SO for the past several weeks, we have been reading from the Gospel of John all about Jesus as the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven, the bread that will never leave us hungry, the bread of eternal life. Funnily enough, in the Gospel according to John, at the Last Supper, there is no institution of the Eucharist as there is in the other gospels. Instead, there is a foot washing, a betrayal, and a long, long set of speeches and prayers. The Eucharist, the Communion bread, in the Gospel of John, is truly embodied by Jesus in the heart of his ministry, in the middle of the people, in the offering of himself, his flesh and blood, his living presence among them.
The gathered people, not unreasonably, disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Have you ever watched those cooking competitions on television where the celebrity chefs exhort and appeal to the everyday, ordinary home cooks, “I want to see ‘you’ on a plate! I want to eat your story, I want to taste your passion!” I want you to put your heart and soul into your food. I want to you to put yourself on the plate; that, and passion. If I had a nickel for every time the word “passion” is played out on one of those shows!
And we understand what they’re getting at, even if the words are overused and overplayed; we understand that they are looking for authenticity, engagement, risk, vulnerability, that they are being asked to sacrifice something of themselves in what they offer for the judges to eat.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
This passage, these passages appeal to me on the level of my bone-writing, those words that were engraved on me as I grew and have become indelible. Many of you, I know from when we use it in Lent, grew up as I did saying the Prayer of Humble Access at each Communion:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 337)
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them;” and yet, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
I read an article a year or so ago on Tumblr by Lillian Keil. She wrote, in part,
I always thought communion was a little weird.
I became a Christian when I was 20. Though my love for Jesus came easily, my acceptance of church traditions did not. Communion struck me as a pointless relic of orthodoxy. The vague cannibalism implied by “this-is-my-body” and “this-is-my-blood” made me wonder if the whole thing wasn’t just a misquote of Jesus. …
It wasn’t until I became a nursing a mother that I began to understand the Eucharist.
She goes on to talk about the revelation that breastfeeding can be; not neglecting the pain of the broken body; but also the delight that can happen, and how all-encompassing that nursing relationship can be, providing not only food, but closeness, comfort, the soothing of tears, love.
Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind for the Eucharist. Through the breaking of the bread, God invites us into the nursing relationship: the meeting of all our needs.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they are still asking in the background there, grumbling on, some of them by now slightly scandalized.
Did you know that the very moon has been blessed by the celebration of the Eucharist? Buzz Aldrin wrote in his book, Magnificent Desolation,
during those first hours on the moon, before the planned eating and rest periods, I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out the communion elements along with a three-by-five card on which I had written the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon. My comments to the world were inclusive: “I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” I silently read the Bible passage as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.
He reflected later that maybe given his time over, he wouldn’t have chosen such an explicitly Christian symbol to use, to commemorate the whole of humanity’s first moments on the moon, but it made perfect sense to him at that time, and it makes sense to me. His pastor, speaking to the earthbound press, showed them the bread from which Aldrin’s piece of the Body of Christ had been broken; the rest would be shared among his fellow-parishioners, in the assurance that even beyond the boundaries of space, he was still in communion with them, as well as with God;* because Communion only happens in community.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” And we who are many are one body, because we all eat of the one bread.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat on the moon?” they demanded to know, adding, “This is getting a little ridiculous.”
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.”
I’ve been telling you, says Jesus, that I have come to bring you to life. I have come to share your flesh and blood, to be a part of you, bone from your bone, swapping DNA, shedding dust from my feet that matches your skin, living your life, so that you might live my life, so that you might know heaven on earth, and beyond the earth, and beyond the moon and the stars.
I am the bread of life, says Jesus.
I remember the first time I took Communion at my seminary, before I had begun my studies there; I was on a visit. It was the end of a long day – Communion was in the evening – and I sat quietly with my best visitor face and my visitor hands tucked neatly in my visitor lap, on my best visitor behavior, and I stood and joined the line to the altar with my visitor eyes cast humbly to the floor, and I took the bread in my hand and it burst on my tongue, and I was broken open; and the wine was like salting a wound and seasoning the deal and soothing all at once, and I thought, My God! Jesus knew what he was doing when he instituted this stuff. This tastes like life!
Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. And the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
Buzz Aldrin with Ken Abraham, Magnificent Desolation: the long journey home from the moon (New York, 2009), 26-7
*As reported by http://www.snopes.com/glurge/communion.asp