Week four of bread. Reading through John 6 this summer has been an opportunity for me to brush up on my sacramental theology. Like the congregants mentioned in my opening story for this sermon, it can be easy to hear (say) the words and go through the motions by rote. This extended time in Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse has been a great chance to rediscover and reexamine just what a momentous thing it is we do when we gather each week.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The author of a book I have been reading on the sacraments shared a story about what happened when one member of his congregation paid close attention to what was actually being said during communion. Martin Copenhaver was presiding at the table, which had been set with crisp white linen. Laid out in front of him were silver chalices and plates, a crystal flagon of wine.
The congregation was silent, waiting for the pastor to proceed. Using what he called a “solemn, dignified tone” he repeated the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, the words of institution. Except, this time, when he said the familiar words, “this is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you,” a small girl suddenly said in a loud voice, “Ew, yuck!”
He continues the story to say that the congregation looked horrified, as if someone had just splattered blood all over their clean altar—which, in effect, is just what that little girl had done with her exclamation.
When we hear the words week after week, we can stop truly hearing them. We can hear them, but not hear how crazy and ridiculous they sound. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them.” Ew, yuck. You can see why Jesus’ first hearers understandably had some questions.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They ask. The cannibalistic problems aside, for Jesus’ fellow Jews, the idea of drinking blood, any blood, was repugnant. It was part of the covenant that God made with the people, even before that, part of the covenant God made with Noah, that you were not to eat blood. Meat should be cooked long enough for the blood to be gone.
But his listeners stick around. Jesus has said some pretty weird things already, and they usually turn out to mean something else. Surely, he doesn’t actually mean his flesh and blood. This is some type of metaphor.
But when they ask him to explain, Jesus doubles down. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This is no metaphor. Jesus literally means that he intends to give us his body and blood.
What do we make of this? It’s been problematic from the get-go. Early on, the Roman Empire frequently used the charge of cannibalism as a reason for persecuting the church. Christians had to defend the language they used to talk about the eucharist.
How we make sense of this body and blood stuff has been a reason for massive splits in the church, too. On the one side you have those who affirm the Real Presence: Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Episcopalians. Even though we agree that this is Jesus’ body and blood, we still argue over how exactly that happens. On the other side are those who take this metaphorically: Reformed, Presbyterians, Baptists.
In recent years, our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has worked incredibly hard to overcome these differences and has created what we call “full communion agreements,” theological documents that say even though we use different terminology, we can respect each other’s practices and share communion together. We have full communion agreements with six other national church bodies.
That’s all to say that I could talk for quite a while about the theology of eating Jesus’ flesh and blood: why do we believe it, how does it happen. But I’m not sure any of that gets to the point of what Jesus is trying to say. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”
Well, we do that. In communion each week we receive the body and blood of Christ. The important question isn’t why or how, but what does this mean? What does it mean that we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us?
To say that someone is your flesh and blood implies not just a closeness, but a familial relation. That they are your own. Made of the same stuff, the same core that you are. The nearest and dearest. To say that we take into ourselves God’s own flesh and blood shows just how important we are to God. It also shows that God intends to lay a claim on our entire being, body and soul. Christ’s truth wants to burrow deep within us, to consume us as we consume him, to flow through our veins, to nourish every nook and cranny of our being.
Jesus promises that he will abide in us. You’ve heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” We define ourselves by what we put in our bodies: I’m a vegetarian, I’m vegan, I’m gluten-free. Not, I eat vegetarian, or I eat gluten-free, but I am these things. In this case, it is true. Jesus gives us the food that will define who we are.
We eat the body of Christ and in so doing become the body of Christ in the world. We eat this body, broken and given for us, and we find in our own brokenness healing and gifts for others. At the table of God where Jesus himself is the meal, we eat in a way that changes us.
This bread, a free gift to us, is also costly. Jesus promises to abide in us as we eat, and that abiding presence does not leave us the same. We are changed by this meal, by consuming the body of Christ. We become the body of the Christ broken and poured out for the sake of the world.
As the body of Christ we are called to be Christ for the world. To offer to others what God has given to us in Jesus: love, compassion, healing, feeding, listening. As the body of Christ we are called to do as Christ did: cross boundaries and borders of race and ethnicity, identify with those on the margins of society, and acknowledge the blessing that God has provided for all people.
We eat Christ’s body and blood so that Christ may abide in us and so that we might embody Christ in our lives. In this meal, God enters in to the very core of our being, and we can no more take God out of our lives than we can reach in and take out what we had for lunch yesterday.
“Ew, yuck!” the little girl said. “Ew, yuck!” the crowds listening to Jesus said. “Ew, yuck!” those who persecuted the early church said. “Ew, yuck!” we might say too, if we listen to the words. But beyond the carnal language, beyond the yuckiness of the surface, is the great gift and promise: God wants nothing more deeply than to abide in us, and we in God. And in that abiding, may we experience the body of Christ, and may we become the body of Christ. Amen.