Sunday, August 16, 2009
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,
Sermon August 16, 2009
It is hard for us to think of how the primitive cultures of the world have understood what it meant to eat the ‘food of the gods.’ But there was always a sense of closeness with the god when there was food offered to the gods of a Middle Eastern culture. Sacrificing to the God Yahweh was something different, however. The early Jews understood that they were offering thanks to God for freeing them from Pharaoh’s slavery. Offering the first fruits, or gifts for thanksgiving were provided in which part of the animal or grain was given to the priest and part was used by the family usually for a feast. Not only was the act of sacrifice something for God, it required that the one offering the sacrifice be generous to his or her friends. It was a time to feast. Only for the holocaust or olah in Hebrew, the sin offering, was the whole animal burned completely.
There was a tradition in the eucharist—the thanksgiving offering, that such sacrifices were to be shared with friends and family. And so it is not surprising that the earliest liturgical developments in the Jewish-Christian communities revolve around the celebration of Passover—the time of the sacrifice in the Temple that reminded the people of their freedom given by God.
In John’s Gospel, we do not have the story of the Last Supper and the breaking of bread. It is found in Mt. Mk, and Lk but NOT in John. In Jn. we hear the story of the washing of the feet of the disciples. But what we do have in the Gospel of John is this long discourse on the Eucharist in which we find Jesus inviting his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood that we have been hearing over the past 4 weeks. For John, the liturgical act of taking, blessing, breaking and eating the bread and wine was not a memorial. It was the receiving of the flesh and blood of the Son of God. It was a feast but it was also the act of being intimate, of receiving Christ into one’s own body which was the mark of the Christian. It was a sacrament. It was an action that did what it purposed—it sanctified; it made holy. The grace that God conferred in the sacrament was what helped the Christian to be molded and transformed into the Body of Christ, the Church.
This liturgical act was misunderstood by many in the first centuries of Christianity. Accusations of cannibalism were levied at the early followers of Jesus. And Christians were persecuted for it. It was strange to the pagan believers of the day.
A colleague of mine was reading the words of institution in church one Sunday. He came to the words, “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.” And a rather precocious four-year old piped up, “EWWW, YUK!” And that 4yr. old heard the words but only understood the outward and visible acts. She had not yet come to that place where the inward and spiritual act allowed her to know that the bread and wine were real, but so were the flesh and blood.
When we think about it, it is a strange way of signing that God is within us. It is a strange way of describing what happens when Christ is at the center of our lives. There is no more primal action than eating and drinking, except for those who know God at that experiential level. There is no way to really explain what it means to be Christ’s own better than knowing that we consume his body and blood.
Theologians have waxed quite eloquent, giving us all kinds of explanations of how this happens. The Roman Catholics call it transubstantiation, Presbyterians call it memoriam, Orthodox Christians call it mysterium. Lutherans are often said to believe in consubstantiation. But all in all, we know that it is the Real Presence of God that dwells among us and in us.
It is this indwelling of God that is both scary and wonderful. Most of the time, I would guess that I don’t get one of those remarkable, God-walks-in-the-room experiences when I receive the Holy Eucharist. The bread and wine just remind me of those moments when God DID walk in the room, DID take my breath away. It reminds me of how completely forgiven I am of all my sinfulness even though I am not deserving of it. It puts me in touch with God’s wanting me to know how much I am loved, how much I am cared for and how much God wants me to share that love with others. That is why we celebrate this Holy Meal. It is why we are here each Sunday.
Last Sunday I attended an Episcopal Church in Lewes, DE. The church was full of all ages. One of J’s classmates was preaching at the baptism of two little children. He wanted to tell these children, he said, that God loved them. “It’s as simple as that.” God loves them just the way they are.
And that is what I want to say to you. God loves you just the way you are. You can’t earn his love, but you can be transformed by that love. It is that transformation that is what the book of Proverbs is about. It is what the letter of Ephesians is trying to get across.
Because we have been loved with a love that is eternal, because we have been loved with a love that goes beyond death, we have the ability to be changed by that love. I call it loved-into-being. Many of us know how we have been changed by the love of another—How we came to be a better person because someone loved us. Some of us know what it means to be able to share that love with others and watch them become better, more whole or healthy people simply because someone cared enough about them.
I have friends who through the love of others in AA or NA have been able to be freed from alcoholism or addiction. I have watched kids who had poor home lives grow into solid and selfless citizens because a teacher or a coach or a scout leader cared about them. So how much more is it when we know that it is God who is the one who is calling us to be more than we once were? Who is loving us into being more than we were? It is that kind of transformation that I am talking about.
The incarnation of God, that in-fleshed love of Jesus Christ, works a kind of love that allows us to step out of old selves and into a new world each day. In the Proverbs reading Wisdom, the feminine manifestation of God, invites the disciple of God into new learning, invites even the simple, even the untrained to come and learn of God’s love. “Come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” she says. This eating and drinking strengthens us to center our lives more in Christ’s love. It nourishes us in faith and hope. It is this willingness to learn more of our faith that allows us new ways of expressing that overwhelming gift that Jesus gave in his death on the Cross.
It is through the food—the nourishment of our faith through the sign of Jesus’ body and blood that gives us the strength to demand more of ourselves in his Name. It is with the taste of bread and grape that we know our own fleshiness and at the same time we know God’s presence within us. We know it individually and we know it in our community of faith. That in-fleshed presence we know in the bread and the wine is also known by every other person in this church. It was known by the people in Lewes¸DE. It is known in all the congregations up and down in this synod. It is known by the Roman Catholics, and the Methodists, the Mennonites and the Congregationalists. It is what makes us one.
And so I invite you, when you stand or kneel to receive the nourishment of Christ himself at the altar this morning, to think first of how God has loved you in the past. Then I would invite you to think how you can learn more of God and how you can love others in the future. It IS that simple. AMEN