Sunday, August 16, 2009

You Are What You Eat

Eleventh Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 15) – Year B (RCL)
Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
Sunday, August 16, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

The Romans of the first century often thought that the early Christians were downright savages, that they were cannibals. After all, their religion required that they eat flesh and drink blood. While the Romans may have been a bit misguided in their understanding of Christianity, it is certainly easy to see where they got their notions when we read the sixth chapter of John’s gospel – the portion we have been examining for the last few weeks.

Over the last several weeks, we have been looking at Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse. At first glance, it may seem rather tedious that we keep having Gospel lessons with the same imagery week after week. And I warn you, we get even more of it next week. But it is important to realize that the reason John portrays Jesus making such lengthy and seemingly repetitive discourses is twofold. First, what is being said is incredibly important to John’s Christology, to his understanding of who Jesus is. That being the case, John gets somewhat repetitive to allow the concepts being presented to fully sink in, rather than just wash over us. And second, such discourses are lengthy precisely because the concepts being presented are complex and need a systematic explanation in order for us to begin to fully comprehend both the meaning and the implication for our lives of faith. Hence our protracted Gospel readings for the month.

To recap, two weeks ago, we had Jesus merely saying that he is the bread of life. Last week, he provided more explanation – that this bread of life has come down from heaven, and that whoever eats of this bread will live forever. We are beginning to see a slow and systematic building of intensity – in the nature of the imagery and in the depth of its meaning. So, not surprisingly, this week’s portion of the on-going discourse has Jesus taking the imagery to a whole new level – “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” While this statement was included in last week’s lesson, it provided this somewhat cryptic statement without exposition. But today, more of the total image is revealed, and we receive more explanation as to what it all means.

The explanation is facilitated by the fact that the gathered Jews are obviously grossed out by the image of eating flesh. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” And rather than try to ease their discomfort, to say nothing of their disgust, Jesus only serves to make matters worse. “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.” Unless you are a cannibal, this statement on first glance is an affront to anyone's human sensibilities. But such a concept is particularly repugnant to Jews. Kosher dietary laws specifically prohibit observant Jews from drinking the blood of slaughtered animals. This is because blood is the essence of life – life is contained in the blood. They believe that the soul is contained in the blood. To drink the blood of an animal would be to take in its life essence, its soul, to have it comingle with one’s own soul. While I have not found any specific explanation of why this would have been viewed as being so bad, my educated guess is that in so doing, the person would take on the soul of the animal, take on the life essence of something lower, more base, something impure, thereby corrupting the person and rendering him or her ritually unclean.

In using the imagery that he does, and all the accompanying connotations for devout Jews, Jesus is for all intents and purposes likening himself to a slaughtered animal, as an animal placed as a sacrifice on the Temple altar. This side of the crucifixion and resurrection, we Christians see that this is somewhat appropriate imagery, foretelling what would happen to him. But for those involved in the scene, it was quite inappropriate, if not downright heretical.

If we keep with the imagery of Christ as a slaughtered, sacrificial victim, we begin to see that such action, if truly come down from heaven, if truly ordained by God, recasts the imagery and the antecedent Jewish dietary restrictions in a completely new and different light. By his implied imagery of eating the flesh of the slaughtered animal and drinking its blood, Jesus is, in effect, overturning the old dietary laws. Not with respect to the physical food that is eaten, but certainly with respect to spiritual nourishment. Eating the flesh and drinking the blood of this new sacrificial being, of Jesus, would no less entail the taking in of the life essence, the spirit of Christ, than would drinking the blood of a slaughtered animal entail taking in the soul of that animal. But instead of taking in the soul of a lowly creature that would taint and render impure the essence of the one partaking of it, taking in the flesh, the blood, the life-giving essence, the spirit of Christ, would result in taking in something even more pure, something more divine. By Jesus being fully human and fully divine, eating his flesh and drinking his blood would mean ingesting and sharing in a touch of the divine, of that which is given by the Creator to provide life to all humanity. The one who eats Jesus’ body and drinks his blood would share in God’s Spirit, would share in eternal life. The Spirit of God and of Jesus becomes inextricably linked with our spirit. God and Jesus become part of us, and in so doing, we become part of Jesus. This is what Jesus means when he says “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

I think further explanation of this is provided in the Old Testament lesson from Proverbs. Today’s reading from Proverbs talks about Wisdom. To fully understand and appreciate the message of this lesson, it is important to understand that Wisdom is often used in Old Testament writing as a personification for the Spirit of God, what we call the Holy Spirit. And while God the Creator is always personified as masculine, Wisdom as used for the Spirit is always personified as feminine.

So, in today’s Old Testament lesson we have Lady Wisdom, the Holy Spirit personified, preparing a banquet, a festive meal, just as Jesus provides on numerous occasions. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus centered much of his activity around meals. Jesus provides a meal for his disciples prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus promises that we will ultimately share in a heavenly banquet. Wisdom, in preparing her banquet, even uses the same primary elements that Jesus uses. She invites us, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Note that this imagery was written some six centuries before Jesus lived in the flesh, before Jesus used the imagery of bread and wine to describe his banquet, to describe himself.

When combined with the Gospel lesson, several things become clear about this banquet. First is that this banquet is definitely ordained by God. The Spirit of God provides a banquet in which all are invited. And then, the Son of God provides greater clarification about the nature of the banquet meal. The bread is not just any old bread, but is the bread of life, the flesh of the Son of God. And the wine is not just any old wine, but is the blood of the Son of God.

And the second thing about this banquet, foretold in the Old Testament, in the history and wisdom of our Jewish forebears, and brought to fulfillment in an earthly sense through Jesus Christ in the giving of the bread and the wine, his body and his blood, and yet to be brought to its ultimate fulfillment in the heavenly banquet in celebration of the victory of the Kingdom of Heaven, all of this points to the fact that the ultimate goal of salvation history is the heavenly banquet, for which Jesus will provide the bread and the wine - his flesh for the bread, his blood for the wine.

And this banquet is to be life changing. We talked about drinking Jesus’ blood as resulting in the taking in of his life essence, of his Spirit. While the Old Testament does not use this imagery, it certainly indicates that the banquet is life-changing. Proverbs tells us that Wisdom’s invitation to her banquet is an invitation to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” The banquet provides transformation, the opportunity for new life.

Jesus’ invitation in John provides the same thing – the opportunity for new life. Not only new life, but eternal life. And that life is embodied in us, as we live in Christ and Christ lives in us. This life is embodied in us as we share in the intimate relationship with Christ, only made possible through partaking of his body and his blood. Through the Eucharist, Christ becomes part of our very being. As one commentator puts it, “today's rather scandalously carnal, incarnational gospel reminds us that Jesus intends to have all of us, body and soul. His truth wants to burrow deep within us, to consume us as we consume him, to flow through our veins, to be digested, to nourish every nook and cranny of our being” (Willimon, 361). This is only made possible through the partaking of the Eucharist, the foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

And for us, the most important thing is that this intimate relationship that Jesus talks about, this abiding, is not something passive, that we just let happen. Abiding is active, current, here and now. It requires something of us. It requires determination. It requires action. It requires that we boldly walk up to that altar rail, that we joyfully hold out our hands to receive the bread and the wine, that we confidently claim our share of the heavenly banquet. And in so doing, we take our place at the table, and are not only given bread and wine, body and blood. We are given, we are assured, new and eternal life. That is Lady Wisdom’s invitation to us. That is Jesus Christ’s invitation to us. That is Christ’s promise to us.

So come. Let us partake of this banquet, this holy meal of bread and wine, of body and blood, that Christ may nourish us, may abide with us, may give us the gift of eternal life he yearns for all to have.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Willimon, William H. “John 6:51-58, Homiletical Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

NB - The title of this blog post was not my idea, per se. During the Peace at the 8:00 service, one of my LEMs said, "I guess your sermon just shows that you are what you eat." I couldn't help using Roger's comment as the title for the sermon.

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