Year B, Pentecost 13
One of the things I love about being a priest is that I get to spend a lot of time thinking about things and relearning things. While in general I enjoy studying and teaching, there are some things in the church that are really hard to explain. Every time I have to teach a communion class to children, I hit the books. Then, I remember that the books weren’t that helpful the last time I taught the class and they are still not. Yet still—I think—there just has to be a good way to explain this. When I get in front of the kids, it sounds something like this: So we eat the bread and drink the wine, but it’s not just bread and wine. It’s more. It’s special. It’s Jesus’ body and blood…but it’s not really the body and blood, because that would be gross. It still tastes like bread, but it’s Jesus. No you are not eating Jesus, but Jesus is still in you after you take communion. Jesus is part of you because he died for you, but no- he doesn’t actually die every Sunday. Look, it’s a mystery, we can’t actually explain it. Well….you get the picture. It is murky. I often wish that the Episcopal Church could achieve more clarity in our beliefs around the Eucharist, but it’s doubtful it will happen in my lifetime.
The thing about communion is –that at the same time, it is both the simplest part of our faith AND that most mysterious and theologically dense part of our faith. In the early church, they argued about it endlessly, and to some extent, we are still arguing about it. Matthew, Mark and Luke all share the story of the Last Supper, where Jesus gives instructions about how we are to remember him. We use those instructions in the words of our Eucharistic prayers (which is the prayer the priest says before we all come to the altar to receive communion). The words we use come from the Gospels.
The Gospel of John shares the story of the Last Supper, but Jesus does not present the bread and wine as his body and blood. Instead he shares a meal with his disciples and he washes their feet and encourages them to do likewise. The language of the body and blood instead appears in today’s Gospel reading, which comes right after the miraculous feeding of the 5000 but way before the Last Supper. This language is rather explicit. “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.”
Flesh and blood. It’s kind of gross. There is no mistaking what Jesus was talking about. He was talking about flesh and blood. Why did he get so specific? Prior to this reading for today, Jesus described himself as the bread of heaven. That is a lot more palatable. But Jesus was never about making things easy. Notice he said that his flesh was true food and his blood was true drink. Saying that something is true is another way of describing something as real. Jesus wanted all those listening (and those of us listening now) to know that this was the real thing—that he was the real thing. He was real and true, and he still is today.
A lot of new age spirituality encourages us to find the divine in each one of us. I think that’s find and good. We are created in the image of God, and that includes divinity to some degree. Yet what Jesus was teaching people in our Gospel reading from today was the goodness of humanity, of our flesh and blood. Often over the last 2000 years of the history of the church, flesh has gotten a bad rap. Religious leaders have been critical of the flesh, saying that the body is sinful and weak. Yet if that were true, why would Jesus make such a point of highlighting his humanity—so much so that he asked us to eat his flesh and drink blood?
Our bodies are weak. Even at their strongest and youngest, these bodies of ours are painfully vulnerable. Despite that, Jesus still took on a human body so he could experience what we experience. You know that saying that you have to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes?” Jesus did so much more than that. He lived a life in our bodies, so that we would never doubt that he understands our pain and that he isn’t some god stuck on high mountain judging from afar. He is down here with us.
By celebrating the Eucharist every week, we are remembering the realness of Jesus. We are not elevating him, as much as we are bringing him down to be with us. Then we are taking it a step further by consuming him. One of the last things the priest says before all the people come to receive the bread and wine is, “These are the gifts of God for the people of God.” Then there is an optional addition. The priest can add: “Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving.” I always include the 2nd part because I like the image of feeding on him in your heart. We don’t normally associate the heart with food, but there is no doubt that our heart and our soul needs that kind of nourishment. It’s not enough to simply consume the body and blood. We are to be consumed by it.
Augustine of Hippo was a great theologian of the 5th century. Catholics and Protestants are always arguing about who gets to claim him (which means he’s totally an Episcopalian). He wrote a lot about the Eucharist. One of things he said was, “Come to the table to receive what you are. Then go into the world to be what you received.” Augustine was saying that we the people are the body of Christ. Therefore, when we come to the altar, we are receiving something we already are, but we are still being transformed by it.
When God created humans, God declared us good. That never changed. Each one of us is good because we are made in the image of God. When Jesus came down in the flesh, he was reminding us that humans are still good. In some ways, communion is another way to be reminded of the goodness that resides in each one of us. Imagine how the world could be if we lived into that goodness—if we acted as good as we are? So come to the table. It will not make you good, it will remind you of the goodness that is already in you. It will feed your body and heart. It doesn’t matter if you can’t describe exactly what it means. Eat the bread. Drink the wine. Then leave this church and share that goodness, because our world is desperate for that. Our world is starving for goodness, and we have an endless supply of that kind of nourishment, more than enough to share.