sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15B, August 16, 2015
And that’s the funny thing about Christianity: honestly, at this point, nothing should surprise us. Once God has become a human being, died, come back again, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit, anything can happen. Christians do indeed talk about seeing Jesus in various places. The literal and the metaphorical have become inextricably linked. Jesus has been upending all our expectations from the get-go, as he does in this story in which he refers to himself as living bread and invites us to eat him. Really, this is also like something that could only happen in a dream.
It’s no wonder the people of Capernaum are flummoxed by what Jesus is saying. His words resist efforts to take them literally, but as metaphors, they offer so many possibilities that it’s hard to lay hands on any one understanding. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” What is this, a zombie movie?
It’s almost as if Jesus relishes their confusion, because he changes verbs to deepen his point. First he restates his point: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” But next the gospel writer has Jesus begin to use a different Greek word for “eat,” and this one has earthier connotations. Especially in conversation about animals, people might use this version of “eat” to mean “crunch, munch, gnaw, or nibble.” For all our efforts thus far to say, “It’s only a metaphor,” this one starts to push back. We are not to think of eating Jesus as a mere absorption of a spiritual concept, devoid of any physicality. This kind of eating makes slurping noises.
|Jesus over pizza.|
(Incidentally, this is a good reason not to get stressed out about whether a child is old enough to take communion. The most reverent way to take communion is simply to consume it. If your toddler rejects the bread or throws it across the room, you just pick it up and eat it. Jesus’ feelings have not been hurt, and your parenting skills are not in question!)
When I first sat down to work on this sermon, I was typing a lot of random thoughts about bread, and my daughter came and watched over my shoulder for a while. She reminded me that Jesus was alone and starving in the wilderness when the devil suggested, “Turn these stones into bread.” But Jesus replied, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Maybe, my daughter suggested, Jesus doesn’t need to make bread to feed himself, because Jesus IS the bread. That reminded me of another time, when his disciples are urging Jesus to eat something, and he says, “I have other bread that you don’t know about.” But once there are a bunch of hungry people around, Jesus stops being so cagey. He feeds thousands with bread and fish. “Chow down!” And at a wedding in Cana, Jesus provides the wine. Maybe Jesus is able to do that because he himself IS the wine.
In both situations, it is as if he were giving them his very self to eat and drink, as he does with his disciples at the Last Supper. And then he says, “Keep doing this when you are together, even when you can’t see me, and I will be there.” Bread gives sustenance, and wine gives gladness. These are two things Jesus wants us to have. But Jesus only functions as true bread and wine when we are sharing this meal together. And so we don’t just admire Jesus, and we don’t just imitate Jesus. We get together to consume Jesus as something physical. And so Jesus calls himself “living bread.”
We don’t normally think of bread as something living. The wheat that once grew has been harvested, crushed, and mixed with other ingredients in order to nourish us. But Jesus identifies himself as “living bread.” What might happen to us if we were to eat “living bread”? Might it not merely strengthen us, but also begin to transform us from the inside into something we have not yet become?
There’s an undeniable connection here between our eating and drinking, and our participation in eternal life, for Jesus gives as an explanation, “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Jesus’ body and blood are real, genuine, trustworthy. They will do what food and drink are supposed to do: nourish us. So what’s the connection to being “raised up on the last day”? I think it means that Christ’s body and blood are our sustenance for the long haul—towards the grave and beyond. Whatever is happening spiritually as we physically consume the bread and wine, we can’t possibly understand, but only trust to be beneficial. If Jesus is the Word made Flesh, then Jesus is a truer bread than the kind we eat every day. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” And the writer of John’s gospel told us at the beginning that Jesus Christ is THE Word.
If at this point you’re left with far more questions than answers, that’s not only OK—it’s great! I long for answers to my deepest questions, but I also long for more questions, because so often the longing is even better than the having. As Oscar Wilde once said, “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” It is exciting to explore the links between the literal and the metaphorical.
For instance, what does Jesus mean when he says we will live forever? Everyone still dies, and we know that we will, too. Will our lives continue in a different way after we die, such that our mortal death doesn’t actually count as death? Or will our limited lives take on infinite and eternal value, as seen from outside the very construct of time?
What of the people who do not eat this bread, who are not Christians? What of the billions of non-Christians who have died, both before Jesus and since? Do they not live forever? Or are there other ways that they might live forever as well? If God is all-loving and compassionate, how could God not provide for them as God does for us?
What does it mean to be “raised up on the last day”? Does this mean that all of creation will be renewed at once, in an instant? Will it be that obvious? Will it happen on this side of the grave? Will it occur when the world ends naturally, or will it upset the laws of science and physics? Will it come like a social justice utopia that we have a hand in creating? Or could “the last day” simply mean the time of each of our deaths, with all of us reuniting on the other side of the tomb?
That’s a lot of questions, and I apologize for the overload. Christians have asked all of these questions and many more in the past two thousand years. But there’s a risk here, too: not to become content with merely enjoying the questions. We are not just to cogitate about living bread and eternal life, but to go out into the world and live these things. In order to do this, we need wisdom.
When Solomon becomes king of Israel, he doesn’t ask for intelligence, but wisdom, and there’s a big difference. If you are intelligent, it means you have an easy time learning lots of things, and that’s a good gift to have. But wisdom compounds the benefits of our intelligence. Wisdom means having a sense for which things are the most important, and how they can help lots of people … not just ourselves. Intelligence is abstract; wisdom is concrete. Intelligence is all in the head and, by itself, can lead to arrogance; but wisdom is applied intelligence, connecting the head to the heart and leading to compassionate action in real life.
I am convinced that, as Christians, we are fed with wisdom from this table: God’s wisdom. It takes humility to partake of Jesus, and humility is the root of wisdom. Like Solomon, we are to admit, “I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.” Wisdom begins where our knowing leaves off. When we admit to ourselves that we can never know everything … when we admit that we don’t even have a right to know anything in particular … then we have begun a path towards wisdom.
So we are to rely on God to feed us, not with the certainty of intelligence, but with the questions of wisdom. God feeds us wisdom by being incarnate for us in Jesus. In a moment, we’ll recite the Nicene Creed, that heady but important 4th-century formulation of basic Christian theology. But then we’ll connect our beliefs to action in the Prayers of the People. We’ll humble ourselves by confessing our sins to God. And we’ll round it all off by coming to the table to partake of Jesus. As a united people called Christians, we will chew on Jesus’ body and audibly gulp his blood, so that we also can feed the world with God’s wisdom.
Because we do this, we needn’t be surprised to see Jesus showing up in all kinds of places in our lives. He might be getting a haircut in Seattle. Better yet, he might be speaking within you right now, urging you: “Come to the table. I want you to participate in who I am, to do your part in renewing my whole creation and turning it into a party. The table is richly laid. Come and chow down!” Amen.