A sermon preached at Grace Episcopal Church, San Antonio, TX.
The Lectionary readings for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost are here.
Like last week, we begin where we ended, repeating the words of Jesus as he says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
This linking together of our readings during these weeks as we focus on Jesus ‘bread of life’ sermon helps us see the wholeness of God’s story and our connectedness to God, each other, and all things.
Hearing Jesus’ “Bread of Life” sermon while sitting in our comfortable chairs, in our air conditioned rooms, in the twenty first century, we have the benefit of hind-sight, two thousand years of reflection on what Jesus is saying, and an overwhelming amount of advertisements for “THE” perfect miracle diet, that all dull our sensibilities to Jesus telling us to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
The Jewish community who first heard him say this would have been absolutely horrified and scandalized, jaws dropped, covering the children’s ears, feeling sick to their stomachs shocked at his words.
Just like if I told you we were going to have a Baptist style Altar Call at the end of this service, singing “Just as I am” over and over and over. Even more shocked than that!
But seriously, let’s step back in time a bit and try to put ourselves in their sandals, to hear this as if for the very first time, as they would have heard it.
I mean WAY back, to the Creation story in which God tells the first humans to eat plants. Did you know that? Humans were originally supposed to be naked vegetarians? Aren’t you so very glad that has changed? Proof that all things do come together for good: the fall of the human race allowed us to wear clothes and eat meat.
Years later, after the Great Flood, when God established a covenant with Noah, God said,
“Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. (Genesis 9)
And a few generations later, after their enslavement in and deliverance from Egypt as God was establishing the rules of worship with the Israelites, God tells them:
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.” (Leviticus 17)
And then Jesus comes along as says we are to eat his flesh AND his blood! He even goes so far as to say that if we don’t do this thing we have no life in us at all. Shocking.
We’ll talk more about their reaction next week so for now lets focus on Jesus’ words and the life we are created for.
It is only by following Jesus, doing the things he tells us to do, that we can live as God intends for us to live. God created us to be in communion with God. Our true life comes only from God.
Jesus says that he is the true food and drink and that we abide him. Just what is abiding, anyway? It means to remain or to continue to be, but it’s not staying in one place or being static.
Do you know the movie Phenomenon staring John Travolta?
If you don’t know the movie I’d like to say I’m not to spoil it for you, but I can’t make my point without divulging plot secrets. You should see it anyway. It’s a really good movie. It’s about a man who develops amazing abilities because of the way a tumor is growing in his brain: He develops a photographic memory and genius level problem solving skills as well as telekinetic abilities.
In one particular scene, he’s talking with two young children he’s befriended and trying to help them understand what is happening. He’s going to die and the little boy is angry. John is eating an apple and he says “if we were to put this apple down and leave it, it would spoil. But if we eat it it becomes a part of us and we take it with us forever.”
The food we consume becomes a part of us at the cellular level, it abides within us. Once we eat something and our body absorbs the nutrients from it, there is no longer a distinction between the apple and us. Your grandmother was right – you are what you eat.
But like all of Jesus’ teachings, there’s more than a surface level understanding to this. We can grasp the physical side of food building our physical bodies but do we really believe that what we consume through our ears and eyes and minds also feeds us?
When Jesus institutes communion he says to do this – to consume the bread and the wine as if they were his body and blood in remembrance of him so that he can abide in us and we in him. We both call to mind the grace of God giving of himself so that we could receive the life we are intended to have, and we are re-membered, re-created as the hands and feet, eyes and ears, mind and heart of Jesus in this world, here and now as the body of Christ.
By the power of the Holy Spirit the bread and wine are also the flesh and blood of Jesus that he says we must take into the very cells of our being so that we can become more like him every day. Through this act, we continue to find our being in Christ and he remains in us.
The bread and the wine make us the body of Christ, inseparable from Jesus and from each other. Just as we are created in the image of God, the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are inseparably joined together as the body of Christ.
This interconnected life is the life we are created for. Everything we think, do, and say has an impact, whether we see the ripples or not. We are not as individualized as we like to pretend we are. If we haven’t learned this through the COVID19 pandemic, I don’t know what will teach it to us.
We are, each and all, created unique children of God designed to be an integral part of God’s Kingdom, and God’s Kingdom is not complete without each of us connected together. I cannot be fully the person God created me to be without you and you cannot be fully the person God created you to be without me.
When we answer Jesus’ invitation to follow him in God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven, we are acknowledging that the true life we are designed for is lived in communion with God and each other.
In the Service of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer, the congregation, all present who are witnessing the welcoming in of the newest members of Christ’s body, is asked if we will do all in our power to support the persons being baptized in their life in Christ before we all, together, renew our commitment to the baptismal covenant. No one is baptized to individualistically follow Jesus; we are all baptized into the body of Christ.
We are all, absolutely and indivisibly in this thing called life together, interdependent on each other, made whole and holy by Jesus’ body and blood. We abide.
It’s no coincidence that the words with which we enfold the physical act of consuming the bread and wine are voiced as prayer. Prayer is how we commune with God. Prayer is being aware of God’s presence with us, it is abiding in God’s grace and righteousness. It is in the humble attitude of prayer that we come before God to receive all that God desires for us. The benefits we receive through this act of thanksgiving and remembrance come to us only by God’s gracious will that all of us live in the Kingdom Jesus tells us is at hand.
This power of the sacrament isn’t limited by our own efforts or the technology through which we may witness it. We come to God’s table and we offer to God the best we have but the benefits – the solace and strength, the pardon and renewal – come from God. It is only with God that we can live the true life we are created for: life in God’s Kingdom, the kingdom at hand, the kingdom built of love and compassion.
And as we receive Jesus, we begin where we end: we leave this place having remembered and been renewed as Kingdom people, following Jesus, filled with the Spirit, and giving thanks to God always and for everything. Amen.