Sermon preached August 19, 2012
Texts: John 6:51-58
You are an astute group of people so I am sure you notice that people tend to have different body types. We tend to carry our weight differently, and if we have some extra, we store it differently. Some folks carry a bit more weight in their legs and hips, some around their mid-section. I tend to carry it in my mid-section, and right now I need to pay some attention to that, lose a little bit here – though it also tends to be the last place I lost weight.
Thinking about that, I recalled in the recesses of my mind the television character Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore Show – a seventies classic set in Minneapolis. By the way, some of the shows were written by Lorenzo Music, a graduate of Duluth Central High School. Anyone in one episode, Rhoda picks up a piece of candy then says, “I don’t know why I’m eating this. I should just apply it directly to my hips.”
So to some extent, we are what we eat, and we carry what we eat in our unique ways.
In today’s Scripture reading, Jesus encourages a certain kind of eating. 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…. 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…. The one who eats this bread will live forever.
Let’s be honest, this is puzzling and even disturbing. One hears echoes of the recent fascination with vampires – weird creatures who feast on blood and who continue to live though dead in some way. Such creatures may make for entertaining movies and books, but what might the Gospel reading be trying to say to us? Surely there is more than entertainment intended.
In approaching this passage of Scripture, I think it is important that we remind ourselves of the importance of symbolic language in Scripture and religion. The well-known religious scholar Huston Smith considers “metaphor, symbolism and myth” indispensable - - - “they are religions ‘technical language.’” (The Huston Smith Reader, 99-100). John Sanford, writing about the Gospel of John, says this: In order to understand what the Fourth Gospel means by images such as that of the living bread, we must be open to wider spiritual vistas. If our minds can think only literally, if we have refused any insight into ourselves, if our only means of perception are through the physical senses, if we become theologically and psychologically rigid, then we cannot appreciate the tremendous subtlety and variety of the images of Christ that we find in John’s Gospel. (Mystical Christianity, 166)
Most of us would be willing to grant that the language of Jesus here is symbolic and metaphoric. We find precedence for it in the religious tradition of Jesus. Proverbs 9:5-6, the voice of wisdom: Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight. Jesus takes this image and makes it more personal. There is where it gets more challenging. “Eat me,” Jesus says, and in our day and time that kind of language is an expression of anger. I would not want to have that on our church sign as the sermon title.
The symbolic language Jesus is using evokes intimacy, a kind of union. We eat food and it goes to our hips or our stomachs. We take Jesus in, and Jesus wants to go to our hearts, our minds, our souls. Writing about this text, United Methodist bishop Will Willimon penned these words: Ah, wouldn’t the Christian faith be easier if it were a matter of mere belief or intellectual assent! No, 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. (Feasting On the Word)
Sweets may just go to our hips. Jesus wants to go to our core and to every nook and cranny of our lives. He desires that his love, his compassion, his passion for God and God’s dream for the world permeate us, and nourish us. Jesus wants us to have life that is real life.
When I read this gospel text I cannot help but think about the book many of us read last fall, Sara Miles Take This Bread. Its beginning captures the spirit of Jesus words in John 6. One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food – indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people. And so I did. I took communion, I passed bread to others, and then I kept going. (xi)
Jesus wants to do that in each of our lives: feed our deepest hungers, become part of our lives, bring us together with others, help us carry his presence into the world. We know what it is like to feel hungry, and most of us are fortunate that we do not experience that hunger for long because we have the means to satisfy it. As human beings, we have deeper hungers. The poet Carl Sandburg wrote that “There are hungers/for a nameless bread” (“Timesweep” in Collected Poems, 758). We hunger for meaning. We hunger for connection. We hunger for direction. We hunger for acceptance. We hunger for forgiveness. We hunger for love. John Sanford (Mystical Christianity), 163: Healthy souls… yearn for the inner food that nourishes spiritual health. But the process is also reversed; the healthy spiritual food has the power to cure the soul of its ills. In Jesus we find healthy food for our souls – food that nourishes our deepest hungers and cures us of our ills.
So how do we take Jesus in, let him go to our hearts, our minds, our souls? We take Jesus in as we worship, and for Christians that symbolic taking in at communion is particularly powerful. We take Jesus in through prayer. We take Jesus in through Scripture reading. We take Jesus in as we commit ourselves to the Jesus way in the world – the way of love, peace, reconciliation, justice, compassion. The list of how we take Jesus in is important. Yet letting Jesus into the depth of our lives is what matters, and that is more than going through the motions. Finally we know that we are taking Jesus into our lives, when our lives have that quality about them that Jesus called eternal life. Eternal life is less about living forever than it is about living with the eternal spirit of Jesus always. We get some sense for how well we are taking Jesus in when we look at what our lives are putting out.
Anne Lamott shares this story in her book Bird By Bird. An eight-year old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia, and was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents explained this to him, and said that his blood could be a good match. Could they test his blood? The boy agreed. The test revealed that he was a good match and could be the blood donor. His parents asked him if he would be willing to donate a pint of blood, that it could be the only chance his sister had of living. The boy said he would have to think about it overnight.
The next day to boy went to his parents to say that he was willing to donate his blood for his sister. So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his six-year old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see what he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?” (205).
Eat the living bread that is Jesus. Take him into your life. Let us take him into our life together. Let’s take Jesus in, letting him go into our hearts, our minds, our souls, into every nook and cranny of who we are – as individuals and as this community of faith, this family of faith. Let’s take Jesus in so that we will love extravagantly. Let’s take Jesus in so that we will shine brightly. Let’s take Jesus in so that we will show extraordinary compassion.
Taking Jesus in, letting his love touch the world through us, our deepest hungers are fed by the bread of life and we know eternal life. Amen