Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Year B, RCL
August 19, 2018
North Fork Ministries
Jesus said, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "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. 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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."
I once heard master bread maker and part time theologian, Peter Reinhart, talk about what goes into making a nice, plump loaf of bread – one that is crusty on the outside and, on the inside, moist and chewy. Reinhart points out that the harvesting of grain is simply a nice way of referring to the killing of the plant and the reaping of its ripe kernels of wheat, barley, or rye. And after the harvest is complete, the grain is crushed and ground to flour, so that any chance that the seeds might find fertile earth and sprout new life is completely eliminated.
Eliminated, were it not for the fact that bread is a transformational food. The flour is mixed with water and a little salt and it is transformed into a substance that bakers call “clay”. And the clay (which Reinhart points out is the Hebrew word for Adam) is infused with yeast or leaven, which means to liven, or to give life. And at room temperature this enlivened clay begins to grow. And all these literal transformations begin to take place. “Enzymes are breaking forth sugars. Yeast is eating sugar and turning it into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Bacteria is in there, eating all the same sugars, turning them into acids. In other words, personality and character are being developed in this dough under the watchful eye of the baker.”
And so the flour finds new life and rises from the grave. But it’s not yet bread. Further transformation is necessary. The plump loaves of risen dough must enter the hot oven, and when the internal temperature of the loaves reaches 140 degrees, the thermal death point, the yeast which had brought new life to crushed grain must then give up it’s own life.
All this living and dying, and living and dying again, so that we might have a simple loaf of bread to sustain us through the same cycle of living and dying, and living and dying again.
But Jesus didn’t just talk about bread. He talked about blood - his own blood. He said that, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…”
How very strange this idea must have seemed to Jesus’ listeners. The very idea of eating of Jesus’ flesh and drinking of Jesus’ own blood, must have caused those who heard him to wince and turn away in horror or disgust. For observant Jews, who were forbidden by the law in Leviticus from consuming the blood of slaughtered animals, the notion of partaking of the blood of a human being would have been especially repugnant.
But remember, the words found in the gospel of John were meant for insiders. John’s listeners already knew about Jesus’ death on the cross, the sacrifice of his body and blood, how he had given of himself, “for the life of the world.” This talk about flesh and blood was a kind of code, intended and best understood by those who knew the code words. But for outsiders, such language could seem grotesque, even reminiscent of cannibalism.
The Scholastics of the medieval period held that transformation could be understood on four levels: the literal, the poetic, the ethical, and the mystical. Dante had even argued that we can only enter into the mystical by first experiencing the literal.
Literal, that’s what the sacraments are – literal, outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.
I am inclined to think that on the mystical level there is very little difference among the world’s religions, or even between those who practice religion and those who say they are spiritual but not religious. The mystical God, the God through whom we live and move and have our being, can’t be contained by a single religion, or any particular group’s conception of God. Those who enter deeply into their chosen faith, whatever it may be, are likely to discover the universal nature of God’s love.
But that is on the mystical level. On the literal level, the threshold through which we practitioners of religion enter into our faith, differences are apparent. The celebration of the Eucharist, described here so graphically by John as the eating of flesh and the drinking of blood, was a shocking and unfamiliar expression of religious devotion. It is difficult for us, who every Sunday witness this ritual reenactment of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, to understand how foreign the practice seemed to the uninitiated in John’s day – or to those outside of our faith today.
The practice of our faith is very incarnational – incarnate, of the body, engaging our senses. We are drawn to a style of worship that is real, substantive, containing the stuff of which life is made. We taste the wine, smell the incense, feel the touch of another human’s hand when we pass the peace. We listen to sounds of the human voice raised in praise, and our eyes are drawn heavenward by the majesty of abundant interior space.
It is this incarnational aspect of a religion that binds its adherents together. It is the shared experience of worship that brings us into the felt presence of the divine, by sensing, together, the same movement of spirit.
But it is also this incarnational, physical stuff that sets religions apart. A devout Muslim, who unfolds his prayer rug so that he can pray five times a day startles the Christian. A Sikh who wears a long beard and keeps his hair uncut and hidden away beneath a turban, seems foreign and suspicious on the public square.
And so, laboring under the false impression that a different expression of a religion indicates that other human beings are not true children of God, a gunman opens fire on members of a Sikh house of worship. And a mosque is burned to the ground, because an arsonist doesn’t understand that God doesn’t see the difference between churches with cross-topped steeples and temples with domes and minarets.
It is through our recognition of the very strangeness of the Eucharist, this act of eating the body of Christ and drinking of his blood, that has the potential to move Christians toward an understanding that the “other” is not so much the “other” at all. All religions, viewed from the outside, contain elements of strangeness.
Our rituals, our practice of religion, can serve as the entry point into a deeper understanding of God’s love. The Eucharistic feast can feed us, transform us, and by it’s very strangeness instruct us in the mystery of faith – the mysterious way in which God’s love is made manifest among all creation.