I preached this sermon to the good people of Messiah Lutheran Church, usually pastored by my seminary classmate Tyler.
Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Preachers often call these several weeks in the summer the “bread” season, because each week, Jesus tells us that he is the bread of life, or something similar, and we reflect on what it is to consume the bread and the wine that are the body and blood of Christ.
In my life, in August, I have heard sermon stories about bread-baking, and family traditions, and mealtime rituals, and theological explications of the real presence, and lists of people allowed and disallowed at the table, and calls for returns to full dinner church, and any number of things that weasel their way under the umbrella of bread.
But is this, truly, bread season? It sounds to me like this is flesh season. This week, the words of Jesus are:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh….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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
The key word in this passage to me does not seem to be “bread” but rather “flesh.” These days, we don’t get a lot of use out of the word “flesh.” Maybe we talk about things being flesh-toned—like fabrics or crayons. And maybe we say “fleshy” instead of “fat” to talk about a rotund body. For the most part, though, we’re so averse to anything visceral—fleshy, bloody, guts, eew—that we’ve abandoned the word altogether.
However, this context—eat my flesh, drink my blood—has become so familiar to us, as Christians. We are not scandalized by these words, we are comforted. We recognize this command, and we nod. In a few minutes, we’ll follow those directions and receive the bread and wine together.
If you’ve been attending a Lutheran church for any length of time, you’ve heard the words of institution over and over and over again—take, eat, this is my body; take, drink, this is my blood—to the point where it may, on some Sundays, not feel like it means much of anything.
But, if you, like me, are a lover of words, you may see in this gospel text the glorious promise in these words: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”
You’ve heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” yeah? Truly, you are, because the nutrients your body gets from the food you put in your mouth is what the cells, as they reproduce, are building themselves of. I, for one, am largely made of coffee, of spinach, and of strawberry ice cream.
So what could these words of Jesus mean, then? That Jesus wants us to be made of flesh and of blood? Looking around, we seem to have that covered.
A 13th-century French rabbi named Ramban said something really interesting about this whole eating flesh and blood thing. Remember how, in the Torah, God gave the Israelites very specific prescriptions for their meat—they had to be sure to drain all the blood out of the flesh.
As a vegetarian, these details are all sort of gross to me, but, Ramban explained that the reason for this is that in the time of the Israelites—and in the time of Jesus—it was believed that if you ate meat that contained the blood of the animal, the blood, which contained the soul of the animal, would sort of transfuse with your blood and your soul and you would start to become like that animal.
So what Ramban is saying is that Jesus wanted people to consume that which would imbue them with his best characteristics—compassion, hospitality, love, justice.
What Jesus is explaining to us is that, if we do not consume the bread of life and wine of salvation we will have no life in us. We will not literally die of starvation if we do not receive the Eucharist on a regular basis. But we will not truly live. We will not thrive.
Sometimes I worry about this line “your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died,” because one could be led to think negatively of our Jewish forefathers, that their consumption of the manna God provided them was somehow in error. Their deep faith and the manna from heaven led them to the Promised Land. Their covenant was kept.
And Jesus is talking not about literal food, like manna—though his ministry does not ignore physical hunger—but rather he is setting the table for a new covenant. Times have changed. The Jews are up against new powers and principalities, new challenges, new fears. They needed a new way to thrive.
Because what we consume consumes us. We live in a very consumptive world right now—the United States of America is built on our consumption. Our economic stability is reflected in “consumer confidence”—I don’t think I have to tell you about the volume of food, gasoline, water, and other resources we consume on a regular basis. We know.
We know because it is so easy to be consumed by the idea that we live in a world of scarcity, where there is not enough food, or water, or gasoline to go around; we believe we have to grab and hoard. Part of why we consume in this manner is because we are also consuming and being consumed by dangerous things like fear. We are consuming a 24-hour news cycle predicated on keeping us glued to the TV—we are told about disasters, and accidents, and dangerous people, and scandals, and wars, and violence. Many of us start our days this way! No wonder we’re so harried.
When we consume all of this fear, we are bound to perpetuate it. When we consume the world around us—full of its prejudices, hatred, racism, sexism, imperialism, xenophobia—we will continue to be people of fear.
The good news is that there is good news! Jesus has come to us this morning—once again!—to say that he is the bread of life from heaven—true food, true drink—by which we will have life and life abundant.
If we eat this flesh and drink this blood, we will consume his love of neighbor, his work for justice, his prophetic speech, his hand outstretched. We will become people of truth, people of grace, people of love.
If we turn down the fear once in a while and listen, instead, to the Word, we will hear the world anew.
So, come—eat, drink, and live.