Rev. Teri Peterson
you are what you eat
16 February 2014, NL4-24
Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘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 for ever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
A few weeks ago I mentioned that as we read through the gospel according to John this season, there are some strange things we’ll notice. One of those things that will become obvious during the season of Lent is that John does not tell a story of the Last Supper with the institution of communion. Instead, at the end of his days with the disciples, Jesus talks and prays. A lot. With just about as many words as possible. Which is not surprising given that he spends almost the whole gospel talking, sometimes repeating himself, and generally confusing everyone around him.
So there’s no Last Supper in John. Instead there is this: using a child’s lunch to feed the 5,000, which makes the crowd want to make Jesus king. Remember that the Roman Empire kept the peace with two things: free or very cheap bread for the masses, and crucifying those who questioned their legitimacy. For Jesus to feed so many people with so little was a challenge to the Empire, and everyone knew it.
The next day, after he’s fed them with more food than they can even eat, the people come back looking for more. And instead of feeding their gluttony, Jesus says “I am the bread of life.” Of course the people don’t understand this at all—how can they eat his flesh? How can he compare himself to manna their ancestors ate in the wilderness? None of this makes any sense, and on the most literal level, the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood is against the law of Moses, not to mention how disgusting it is.
And the people who were looking for even more food find this too hard, and many turn back—it’s both less and more than they were interested in. While they hoped for more sandwiches, he offered them abundant life. But abundant life isn’t fast food, it takes some leaps of faith, some trust in the one who says he’s offering us his own life to take into our bodies.
Jesus knows that this is hard to take in. He says that the only reason we are able to come to him at all is because God is already working, calling and equipping—and no one God calls will be lost. It might take some of us longer than others, it might mean more circuitous routes for some than others, but ultimately, God’s will for relationship will be accomplished. Jesus says he wants to abide in us, and the way he’ll do that is through being the bread of life, feeding us one bite at a time, until we can trust and follow and live.
The life Jesus talks about here is eternal life, but it’s important that we get back to what that means. Eternal life, in the Bible, almost never means only the after life. Jesus talks about eternal life and about raising us on the last day, he talks about being the resurrection and the life—and those are two different things. Eternal life is, in John, sometimes called Abundant Life—it is to live in relationship with the eternal, to live the way we were created to live, here and now. Eternal life is all about how to live at one with Jesus. When we misunderstand “eternal” to mean “later,” we lose all kinds of opportunity to be agents of God’s kingdom coming on earth.
How do we get this eternal life now? By eating flesh and drinking blood. I’ve pointed out before that blood is a symbol of life, not of death—that’s why it was forbidden to eat the blood of any animal, because to take another’s life into your own is not for humans to do. When Jesus tells us to eat and drink, he’s telling us to literally take his life into our own lives. He will abide in us and we will abide in him—the life of God will take up residence right here, in these bodies. Every time we come to the feast of living bread, God lives in and through us again.
In other words: you are what you eat. When we eat the body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ. And Jesus says we will never be hungry or thirsty again.
Except we will, of course—just for different things. We’ll be hungry for an ever-closer relationship with God, because once we’ve tasted that, we don’t want to go back. We’ll be hungry for justice, because once we’ve experienced abundant life, we won’t be able to stand by and watch as others’ lives are disregarded, or worse, taken away. We’ll be hungry for community, because once we’ve taken the life of the triune God into our own lives, we can never stand apart. We’ll be hungry for real life, real relationship, real emotion, real truth, real hope—because once we’ve had real bread, we’ll never be satisfied by fake fast food and shallow experience.
Can you imagine God, Creator Christ and Spirit, living and breathing inside your body? What is it like to walk around everyday—in the house, in the office, driving on the expressway, riding the train, sitting in a classroom—with the greatest Love in the universe living in you? How would it change the way you live, if you thought of your life as one of the ways God lives on the earth, in this town, in this church?
The bread of life isn’t only at this table. If there’s one thing John’s gospel tells us about communion by putting it all here rather than at the Last Supper, it’s that it is an ordinary thing for ordinary people, where extraordinary things happen. This table is practice for every table, where we take into ourselves the gifts of God. Just as bread takes many grains of wheat, and a community takes many people, the sacrament takes many tables. Once we see that, then every gathering, every meal, every bite, every word, every action is an opportunity to experience what is holy. Because that is what it means to abide in Christ, and to have Christ abide in us. That is what it means to bring God’s life into your body.
We still mess up, of course. We still make bad choices, we still look on as others have life and dignity stolen from them. We still profit at others’ expense, and pretend as if they do not have God living inside of them the same way we do. We are human beings who see through a glass dimly, who cannot ever understand the fullness of what Jesus does, at the communion table or on a hillside in Galilee. Many of the people on that hillside went away angry that Jesus wouldn’t just give them what they asked for. Many today do the same with the church. But neither Jesus nor the church are in the business of simply filling personal desires—this is about life, eternal life, abundant life, enough. This is about a different kind of hunger that seeks only God’s will, not our own. This is about seeing as God sees, through walls and barriers, past rumor and gossip and fear, and little by little being transformed by that vision. This is about letting God’s life take root and grow and bear fruit, through each of us as individuals and through all of us together as the church. This is about the bread of life, not just manna that melts away at the heat of the day.
You are what you eat. When we eat the body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ. We hunger for the things Christ hungers for. And we break ourselves open the way Christ breaks himself open—for the life of the whole world, no exceptions.
May it be so.