First Church in Wenham (UCC) - Sunday August 19, 2012
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; the bread that I 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. Thos 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 bread will live forever. ~John 6:51-
This past Wednesday would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday. Nearly forty years ago, not far from here , Julia began filming the WGBH television series “the French Chef.” She introduced a generation of Americans to French cooking at a time when the standard fare in the US was tuna casserole garnished with fried Durkee onions from a can, tv trays of Salisbury steak, and broccoli so overcooked as to turn gray. Instead, this 6’2” charming woman was teaching Americans how to prepare the chicken for coq au vin and what beef to purchase for boeff burgonion. But it worked. People watched. The show took off and has had an enduring influence on how we eat and how we think about food. Many of those old black and white episodes have been digitized and put up online. I watched a few this week in honor of Julia. One of the later episodes, when color television had just begun and the colors appear too bright to be accurate, starts with Julia saying, in that distinctive accent of hers, “We’re having vegetarians for dinner tonight. I mean we’re not going to eat them, but I have to make vegetarian dinner,” and off she went with her task of creating a vegetarian meal. “We’re having vegetarians for dinner tonight!” and the joke turns on the idea that Julia could cook up the human vegetarians just as she would cook up a leg of lamb. Isn’t that the same confusion we run into with John’s text this week? Jesus says “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever; the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” And then the Judeans disputed among themselves saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” It doesn’t make logical sense, he’s standing here in front of us, how can he give us his flesh? Living Bread? What does that even mean? Since Jesus’s time his followers and critics have been debating back and forth what he possibly means by this teaching.
And in reality, it’s an odd text. It’s a strange thing to say. Jesus in John’s gospel is poetic, somewhat cryptic. He says things like “I am the living bread.” He says things like “my body is true bread and my blood is true drink,” which sounds strange to us now and must have sounded nearly nonsensical to his first century Jewish audience. And the original Greek is even stranger! In this passage, the first three times Jesus says “eat” he uses one verb, but by verse 54- he’s using a different verb. Jesus says “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” In verse 54, that verb that we translate as “eat” is more fleshly, more graphic- it means to chew, or to gnaw. It’s language that’s even more embodied, more fleshly. Those who gnaw, who consume, who devour me have eternal life.” It is a strange passage. And it would be easy to get stuck in the strangeness. We see the Jewish leaders here get lost in translation, quarreling among themselves. What does he mean by this? Does he really mean his body? It’s easy to get stuck here, trying to figure out what precisely happens when we partake in Christ’s body and blood in communion. Our ancestors in the faith have used a lot of ink debating back and forth what happens here. This sacrament created to unite us to God and one another instead divides us every time we attend a baptism, a wedding, a funeral where we cannot receive at the common table. The Church as a whole has divided over this very issue of what happens during communion. Is the communion bread consubstantial with the body of Christ? Does the bread become the body? Is it a memorial feast? Can Christ’s body be present at the communion table when we claim his body has risen? How can he be in two places at once? It’s easy to get stuck here, in the translation, in the details. It’s understandable, even. Jesus is asking an odd thing of us- to believe that partaking in his very life gives us eternal life. It’s easier to parse and dissect and examine this strange promise than it is to live in the fullness of Christ. It’s easier to get stuck than to come forward and eat this living bread that we don’t understand.
If you’ve been following the Revised Common Lectionary readings, that common set of Scripture texts that unites Christians around the world in reading the same Bible passages each month, you’ll see that for the last month we’ve been in John’s Gospel talking about bread. 5 Sundays of Jesus saying something or another about being the bread of life, eternal bread, bread that came down from heaven, bread that will not perish. This whole discussion about bread kicked off at the beginning of John 6 with the story of the feeding of the 5,000. With five loaves and two fish, Jesus and the disciples feed the people with food left over. But there are people who come back for more- to see more magic tricks. Come on, Jesus, tell how you did it. Do it again! Do something else! In verse 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Jesus seems less concerned with explaining how he is the bread of life than demonstrating to whom this eternal life of offered. The good news is this: you don’t have to know or believe or trust how Jesus is the bread of life, you just have to come to the table. Jesus isn’t asking for our philosophical assent before offering us food, he’s just offering it widely, generously. Week after week here, Jesus is intentionally redundant for an audience that is more focused on figuring out how on earth his body gives us life abundant. Don’t get stuck in the technicalities, just eat. You don’t have to know the chemistry behind how out how the bread rises before you sit down to eat. You can bring your confusion, you concerns and just set them down in the kitchen. Just eat. You don’t need to wait for your full party to arrive in order to be seated, just eat. You don’t need to make a reservation or pay the check, just come and eat. I am the bread of life for all. Just come to me all you who are hungry. Just eat he says, just gather together and eat bread and wine, participate in this mystical experience of my body and blood. You don’t need to have it all figured out before you sit down to the table. Just eat.
And yet, we’ve managed to take much of the embodiment, the fleshliness, the materiality out of our contemporary practice of eating the bread of heaven. You know that old joke about communion wafers? You can convince me that this wafer is the body of Christ, but you can’t convince me it’s actually bread. Jesus says take this and remember me and we offer up crust-less white bread cut into cubes that mush under warm fingers and plastic shot glasses of grape drink colored with red dye #7, as if we did everything in our power to keep the bread and wine from even resembling bread and wine! But something is shifting as the church changes. I became a Christian in a UCC church that had communion once a quarter, during college went to a UCC church that had communion once a month, and now attend a UCC church that has communion once a week. Remember, before the late 1970’s churches like the Episcopal Church and the Greek Orthodox church did not have weekly Eucharist. A frequent, embodied communion practice is part of the liturgical renewal that can happen. One of the great privileges of my ministry is that I get to travel to congregations around the state, to see their life and be with them in worship. More and more, communion is more robust, has more taste, more scent. I’ve always wondered what it would do for our children’s Christian formation if when you came to church, you could smell the baking communion bread. What if the bread of life smelled heavenly? What if the bread of eternal life tasted a little less like Styrofoam and a little more like heaven? What if the living bread of heaven tasted a little more like Julia Child’s brioche?
It’s a treat to watch Juila, through a black and white screen, make the brioche. It’s such a physical activity as she pounds the butter with a rolling pin to warm it up. She kneads the yeast dough, heavy with eggs into a sticky mess. And then she starts throwing it. High in the air, she drops it down on to the marble slab with a thud. Again and again. In that distinctive voice again, she tells you, you’ll know when the dough has been properly kneaded “when it has what the French call ‘du corp’ or body.” It’s vigorous work and she’s breathing heavily during the 5 minutes of kneading and tossing, without a commercial break. What if we craved the bread of heaven that sweet taste of satisfaction of our lives lived in Christ the same way that we rushed for Julia’s brioche, fresh out of the oven?
I saw it once. I witnessed someone taste the bread of eternal life, when she was so hungry for grace. This past Easter at Church, after the bread was broken, the wine poured, the prayers recited, our pastor said “Come, for all things are ready.” The communion servers were mindfully walking forward. From about 10 pews back, a unfamiliar young woman rushed forward, first in line. Her face was flushed. I think she had been crying. All the polite people in the first nine pews had not even stood up yet. But for her, there was urgency to get to the table. This is why I love church. This woman rushed forward not because “all things were ready,” but because she was ready to be transformed, she was hungry, she could taste the bread of heaven- a witness for all of us who no longer hurry to the table or think we no longer need to be fed. I doubt she had it all figured out about what happen to Jesus’ body. I’m not sure it matters. I don’t remember what the bread tasted like that day. And maybe it doesn’t matter either. The bread of life had been offered and she went to feast on this promise. When Jesus says he is the “living bread,” the accent mark is on “living.” I am the living bread. Come, eat and taste the living bread. Living. It’s something of Julia Child’s mantra to keep going, keep cooking and feast on the bounty set before you. Jesus Christ might say Amen. Julia Child might say ”Bon appétit!”