Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 9:1-6 Invited to dine at wisdom’s feast
Psalm 34:9-14 Those who seek the LORD lack nothing that is good. (Ps. 34:10)
Ephesians 5:15-20 Filled with the Spirit, sing thanks to God
John 6:51-58 Christ the true food and drink
“I am living bread, come down from heaven,” Jesus says. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I abide in them.” Jesus’ invitation to the crowd is to come and eat, but it’s more than that to. It’s “Come and be with me, stay with me, and let me stay with you.” It’s an echo of today’s reading from Proverbs, in which Lady Wisdom, who is often understood as a female personification of God invites fools in to dine at her house. What both invitations have in common is that they are invitations to feast on life.
The request that we eat the bread of Christ’s flesh and drink his lifeblood is an invitation to take on Jesus’ own essence, the very stuff of which he is made. Perhaps he is appealing to the same idea that is embraced by some cannibalistic societies who ate the bodies of those they conquered in order to gain the strength of their enemies. They ate their enemy’s hearts in order to gain their passion, their muscles to gain their strength, their brains to gain their wisdom. Although I’m not keen on cannibalism, and I would not consider Jesus a conquered enemy, I really do like the idea of taking some of Jesus’ passion, strength, and wisdom into my own body. It’s a visceral understanding of what it means to abide.
And visceral understanding seems to be what the writer of John’s Gospel was going for. Unlike the way the institution of the Lord’s Supper is introduced in the other three Gospels—which portray Jesus eating his final meal on earth with his disciples just before his arrest and death—in John’s Gospel, sacramental language occurs only at this meal, which occurs in the middle of Jesus’ ministry. It is not a time when he urges his followers to remember him after he dies, but a time when he urges them to become more fully alive right now. He urges them to fully, deeply abide in him while he and they are still alive. Jesus wants people to savor our relationship with him here on earth, to chew contemplatively on how life is enhanced by our relationships with Jesus and one another. What a joy it is to know that in Holy Communion, we are not only forgiven for what is ungodly in our lives, but also given an extra dose of what is divine!
After Jesus ascends into heaven following his resurrection, all that the world knows of Jesus is us, the Church, the community where Jesus chooses to abide. The wise and the foolish, the confused, forgetful, the complicated people who gather here and elsewhere in God’s name are His body and blood, his hands and feet and voice and heart here on this earth. We are the Light of the World. We are the Gospel-bringers and the Hope-bearers. We are God’s ambassadors, representing God’s gracious acceptance to all we meet. Such a calling is only possible if we continue to be sustained by living bread. We just do not have it in us to be constantly loving, thoughtful, decent, and sacrificial people. We do things we don’t mean to do, and neglect to do things we know we ought to do. We hurt ourselves and others with words we say or leave unsaid. We do not always live as we pray.
And even on those glorious occasions when we do, when we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, and living and loving as we are called to, sometimes things still don’t go well for us. Sometimes other people treat us badly for trying to tell the truth in love, for trying to change a system that works for people with power at the expense of people with no power. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Nonsmokers die of lung cancer. Innocent kids get blown up by bombs. Floods and fires destroy the homes and livelihood of cruel and kind people alike. Such situations do not mean God is not present, or does not care. It is hard to see what God might be up to when all we can perceive is darkness, but that is the mystery of God-with-us. The profound and important truth of where God is when it looks like God is absent can be found when we look to Jesus, the Living Bread from Heaven, the Sustainer and Giver of Life, hanging on a bloody instrument of torture in a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. God abides with us even in our pain—perhaps especially in our pain.
Whether or not we understand the metaphor of eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood, whether or not it makes us uncomfortable, it is an act of solidarity Jesus offers to us. It is a sign that Jesus is truly present in all circumstances and at all times, always bringing into this world life, life, and more life. It is a delight to think Holy Communion is an action of taking on Christ’s characteristics, Christ’s compassion and wisdom, but it is more profound even than that. When the Living Bread is integrated into our lives, when Jesus’ blood courses through our veins, when we are abiding in him and he abiding in us, then it is unavoidable that we also take on his suffering. In being united with Jesus, we are also embracing the issues, struggles, and blessings of all of that Jesus loves—all of creation.
Abiding in Jesus and his abiding in us means that when part of creation rejoices, we rejoice too. Yesterday, when Bishop Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld was being formally installed as our synod’s new bishop, a magnificent Gospel choir sang a song with this refrain, “I need you to survive.” Our lives are tied up in one another. We need one another because none of us are islands, as the poet John Donne put it. To live full, complex lives, we require the existence and the flourishing of one another. We need one another to make it through their dark times as much as we need them to help us through our own. Because the church abides in Jesus and Jesus abides in us, none of our lives can be what God intended if other people are not also able to live fully and authentically.
For this reason, if one of us suffers, all of us suffer. The glitter and glory of today’s Pride Parade will be diminished because of the conflict over whether or not LGTBQ+ police officers should participate in uniform. Our common life is diminished by the tragedy that African American people in this country live in fear of unwarranted violence and hostility toward them—both from officers of the law and from their fellow Americans. And our common life is damaged when some people are told they cannot express their full humanity—be that gender, sexual orientation, or other aspect of themselves—alongside their profession or place in society. Everyone is hurt by these realities. We hold all this pain together, longing for the healing of all parties, broken by each person’s agony. And that’s just one example. Our nation is plagued by a justice system that is not just, by national discourse that is increasingly violent and hostile, by an increasing divide between rich and poor, and by a host of other fears and wounds. We need each other to survive, and more than that, to thrive.
It is a tradition at some Jewish Seder meals to remove a drop of wine from one’s cup for each of the plagues sent to the Egyptians at the time of the exodus. No one’s cup of blessing and joy can be completely full as long as one other person is still hurting.
To make the feast of life complete we require Living Bread from heaven. We need to eat at wisdom’s table, to be reconnected to one another through the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as the writer to Ephesians tells us. At times like this, when we abide in each other’s well-being, our own lives are suddenly more delicious. In spite of how scary or crazy it seems, let’s lean into God’s invitation that we eat his flesh and drink his blood, for it reminds us that we belong to God and to one another. It leads us more deeply into authentic living. Let us be nourished for the tasks ahead—for loving and listening, for feeding and advocating, for speaking and for holy silence—by drawing near to God and to one another to feast at the table where Jesus is host and guest, meal and message. And when we leave here today, let us boldly carry away from this holy communion a burning compassion and empathy for all that God loves. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider