This has been a hard sermon for me to put together. And I’m not sure exactly why! Three weeks ago I began studying it and was really excited to be able to talk with you about the Eucharist. But as I began to put words and thoughts together this week, it just seemed clunky and didn’t capture the essence of what I think is most important: the fact that Jesus claimed our connection with him brings us into the connection he has with God the Father, who is Life. He offers us a healing intimacy, a restructuring of who we are, perhaps even at a celluar or sub-cellar level to rid of us death, and revive us, heal us, restore us to a life that will never end.
All the other Gospel writers contain the story of the Last Supper, where right before he died, Jesus sat down with his disciples, gave them bread and said, “Take eat this is my body,” and shared the cup with them saying, “Drink this all of you. This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
“Drink this all of you. This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
The Gospel writer John doesn’t recount the setting for these words. Instead he imbeds them in a larger narrative centered around Jesus’ teaching as he calls himself, the Bread from heaven. Perhaps John wants us to remember that it is not only in his death that Jesus brings us life, but in all of his life, in his teaching, the miracles he did, and in his healing ministry as well as his death and resurrection that we come to relationship with God, with Life itself.
Remember the context for the verses we read today? At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus had miraculously fed over 5000 people bread and fish. And the people were amazed and wanted to make him king… but Jesus said: the only reason you want to make me king is because I fed you. You need to focus on what will nourish you eternally, what will bring eternal life.
And the people responded, “Well in the wilderness Moses gave the people manna. So what do you have for us? (We can be so like these people sometimes. We see God at work in our lives in incredible ways, then turn around and say, “But what are you going to do for me now?)
Jesus responded, “It is not Moses who gave you bread from heaven, but my Father.” The people respond: “Well, give us this bread from heaven then.” Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. If you believe in me… believe God sent me, you will have eternal life.” The people didn’t like that response, and began grumbling… we know who his father and mother are… how can he say he came down from heaven?
Jesus reminded them that their forebearers ate the manna and still died, but Jesus is offering them eternal life… And then we have the Gospel reading from today, where Jesus says again, “I am the Bread of Life,” and then pushes the metaphor and says they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. It’s disturbing language, but Jesus is trying to make a point.
What is your favorite kind of bread? Is it the thick crusty loaves of baguettes, or a sourdough loaf? Is it Naan, or a tortilla? Is it challah bread or cornbread? There are so many, many different kinds of bread. Bread is a staple of almost every culture in the world. It is one of the most basic, simple foods that can signal “home” for us. Eating chewy crusty bread is one of the foods I miss most about being gluten free.
Because bread is so basic, toast is often the food most recommended in a recovery from stomach flu, or surgery when you haven’t been able to eat anything for awhile. It is easy to digest and nourishes our bodies when they are the most fragile.
All of these associations with bread are captured in Jesus’ startling words again this week: I am the living bread that came down from heaven. But we and his listeners are left startled, and if we’re honest, a little repulsed by the image of eating his body and drinking his blood as feeding on the bread from heaven. What in the world is Jesus talking about?
At the beginning of John’s Gospel, he says, “The Word (Jesus) became flesh and dwelt among us.” And now, here, Jesus is talking about the sacrifice of his flesh and blood. Why was that that sacrifice necessary?
I was recently at a conference with author Brian Zahnd… talking about the work of Jesus on the cross. He used this analogy: How many of you have seen the movie: Men in Black? Do brief synopsis… Comedy… aliens living on earth… men in black are an secret, elite group of agents who work to keep all the aliens in line, and to protect the earth from any that are trying to destroy it. Huge cockroach two stories tall… Tommy Lee Jones… bug swallows his gun… “Eat me!” Bug eats TLJ… finds his gun and kills the bug from the inside out.
“The Word (Jesus) became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Zahnd says: Jesus said to Death, eat me…. Died on the cross, gave his body and blood, to destroy death from the inside out. That’s an incredibly powerful image isn’t it? The destruction of death from the inside out.
Stick with me here: What happens when we eat bread? It breaks down into little pieces and becomes a part of us… it nourishes us, brings us life.
Suzi Scarborough was at that same conference and remarked… so each week as we eat bread and drink juice… Christ’s work of destroying death continues in us from the inside out. His life kills the death that remains in us.
Because that is the truth isn’t it? Although we who are followers of Jesus have the promise of life eternal, while we remain here on earth, death remains at work in us. That looks different in each one of us. For some of us, death at work in us might be disease, physical maladjustments that bring discomfort, pain, the threat of physical death.
Another way death remains at work in us is the brokenness that creates distance in our relationships, continued problems as we seek to live in relationship with God and others. Our anger, our manipulation or seeking to control others, our addictions all are symptoms of the death that remains within us.
Death remains at work in us when we refuse to forgive others or ourselves for things that have been done to us and by us.
Robert Webber says in his book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail,
“By receiving the bread and wine we are continually fed and nourished for they bring Christ’s action on the cross to us again and again. His work is not repeated. Rather, the application of his work is continually made real as we in faith, add our “Amen, our “So be it,” our “yes” of acceptance to his recreating and renewing work.”
Taking the Eucharist each week, eating Christ’s body and blood, nourishes us… we are saying “yes” and “amen” to the work Jesus is doing within us. As the bread and juice we eat are digested and become part of the life that nourishes us physically, we are reminded that in our connection with Christ, death within us is destroyed from the inside out.
Participation in the Eucharist draws believers into relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We are not just remembering, something actually happens as we participate, remember how the writer John says Jesus put it? “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” This is why I believe it is so essential that we participate in the Eucharist every week… we need the very real death-destroying life that Jesus offers us. We need to say “yes” again to his work within us. We need to be nourished into the life that God has for us.
When Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life. Eat me” perhaps having a precise explanation of what Jesus meant when he said that isn’t necessary. Rather, something far more important is necessary: each of us should be able to testify how in our experience of relationship with the risen Jesus, he is for us the bread of life. He is the one destroying the death within us from the inside out. He is the one nourishing us into life with the Living God.