John 6:35, 41-58
August 9, 2015
William G. Carter
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."
I think my childhood friend Joey was the first to talk to me like this. We had planned to play a little baseball, as I recall. When I rode my bike over to his house, he opened the door wearing a white shirt and a clip-on tie. His hair was combed sideways, and his cowlick was glued down with a little Dippity-Do. “I can’t play ball today,” he said, looking back over his shoulder. “Mom says I have to go to church and eat the body and blood.”
He wasn’t a Presbyterian. No Presbyterians talked that way. No, Joey was a Catholic. His family often went to church, sometimes on unusual days that they called “obligations.” That particular day must have been one of them. So he was going to church to “eat the body and blood.” He waved to me on my bike as his family drove by in their Chevy.
Soon thereafter I was sitting in my own church wearing a white shirt, a clip-on tie, my hair combed sideways reinforced with a dab of Dippity-Do. The minister stood behind a table, held up a hot dog roll, broke it, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body given for you.” Given my recend conversation with my friend, I sat up straight with attention. What was in the plate that the old man was carrying toward our pew? Was he carrying a plate of little pieces of skin?
Alas, I discovered the tray was full of precisely carved cubes of Wonder Bread. As I reached for one, my mother murmured, “No, don’t. Not until you know what you’re doing.” That is my first recollection of the sacrament of Holy Communion.
I could spend the next fifteen minutes of my sermon unpacking that memory. There is a lot there to unpack, beginning with the charge, “Not until you know what you’re doing.” That experience took place almost fifty years ago, and I confess, when I take communion, I still don’t know entirely what I am doing. Oh I know, I’m supposed to. I can read the prayers out of a book. I can generate a religious experience as well as any other cleric.
And I passed a battery of ordination exams many years ago, one of which asked the question, “What do you say when the youth group asks on a retreat if you can give them communion with garlic bread and birch beer?” That was an actual exam question, to which I gave an acceptable answer that I have long since forgotten.
But let me say it to you straight: when we break the bread and pour the cup, it is a profound mystery - for me, and for you. I knew at a young age that it was more than a funeral meal with Jesus. Jesus died, and Jesus rose from the dead. We remember his self-giving death when we have communion, but we do in the presence of Christ who is alive. We don’t call it “the Last Supper,” which was a onetime event. The Table is for the Lord’s Supper, and we “celebrate it,” much like every Sunday morning when we celebrate a Little Easter.
That makes it a mystery. One thing I know about the human psyche: we don’t know what to do with mystery.
Much of the last five hundred years, we have lived through a continuing effort to remove all mystery from human life. We analyze everything scientifically. We work to remove all ambiguity. We develop technology that we can put in our cell phones, to know precisely where we are located and how long it will take to drive to Nutley, New Jersey, or wherever else we want to go. In some ways it has been a vain attempt to control life, and overlook the truth that life is largely uncontrollable.
I asked our friends John and Connie, “When is your daughter Andrea due to have her baby?” They said, “August 1.” Hmm, nothing manageable about that. Maybe it’s time to ride a Jeep down a bumpy road, if that will help.
Meanwhile, if I hear anything from people within the church or burned out on the church, whether spiritual-but-not-religious or religious-but-not-very-spiritual, all of them have a deep hunger and thirst for holy mystery. Either they want a living experience of God in their lives, or they want a God who is far more alive and live-giving than the lesser gods they have grown tired of hearing about from a distance.
This awkwardness about mystery is one of the issues dangling in our Gospel text. Jesus is arguing with some of the religious leaders of his time. They don’t like it that he speaks in metaphors. He says, “I am the bread of life,” and they say, “What’s he talking about?” He says, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they say, “Is he crazy? We know his mom and dad.”
Then he says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you don’t have any of my life in you.” With that, some of his own disciples say, “Eww! That’s gross.”
Well, if you take that literally, of course it is. But when has Jesus said anything literal in the Gospel of John? Just about every time he opens his mouth, a metaphor floats out. The literally-minded will miss the truth that he wraps in figures of speech.
He says, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.” And Nick says, “Do we have to have to crawl back into our mother’s wombs?” Of course, it is totally lost on Nicodemus that Jesus is suggesting a feminine attribute of God. Think about this: God is the One who gives birth again… and again and again.
Or to that woman in Samaria, who comes by herself to draw water from the well, Jesus says, “If you knew who I am, you would ask and he would give you living water.” She looks at him, daring to talk to a female at high noon in the village square, and says, “Where is your bucket?” She doesn’t perceive him yet, as John Calvin would one day, as the fountain of God’s grace.
Over and over, he speaks of God’s grace and truth in metaphors that dance and sparkle. “I am the light of the world.” “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (that’s one thing, not two). “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (that’s one thing, not three; you know, three-in-one).
To understand Jesus as John reveals him, one must have a vibrant understanding of language. Otherwise when you hear him say, “eat my flesh and drink my blood,” you might miss what he is saying. You might drive a steamroller over the mystery and try to flatten it out.
So what is he saying? Is this transubstantiation talk? No, it isn’t. Nobody talked officially about transubstantiation until sometime in the eleventh century, somewhere in France. Even then it would take another 300 years for the Roman church to talk it out some more, before the Protestant Reformers would protest about it.
What is he saying? The Gospel of John was probably written down around 90 AD, some 60 years after the resurrection. What John reports in the words of Jesus is the living experience of the early Christians. As they gather at the Table, they receive the grace and truth of the Lord. The bread and cup are a way of taking the mystery of Christ into our lives, our souls, and our bodies. In eating “the flesh” and drinking “the blood,” Jesus becomes real to them. It has always been that way for those who welcome him into their lives.
All the elaborate theories will come centuries later, from theologians who apparently had a lot of time on their hands. Conversely, the critics outside the church didn’t comprehend the metaphors that are given to the faithful. There are accounts from Roman officials accusing the early Christians of being cannibals, among other things. And of course, they couldn’t understand.
The heart of the matter is that Jesus Christ is our life. He is risen and alive, for God is alive. His invitation to “eat and drink” is the invitation to take part in his life. It’s what he calls “the life of eternity.” (zoe aionios)
A lot of times we translate this phrase as “eternal life.” I believe that is a flat translation. That, for many people, is a life that goes on and on forever. When a lot of folks hear about “eternal life,” they think only about the next life, about heaven.
But Jesus is speaking of something far greater. He is speaking about this life, the only life we get. When he points to “the life of eternity,” it’s a way of referring to “the life that God lives” or “the life of the Risen Christ.” It’s a way of being and doing, serving and loving, forgiving and rejoicing, here and now. Certainly it continues into the future for as long as God’s eternity shall last. But it starts here and now, by taking the mystery of Christ into our mouths and hearts and hands. As he says somewhere else, the mystery is like a small seed that can grow until it fills us.
Bread and cup are the means by which we return regularly for this mystery. And baptism is the way we begin the journey. Watch what happens in a few minutes. It may look like we merely splash the water on the brow of little Eloise and say the magic formula – but at the heart of it all there is a deeply profound truth: she belongs to the Risen Christ today and forever. His love embraces her and her family. His justice sets a plumb line for her life.
In the years to come, if we all work together to tell her what the mystery of Christ is all about, she can be shaped in his image. She will not grow up to be a racist. She will never walk by a hungry neighbor. She won’t ever demean somebody with whom she disagrees. She will find her strength in the living words of God.
That’s the journey all of us are on: we are Christians becoming Christians. We are claimed in the covenant love of God … and we have to grow up and become like Christ. It takes a while: hearing the Bible stories, learning the skills of worship, forming the words of prayer, practicing the works of mercy, until all of these things become life-giving practices.
Along the way, we keep returning to the Lord’s Table, to eat his flesh, to drink his blood, to receive his power to keep going on. It matters not if we have perfectly cubed Wonder Bread or flat, dry matzoh. What matters is that we keep returning to Christ, our hearts broken open, ready to receive the life of eternity that is his holy gift.
This is the wisdom of God for us this day. And it prompts a question that I have wanted to ask for the thirty years of my ordination. I am going to ask it of all the Protestants in the room. Here is the question: if Jesus invites us to receive the life of his eternity through the bread and cup, why don’t we have communion more than we do?
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.