I was asked to put a recent sermon I preached online. As I have written about sermons before here on The Marginal Virtues, I decided to post it here.
As I generally follow the guidelines for writing sermons set out by Wilson in The Four Pages of the Sermon (about which I wrote a series of posts), you may be able to notice when I change 'pages', although I don't think that this sermon features distinct theme sentences for each 'page'.
The occasion of the sermon was a service of Holy Eucharist in the basement of St Paul's Eastern United Church, in Ottawa, on Sunday, August 19. The parish at which I am presently serving as a pastoral intern, St Albans, has been undergoing renovations for quite some time, and we were not allowed to hold our service there because an inspector from the city determined that we do not have two accessible exits - which is true. St Paul's Eastern graciously hosted us.
The text on which I preached that day was from the gospel of John; namely, John 6.51-58. It is the gospel for the day according to the lectionary - the propers for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.
Taken too literally Jesus’ talk of giving his flesh and blood for food and drink appear to invite his hearers to cannibalism: like the evil wizard Saruman exhorting his orc warriors in the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, Jesus appears to be promising the crowds that they shall have man-flesh.
Such was not the invitation Jesus extended, of course; what shocked his hearers, as Peter said in his sermon [on the 12th of August], was the apparent breach of the Jewish dietary laws, in which the eating of an animal’s blood, the source of life, was strictly prohibited.
In a way that is just what Jesus is saying about himself. Blood is what gives life: so to partake of the ‘true drink’ which is Jesus’ blood is to possess life.
Jesus is saying that his blood is life-giving, and he implies that, just as his body, the bread which came down from heaven, is more life-giving than the manna in the desert, so is his blood more life-giving than the blood of the Passover lamb. We are told all this happened on the Passover, so that connection would have been clear to his contemporaries.
Some who heard him didn’t care for what he had to say: ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ they asked, and some asked it not because they wanted to hear more, but because they’d heard enough and wanted no more of it.
The crowd dismissed Jesus’ message. It seemed to overturn their ancestral faith, and so they wanted nothing to do with him, nothing to do with the man who called his flesh ‘true bread’ and his blood ‘true drink’. They dismissed Jesus and his teaching without a second thought.
If we’re sometimes apt to dismiss Jesus’ teaching about his body and blood giving us life, it is not because, like his contemporaries, we are offended that he appears to be overturning our faith.
We’re likely to dismiss it, if not with our words, then in our lives, because it seems too simple. That’s it? All we have to do is eat your body and blood, Jesus? You’ve got to be kidding, right?
It can’t be that simple, can it? God knows I, for one, have spent most of my life trying to live as if weren’t. It seems we’re often tempted to think that, somehow, God must want more from us. To have the life of the age to come, all you have to do is eat this man’s flesh and blood? There’s got to be more, some secret knowledge perhaps, a key that, when found, will unlock the gate to the kingdom of heaven, a key that only a select few possess. A key, when we get right down to it, that only we who are of the right sort may possess.
Once we accept that premise, it becomes all too easy to narrow down the number of the elect still further: only I can know for sure that I have got it right. How easy it is to think to ourselves, ‘if only you’d agree with me, then I’d know you possess the right kind of knowledge, the knowledge of how God really gives eternal life.’ We are all tempted to the Saruman-like desire to possess eternal life by means of our own cunning, our own strength, our own abilities.
And like Saruman holed up in his tower, when we succumb to this temptation we become more and more isolated. We pollute and destroy the landscape of our lives and drive others away. We gradually come to perceive friends as rivals for the eternal life that we aim to possess, for we can never be sure if, after all, we’ve got it wrong and they right.
And so we dismiss Jesus’ gift of his own self, the gift of the bread for the life of the world. It’s too simple. It can’t be enough.
‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven,’ says Jesus. To paraphrase: ‘This bread isn’t like what our ancestors ate, the manna in the wilderness; for they died. Eat this bread, the bread of my flesh, and live.’
As the gospel records it, Jesus doesn’t cut off his disputants. Although they dismiss him, he does not dismiss them. Jesus invited the people to eat and drink his own self. Although he extends his invitation in negative form – ‘you have no life in you unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man’ – Jesus gives himself to his hearers. It’s as if he had said, ‘Here I am. I give you myself as the bread for the life of the world. Eat my flesh, drink my blood, and live.’
How astounding it must have been to hear the most profound message put in the simplest terms. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.’ The mystery of God’s presence among us is put in terms anyone can understand – indeed, that is the point. To live we must all eat and drink. Jesus was saying to the crowds round about him that, if they could eat and drink ordinary food, they could eat and drink his flesh and blood.
The new life Jesus gives, which he offered to those who crowded about him that day in the Galilee, means so much more than simply eating and drinking: but it also means nothing less. Jesus offered himself as the source of life, new life, for the crowds gathered round about him. His body was the true manna, the life-giving bread from heaven; his blood the blood of the Passover lamb, sparing those who drank it from death.
Despite their dismissal, Jesus kept on inviting the people to eat and drink of him, to share the bread which gives life to the world.
Jesus gave himself as living bread, life-giving blood then. Today he offers himself to us, here and now. Through us he offers himself to the world. He invites us to eat and drink of him and to share ourselves with others.
Jesus didn’t give his flesh and blood to be food and drink just for a knowing élite, for the privileged, for those ‘in the know’. Jesus gave them to be life for the world, life for us. As someone who has striven very hard to be seen as one who is ‘in the know’, I find this as hard to take as anyone.
We risk self-isolating pride when we conceive of the gift of life for the world as an instrument only the well-trained or spiritually or intellectually élite are fit to use. The gift Jesus gives of himself is as basic, fundamental, and necessary to life as bread.
One of the best signs of the life Jesus gives us is the reconciliation we give at the peace. When you turn to your neighbour and shake hands, look into each other’s eyes, and wish upon each other the blessing of God’s peace, you are stepping out of yourself – perhaps, out of your tower of self-imposed isolation – and gratefully receiving an act of relationship and of love. It no longer matters whether I can tell if you, and not I, have the privilege of grasping for yourself the gift of eternal life. Instead, through the exchange of peace, you give me something of the ‘true food’ and ‘true drink’ which is the gift of Jesus, and I give something of it to you.
There is more: as the flesh and blood of Jesus give us life, through our lives together, through word and sacrament, we become more and more able to share that life with the world around us. I have heard of a church which runs a food bank, and provides the food right off the altar. Classmates of mine once went on a mission trip to South Africa, and in one poor church, met a group of women who ran a soup kitchen. In the morning all they would have would be a pot of water; by the end of the day enough food would have been provided to make soup to feed the hungry. These are just a couple of small ways in which we may offer ourselves as a symbol of bread for the life of the world.
It’s as simple – and as complex – as sharing a smile with someone, shaking hands and saying ‘peace’, and stepping up to the table to be given a little bit of bread and wine. Let us give thanks to God in Jesus, who has given to us the greatest and most mysterious gift of all – himself – in the humblest and simplest of things: bread, bread for the world.