If you’re like me, at some point in your life you have held the idea that our faith has to do with our souls and that our bodies are not much involved. I don’t think anyone ever told me this directly, but I sort of picked up the idea through the way people talked about their faith. Or maybe you’ve even thought or been taught that the body is a bad thing, something to be overcome, something to push aside as we try and be led by the spirit.
Two weeks ago I asked that we consider this series to be a process of discovery in what Jesus would have us know about becoming bread. This week we are reaching a bit of a climax in this conversation. It all started with real physical bread feeding a bunch of hungry people. Jesus’ act shows God’s desire that all people have enough to eat and be satisfied. We were then asked to go deeper, with Jesus directing us beyond the physical back to the Source of our food, the source of our very life…Godself, which is offered as daily bread from heaven. Elijah had experienced this God as present in the fire and destructive forces around him, but he learned that this was not where God was to be found. God was in the silence, in the still small voice, and Jesus said that God was present in him, as bread given for the life of the whole world and that we could all be taught by this same God. So if you’ve missed the last three weeks, there’s all the sermons packed into one paragraph.
Now I’m usually not one for the extended metaphor. There’s only so far you can carry a certain image before its time to move on and get another topic. But this sixth chapter of John keeps going on and on about bread. And there is actually something new being said this week. After starting with real bread and moving more into a spiritual nonphysical heavenly understanding of true bread, Jesus is pointing us back to something that we can feel and touch and taste and it has to do with bodies, his body and our body. And just so you don’t miss the point, he takes the liberty of using the graphic, somewhat disgusting language of eating flesh and drinking blood. Initially, this whole thing had a nice G or PG rating, a story about a family gathering where a little boy shares his food and everybody ends up sharing a big meal together. Now I think we’ve moved into the territory of R…contains disturbing and upsetting images. Yes, coming from the mouth of our blessed Lord Jesus, v. 53 “Unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you…for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” It’s OK to be put off by this. That was exactly the response of the people who were listening to Jesus. Jesus must not have been up on reading the latest church growth strategies. If you want people to follow you, rule #1, don’t tell them to do something disgusting and confusing. But there it is, right out of the mouth of one for whom the church exists: v. 56 “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” I’d like to suggest that this physical, visceral language is meant to guide us toward one of the central realities of the Christian life. A reality about how we use our bodies. We are used to the bread and the juice as being symbols for us of Christ’s body and blood. They represent Christ to us and we receive them as the mystery of Christ’s presence with us. And this is true. But the movement of the life of the church takes us beyond symbolism and actually moves in the opposite direction. We usually think of symbols as taking something concrete, like a person, or a house, or a bike, or whatever, and making it abstract, like a picture or a word, or, in the case of communion, bread. It moves from the actual thing to a sign for that thing. John’s gospel moves us one step further, and it is a crucial step. In this gospel it is the Word that became Flesh (John 1:14). It is the abstract, the sign, the Word, that becomes actual, bodily flesh. It is the word of Wisdom that Proverbs 9 talks about that takes on flesh and becomes a teacher and guide to the world. It is the word bread, that takes on flesh and becomes the bread of life to the world. It is the invisible God, who begins to look very much like a human. God in 3-D. Flesh and blood doing the actual work of God.
This is why Jesus was so emphatic that his flesh was real food and his blood was real drink, as off-putting as it may sound. This is real. You are to actually take this flesh into your flesh. And just as Jesus has become the bread of life, you are to feast on him and become bread for others. And all this is from the Undying God of heaven, the source of life, the giver of bread.
This is about God alive in our bodies. Jesus active through our living and breathing and thinking and doing. It’s all about not just receiving the gift of bread, but receiving the very being of Christ into our being and in turn becoming that living flesh and blood. God moving through us, reaching out to the world with our hands, embracing the stranger, speaking words of comfort and healing with our mouths. The flesh of Jesus on our bodies, the blood of Jesus circulating through our veins.
Its sort of like the mystical meets the practical meets the charismatic meets the social activist. All these streams of spirituality are wrapped up in the Word becoming flesh and ourselves becoming bread. And as grand and spectacular as this sounds, it’s a mystery that gets worked out in the ordinary world of daily living. I read an article this week by a woman who spends a lot of time caring for people. She said she often felt that she was doing no good. Sometimes she would spend hours by someone’s bed, not talking much, but just being there. She went on to say that she didn’t realize how important this was until she herself experienced a sickness that kept her in bed for several weeks. She expressed her deep gratitude for people who came to be with her, simply to be present. This is about as ordinary as you can get! Just putting your body alongside another person, sometimes saying very little. There is a bumper sticker-type slogan that friends of ours have posted above their kitchen sink. It says “everybody wants to save the world, but nobody wants to wash the dishes.” Eating the flesh and blood of Christ will lead us into the public arena where we act and speak for what is right, but it will also take is into the ordinary world of the kitchen and beside someone’s bed who is sick. What’s key is that this all happens with our body, and that our body is not so much our body, but a part of the larger body of Christ in the world. So this is ultimately where Jesus leads us in our search for bread. Instead of constantly looking for a sign from God, we are called to BE a sign of God. In our search for a revelation of God, we are called to BE a revelation of God. As we look for bread to fill us, we are called to BE bread, to become bread, to nourish the world. We consume the bread of life and we allow our lives to be bread for the sustenance of the world. This is not a symbol as we normally think of symbols. It is the symbol come to life, taking on flesh and blood. And we are that symbol. That is the call of Jesus on our life. Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, you are a sign of God to the world. When you offer meals to the community, you are a sign of God’s table where all are welcome and well-fed. When you initiate and maintain the work of Ten Thousand Villages you are a sign of God’s good economy, where all give and receive in fairness and dignity. When you gather to worship, you are a sign of the new humanity God is bringing about in the world whose unity is based on its love for the world and not its hatred for an enemy. The picture John gives us with is Jesus, with all his sisters and brothers, bridging heaven and earth, offering the bread of life to the world. We feed on the bread and we become bread with our bodies that God has given us. I’m going to let my words be few, because the focus here isn’t on words in themselves, but on moving from the word as symbol to the Word as flesh. We have the chance to take communion together today. We have bread and we have juice that represent Christ’s body and blood to us, which are on their way to becoming part of our own body and blood. Let this be a time of reflection, a time of repentance, a time of receiving this gift and a time of allowing our own flesh and blood to be transformed by the flesh and blood of Christ. ————-Let’s begin this time by praying together the prayer of preparation
May the body and blood of Christ
which alone can satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst
Fill us with peace
May God bless us tomorrow with daily bread for strength
And sweet water for refreshment
Just as Christ has become bread for us,
may we become bread for a hungry and hurting world.
May we, together, become the body of Christ, living in hope and joy.