Sermon August 15, 2021: John’s bread discourse
When I was growing up in the Episcopal Church in the 1950’s, children didn’t receive Communion until after Confirmation, which at the Church of the Atonement in Tenafly, New Jersey happened in 8th grade. For a lot of those years, my sister and I sat in church with our parents for the readings, but then all the kids were marched off to Sunday School, so I didn’t know what I was missing. By 7th grade, though, I did. I remember midnight mass that Christmas Eve. When it was time for communion my father and mother and older sister all got up and walked to the altar, while I was left alone in the darkened pew. I felt abandoned, unwelcome, denied the bread of life. (I am so grateful that our theology has changed to invite even the littlest to the altar now.)
Once I was confirmed, I rarely missed a chance to receive the Eucharist. Even in college, when getting up early on a Sunday morning was impossible, I went to the Wednesday morning student service and held out my hands to receive the sacrament. The past year’s necessary isolation because of COVID created the longest stretch of time in my post-8th grade life that I’ve ever gone without communion. When Carolyn first started offering Spiritual Communion, I was still itchy for what I thought of as “the real thing.”
But studying today’s reading in John’s gospel jolted me into a wider understanding of what Jesus means as he talks of himself as “living Bread,” and its implications for what we do in Spiritual Communion as well as in the Eucharist itself.
First, it matters to remember that there is no Eucharist in John’s gospel – there’s a last supper with his friends, where he washes their feet and gives his farewell discourse, but it’s not a Passover meal, and there are no words of institution, no lifting up a loaf of bread saying, “This is my Body.”
Here, in today’s reading, rather than holding bread and saying, “This bread is my Body,” what Jesus says instead is, “My living Body is your bread.” I thought at first this was a minor distinction, but it’s actually astonishingly different. Jesus is talking about himself here in the present tense, fully alive in the middle of his ministry, not on the night he was betrayed. “Here I am,” he’s saying. “I am – right now, right here—your living bread.”
For the past two weeks, we’ve herd Jesus reiterate “I am the bread of life.” This morning’s gospel begins where last week’s left off: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” This isn’t the bread of memory, but in the moment; he’s telling his listeners that his fully embodied living presence is their bread. This is when Jesus changes what he said earlier from “whoever believes in me has eternal life” to “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life.” And then it gets even weirder, because — and this matters — here the word we politely translate throughout this whole passage as “eat” actually in Greek changes from phage, which simply means “to eat,” to the more graphic and gritty trogein which means “to gnaw or chomp or chew,” so Jesus is suddenly saying “those who gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…whoever gnaws, chews, chomps me will live because of me.” He deliberately moves from believing to eating to gnawing on his flesh like barbecued ribs or like the way animals munch their food, a messy and grotesque image if taken literally. No wonder his hearers are appalled.
And just as he changes the word from “eating” to “gnawing,” Jesus also in this passage chooses the word sarx, or flesh, instead of soma, “body,” to talk about himself. He is reminding us that he is the Word made Flesh. He is reminding his listeners that the living Father sent him as a flesh and blood human being to live among them. For his hearers, “flesh” meant person – the Word became Flesh, became a person — and blood equaled life, so what Jesus is inviting his listeners to do isn’t cannibalism, and it isn’t communion, but it is instead a serious chewing on the living Word, a drinking in of his life force, right then, a taking into themselves a deep and abiding awareness of who Jesus is and what that means. His living witness is their living bread.
This is what Jesus offers in Spiritual Communion: to take into ourselves an understanding of his words and his witness so that we can emulate him as he feeds the hungry, visits and tends and heals the sick, brings the outcast into community. It’s as though Jesus is saying to us, “See what I am doing. Chew on that for awhile – then go and do likewise. Take my life so deeply into yourself that I abide there always. Following me in this way can be messy, but it is also life-giving. And know that I love you and will abide with you, forever.”
It isn’t until his last night with his friends that Jesus makes the switch in language that in the other three gospels gives us our Eucharist, a tangible way of sharing in the Bread of Life: “This is my body, given for you…my blood, poured out for you.” It’s an incredible gift, this sacrament of Body and Blood which we will take part in very soon, and I am incredibly grateful to be here to partake.
But I want to say to those of you at home, who will be speaking the words of the Spiritual Communion: “Since we cannot receive you today in the Sacrament of your Body and Blood, we beseech you to come spiritually into our hearts. Cleanse and strengthen us with your grace, Lord Jesus, and let us never be separated from you. May we live in you, and you in us, in this life and in the life to come,” these words echo today’s gospel message: that Jesus calls us to recognize his divine identity and invite him into our hearts, there to abide forever. It may not be the sacrament, but it is sacred. By chewing on Jesus’s words, by choosing to live as he did a life dedicated to mercy and justice and compassionate action, through Spiritual Communion you are dedicating yourselves to his Way of Love.
So what seemed at first like a matter of semantics has ultimately been of enormous reassurance to me. It has helped me realize that what happens in Spiritual Communion is prefigured here in John’s gospel, so that when in the future I have to go without the Eucharist again for whatever reason, it’s actually ok. I still have the sacred opportunity to feast on the Word made Flesh in the sanctity of my heart where he abides.
So whether what we experience today is “This bread is my Body” or “This living Body is your bread,” it’s all from God, and it’s all good.