August 19, 2012
I hesitated to preach on the gospel text this week, since it is quite similar to last week’s text, but in the end it seems to me that there’s a good reason the lectionary keeps us here for awhile. So, we shall see what else we can learn.
As I meditated on today’s passage from John, I felt torn, in a peculiar way. On one hand we are confronted with this concrete, material reference to food, to eating. Issac’s story last week about barbecues with his friends growing up helped solidify this sense of what’s going on in John, and to remind us of the weirdness of Jesus’ words. As Mennonites who like to cook and eat, thinking about bread isn’t so odd in and of itself, so being reminded of the strangeness here is helpful. On the other hand, there is also the spiritual understanding of Jesus’ words:
“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.”
We remembered this last week as we celebrated communion. We affirm that there is something different in that shared meal, something explicit noted in our liturgy, when we say that in the bread and cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. This meal is different.
So, here we are again, another week, another gospel text, with Jesus talking crazy talk. First, he invites us to become something cannibal or vampire like, then he promises that if we eat him we’ll never die. It’s too strange a passage not to read it as some sort of extended parable, to spiritualize it beyond the yuck-factor. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
It seems proper to say that the passage is both material and spiritual — or rather that such a distinction is unhelpful in the first place. Just plain wrong, in fact, if we think — which I’m guessing most of us do — that Jesus’ words, and the liturgical practices we base on them, are meant to form our lives, not be separate from them. Of course this is about Jesus, a foreshadowing of things to come, an extended metaphor; but it is also about bread.
Thus, the way we understand bread — and food more generally — will invariably color our reading of John’s gospel. Our relationship to the food we eat — or don’t eat, as the case may be. Feasting, fasting, gluttony, starvation. Growing food, buying food, cooking food, eating food, feeding others. How does that relationship affect our ability to hear what Jesus is saying here?
Since we have church at 5pm, often on communion Sundays by the time we break the bread I am really hungry. And Dirk makes delicious bread. I wished I could take a page out of Nate’s book and ask Dirk to teach me about bread making this week as part of my sermon prep, but since Dirk was out of town I just thought about it. Not nearly as much fun. In any case, one of the things my thoughts led me to was the importance of that gnawing feeling in my stomach. This passage points to, among other things, hunger, and all of the many things that we creatures seek to fill not just our empty stomachs, but our lives.
Thinking about the tendency to dichotomize, to think in terms of spiritual versus material, one helpful interpretation I came across in my reading this week highlighted for me that Genesis begins with a person who is hungry, and such a distinction between spiritual and material doesn’t really exist for this person. The food Adam and Eve eat, the world of which they partake, is given to them by God, and is their communion with God. “It is divine love made food,” to quote orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemman. Psalm 34, which we heard some of last week and more of today, says “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” and “those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” These words seem to refer to many senses of “taste” and “goodness.”
Let’s look at gospel words again: So Jesus said to them, “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.
That’s the thing about food. Without it, we die. While our Ephesians passage exhorts us not to get drunk on wine, Jesus is telling us, but you must drink the true drink. In a funny way, this reminded me of my college roommates, who used to say, in reference to Jesus wedding miracle of turning water into wine, that “Jesus kept the party going!” Our thirst shall be quenched. But not only your dry throat, your parched mouth — for are there not many kinds of hunger and thirst? “…the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” Jesus says. This is more than food.
This summer I’ve been working on an essay on desire. The essay itself is going nowhere right now, but it’s led me to some interesting reading reflecting on the things we want, the ways we seek to satisfy our desires — how we human creatures try to satisfy our deep, gnawing hungers. Earlier this summer I read an essay by Phillip Lopate, in which he says the following:
“The hedonist’s despair is still that he is forced to make do with the present. Who knows about the success rate of religious mystics? In any case, I could not bring myself to state that what I am waiting for is God.”
He goes on, however, to quote Simone Weil, one of those religious mystics, who writes:
“The soul knows for certain only that it is hungry. The important thing is that it announces its hunger by crying. A child does not stop crying if we suggest to it that perhaps there is no bread. It goes on crying just the same. The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”
In a church full of children such as ours, no doubt many of us know well how inconsolable a hungry child can be. It is only as we become adults that we learn to behave politely, and not express our wants too openly. Reflecting on Simone Weil, Lopate ends with these words, which have stuck with me:
I don’t really know what I’m waiting for. I know only that until I have gained what I want from this life, my expressions of gratitude and joy will be restricted to variations of a hunter’s alertness. I give thanks to a nip in the air that clarifies the scent. But I think it hypocritical to pretend satisfaction while I am still hungry.
Unlike Lopate, by nature of our gathering here we are expressing already that what we are seeking is God, that our souls hunger for and seek satisfaction in the the divine and human sense. And yet Lopate speaks words that are, I think — little though he may intend it — every bit as clarifying for us. Would that our pursuit of God were with that sort of hunger and alertness — carefully stalking the source of all life, refusing to be distracted from the search for that sustaining food. The hunter does not wait around for life giving food; the hunter is in pursuit.
As particularly human creatures, we are also called to bless God in our lives and worship, to respond to God’s blessing with our blessing. We are distinguished from other living creatures by this capacity to worship. And, what is more, our ability to know the meaning of the thirst and hunger which constitute our lives.
Thought of this way, human life — a life shaped by Christian worship — is a thanksgiving for the gift of the world, for the life that is sustained in Christ’s body and blood. In our passage from Ephesians today, we are exhorted: “…be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We are to be filled with the Spirit, and as we receive her gifts they are remade and given back in our praise and thanksgiving. One might go so far as to be grateful for this kind of hunger — for the bread that we are offered is no ordinary bread. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
I think the point I’m trying to get to is something that I’ve observed in the way the church has shaped me, the way that it forms our desires. I am aware that I am hungry — that I want certain things in life — and it is in the context of the body of Christ that I make sense of those desires, discern what is good and question what might not be, knowing that in a temporal sense the hunger will never quite be satiated. I must continue to eat — and I must continue in pursuit of God.
St. Augustine has this to say about our passage today:
“When Christ is eaten, life is eaten…When he is eaten, he nourishes without diminishing. So do not be afraid, brothers and sisters, of eating this bread, in case we should possibly finish it and find nothing to eat later on. Let Christ be eaten; when eaten he lives because when slain he rose again.”
And so we can continue to partake, because this bread is inexhaustable — the true bread never grows moldy or gets stale, the true drink never runs dry.
We eat, and Christ lives in us.
We eat, not merely proclaiming Christ’s death, but his life, until he comes.