Emmanuel Episcopal Church
19 August 2012
Old Testament: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Epistle: Ephesians 5:15-20
Gospel: John 6:51-58
Today’s Gospel passage, again from the sixth chapter of John’s account, continues John’s commentary on the signs Jesus of Nazareth performed at the beginning of the chapter, the feeding of the 5000 and the walking on water that immediately followed. And the question for us, as for the crowd of those following Jesus back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, remains essentially the same: Who is this Jesus and what does he uncover about God?
Jesus’ statements to the crowd of followers have become ever more provocative, culminating in what we heard in conclusion last week, and what we opened with today, in verse 51: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” It was already difficult enough, it seems, for the crowds to hear Jesus identifying himself with the God of the Exodus, who alone, according to the tradition, had provided the manna, the life-sustaining food for the Hebrew people wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. And now, as his discourse goes deeper, pushing folks to think less about physical hunger and more about the eternal, universal human longing for ABUNDANT LIFE, Jesus provokes them further: referring to his own flesh & bones as bread; referring to his own blood as thirst-quenching drink; speaking of himself as something that can be eaten, something that can be consumed for the receiving and sustaining of life.
Are we to take this, Lord, metaphorically, or literally?
Despite the directness of this language, of this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood (and as for us today, clearly it was difficult for the crowds in the story, who literally “fought” with one another about it, in the Greek), one approach here could be to take Jesus’s words entirely metaphorically. The great Church reformer Martin Luther took this approach in a sermon in the 16th century, saying that Jesus, in using these phrases, was essentially just provoking the crowd to think deeper: deeper about just what, and who, made the difference to the sustaining of abundant life. The important thing was not some nonsensical call to consume Jesus’ own flesh and blood, but the provocative claim about who he was, about his relationship to the God and Father of all: MY flesh is true food; MY blood is true drink. No one else’s bread - or body - can compare. Not surprisingly, Luther found a way to use BEER to explain. This is not about Annaberg beer being just as good at quenching the thirst as Wittenberg beer, Luther said, but rather more like: “If you do not drink Wittenberg beer, you will find no other beer to slake your thirst!” It was JESUS’ life alone - no one else’s - that revealed the life of the ages, the abundant life, to be had in God.
But, to listen carefully to Jesus words today and imbue them purely, and only, with metaphorical meaning, would be to ignore 2000 years of Christian sacramental practice and theology around the Holy Eucharist. To not engage, as best we can, with the so-called literal meaning of Jesus’ words - “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” - would be to miss the human physicality of God incarnate in Jesus, the real intimacy with God we have access to in Jesus, the sharing in Christ not only of our joy but of our suffering and pain, all these things that Christians throughout the ages have come to encounter in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Indeed the Johannine community, that is, the group of Jewish Christians who produced John’s Gospel- by the very late 1st century when this book was written down - already would have been decades into observing the Lord’s Supper as the centerpiece of their own life of communal worship and fellowship. They would have looked back on Jesus words here almost certainly with that sacrament in mind, with Christ’s own words said at that table in the Upper Room, and so familiar from their weekly routine, words first taken, well before any of the Gospels were composed, from Paul’s report to the Corinthians: “Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is given for you. … In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood...’”
If these ancient, ancient words of our Lord sound familiar to us, too, and resonate in our hearts and minds when we hear Jesus’ talk today of himself as living bread, of his own body as something to be consumed so that we may have abundant life, it is because the Church for eons has understood the sacrament of Holy Eucharist to be at the heart of what it looks like to partake of, to participate in the life of the God of all Creation. It is intimate, it is physical, it involves our bodies, and mysteriously it also involves the Body of our Lord, sacrificed once for all on a cross. It is not about having the correct knowledge, or having the correct metaphor. It is not symbolic. It is consumption of “the living bread that came down from heaven” so that we may be formed in Christ’s image, and enjoy the life of the ages.
So school is back in session. The summer vacation season, at least in this part of the world, is more-or-less behind us. It is a time for fresh starts. A time to make a new beginning. A time to eagerly embrace fresh routines, altered schedules, and new encounters: new teachers for our young people, new sets of students for our teachers, new chances for self-education and community service for so many of our seniors - new traffic jams and lines at the Kroger. And despite the headaches, all of this newness does seem, at a very visceral, intuitive way, to be full of promise. And here in this setting of a parish community, as a group of people bound together in common worship; in common desire for growing in holiness; in common cause to participate in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in the world; and ultimately in common purpose to form ourselves and those in our care into Christ’s likeness, shouldn’t it also be a time to make a new start, to eagerly embrace a new beginning, a fresh routine of sharing in ministry and sacrament - neither of them independent of the other - a routine that recommits us to our own formation more perfectly into the very Body of Christ we, as the Church, claim to be?
So for our life as the Church it is also a time full of promise. And today our Lord calls us to take him in, to consume him, in Word and in Sacrament, to both be LIKE him - as metaphor would have it - and to abide in him, and he in us - as the mystery of the sacraments would have it. We take him in - we draw as close as humanly possible - in the word heard and proclaimed, and in the wafer and the cup offered. We take him in in study and at play: in the hands-on style of the Catechesis atria, in the playful storytelling about our own daily lives in The Catacombs, and in the exchange of heart and mind in adult fellowship and Bible study. And as we consume the person of Christ in all these ways are we not formed into the one whom we consume? And is the bread that is given for the very “life of the world” not to be desired above all else?
To me that sounds like something worth recommitting to.