Sermon by The Very Rev. Tracey Lind
Today’s reading from John’s Gospel confronts us with one of Christianity’s deepest mysteries – the Eucharist. Attempts to intellectually or literally comprehend the Johanine Jesus’ most radical words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood fail. Reason and rationality can never adequately explain them, for they are mysteries of a living faith. Perhaps, that is, in part, why the apostle Paul wrote: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:23)
Jesus words in the Fourth Gospel about eating his flesh and drinking his blood were not only a stumbling block to faithful Jews; if taken literally, they were, and still are, scandalous, sinful and heretical. According to Jewish teaching, the nephesh or “life principle” of any living creature is found in the blood. It is a sin for a human being, filled with nephesh – that is, blood – to consume the nephesh or blood of beasts, much less another human being. To set clear boundaries, Jewish law forbids consuming any blood whatsoever; and whoever violates this law “will be cut off” from the community (Lev 17:14-15, Dt 12:23). Thus, to this day, Kosher butchering involves ritually eliminating the blood from the meat before it is consumed.
Was Jesus really talking about literally consuming his flesh and blood? I don’t think so. I believe he was inviting us to gather around God’s table with family, friends and strangers to share a symbolic but sacred meal of bread and wine, and in doing so, to ingest the nephesh or “life principle” of Christ, of God made flesh and blood.
To partake of the Eucharist is to take into one’s very own being the life of Christ, the fully human and fully divine nature of God that we all share. When we participate in the Eucharist, we become one with Christ as we abide with Jesus.
Think about it this way – each and every time we present ourselves at this table, we are fed and nourished with the life force of the source of all creation. It is truly a mystery beyond reason, grasped and comprehended only by faith and thus understood in different ways by different people. Ask any Episcopalian what they believe about the Eucharist, and you are bound to get a variety of answers.
Anyway you define it, the Eucharist invites us to view a world invisible, to walk into a world intangible, to journey into a world unknowable, and to touch a world inapprehensible. In this way, it is, I believe, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that awaits us in eternity.
In some ways, the Eucharist is similar to a Labyrinth. When we enter a Labyrinth, we move beyond our detached ruminations and risk concrete exploration of a deep journey into the Wisdom of God.
In this morning’s selection from the Book of Proverbs, we receive her expansive hospitality and gracious invitation to the holy feast.
Wisdom has built her house,
She has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals,
She has mixed her wine,
She has also set her table… She calls from the highest places in the town,
You that are simple, turn in here!
To those without sense she says,
Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.
Wisdom, or the Holy Spirit, as she’s known in the Christian tradition, is considered to be the third member of the Trinity. In Hebrew, She’s called Ruach, meaning the wind or breath of God brooding over the earth at the beginning of creation. In the ancient Greek world, she was named Sophia, the clever, skillful, intelligent, wise personification of the divine. Called by different names – Ruach, Sophia and Holy Spirit – Wisdom is the feminine face and invisible force of God who whispers bravery and guidance in our ears day and night, if only we would listen.
Jesus was steeped in the wisdom tradition, and some would suggest him to be a charismatic teacher of wisdom. However, in the words of Marcus Borg, “Jesus was not primarily a teacher of information (what to believe) or morals (how to behave)…[he was] a teacher of a way or path of transformation.” 1
Jesus challenged his listeners to abandon the wide, easy path of conventional wisdom – that is, the way of the world – and to embark upon the hard, narrow path leading toward a life centered in God’s wisdom. Jesus taught that taking this path less traveled opens oneself imaginatively to an ever deepening experience of God’s gracious love. To take this journey is to enter into Divine Wisdom herself, walking with others in the way of her insight to the deepest places of our Self and thus of God.
And so it is with the Eucharist. When we accept the invitation of Holy Wisdom to “eat of the bread and drink of the wine [she has] mixed,” we begin to learn slowly that the mystery of Christ, a truth that can never be fully explained but one that is at the ground of our being. Thus, the poet Luci Shaw writes:
Often we taste the granular body of wheat…
And swallow together the grape’s warm bitter blood…
Knowing ourselves a part of you as you took part of us…
2 1 Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 75
2 Luci Shaw, “The Partaking”
When we approach the table of Jesus, we are invited to give ourselves over to the mystery, to allow ourselves to be emptied and filled with a force beyond reason. And when we do this, in the words of Scripture, we “taste the goodness of God,” “we walk in the way of insight,” and “we are filled with the Spirit” so that we may “live forever.”
Today we hear these words – “Take and eat” in the midst of a viral pandemic that has kept many of us from the table and that has denied all of us the common cup of wine mixed with water. What might this intersection teach us? Perhaps, it’s an invitation to abide more deeply with Jesus as he “emptied himself” on a narrow and yet wide, self- giving and yet fulfilling, obedient and yet freeing path that brought divinity and humanity together in a journey toward the beloved community of God’s promised Shalom.
When Jesus gathered with his friends up that Upper Room in Jerusalem for their last supper together, here’s what I think happened. They were sharing a simple meal, and Jesus, knowing that this was probably going to be the final time he ate with them, took a loaf of bread (leavened flatbread or unleavened matza – we’ll never know for sure). He blessed it, broke it, and said to his companions: “Take and eat. This bread is my body given for you and for all who believe in me and the God whom I love and serve. In the future, when you gather to break bread together, remember me” Then, he took a cup of wine, blessed it and said to his friends: “Drink this all of you. This wine is my blood poured out in love. Whenever you drink wine together, remember me.”
Jesus, a man facing execution for his beliefs and his actions, was asking his friends to not forget him, but to remember him in the act of sharing bread and wine. And, in remembering him, Jesus prayed that they might find peace, joy and courage to continue in his name – to keep alive his dream of the beloved community.
When I come to the Eucharistic table, I imagine Jesus saying; “Eat this bread so that you may have life, and whenever and wherever you eat it, remember the life that I have given for you and the life that I have given to you. And not only that, remember the life I have shown you and the life I expect from you.
No one knows for certain what happens when the Divine presence of the Eucharist settles alongside our breakfast Cheerios. But what scripture, tradition, experience and faith teach is that somehow divine love takes us into God’s very being and makes us one with God so that we can then, courageously and with abandonment, take God’s love into the world and make ourselves one with our neighbor. When we stand at God’s table, we demonstrate with our very bodies that we have the God-given capacity to overcome all that seeks to tear us and keep us apart.
However, with all due respect to the editors of John’s Gospel, who were either in the midst of a family feud with the local synagogue, or were breaking away from Judaism altogether, there are other ways to abide with God, including keeping kosher or not eating meat at all. There are many ways to God’s promise of eternal life – the Eucharist is a Christian way, but not the only way.
With or without a common cup of wine, in the Eucharist, God invites us by the power of the Spirit – in the name of Ruach and Sophia to in Stephanie Speller’s words, “allow our hearts to break, and then take the pieces—our lives, our goods, our love, and our privileges—and share it all like a broken loaf of communion bread.” 3 May this sacrament nourish, strengthen and embolden you and me, and the church, to be the Body of Christ in this broken world guided by the wisdom and love of God.
3 Ibid., 94