“For the Life of the World” Sermon for 8.09.09
2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4.25–5.2; John 6.35, 41-51
Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
From this morning’s Gospel: “and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
I love food. To eat, of course, but beyond that, it’s the variety that makes me happy; its diversity, color, and texture, the smell of herbs and spices, of fresh fruit and veggies. I pour over cookbooks, over possibilities I would never attempt or even order in a restaurant. I’m so impressed that other people are able to pull them off. But I also enjoy my own basic cooking and especially working with someone else in the kitchen. The give and take and sharing of space become a kind of dance. For me, the kitchen is the heart of the house, comfortable and comforting, a place to put elbows on the table and have a really good talk. When I come upon the aroma of bread baking or a simmering soup, I am drawn back into early memories of home and of the life shared there.
All of this, curiously enough, is not unrelated to Jesus’ continuing conversation in the sixth chapter of John. In today’s reading, the people that we’ve been talking about for a couple of weeks have become the Jews who object to Jesus’ claims of a heavenly Father. After all, they know his father was Joseph, and they are loyal to the teachings and law of Moses. How can there be a bread greater than the life-giving manna of the Children of Israel, a ritual greater than the Passover? Jesus is preaching powerful new stuff and we too must admit that it ends with a kicker, perhaps even for us: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
We think of this flesh that Jesus gave as metaphor for his suffering, a way of referring to pain too horrible to consider; we may pull back from connecting that to the loaf that I pull apart on the alter. On the other hand, we know the bread from that loaf, which we quite literally ate and swallowed at the table last week, is a holy meal, “a holy gift” through which we receive Christ’s grace. Our partaking becomes a memorial of God’s “mighty acts in Jesus Christ” through the “remembrance” of which “we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us.” As metaphor and remembrance, the bread and the wine prompt deep devotion, change of heart and life.
On this Sunday, when John 6.51 is the appointed text, we are invited to consider how Jesus’ choice of words illumines that precious and central experience of our faith. To do so, we need some sacramental theology, and that takes us back to food. Jesus is being quite graphic here. He does not say “the bread that I give is my teaching, my words that inspire belief.” He describes his self-giving in terms of his “flesh.” Next week, you will hear that his listeners are horrified.
Genesis starts with God’s command to humankind to eat of the earth, from every herb, every tree that God has so graciously blessed for our use. We must do so in order to live. And simple—basic—though it is, it is a banquet. This image of a banquet goes through the Bible: there is the Promised Land, “the land of milk and honey,” the wedding at Cana, and, at the end of life, the promise of eating and drinking “at my table in my Kingdom.” And thus we say, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”
I remind us—myself included—of this because there can be a tendency to think of the spiritual life, the religious life, as one of abstinence or deprivation, the opposite of a secular life of ordinary eating and drinking. I think of those 4th century monks in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts: awesome in so many ways and yet priding themselves on making one loaf do for a year. And then there is the story of the Fall, once again a matter of food. Among all the bounty, there was one tree in the Garden of Eden that was not meant to be eaten. The choice to eat of it anyway, despite God’s command, was a choice to be independent of God’s blessings, to go it on our own.
The point, I think, is that right here and right now, God is the abundant giver. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said it so well, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God/ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;/ It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed” We turn our back on this vibrant, living world when we divide its God-bestowed grandeur into sacred and secular. We steal from the greatness of God’s world when we separate workday from Sunday. We are hungry beings, but God has provided us with abundant resources to fill that hunger and, moreover, with the ability to thank and bless God for those gifts. This is my understanding of the “dominion” that is lavished on humankind in Genesis: Receiving the world as a blessing from God, we offer it back again and again with respect to it and in reverence to God, transforming ourselves in the process. Our life, both here or hereafter, is life in and through God.
This communion with God is basic Eucharistic thinking. Again and again, we became confused about our identity and about the source and object of our hunger. To relieve that confusion, God sent his son Jesus Christ, the light that shone in the darkness and that all our mistakes couldn’t extinguish. In Jesus Christ, life in its fullness was and is returned to us. What Jesus is proclaiming to his questioners in John is that his Father, God, has sent him to be a new life that will not end. This new life-giving source comes naturally and logically in a new and far superior manna. It might be easier to say that it comes as food and drink provided by Jesus, but he is more direct: the bread that will provide life for the world, he says, “is my flesh.”
God’s gift of life-giving food to the world, not only to one people, is perfected in his son. Jesus ate and drank just as we do, but in him the stuff of this world—his life, his body that people could touch both before and after his Resurrection—was constantly offered to God. Jesus’ sacrament, the gift of his body that we receive from his hands, will lift us up and return us to the relationship that God wanted with us and originally intended. Through Jesus’ life in this world, the world that God created as food for us and as means of communion with Him is returned to us as well, along with some of the wonder and joy and loving presence of that first creation. Jesus’ flesh therefore is the living bread that nourishes the hunger for God in the way we need and long for. All our bread is in fact a symbol of this new relationship, a new way of sharing our kitchen with God, as it were, and with a wonderful diversity of others who seem so different from ourselves. The bread that we break with Christ’s blessing is the new food for our new life in Christ that will be fully realized in the world to come, but that can also be experienced far more fully than we may realize in the here and now.
Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for making us Eucharistic people, people of your flesh. We thank you for the bread that makes us like you, and like others. Make all our meals holy. Help us to offer ourselves to you and to others this week in the same quietness and hiddenness as you give yourself to us in the quietness and hiddenness of bread and wine. Amen.
 I am drawing here upon Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002). Highly respected across denominational lines, Schmemann was dean and professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary.