In the nineteenth century lived a great Hindu saint who told this fable about a motherless tiger cub who was adopted by goats and brought up with them to speak their language,
eat their food, and emulate their ways.
In general, this tiger cub grew up to believe that he, too, was a goat.
Then one day a king tiger came along,
and when all the goats scattered in fear,
the young tiger was left alone to fend for himself.
When he heard the king tiger approaching, he stood like a goat, rooted in fear, prepared to confront him, afraid and yet somehow not afraid.
The king tiger asked him
what he meant by this seeming masquerade,
but all the young one could do in response
was to bleat nervously
and continue nibbling at the grass.
So the tiger king carried him to a pool of water
where he forced him to look
at their two reflections side by side
and draw his own conclusions.
When this failed, he offered the cub his first piece of raw meat.
At first the young tiger recoiled from the unfamiliar taste of it, but then as he ate more and began to feel it warming his blood, the truth gradually became clear to him. Lashing his tail and digging his claws into the ground, the young beast finally raised his head high, and the jungle trembled at the sound of his exultant roar.
Frederick Buechner writes that despite all the profound differences between Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam,
they agree with each other
and with Christianity by and large,
on one very basic point:
human beings as they usually exist in this world
are not what they were created to be.
The little goat in the story is not really a goat at all—he is really a tiger—
except that he does not know that he is,
with the result that for the time being, he is, in a sense, really not a tiger.
“We were created in the image of God,” says Buechner, “but something has gone awry.
Like a mirror with a crack down the middle,
we [reflect] back an image that is badly distorted.
We were created to serve God
and each other in love, but each of us chooses instead to serve himself as God, and this means wrenching ourselves out of the kind of relationship with God and [humankind] that we were made for.”
The scriptures tell us that we are, indeed, made in the very image of God. And yet, like the tiger cub,
our understanding of who we are and who we belong to often becomes skewed.
We forget whose image it is we were made to reflect, if we ever knew it in the first place. We forget whose life, whose love, and whose ways we were made to emulate.
Instead, we follow the ways of the world around us. Rather than seeking godly justice, peace and love, we reflect the worldly qualities of greed, jealousy and thirst for power.
Rather than follow Jesus’ voice, which calls us to be God-bearers in the world, all too often we follow the voice and path of least resistance. We buy into a culture that tells us that we should strive for its version of success, happiness and virtue – that our main goal in life is to pursue and command physical beauty, wealth and power – as the world defines these things. And, for a while at least, we forget both our creator and who and what we were created to be.
The hard truth revealed in our gospel text, both for the first century disciples – and for us, today – is that Jesus, the bread of life provides the only food which truly nourishes. Jesus feeds us the bread of recognition and transformation.
Jesus gives us his own self, his own flesh and blood, to sustain us on our journey, and without this food –– we cannot have true life; the life of abundance he offers; eternal life. These are hard words, hard to hear, hard to comprehend, hard to believe.
We can hardly blame the disciples who struggled, who just couldn’t fathom this business of fleshly consumption.
Even for those of us who can see past the literal and understand that Jesus is talking about something much deeper, this command is a game changer—one that can indeed offend.
Because the truth is, many of us doubt that we have what it takes to be a disciple of Christ. Jesus is all about love and kindness, generosity and forgiveness. But we know, deep down, that when we look at our own reflection, too often, love, kindness, generosity, and such are far from what we see.
I know, for instance, that anger and frustration can too often get the best of me. Sometimes I say things that hurt other people. I can be unrepentant when I think I am in the right in a disagreement – no matter how wrong I am. I don’t always pay attention to the needs of the people around me. Greed, envy and jealousy threaten to take up residency in my heart on any given day.
I, for example, can be stubborn, and impatient. It is hard for me to remember Jesus command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself,” let alone to act on it. I know that I am in good company.
But that doesn’t stop God from claiming us as God’s own, just as that king tiger claimed the baby tiger as his own. And God doesn’t stop at claiming us as His own, God works to transform us into God’s image through the promise of this holy eating and drinking, where Jesus comes to us, abides in us, and promises abundant life to those who follow him. Jesus’ abiding presence reminds, accompanies, strengthens us and transforms us, more and more into the image of God.
The book of Exodus tells us that long ago, God sent heavenly food to provide for God’s people. Yet the efficacy of the food didn’t last. Initially satisfied with full bellies, it didn’t take long for the Israelites to return to grumbling and to their old ways of idolatry and sin. And the wage of sin is death.
Today, Jesus gives this promise, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” This is the central point of the Bread of Life discourse of Jesus’ we have been reading here in church for the past five weeks.
For all its loveliness and the promise of relationship and presence with Jesus that this reading provides, there is something else in the promise of Jesus.
What we learn from this discourse, is that Jesus is truly “all in” when it comes to giving himself for the sake of the world, and that Jesus also expects us to be “all in” when it comes to being his followers.
Jesus offers us real life without end. Yet for all those reasons listed earlier, being a faithful disciple is tough because it is incredibly countercultural and can exact a pretty high price.
While most of us will not likely be called to die for our faith, it is probable that we will be called to make some tough choices about everything from the way we spend our time and money, to how we vote for elected officials, and where we stand on potentially divisive and polarizing issues. After all, being a follower of Christ is a 24/7/365 kind of lifestyle rather than a one-hour duty to which we submit on Sundays or when it’s convenient.
This week, a week in which we learned of the cancer diagnosis of President Jimmy Carter, he was quoted as saying: “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can, with whatever I have to try to make a difference.” When we walk in a similar way, we will know that we are surely not goats, but disciples, beloved, gathered, called, fed, and sent to be God’s hands and feet in the world.
Buechener writes, “the self each of us has to live with day in and day out under the most intimate circumstances possible is not entirely the self that we would have chosen to be tied to on such a long-term basis. Or, to return to the language of the fable, if the tiger who thinks he is a goat could really be a goat, then he would not have this problem. But fortunately or unfortunately, there is still enough of the tiger in us to make us discontented with our goathood. We eat grass, but it never really fills us. We bleat well enough, but deep down there is the suspicion that we were really made for roaring.”
Thanks be to God, then, for the bread and wine which truly fill us.
At the end of our reading today, Jesus finally turns to the twelve and asks them if they will stay or go the way of the crowd. Peter answers him rightly. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
God created us in God’s image, to be imitators and mirrors of Christ. God claims us and equips us through this holy meal, and through the gift of the Spirit stirring in our midst. May these promises strengthen, encourage, and sanctify us as we grow in our lives of discipleship.