This is the sermon I preached on August 16, 2009, using John 6:51-58 as my text.
Just as Jesus can’t seem to stop telling us that he is “the bread of life,” so it seems that we cannot escape this metaphor. We’ve been here for a few weeks already…And this week, it gets personal. Fleshy, even, as Jesus tells the Jewish leaders that “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man drink his blood, you have no life in you.” This is, for so many of us, dangerous language, even bordering on assault. It certainly offends our modern sensibilities that tell us the Gospel should be sweet and safe and not conflict at all with our mainstream, middle-class and largely Anglo ideals about “goodness.”
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” It’s about this place in the Gospel reading that I start thinking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Twilight series – about a young woman who falls in love with a vampire. Mostly as a defense mechanism, I’ll admit, against having to deal with the powerful and uncomfortable images of this text.
Protestants generally eschew the Roman Catholic belief of “transubstantiation,” whereby the elements of the Eucharist (or Communion) are literally transformed into Christ’s actual body and blood in the sacrament. But beyond that, there’s a whole lot of different beliefs among different Protestant Churches about what Communion is or is not. At some point in our collective history, Communion became a celebration of Jesus’ sacrificial death, often couched in terms of “dying for our sins,” but in the beginning, the early church celebrated this meal as a feast of the resurrection, of Jesus’ conquering of death and of our sharing in the “shalom” life, the “kingdom life” the “basiliea” of God in the here-and-now.
Certainly, even within any one congregation, you’d be hard-pressed to find a unified theology of the Table. Some of us believe that Christ is spiritually present in the meal, somehow. Some believe that the community sharing in the meal is what sanctifies the elements and the people who share them. Some of us believe that this is a memorial meal, done to commemorate what Jesus did in the Gospels and to obey his call to “do this in remembrance of” Him. Some of us, it must be fairly said, just like getting to eat a little something at church. Some of us have no idea what goes on here.
For some of us, nothing “happens,” but the rite is simply what is done periodically in the life of the church. Some of us – and this is especially true of newcomers to most churches, I’ve learned over the years – care deeply about respecting the views of the community in this sacrament and want to make sure their beliefs are either in line with the prevailing wisdom or that there is room for divergent views. Some of us believe that you must be “right with God” in order to come to the table, and some of us believe that you come to this table precisely so that you may have the opportunity to deepen your relationship with God. I am certain that others of us have different views – views which may vary on the day, the person presiding at the table, and what has happened in the morning before church. Almost all of us, I daresay, take the ritual very seriously.
Certainly there is no condemnation here for any of the ways that you understand what happens at this table. However, the repetition of Jesus’ insistence that he is “the bread of life” has been rattling around in my brain for the past few weeks, and it’s been an occasion for me to reflect on what I see happening in this ritual.
We very celebrate with a single loaf that is not cut, and some grape juice. We use juice partly out of tradition, and partly out of respect for those who cannot or choose not to consume even the tiniest bit of alcohol. We do have gluten-free wafers for those who don’t eat gluten products. These are two ways we can lower barriers that may prevent people from coming to the table. We also are clear in our bulletin that we practice Open Communion, meaning that all are welcome to share in the feast. We don’t require that you pass a test or belong to a church, or even that you’ve been baptized. We believe, in short, that it is God in Christ who invites all people to this meal – so who are we to deny anyone an occasion of grace to which God has specifically invited us all?
And people typically come up to the front and tear a piece of bread from the loaf and dip it into the cup. For me, this is really where it gets interesting. For in the tearing of the bread, we are quite literally enacting the breaking apart of Christ’s body. The obvious symbolism – that we are all participants in Christ’s death, sacrificial atonement, and so forth – is less interesting to me in that moment than the less-overt symbol. By tearing this bread apart, we embody at this altar what we often do in life: tearing apart the Body of Christ by our failure to love our enemies, our comfort with our own privilege in the face of others’ oppression, and all the other ways that we sin against each other. We tear apart Christ’s body in much the same way we tear each other apart – like greedy wolves anxious for more, desperate to ensure we get at least our share (if not more!).
And, sometimes we tear the loaf carefully, tenderly, knowing we are causing some pain but unable to stop ourselves. We hope the small tears will hurt less; we think we don’t deserve anything more than just a little bit, or we want to make sure there’s enough for all, and we are willing to sacrifice our part for others. And all this for what? A broken piece of Christ’s body and a leftover carcass on the plate for others.
And then there is the blood, the life force of all creatures. How do we even begin to talk about that?
If this were all we did here, you’d be right to be disgusted and never want to share in the meal again. But the amazing thing to me about the Eucharist is how much more is going on than just the tearing apart of bread and the sharing of juice. The pieces that we tear off, whether greedily or tenderly, huge chunks or tiny crumbs, yet somehow remain part of one, unified and unbroken whole – Christ’s body. As we take a part of that whole into ourselves, even as it becomes a part of us by nourishing us and being digested by our bodies, we become a part of IT. We who are many become one in the sharing of this meal. That bread, though it is torn apart, yet makes us whole and one with each other. We may try to tear it into small pieces, but instead it knits us together as One, binding us one of another, parts of one piece, members of one Body – Christ’s Body – the Church!
In addition to making us One all together, this ritual makes us whole within our very selves, for we are sharing in the feast of the life of the One who came to heal and restore us to our human glory. We are becoming one within ourselves and one in the mystical body of Christ. What a great mystery this is!
And as we come to appreciate the paradox that is the Eucharist, a ritual of breaking apart and of making one, we come to know other deep truths – that we are called to be a witness for peace in a world of war; that we are called to be bearers of Shalom – God’s holy and equitable peace – even to our enemies; and that God is within us and strengthening us when we challenge the systems of oppression in our world.
This is the mystery Jesus was getting at when he challenged the religious leaders of his day with those words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Remember that these leaders themselves lived a tenuous existence under Rome’s empire, that whatever religious freedom they had came at the pleasure of an emperor who was not known for consistency or generosity of spirit or tolerance of diversity. These leaders, quite simply, were terrified that Jesus, in empowering and challenging the people, would incite riots that would destabilize the only world they knew.
But Jesus did not come to earth to give us surety or to banish ambiguity from our lives, however much we may desire certainty and answers. He wanted us to wrestle with meaning – he wanted us to explore the mystery of our earthly, fleshly lives, and what it meant that God Most High was willing to share in that earthly, fleshy existence. Too often for our tastes, Jesus does not comfort us. (In fact, in this particular exchange, he does not suggest that Communion is meant to be comforting, however comforting and renewing some of us may find it.)
Instead, he invites us to lean into the unknown, to trust ourselves in the presence of the Unknown, to trust our own flesh and bones to an unknown future – just as Jesus himself trusted his flesh and blood to a future he did not always understand or like terribly well. This is the peace Christ promises. In the uncertainty of Communion, Jesus invites us to find true life, a life that endures, a life that never ends – even if, at some point, our own flesh is torn and our bodies broken by the slings and arrows of this life.
So I think it appropriate that we share this meal together now. It is not our “normal Sunday” for Communion, but then again, we have never been people who worried terribly hard about doing things differently than “normal.” And I invite us to share in this meal in a new way. Normally, we come forward to meet God – or ourselves – or the Spirit – or whatever – in this ritual. But today it is important that you know that God also wishes to come to you, that the point of the Gospel is not the world coming to God, but God coming to the world, and so today this meal will be brought to you. Receive it as you will, by communing with the elements, by asking me for a blessing, or both. And may you receive Christ’s mysterious presence and the Spirit’s most gracious wisdom in these moments.
I will ask our musician to play our next hymn, #421 We Gather Together, and for you to remain seated and sing it together. (Do note that the tune for this hymn can be found on the previous page)
Then we celebrated Communion together, with me serving each member. Following this, I offered the following prayer:
Solomon, on the occasion of his ascension to the throne of Israel, prayed to God for wisdom instead of gold, holy knowledge instead of worldly power. May we who share in the feast of God’s presence also seek – and find – that same wisdom. Amen.