Bread of Life 3: You are what you eat—Sunday 20, Year B (19 August 2012)

Reading
John 6.51-58

 

Almost 2000 years ago, people had some very strange ideas about what went on in Christian worship.

This tirade against the Christians comes from a book written by a Christian in the second century AD. It’s called The Octavius of Minucius Felix (chapter 9):

And now as the world grows more wicked, your abominable shrines are sprouting up throughout the whole world. This entire impious confederacy should be rooted out and destroyed! You know one another by secret marks and insignia. You love one another almost before you know one another. Yours is a religion of lust. You promiscuously call one another brothers and sisters. You apparently do this so that your debaucheries will take on the flavour of incest.

Your vain and senseless superstition revels in wickedness. I would apologise for passing on the reports I hear about you if I weren’t so certain that they are true…

…The stories of your initiation rites are as detestable as they are well known. Your priests place an infant covered with flour in front of the new convert. Then they tell the convert to strike the harmless-looking lump of flour with deadly blows. Thereby the convert innocently slays the infant and is initiated into your horrors. The Christians present then lick up the infant’s blood and divide its limbs among themselves to eat. They are united by this unholy meal, since they are bound to mutual silence because of their wickedness. Your sacred rites are more vile than any imagined sacrilege.

All I’ll say is that Uniting Church Communion services aren’t very much like that!

These rumours about what Christians did seem to have partly come from the words in John’s Gospel we heard this morning:

Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 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.

You can see where those rumours that Christians were cannibals may have come from. So, given that it’s not about cannibalism, what is ‘eating Jesus’ flesh’ and ‘drinking Jesus’ blood’ about?

We need to remember how John’s Gospel rolls. Jesus says something provocative; people don’t get it, they fasten on to a superficial meaning; Jesus reveals the deeper meaning. You see it when Jesus talks to Nicodemus:

Jesus says, You must be born again.

Nicodemus says, I’m too big! How can I fit into mum’s womb again?

Jesus says, It’s a spiritual rebirth you need. You must enter a whole new world.

But something different happens when we come to this passage on bread and wine, flesh and blood. And it all hinges on one word: eating.

How many words do we have to describe eating in English? We have eat; feed; consume; swallow; dine; snack; graze; chew; scoff; devour; munch; tuck into—and lots more. Some of these words convey very different things. You might scoff a burger before going to the movies. But you’d dine with the Queen. You might graze at a luncheon, but you’d chew a big steak.

The Gospels were written in Greek, which also has more than one word for ‘eat’. And here in chapter 6, John uses more than one word.

Jesus starts off by saying, I am the Bread of life. Jesus talks about eating this bread and never going hungry.

Everyone gets it wrong. They want a constant supply of lovely fresh bread, and Jesus is just the man to provide it for them. But Jesus means it when he says he is the Bread of life.

But when he comes to the deeper revelation, this time Jesus doesn’t say it’s spiritual bread we need. Instead, he uses another word for eating. A more ‘meaty’ word.

You wouldn’t know that from reading our English versions. They don’t use a different word. But if you look at John 6, Jesus uses an ordinary word for eating up to verse 53. From verse 54 though, he uses a different word. We could read verses 53-54 this way:

Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who chew my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day…’

‘Chew’ isn’t the only word that would fit. We could equally say,

Those who gnaw at my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…

This isn’t a pretty picture of Holy Communion. My guess is that when we take a piece of fluffy white bread and dip it in grape juice, we don’t usually associate it with chewing on the flesh of Jesus.

Gnawing at Jesus’ flesh is a pretty offensive picture really. It cost Jesus some followers. We prefer to avoid it.

What does it mean? We’re not cannibals. John’s Gospel may talk about gnawing on the flesh of Jesus, but we know it’s still bread and wine.

Let’s just take stock. What have we got?

  • Jesus is the Bread of life, the true bread from heaven
  • Those who eat of this bread will never hunger
  • Those who eat of this bread will live for ever
  • This bread is his flesh, which is given to us to chew

So is the Catholic Church right? Must we say that the bread and wine is ‘really’ the body and blood of Christ?

Let me say it again: we’re not cannibals (not that Catholic doctrine implies cannibalism!). Bread remains bread, wine remains wine.

But.

We can and should say that Jesus feeds us as we share the Lord’s Supper. The Basis of Union puts it like this:

In this sacrament of his broken body and outpoured blood the risen Lord feeds his baptised people on their way to the final inheritance of the Kingdom.

Jesus feeds us with his own self as we share in Holy Communion.

People sometimes say, ‘You are what you eat’. We feed on Jesus in the Sacrament. We don’t literally eat him! But we receive him.

We receive again the forgiveness of our sins. We receive afresh our standing as children coming together around the Lord’s Table. We receive anew the hope of the kingdom. When we gather around the Table we are renewing the covenant of grace that Jesus made with us.

There’s one more thing we must say though as we look at what John’s Gospel says about the Sacrament. Remember what Jesus does at the Last Supper in John? He washes the feet of his disciples. He takes the form of a slave.

We are renewing our call to follow Jesus in acts of service, even lowly service, for others. After he had washed their feet and taken his place again at the table, Jesus said,

If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

If we come to the Table of Jesus Christ but do not serve others gladly, we are making a mockery of Holy Communion. If that is the case, we need to turn back to the Lord.

You are what you eat. We are fed by Jesus because we are forgiven children of God, called to serve as he served.

Sometimes I wonder why we don’t have Communion every week in our tradition. People say its too repetitious, or that it’s not special enough if we do it too often. Sometimes I wonder if it’s not all too demanding, once we start to really get what it’s about.

Jesus says,

Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 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 Communion, but it’s not just about Communion. It’s about the abundant life Jesus offers, a life which would be much the poorer if we were deprived of Holy Communion.

He is the Bread of life. Feed on him.

 

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Filed under church year, RCL, sermon, Uniting Church in Australia

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