St. Michael and All Angels Church
The Rev. Carolyn W. Metzler+
Proverbs 9:1-6; Ps 34:1-8; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
Needed: bowl with water, sponge, bow tie, white towel
There are occasional (very occasional) Sundays when I wish I were a Baptist and didn’t have to deal with the assigned texts of the lectionary. This is one Gospel reading that would not often make it into my chosen repertoire of sermons. Are any of you squeamish about all the flesh-eating and blood-drinking language? For four weeks straight we’ve been hammered with it. The number of times Jesus says “I am the Bread of Life” alone tells us this is important. ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION? As we will see next week, this claim of Jesus loses him followers, and maybe on one level we can understand why. It’s hard stuff.
Some churches deal with the squeamishness by spiritualizing it all away. They see Jesus meaning some kind of spiritual union only, symbolized by the bread and wine as body and blood. I grew up in a church like that. We did not call this an altar, but a table. But there is a real problem with this. That’s not what Jesus said. In fact, if you look at the Greek, the original language of this Gospel, it’s even worse than the English! The Greek word for “eat” is closer to “chew energetically, to tear with one’s teeth, to gnaw, to masticate.” Think lions with their prey. We’re not talking delicate finger sandwiches here, folks. It’s very organic. It challenges our polite Episcopal sensibilities. But hang out on this limb with me, OK? Let’s see together what the Holy One might be saying in this very difficult text.
Remember, Christians did not make this up. The language Jesus uses here is the language of sacrifice. People of many faiths had been sacrificing to their gods for thousands of years. The ancient understanding was that people needed to make sacrifices to the gods to feed them, to appease them if things were not going well, to bribe them into giving a fruitful harvest, to atone for their sins - lots of reasons to make sacrifices. So they’d bring a dove if it was just a little sin, or a bull if it was a humdinger sin, and kill it in some ritual way on the altar (not a table) and burn some token part of the animal. The god would somehow join to the offering and it would then be eaten. In eating it, people saw themselves as somehow sharing in the vital life of the god. Sound familiar?
How the animal was killed was very important also. The ancient Hebrews believed that the life of the animal—the life of all people, in fact, resided in the blood. When the blood left the body, life left the body. They considered it a sin to eat an animal if there was any blood left in it. That is the meaning of kosher. No blood left. All the life is gone. The life is in the blood.
Jesus was a good Jew and understood all this. It was not a big step, then, from the ancient understanding of sacrifice to what developed as Eucharist. Only there is a big difference: Jesus does not just celebrate the Passover meal. Jesus is the Passover meal. Jesus does not give an offering; Jesus becomes the offering, reconciling all things and becoming the food and drink that brings God’s life to the whole world. And as he became part of Creation itself in the Incarnation, so he also takes bread and wine, part of creation itself, and fills it with his living presence like a water fills a sponge. If you dip a sponge in water, the sponge remains sponge, the water remains water, but they are so united you don’t know where sponge ends and water begins. This is a crude illustration of what we call “Real Presence.” Bread, wine, God, remain what they are, but in their union they are indistinguishable.
I love that it is something we eat that makes this possible. It’s not something that we turn on and off like a radio, or put on like a coat which can be taken off again. It’s not a color of hair that wears off eventually. It is something we take into the very center of our being and in so doing it becomes part of our very bodies. It is the most intimate way of abiding in Christ. I love that Jesus doesn’t say “Think about me.” He goes waaaaay beyond thinking. Christianity is so embodied, that we consume the fullness of the one we love and serve. We are physically joined to the sacred Presence so we can love and serve God in myriad ways. This text needs to go hand in hand with Jesus’ words in Matthew 28: “As you did it to the least of these you did it to me.” This is Jesus, bone or our bone, flesh of our flesh, and Jesus in the world around us. Jesus does not sit up in the clouds watching us struggle through life, wishing us well. He says “Oh! Look! There is Jamye! There is John! There is (fill in your own name here)! I will give them myself in the bread and wine to strengthen them and give them courage. I will join myself to their flesh, their blood, my spirit to their spirit and fill them with my love so that they can go and be me in the world!”
So when Jesus tells us we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood to share in his eternal life, he is saying it is not enough to consider him as a theological possibility. Just as Jesus does not stay remote with us, we cannot be remote from Jesus either. He is not an abstraction. Jesus is saying through this difficult language that he wants to be an intimate part of us and wants us to be an intimate part of him so his life lifeblood is our lifeblood. He is the lifeblood that pumps through our heart and courses through our veins. He is the love that is made flesh in us and which we need to make flesh in the world. To do so is to live the very life of Christ, his death and resurrection. In tis week where every newspaper headline shreds my heart, this Gospel is particularly poignant. Our world is shredded by devastation. In this week alone we have been shocked by the UN Climate Report, a devastating earthquake in Haiti, the agony of Afghanistan, and in our own city the shooting of a 14 year old boy by another. To me, this [fraction gesture] is the most important gesture of the Eucharist. What is broken - be it bread or dreams or hope or hearts or bodies or lives - meets the brokenness of God in the bread and in it all we are somehow made whole. There is no distance between us and Jesus. Who can understand it? It is sacred Mystery. Yet the longer we practice it, the more we know it to be true.
Do you have difficulty with this? You are not alone. The harsh words really put it to us. Do we believe this? On good days, yes. Some days we want to believe it. Some days we want to want to believe it. God understands and meets us where we are at.
There is a wonderful old story about a sinful man who wanted to woo the woman he loved, and so he donned the mask of a saint. She married him and over the years he kept the mask on, loving her, pretending to be better than he was until one day she learned of the deception and challenge him to take off the mask.With great fear he did so, only to discover that he had actually become the man he wanted to be. Our brothers and sisters in AA understand this. “Fake it til you make it” is sometimes most faithful. We Anglicans have a saying: “Praying shapes believing.” We do not pray according to how we believe. We believe according to how we pray. And so the Eucharist is a prayer which allows has to practice this kind of faith. The longer we live with it, coming back week after week, year after year, practicing this faith as we pray this prayer, we find that it shapes us, molds us, transforms us into the people of faith we have yearned to become. We are not yet the people of faith or love that we will one day be. But, but God’s astonishing grace, we will be.
In our first lesson, we read that Wisdom has set a table. “She has sent out her servants to call from the highest places in town: ‘You that are simple, turn in here! To those without sense, she says Come! Eat of my bread and drink of my wine! Lay aside immaturity and walk in the way of insight.’”
During the season of Advent we read of Jesus’s Holy Wisdom. Wisdom calls us who are simple, uncluttered, not sophisticated. I love that Jesus never says “I am the filet mignon of life,” or “I am the Lobster Newburgh of life.” Just the simplest bread. We don’t need theological degrees to receive this meal; we don’t need high liturgy or fancy vestments or big words. All we need is openness to God’s life coursing through our veins and the willingness to let our faith grow us as we become what we eat.
(Put on bow tie, and towel over my arm)
Good morning. I am Wisdom and I will be your server today. The specialty of the house is the Body and Blood of Christ, rich with life and pulsing with joy and thanksgiving. All this is prepared in a fine liturgical sauce which you are invited to receive with your whole body, mind, and soul. Come with the eyes of faith wide open and see God at work in your life. Step right this way, please. Ah! Here is a place at the altar just for you.