Text of the sermon preached on Proper 16B (August 23, 2015) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
It is at the eucharistic table and in our liturgies that we likely most often encounter Jesus’ words in the gospel of John, that his flesh is true food, his blood true drink, and that when we eat and drink, we abide in him and he in us.
Perhaps we couldn’t be blamed then if such claims of Jesus slide down into the belly of our hearts with ease, like comfort food, filled with familiarity and fond association. For those who have lived this story for very long, we hear bread and think body, body and think bread — a mingling of symbols and referents that comes as a hard-won accomplishment of good formation.
Add to our formations the distance that most of us typically experience between our food and its source — maybe with the exception of beef for us in Dodge City with the two large processing plants and numerous feedlots being right in our backyard. However, the realities of eating the body of another being are somewhat muted by a food industry that does the hard work for us, and conveniently renames body and flesh as “meat.” To eat a body is a rather pedestrian act that the majority of us easily embrace without too much reflection.
Given our grasp on eucharistic symbols and our eating formations, perhaps it is then difficult to identify with the Jews’ disgusted question, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” and Jesus’ disciples who ask, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”
As a child growing up on a small farm, where my family’s eating life was marked by considerably less distance between the farmyard and the table, it was not entirely unusual to sit down to a meal, and for one of my siblings or I to ask about the meat on our plates, “Who is this?” We hoped that the answer would be no one we knew.
On the occasion that our meat had a name, one of us, or even at times all of us including my mom, wouldn’t be able to eat. Tears were shed at the dinner table a time or two over the beef. We had all seen life birthed, fed the calves in the barnyard, had seen life taken, cleaned, cut, and packaged in the freezer paper, then re-emerge as dinner sometime down the line, a reality complicated by knowing, even loving, our food first as livestock. We often wished for more distance from this grisly reality than we were afforded.
This seems to be something of the emotional backdrop of John 6, and the reactions of his listeners to Jesus’ claims about his body and blood being true food and drink. Add to the grotesque embodied language, his identification of himself as rather swanky manna (not from Moses, but from God), and perhaps Jesus’ listeners are not unreasonable in seeing this teaching as difficult and even a little off-color.
But like in the rest of John, Jesus’ words have two levels of meaning. In the same way Nicodemus asks in John 3, “how can I go back into my mother’s womb and be born a second time,” those in earshot of Jesus’ claims to be food are similarly confounded by the literal sense of his words. One can almost hear in his question to his disciples, “Does this offend you?” a touch of amusement at their inability to grasp what you and I know, that this isn’t the language of the slaughterhouse per se, but of relationship.
And yet, for the metaphor to have meaning, the embodied reality must matter — that in eating, what we eat nourishes, and becomes the substance of our own bodies. We are what we eat, and what we eat has far reaching implications for our health and wellbeing. To digest food is to make another created being a part of us. The question asked around my childhood table, “who is this,” perhaps reaches to the heart of things. Our nourishment has a name. Do we know his character, his person? Do we know what nutrients are being communicated to us in his indwelling to us?
This “eating” perhaps happens in the best of our relationships, that we take something of one another into ourselves and make it a part of us. Our language begins to reflect that of those with whom we speak with most often, adopting idioms and speech patterns. We come to see in the same ways, are challenged by one another’s traditions and ways of living in the world, and our lives are clarified and deepened. Over time, we incorporate the narratives of our beloved friends, our spouses, our families, our worshipping communities, into our own narratives, and we are similarly incorporated. We come to belong to one another so deeply, that the love entwines us.
In our table life together in worship, we enter into this eating and belonging, and while real presence refers to the elements, it also refers to us, the embodied community gathered. We are the body of Jesus for one another. We are eaten and we eat, and this, even stripped of literal connotations and entered into metaphorically, is still sometimes “difficult teaching.” Who can accept it?
As a friend has often said, the church “is a whole lot of humanity all in one place.” We can be for one another manna in the wilderness, and in the end, after so much wandering, still only be daily sustenance, the utilitarian daily bread that we use up and then we die. Or as his body, we can be the bread of heaven from God’s own hand, spirit and life, true sustenance in the wilderness, accompanying one another into wholeness, flourishing, and promised eternal life.
Jesus’ question to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” is powerful in confronting America’s culture of convenience and impermanence, and how it has seeped into our ecclesial practices. Faced with the meal the church is, how often I have found myself on the edges, confronted by my flight from its gritty realities, its messiness and concentrated humanity, only upon returning to find myself caught up by the way that his body is true food, his blood true drink, and how hungry I am apart from the church’s rhythms of spirit and life.
I’m struck by Peter’s courage in saying, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. You are the holy one of God.” Faithfulness and courage go hand in hand, both in eating and in loving. As a church, faced with a meal set before us of Jesus’ bodied presence in one another, may we dare the question, “who is this?” and then boldly eat, echoing Peter’s confession, that Jesus alone, the holy one of God, has the words of eternal life.