August 23, 2015
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. We have today a scandalous teaching, a teaching that offends us, confronts us. We have a teaching that Jesus suggests might make us want to go away. But Simon Peter, and we might answer, “To whom can we go?”
From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we have a totally different image—one of a warrior or a soldier dressing himself in the armor of God, preparing for a spiritual battle with God as his protective clothing.
I am going to preach a short sermon today, with the hope that you will take away these two powerful images, images that might engage your imagination, help you to explore in your own vision a new experience of God.
Eat my flesh, drink my blood and you will abide in me and I in you. I prayed this first line over and over this week. I kept asking in my prayers, and in my silent contemplation, “What is Jesus asking of me?” There is an obvious answer—this is about celebrating the Eucharist. We should be participating in God’s sacrament. But I am uncomfortable with just leaving it at that, it is an answer that leaves me with a practice that might become rote rather than sacramental.
It’s a pretty outrageous idea—eat the flesh and blood of Jesus and we will be given eternal, true life. I’ve sometimes met non-Christians who say this is the very reason that they can’t be Christian—“It’s like cannibalism, talking about eating the flesh and drinking the blood.” I often sidestep this problem when I am talking to people who are not Christian. I explain that we, Episcopalians, understand a real presence of God in the entire act of Eucharist, but we don’t believe in transubstantiation. I sometimes talk about anamnesis—the dangerous memory that we have of Jesus’ death and resurrection and our mystical participation in his suffering, death, and resurrection through our Baptisms and then each time we participate in the Eucharist.
But this week, I struggled with Jesus’ teaching again. Finally yesterday, late in the day, an answer came to me. The answer was that I was asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what Jesus wants of me, I should be asking what is Jesus saying about himself, what is Jesus telling me about who God is and how God works?
Jesus is telling us that he is food and drink for us. We know how food and drink work in our bodies. Food comes into our bodies and if it is good food, then it nourishes us—protein builds muscles, carbohydrates give us energy, vegetables give us vitamins. Good drink hydrates us. I read all the health and diet books. I read recipes and food novels. I think a lot about the food I prepare for my family and friends, because I know that this food contributes to their health. And I also know that as I feed them, I am giving them nurture and love. Feeding and being fed, it is absolutely essential to living.
Jesus is telling us, that he is our food and drink. Just as proteins, carbohydrates and vegetables are essential to maintaining our bodies, Jesus is essential to our true life, our eternal life. God is working from within us. God is not far away, looking at us from the sky, but God is abiding within, God is the food that comforts, that builds us up, that gives us energy and strength. In every aspect of our being this food, this drink is critically important—without we cannot live, with it, we can thrive.
In the letter to the Ephesians, we have a description of the whole armour of God: the belt of truth around your waist, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Again, there is a simple answer about shielding ourselves from those who would challenge our faith by holding up our Bible, our doctrine, our tradition.
As I read today’s Gospel alongside this Epistle, I thought about what this armor image says about God. God is protecting us. I imagined God wrapping God’s self around me in a strong suit of armor, protecting me preparing me with clothes to do battle. But these clothes, these protections are God.
What a contrast—God as the food and drink that nourishes me, and God as the clothes that protect me. God within and God between me and the world. I don’t think that we need to reconcile these images. I think that having the two of them together allows us to see God’s expansive nature, God in all things, all things in God. God is in relationship with us in many different ways. I hear in this description God the Father, protecting us as a Father protects his children, guaranteeing that we will be safe in a hostile world.
I invite us today to hold these two experiences of God. First Jesus as our food and drink today when we participate in Eucharist. This sacrament comes to us layered in meaning, but today, we are invited to by our Scripture to eat the flesh, drink the blood and have a human experience of God as our food. As Jesus notes, this is a scandalous teaching. But to whom else can we go?
And at the same time God the Father is our armor, we can at any moment wrap ourselves in the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness.