John 6: 35, 41-51
Several times now, in our parish there have been discussions about how often we should have communion… I have been looking for an opportunity to continue that discussion about what Communion means and does. … As it happens, today’s text links into that discussion perfectly… ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will live in the life of eternity’ [pause]
Some people suggest to me (in unguarded moments) that frankly, they’ve been going to church all their life, they heard more than enough sermons, they basically know what Christianity is about, they know what they believe, and so it doesn’t really matter whether they miss a Sunday, and it doesn’t really matter if the sermon passes them by and they just enjoy the music or the company. After all they’ve heard it all before. Some preachers respond by trying to find new and surprising things to say – some start telling jokes every Sunday. Some feel that we need to provide some novelties to bring in the young people. They don’t exactly ask for dancing girls on the altar, but they ways of making it more exciting…. It’s a very Protestant view of the world. At the center of our worship is the Word and people feel that once you’ve understood the words that’s all that matters.
Words… ideas… it’s a very intellectual understanding of the faith, even if people are not intellectuals… it’s still about getting the right ideas. In that sense it’s a modernist approach to life. “I think therefore I am” says the modernist world – so give me the facts…education will save us.
John’s gospel says two things… in this context Firstly it reminds us that the Word is not the Bible first of all, but the living Jesus… John begins his gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word became Flesh – Jesus life. “I am the bread that came down from heaven”… It’s one thing to understand a text, and another thing altogether to understand a person. Those of us who are married know that it’s a life long business and you never get to the end of it. (I still don’t understand my wife!) We have to do with a living word… which is really a life lived out in history. Jesus is not an idea. The nourishment for our spiritual life is a working man from a peasant town in the first century. ‘Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. This is why we come to church, and that is why we read the Bible, so that God can speak to us in person – in the person of a Galilean carpenter’s son – not so we can understand some good ideas. We are here to meet again with Jesus… and to be changed.
Secondly John tells us that our job is not first of all understanding a Word, but eating flesh – like something out of a gruesome horror movie… Jesus in John says, ‘and the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. … We are called to be bloodthirsty flesh-eaters. And clearly that’s how some pagan onlookers understood Christian worship… a kind of Dracula cult. This is John’s way of talking about the Eucharist… Where the other gospels tell the story of the last Supper with the words ‘this is my body broken for you, this is my blood poured out for you’ John says we are flesh-eaters and blood-drinkers if we want to live and not die – spiritually – we need to be nourished by the bodily reality of Jesus of Nazareth – it is our food, it forms our daily existence. But what does that mean?
I believe we can learn something from the Catholics here, Catholics have a very complicated idea, although it appears simple at first glance… they say that the bread and wine change into something called a ‘spiritual substance’ – so they literally are the body and blood of Christ (then they immediately add, “but in a spiritual sense”!)… now I don’t want to go into all the complicated philosophy behind it, but the result is that they take seriously the need for regular Eucharist… In other words they get Jesus point, even if the philosophy is confused/or confusing (depending on your point of view). Unless you eat me and drink me… you will die. In reaction to this Protestants say… it’s just a metaphor for remembering Jesus, and thinking about him. Effectively they say, “This is the information about God’s love that has come down from heaven, lets think about it…” Which leads us back to where we began… if we think that basically we’ve got what Jesus is on about (heard it all before)… then Communion 4x per year is enough as a reminder. But, Jesus knows we don’t need an idea. What we need is constant nourishment, constant formation. We are not computers to be programmed correctly and then do the same thing forever. John’s Jesus says to us, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’ (not the information, but the bread)… His flesh is our bread… To believe is to feed and to feed is to believe. Salvation is not a reward… – in the sense of something added on quite different from the feeding itself – the relationship of feeding is bound up with the outcome. Salvation is bound up with the relationship of feeding. Just as who-I-am-physically depends on my continuing to receive good food. So, who-I-am-spiritually, what my identity is, is constantly changing and developing through my life… and that’s where the metaphor is grounded in a quite literal assumption… My life and your life in relation to God is literally dependent on the flesh and blood of Jesus. Were it not for that invasion into my life by the action of God in the person of Jesus from Nazareth, I would be constantly formed by a world which is completely upside down and perverse. I would be feeding on what is in effect poison, week in week out. To believe is to feed and to feed is to believe….
What is at stake here is spiritual living and spiritual dying… he is saying that if you feed on him you will not die spiritually Pretty much everything else in our genetic makeup and our environment and social conditioning will tend towards killing us spiritually, so this is a battle for our life. If you feed on him you will live spiritually, and this will, in turn, mean for you life in the age to come. So we’re talking about a process of feeding our life from above, from outside our self… and that food comes from the life of Jesus the bread come down from heaven … But this whole conversation, both in John and in the other gospels has a particular focus… it is not just the life of Jesus that feeds them, it is the life of Jesus understood as corpse and blood, understood as body broken, and blood poured out. The meaning and center of Christ’s life is found in its end. Not in his birth but in his death. Not in Christmas but in Easter. He gave himself away… even into death, even into the hands of violence. The life we feed off is not just a good life, in a general sense, it is the life of a man whose goodness had a particular shape to it. He gave himself away… in freedom… for us – and as such the life of God with us… And in that moment of brilliance, just prior to his death he gathered his beloved friends together and gave them not just an astonishing summary of his calling but a dramatic enactment which would nourish their lives. “Do this in remembrance of me.” The Bread and Wine may not be “spiritual substances” but what we have been given is a process in which our lives can be constantly nourished and formed by the life of God, poured out into death.
It’s John Calvin’s 500th birthday around now… and he, if he were here, would be keen to remind us that the Word of God is at the center of our worship (we are here to be spoken to)… But what I want to stress today is that this Sacrament of Holy Communion is at the center of God’s Word to us… and it is from this center that we are fed, and from this center that we live. This meal is a life or death matter… Once a month Communions is a bare minimum Bloodthirsty Flesh-eaters… sounds like training in violence…. What we are actually talking about are the ways God gradually and graciously reshapes us in the image of the non-violent Son of God. At the Eucharist we become more truly human… together.
Bruce Hamill (9.8.09 at St Clair and Green Island)