Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
There are certain seasons I dread in our house. It’s not the weather, it’s what’s on TV. We just entered football season, which means I got a frantic text from my husband at 5:50, right before he had a church meeting, pleading me to drop everything and make sure the DVR was set for the Packers’ preseason game. And then when he came home… instead of my shows, there was football on the tv.
The next season will be “The Walking Dead.” It’s a zombie show. With the half-dead munching on people. Pretty gross. Kinda weird.
That revulsion is what the Jews are expressing in the Gospel. Because what Jesus is talking about sounds pretty gross.
After feeding 5000 hungry people with five loaves and two fish, Jesus has told the people not to spend their lives working for food that fills for a meal, but bread that gives life. Then Jesus calls himself the bread of life. And then, he gets pretty graphic. Jesus talks about drinking blood and eating flesh as the means through which people will live forever.
If we were to do a Late Night Show Style Pedestrian Question, and read this quote, “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.” I’d bet more people would place it in a monster genre than identify it as Jesus’ words from the Bible.
In the Gospel, the characters called, “the Jews” represent the opposition to the early Christian movement. Just as happens today, those outside the early church, skeptical and suspicious of this new religious group, mischaracterized their beliefs. With language like this, Jesus made it easy. What could be more revolting than eating a person as your central ritual? Think of the rhetoric that is spread regarding Muslims today, and you can imagine how rumors spread about Christians, building hatred.
So why does Jesus use such graphic language? In English, we even miss some of the graphic nature – eat is a gentler word than the Greek which implies crunching and chewing.
What so easily lends itself to misinterpretation and revulsion is what is most radical about Jesus’ words- and most radical about our faith. Our God became human. Our God suffered and died- for real. Not in some distant sense, as a floating spirit looking down on a useless body dying on the cross. Jesus suffered and died, experienced humiliation and pain, in a very real way- the only way any of us would have experienced the cross.
The only difference we might argue for is that Jesus had a choice. Our God could have been like any other god who stays in glory and splendor, the object of all worship and devotion. Our God could have chosen power over us. But our God chose to come among us, and to stay among us, even into suffering and death. Jesus chooses identification with us- with creation.
In dying as one of us, he makes death an experience that is no longer a separation from God- God is there- the life-giving one is in death. The dying of Jesus’ flesh, the outpouring of Jesus’ blood, is all part of Jesus’ work to bring life to the world. To sanitize this event, or to so spiritualize it as to remove it from a real body, with real pain, and real blood, would be to blot out what is radically life-embracing and life-giving.
Jesus’ real life and real death is all for us. But that’s not going to make much of a real difference in our lives if it’s distant or forgotten. Jesus creates a meal for us to participate in his gift of life. This meal, in which we receive the Bread of Life, is Holy Communion. Ordinary bread and wine carry Jesus’ promise and Jesus’ presence into us. In this way, we participate in Jesus’ sacrifice: death and life, for us. We take Jesus’ sacrifice into ourselves. Just as God breathed the Spirit of life into us at creation, God serves God’s own life force to us at communion.
Jesus’ giving of his flesh and blood doesn’t become meaningful until we participate in it. The promise of being given life and forgiveness through Jesus is ephemeral, just words, until it becomes tangible in real bread and real wine. Luther’s Large Catechism explains that we claim this gift by hearing the promises and trusting in them: “for they are not spoken or proclaimed to stone and wood, but to those who hear them.” (ln 33). Jesus makes his promises true: Jesus has created forgiveness and life for us, and he comes among us and within us at communion. These gifts are not dependent on us, but their effect in our lives has a relationship with our desire to receive them.
We participate in communion because Jesus tells us to do it, Jesus comes to us in it, and we are there given the strength we need to live another day. Luther writes, “What is the Sacrament of the Altar?… it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and under the bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by the Word of Christ to eat and to drink.” (ln 8). Communion renews us and keeps us going. Baptism begins our journey with God, as we are united with Jesus for life. Communion is the energy bar that feeds us the life we need to make it through each day. A promise might be disbelieved: how can I really be someone Jesus forgives, how do I know I really receive life from Jesus? But bread and wine, held, smelled, and tasted, are so real that we might just believe that the promise that is carried in them is real also.
God, not us, makes communion what it is: the body and blood of Christ. Neither our own holiness, nor our own sin will destroy Jesus’ promise. Jesus gives himself to us, and invites us to receive the life he offers. The Sacrament is a necessary part of the life of faith.
Some might think their faith is strong enough, that they do not need to participate in communion. To them Luther writes, “If you wish such liberty (to be free from the sacrament), you may just as well have the liberty to be no Christians, and neither have to believe nor pray; for the one is just as much the command of Christ as the other” (ln 49). We cannot do faith on our own, without a regular infusion of God’s grace. There are many today who think they don’t need anyone else- even God- to live a life of faith. To them, Luther has a harsh judgement, declaring that “such people as deprive themselves of, and withdraw from, the Sacrament so long a time are not to be considered Christians” (ln 42).
Others may be led to fear that prevents them from receiving communion. Certainly there are churches around us who encourage such a deep examination before taking a place at the table that it prevents participation. They do so because they do not want a sinner receiving such holiness unaware of his or her need for repentance and forgiveness. But there are none among us who can say they have led a perfectly sinless life or are completely prepared in faith. Quoting St. Hilary, Luther writes, “he ought not stay away from the Sacrament, lest he may deprive himself of life. (ln 51)” God invites sinners and doubters to the table, because we are the most hungry. With bread and wine, promise and presence, Jesus feeds our faith. In his sacrifice and death, Jesus opens the gift of life to all. “Our Sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness (ln 61).”
In Communion, we take real bread and wine and Jesus comes by his promise, so that we are fed real hope, real forgiveness, real life. This is real communion, a becoming one with Jesus, the life-gifting God, and with all who share this life-giving meal.
The Spirit turns our confused revulsion into eager attraction. Talk of blood and bodies might make stomachs turn, but we are all searching for something more real than words. That is what Jesus provides. Not empty pious words, meme worthy, but easily liked and forgotten. Jesus gives himself, fully and truly, to bring life to you and the whole creation. That life is something we long for. That kind of sacrifice, with our regular remembrance of it at communion, has the power to give us life now and always.
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