We were all gathered in Salt Lake City, Utah for the Parliament of World Religions, and I was representing the small, but thriving Abilene Interfaith Council from Texas. The ten or so of us sat in a circle this hotel conference room, as we prepared to learn about meditation and the affect it can have on our lives of faith, and to open the session, the conference presenters pulled out a small glass container with slices of apples; we were instructed to hold the apple in our hand, to notice the shape and the feel of it before we ate it. We were then guided in a meditated around the apple slice; what does the slice feel like? What does it taste like? What is the texture of the apple. While in my own cynicism I rolled my eyes at such an experience, I quickly came to realize that the commonness of the apple slice, when attention was paid, made the experience so much deeper.
In our gospel passage in the gospel according to John, Jesus continues the discourse on bread, but this time, rather than being the bread of life, Jesus identifies himself as the living bread that has come down from heaven, and expands his talk about himself as bread by saying that the bread that he gives for the world is his flesh. The Jewish leaders balk, horrified by the very scandalous notion of eating another human. And Jesus responds, perhaps provoking them further and using bigger, more scandalous language and saying, not only must you eat the flesh, but also drink the blood. In the eating of Christ’s flesh and blood, those who eat abide in Christ and Christ abides in them. Whoever eats this bread, Christ says, will live forever.
Of the four gospels in our holy scriptures, John’s gospel was the last to be written, and much of what John has crafted in this narrative helps to make sense of what the community is doing in the early days of Christianity. One might question, then, why John paints this part of the bread discourse in such an intense way. The verbs used here in the Greek are not just “to eat”, but could perhaps be more appropriately translated, “to chomp.” The picture that John is painting here is not a demure nibble of bread, but should conjure up images of a cow chewing cud. Jesus uses a big metaphor here, and while most of the time we want Jesus to be neat and simple, this passage from John rejects that.
This passage from John is tricky; maybe you hear it with the familiarity of having it read every Sunday and it loses its’ intensity, or maybe this is your first time to hear or to pay attention to the “cannibalistic” nature of John’s depiction of what Jesus is saying here. The thing about our gospel passage, though is that it at its’ upmost, it is sacramental. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, we partake of Christ, but in order for us to fully partake, we must be in community. For John, throughout his gospel, the ultimate, constant, driving force is the communal nature of the life of faith. We cannot be Christians on our own, we must exist within communion of other people of faith, and while our gospel passage was likely written after the sacrament had already been established, participation and identification with the community are key to understanding this passage.
To participate in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, is to participate in the mystery of the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it is to join in the work of those who have gone long before us and to stand upon the shoulders of the communion of saints. Our gospel passage today is about an early practice of the very first Christians, and it is about a practice that we continue still today. There is nothing we do as a community that more fully lets us experience God’s truth and love than the Eucharist. Because in the Eucharist, we are granted access to the living bread of life; the life of the Eucharist is the life of God. In participating in this communion, we participate in the life of God. We are granted access to participate in the creative, life-giving, all-loving God.
In the Eucharist, we not only eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Christ, but through the act of this communion, to eat is to acknowledge a dependence not just upon Christ, but also upon each other. We kneel or stand at this altar rail and extend our fragile hands, soft and tender or scarred and calloused to receive a small bit of bread of heaven and to take a sip of cup of salvation. And, in truth, we aren’t much without it; in John’s account, Jesus offers his body and his blood as the source of life. This is crucial for our gospel account today; the fact that we encounter the source of life in the communion today is central to John’s understanding of what happens in the Eucharistic meal. In the Eucharistic meal, we encounter the mystery of eating Christ’s body and blood, and with that we encounter the mystery of being held together in communion by the living Christ.
The gospel according to John is overrun with incarnational theology; it is the gospel that begins, “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” For, John there is nothing more ultimate that the preeminence of Christ’s reign, and there’s nothing more important to those who choose to follow him than a life of unity. In the incarnational theology of John, Christ is incarnate God and is the presence of God, and it is through the Eucharist that we come to know the presence of God. Because just as God, Godself became incarnate in the body and blood of Christ, so we get to experience this mystery when we come to the table; at the Eucharistic table we get to participate in the divine mystery that this table, this altar is actually a paradox. Because this Eucharistic table is actually just like any other table; it is a table wherein which we will set up a meal that we will share with family and friends, but the beauty of this Eucharistic table is that it is entirely unlike any other table in the world, because in this Eucharistic meal, we partake and participate in the divine justice and abundant love of God made known to us in just a bit of bread and just a sip of wine.
In the commonness of the Eucharistic meal held within the community, Christ is known. And so it is true with our baptism as well. It is in the commonness of our baptized lives that we come to know Christ. Today we welcome into the household of God, Aurora, even as we affirm our own baptismal covenant. And soon, she too will learn what we all know about our lives of faith. Soon she will learn that our baptized lives are not found solely in the high holy days in which we draw ourselves up, but it is when we settle down low and can see those in need. The essence of our lives as Christians is not marked by power and prestige, but by a common simple meal, and a bit of water. Here is where we come to know Christ, and in coming to know Christ, we come to know ourselves as God has created us.
Remember, today as we participate in the sacraments, the depth of your identity. Your identity is a hundred little things that you love and that make you unique, but the foundation of who you are is what we promise in our baptismal covenant. Remember as we welcome Aurora into the household of God, that the prayers for her to have an inquiring and discerning heart and the courage to will and to persevere are prayers for you, too. Remember that as we reaffirm our baptismal vows, we renew our promises, our very foundation is one that is set to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being. And remember, that in the commonness of the Eucharistic meal, we get to participate in the living bread, so that we can be the hands and feet of Christ on earth.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on Proper 15B, John 6:51-58 on August 19, 2018.