“Eat my fleash and drink my blood…”, difficult teaching? A sermon for Adel Parish Church, 12th Sunday after Trinity 2021.
John 6: 56 – 69
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” ‘When his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” When like me, you’ve grown up taking communion, receiving the body of Christ, it’s perhaps hard to appreciate how difficult they found it.
In October 1972, an aeroplane crashed high in the Andes mountains. Many of the 45 people on board died in the crash or soon afterwards, but incredibly – 2 months later – 16 survivors were rescued. In order to survive, they had resorted to eating the bodies of their dead friends.
Yes, it’s horrific…we can’t imagine doing what they did. That perhaps gives us an inkling of why Jesus’ words were too much for many disciples. At the heart of our faith is something rather strange…and the last 18 months have perhaps made us re-evaluate what sharing Christ’s body is all about.
In March 2020 churches suddenly shut. I could celebrate the Eucharist at home; I could film or record it…but should I? Some clergy decided they should join their congregations and ‘fast’ from the Eucharist. Others felt it was important to celebrate on behalf of the parish.
You were left with the choice of ‘sharing’ communion online – or not. Do we still share the eucharist if I’m in my study and you’re at home…watching…at a different time?
Our bishops reassured us we can participate spiritually in communion by watching it – especially when we have no alternative – just as our youngest members share through the blessing they receive. But perhaps it made us think about what this sharing of bread and wine means to us.
The wobble in my voice during that first celebration back together in September, and the tears in some of your eyes when you finally received communion tell a story. But maybe other people found that wasn’t what they missed?
So why do we share this strange meal every week…and what did Jesus mean by that ‘difficult’ teaching that drove many away? Today’s reading can be seen as John’s version of the founding of the Eucharist…what does it tell us?
I guess Jesus didn’t expect those he addressed to resort to cannibalism, but the word he uses for ‘eat’ here is a very physical one meaning ‘chew’ or ‘gnaw on’…he’s talking about real eating. But then he says, “It’s the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless.”
John’s gospel is really all about incarnation…the Word made flesh…God, amazingly, ridiculously, becoming human. So it’s not surprising that John’s description of the Eucharist is about the importance of flesh and spirit…the physical and the spiritual.
What we receive into our lives in that bread and wine is somehow the whole of Jesus…the spiritual and the physical. Not just the faith that he is God’s son, but his whole life…how he lived and how he died…entering our lives.
And in receiving Christ’s body and blood, we’re putting our whole lives into his hands. Not just the spiritual…but the physical. He abides in us, and we abide in him…and that should affect everything about our lives, not just the ‘church’ bit – but how we live from day to day.
For the survivors from that plane crash, the decision they made to eat the dead literally gave them life…it also changed their lives. Even though their friend’s deaths came in a tragic accident, the survivors felt that their lives from that point came at the cost of others. They felt a responsibility to the dead and their relatives to use well the lives they had so miraculously been given. It changed the way they lived.
That’s what we’re offered each time we share the Eucharist. Food that gives us life, at the cost of the one who feeds us.
When he became bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes preached a sermon about God’s table – which developed into this book (‘The Table’). He began…’So there’s this table. It’s a simple table, but it’s well made, because it was made by a carpenter. The guy who made it is a poor man, but he’s generous. He offers a place at the table to anyone who wants to sit and eat.’
The bishop talks a lot about all being welcome, and he also says this: ‘The poor man will serve you, and the poor man’s hands are wounded when he serves you, because the food came at a price, and he paid the price.’
For me this bread and wine we share is not just a symbol. I need those physical things, to remind me it’s a real life I’m taking…a life that was lived, and given up so I can abide in God, and God in me. A life that ended, horribly, to give me the gift of life now and always.
Somehow, wonderfully, mysteriously, this meal we share is a point where heaven and earth meet. Here we truly abide in God and he in us.
That’s difficult teaching because it should make me very careful how I use the life I’ve been given…I shouldn’t take what Christ offers and not change the way I live.
This teaching is indeed difficult – or it should be if we think about what we do here each week. But as usual, I’m heartened by the words of Simon Peter. ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Jesus asked him.
‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’
Not an understanding, a thought-out theology of what happens at Christ’s table. Just a recognition that somehow, here we are given real life. And once we’ve felt that – we have to keep coming back.
So at the heart of our faith is the table of the poor carpenter, where all are welcome…and where we’re given a life-changing gift of life. As we take that gift into our bodies today – let’s pledge to use the life we’re given to build Christ’s kingdom by our words and actions.