Note: This is the text as I prepared it. However, the preaching moment was rather different. Instead of sharing a bit of my story in the second half of the sermon, I invited the congregation to ask questions about the Eucharist. At both services we had lively conversations about transubstantiation, about what happens if one receives “unworthily” (I Corinthians 11), about communion without baptism.
Jesus says many strange things in the Gospel of John. Many of these sayings are so strange that we don’t pay attention to them anymore. Often, the Christian Church has interpreted them in such a way to make them less strange and those interpretations have become so fixed, that many of us don’t experience or encounter their strangeness. And when we encounter people in the text puzzled by what Jesus is saying, we think they are being willfully obtuse. So in chapter 3, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born again (or from above)” And Nicodemus responds, “How can someone enter their mother’s womb again?”
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says things that on the surface, taken at face value, are not only strange but offensive: “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.”
If you’ve never heard these words before, they are bound to shock, but those of us who have been around scripture and Christianity for many years have learned how to interpret them in such a way as to minimize their power to offend. We may or may not find them offensive today—it’s indisputable that people in the first century encountering them would have found them so. For first century Jews, such language would have been more than impolite or inappropriate, it would have been deeply offensive, stomach-turning we might say, and for those who read the gospel in the second or third centuries, cultured Romans or Greeks, would probably have turned away, shaking their heads in disgust and disbelief. It’s worth remembering that among the charges laid against early Christians was that they practiced cannibalism; of course that’s a charge that has often been used to “other” people of different cultures or beliefs.
But let’s amplify the offense, shall we?
Up to this point, the gospel writer had used a common word for eat; beginning in verse 54, he chooses a different word “trogein” that many commentators suggest has the connotation of “chewing with your mouth open.” So we might construe v. 54 as “those who chew my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” Now, does that make you uncomfortable?
We are inclined to ease our discomfort by saying Jesus is speaking metaphorically, speaking not about himself primarily but about the Eucharist, communion. And that brings us to another point that should factor into our reflection on these verses, and indeed on the whole of this chapter. For John is unique among the gospels in that he does not include an account of Jesus sharing bread and wine with his disciples at the last supper. He does not record the institution of the Eucharist or of communion, or any version of the words we say each time we celebrate the Eucharist.
In essence, this chapter serves as something of John’s reflection on, and insistence of the importance of the Eucharist. Now, I don’t know whether you think about what we do each Sunday, whether you pay attention to the words of the Eucharistic Prayers that I recite each Sunday, in whatever version—whether it’s the traditional language of Rite I, the versions offered in the alternative prayers of Rite II in the Book of Common Prayer, or the one we’ve been using this summer. They are quite different in many respects, theologically certainly, but also in the way the various pieces of the prayer are presented. But at their core, they share something, what we call the words of institution, that in every version read something like this:
“On the night on which he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take, eat. This is my body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.
After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given
thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you:
This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you
and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink
it, do this for the remembrance of me.”
These words, recited countless times over the centuries, do more than remember and recall the events of the last supper. They bring us into the heart of the mystery of our faith, the paschal mystery, the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, the promise of his coming again.
I’m going to get personal here, and I’ll apologize in advance if you think I’m over-sharing. I haven’t always been a priest; I was a layperson first, and before becoming Episcopalian, I was also a scholar of the History of Christianity during the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. Among the things I focused on to some degree were the passionate debates in the sixteenth century over the Eucharist—whether the bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and if so, in what way. I read hundreds, probably thousands of pages written by sixteenth century theologians and polemicists, not to mention the earlier theologians they drew and criticized. And none of that convinced me to interpret Jesus’ words in any way other than symbolic, metaphorical—the Lord’s Supper, to use language of the Radical Reformation, was a memorial, a symbol of Christ’s love to be shared by the members of the body of Christ.
As an Episcopal layperson, I took solace in the words of invitation the priest says before we receive: “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”
As I’ve said countless times in classes, these words are expansive in their language and meaning. They do not define precisely what happens in the Eucharist, how precisely the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, they invite us to eat, and experience.
And that’s precisely what has happened to me over the years. First as a layperson, then as a priest. The more I participate in the Eucharist, the more deeply I come to experience the bread and wine as Christ’s body and blood—Christ’s body, broken for me, Christ’s blood, shed for me.
But, and this is the important thing—it’s not just for me. It’s for us, all of us. The bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus Christ, but we, the community gathered around this table, are also Christ’s body. The people kneeling at the altar rail next to me are part of Christ’s body, are Christ to me. That of course may be more difficult to believe than that the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood.
But it’s true of all of us; even as we receive Christ’s body and blood, we also become Christ’s body. We bring with us to this place, to this table, all of our sin, all of our brokenness, but as we come, we are also repenting and asking God’s forgiveness and as we share in Christ’s body and blood, we are being remade in his image and likeness, like the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood. But just as Jesus Christ came not for us alone but for the whole world, so to are we to live not only for ourselves alone, but for the world, and as Christ’s body in the world, we show forth his love and grace to the world.