blood, and the young adult series book and movie series, Twilight, vampires have become the genre du jour.
While I don’t know much about Twilight, I do confess that I have a bit of a thing for True Blood. In this series, vampires that have lived a hidden life for centuries, now mainstream into society because they’ve figured out a way to manufacture fake blood, which they call “True Blood”. They no longer need to count on human blood—they can live on “fake blood” as upstanding citizens, without being a threat to their human counterparts.
The problem with this True Blood drink is that while it satisfies the hunger pangs for the only thing they can eat as the living dead, it does not satisfy the hunger for intimacy that comes with biting into human flesh and drinking warm, human blood.
For humans, vampire blood is not necessary to live, but it is intoxicating. It is like an elixir, and a drug. If a human is sick or injured, it heals them. And if they are not sick, it makes them high. It gives them the ability to see things differently and understand a new reality.
But here’s the thing about humans and vampires sharing blood in this series—when they share blood, they become connected to each other somehow. Because they’ve shared each other’s blood, vampires know when their human friends are in trouble. And when a human has had a little vampire blood, they think about that vampire. They are psychically connected to that vampire. They long to be connected to them again—to share blood again.
All this sounds rather disgusting to us humans living in the real world, a world where there are no vampires. But this drinking blood thing is in the Bible. It’s in the text we read from John today. Eat my flesh. Drink my blood.
It’s not easy to come face to face with today’s text. It’s awkward. It’s gross. It’s a little too literal—lacking the poetry and metaphor that we hear in other parts of the Gospel of John. It’s. Just. Too. Much. We would like Jesus to be a little more metaphorical about this flesh eating and blood drinking thing. We’d like Jesus to not seem so much like vampire Bill. But Jesus does not make it easy.
In fact, Jesus makes it very difficult. His choice of words become more intense. Up until this passage, Jesus has used the greek word—esthia—to describe “eat.” This is civilized eating. But here in John 6: 51-58, Jesus transitions to a more graphic word—trogo—which means to gnaw, to eat primally, to fully consume.
Jesus does not seem to want people to follow him. And, his word choice, leads many of his disciples to leave. In John 6:66, It says, “From this time on, many of the disciples broke away and wouldn’t remain in the company of Jesus.”
Jesus has crossed a line here. He is not talking about the metaphorical. He’s not talking civilized. He’s gone beyond the laws of his people. In fact, he’s stomped all over the sensibilities of his people—on top of this, Jesus says this in the temple. What Jesus is suggesting is an affront to his people’s understanding of what is clean and what is holy. It’s no wonder they walk away. It’s no wonder they decide that they cannot follow him.
Jesus is not doing us any favors here. So let’s step back from this text for a minute. Let’s look at this text in its larger context.
There’s a word that appears over and over in the Gospel of John, and it appears also in this text. In greek it’s “meno”, which means “to abide, to remain, to stay. And, in the case of the inclusive Bible translation that we’re reading today, it means “to live in”. In the gospel of John, there’s a circular conversation that’s happening. Jesus keeps going back to this concept of abiding. And every time he talks about this “abiding”, he goes a little deeper, the abiding becomes more personal, more intimate, and a little more scary.
This word from the greek root—meno—appears at early as the first chapter of John, where the Spirit descended on Jesus and remained (meno) on Jesus.
A few verses later, the disciples met Jesus and remained (meno) with him.
In chapter 4, the Samaritans came to him and remained (meno) with him for 2 days.
In chapter 6, this word, meno, starts to take on a different meaning. “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures, remains (meno) for eternal life.”
And now, at the end of chapter 6, Jesus goes even deeper. “Those who eat my flesh, and drink my blood, abide in me, and I in them.”
Jesus is making a case for what it means to remain, abide, stay, be present to God. The abiding—meno—doesn’t mean just hanging out with Jesus, it doesn’t mean our simple presence. It means an unmediated relationship with God incarnate. It does not mean bringing a sacrifice in the temple, not an appeasement of an angry God. It’s relationship—a mutual relationship—with a God who wants to abide, remain, stay, endure with you, and wants you to do the same.
Jesus is not talking about the stuff of vampires here. Jesus is talking about a deep, wonderful, terrifying, unmediated relationship with the son of God. But there is something to be said about the vampire analogy—to a point.
The reason the vampires and humans in True Blood have this attraction to one another is because they have shared their life blood. They understand each other because they have had a taste of the very thing that keeps them alive. There is an intimacy, and a sensuality to that—a deep mutual vulnerability in the sharing of life-blood.
In the non-vampire world, this translates to the vulnerability we have in our most intimate relationships, or in the intensity of childbirth. We share each other’s life-blood. We share the deepest parts of each other.
Jesus here is pushing the limits of his potential followers. They can remain with Jesus for a few days, for a meal. They might even be able to seek after this eternal food—the food that doesn’t spoil, but sustains forever. But, Jesus wants to push his followers further. Are they prepared to remain, abide with him, eating the eternal food of life, and living in deep and mutual intimacy with God? Are they prepared to abide, when Jesus’ life blood is poured out, and his flesh is broken open in death?
Jesus requires an unmediated, vulnerable relationship with us. And Jesus is offering the same for us—that he will break himself open, and fully share with us all of his own incarnated self.
That is a frightening prospect—that God might know all of us fully, and that we would open ourselves to that. For those followers of Jesus that turned away after Jesus said the frightening and confusing words—drink my blood and eat my flesh—you can understand why they left. Eating flesh and drinking blood—it sounds like Jesus is going very extreme. But even those who could see past those extreme words to the intimacy Jesus is requiring—that is also frightening. Jesus wants to know all of us, see all of us. Jesus wants us to know all of him.
I said at the beginning of this sermon that it is very difficult to be metaphorical about this text. The words from Jesus feel so real, and so raw. Drink my blood. Eat my Flesh. But to be honest, there’s no way we can do otherwise. It is easy with metaphor to distill things into palatable pieces, into images that make sense. But this text from John disturbs us, disrupts us, makes us question our desire to follow. Jesus asks us in this text, and all throughout the gospel of John—are you ready to abide with me, to be in deep communion, and deep relationship with me? It’s the eternal question for Christians—can we be disciples? Can we follow Jesus into the unknown?
Incarnate God, Intimate God,
Give us to courage to follow you into the unknown.
What can I do?