Sunday, August 16, 2015
We’ve been making our way through the sixth chapter of the gospel of John, and by now you’ve probably noticed a theme as we continue to hear about Jesus being the bread of life for us. First, we heard about Jesus feeding the five thousand. The next Sunday, Pastor Rich reminded us that Jesus satisfies our hunger like nothing and no one else can. Last week, I talked about how Jesus is always available for us, unlike regular bread that can get moldy or stale. Jesus’ presence with us lasts! But honestly, when I thought about a sermon theme or title for today, the first thing that came to my mind was, “Jesus gets weird.” He sounds almost like a vampire or a cannibal when he says, “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.” I suppose we could find it a little comforting to know that Jesus doesn’t want to drink our blood or eat us. He instead offers us his body, broken & poured out for us. Still, we have to admit, that sounds pretty weird!
It makes me wonder if we in the church have made communion, like so many other things that we do, into a routine, going through the motions, without really stopping to think about what Jesus is saying communion is, and what we are doing! I don’t think Jesus intends for us to celebrate this holy meal casually, but to see it for the gift AND the shocking counter-cultural practice it is! Certainly those who are following Jesus and listening to his teachings have to stop at this point in John and say, “Wait a minute…am I following a lunatic, or is this guy still worth paying attention to?” It’s passages like these that led to rumors being spread about early Christians, that they practiced strange cannibalistic rituals, drinking their God’s blood and eating his flesh. I have to say I’m more comfortable with human metaphors for Jesus – good shepherd, teacher/rabbi, son of God, son of man, root of Jesse – than “bread of life” if it means I have to think about eating another human being.
Historically, Protestants have reacted similarly to the Jews in John’s gospel when Jesus compares his body & blood to bread & wine a little too literally for most human beings’ taste. You may remember from your confirmation classes that Lutherans distinguished communion as Jesus being truly present, in, around, under, above the bread and wine but not actually the bread and wine, separating themselves from the Catholics slightly. Other reformers like Zwingli and Calvin went even further, so that denominations like Baptists still today believe that the bread & wine at communion is a remembrance of the Last Supper, a symbol of what Jesus did for us on the cross, but in no way connected to Jesus’ actual body & blood.
In the midst of these different ways of thinking about communion, I think our forefather, Martin Luther, can help us understand a little bit better Jesus’ difficult words in the gospel this morning. Luther reminds us not to think too hard about what communion actually is, or how we might celebrate it most properly. Instead, he asks us to focus on WHY Jesus gives us his body and blood in the bread and wine…what it is FOR. Luther starts by focusing on a simple, two-letter word (well, in Latin it’s three, but in English it’s IS – is). Luther argues against his fellow reformer Andreas Karlstadt, insisting that Jesus is truly present each and every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I guess a sign that you should think about being a pastor when you read a 50+ page essay on the word “IS” and you enjoy it! Yep, Luther wrote pages and pages of arguments on that two-letter word, “is.” Not to worry, I’ll summarize it for you in a few sentences: Jesus takes the bread, says “this IS my body, given for you. This IS my blood, poured out for you,” Luther notes. Why make it more complicated than what Jesus actually says? We might still be uncomfortable with the bloody, cannibalistic image that entails. We might suspect that what we’re doing here is taking a risk, by continuing to trust in and follow this Jesus guy. The flip side is the tremendous comfort and absolute reassurance those words from Jesus can give us especially when we have doubts, when we are having a difficult time in our lives, when we’re just plain tired and hungry: This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. That is Jesus’ promise to us today, and every day we celebrate communion. Jesus is here, present with us, still. And why is he present? FOR us.
It’s interesting that John is the only gospel writer who doesn’t actually describe the event of the Last Supper like Matthew, Mark, and Luke do. Instead, when he’s talking about communion in this passage he emphasizes Jesus’ words that he is the living bread from heaven: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” Jesus says in John. Living presence, life for us – not death! As Lutherans we believe ultimately that we are not just remembering how Jesus died for us on the cross in the past, his body broken, his blood poured out for us, which is a sacrifice worthy enough – we celebrate too that Jesus continues to feed us with his body and blood, with LIVING bread so that we and the whole world might have life now and life eternally! Jesus is here, now, for you and for me. Jesus feeds us, here, now, why? To give us life eternally, life for today and life for tomorrow. God is here for us in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, in the bread and wine we eat and drink today.
When we receive that life in eating and drinking the body & blood of Christ, we are also then sent out into the world to be the flesh & blood grace of God for others who are hungry for personal contact and connection. There are so many ways for us to be connected without actually needing to face another human being today, right? We can know what our friends are up to and look at their photos on Facebook. We can email or text rather than sit down for face to face conversation. One of my best friends lives in Sweden, and we schedule regular Skype or Face-Time chats. It is SO much better than sending letters back and forth like in the old days! I get to hear her voice, see her face, and see & hear how her little boy who’s almost two is growing and changing. But there’s still nothing like when she’s visiting the States and we’re able to get together in person! We can’t hug each other over Skype, I can’t squeeze her baby boy, we can’t cook a meal together or go for a walk like we enjoy doing in person. Being present with and for others, flesh and blood, matters. It’s important. It feeds our souls and gives us life.
So here it is today, Jesus in the flesh and blood, real bread and wine, truly present for you…not a picture or a text message or even a FaceTime video, but something you can eat, drink, and be satisfied. Transformed by Christ’s gift, now the question is, how can you be that real, flesh and blood connection to God for others, in your own relationships? Amen.