The Bread We Eat

Principle Lesson: John 6:51-58

The Pizza Delivery
As a seminarian, I worshipped and ministered with a congregation that had offered a Wednesday evening Mass. It was a shorter service, designed for people to come on their way home from work, before their dinner. The Mass was held in a small, nondescript chapel in the Parish Hall. On one particular Wednesday, as the dozen of us had gathered together around the altar in that little chapel, right as the priest was standing with hands about to descend at the epiclesis, blessing the bread and the wine for Holy Communion, the side door of the chapel opened. The afternoon light flooded in and silhouetted – standing there in the doorway – a pizza delivery man holding a pile of steaming hot pepperoni pizzas. 

I saw him just as everyone else turned their heads to the door. Assuming that the pizzas were for the retreat committee meeting elsewhere in the building at the same time, I meant to redirect the delivery before any further disruption. My timing, though, could not have been worse (or better, depending on your point of view) because the delivery man clearly thought that I was coming for the pizzas and made his way inside and started down the side aisle to meet me with those pizzas. The congregation had a good chuckle as the priest paused so I could redirect the delivery to the retreat committee. I wonder if, for a minute or two, the pizza delivery man thought that the priest would try just about anything to boost the attendance – even serving pizza at communion!

Jesus says, 

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’”

John 6:51

Jesus means to tell us that the door has been cracked open, the light is shining in, and Jesus is coming down the aisle to give himself for the life of the world.

I Must Eat Awesome Food
Nicholas was eleven, and had no problem with self-esteem. He came to me after Mass one day and proclaimed, 

“Fr. Rob, I must eat awesome food!”
“Excuse me,” I said, not knowing if I had heard him correctly.
“I must eat awesome food!”
“Why do you say that, Nicholas,” I asked.
“Well, my grandmother just said, ‘You are what you eat, so I must eat awesome food!’”\

Knowing Nicholas, I should have seen that coming. And that is the central concept for us today in the gospel lesson. In it, we hear Jesus getting pretty graphic with his imagery:

“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… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

John 6:53-54

But Jesus could just as easily have said, “You are what you eat.” Indeed, for Jesus, if you don’t eat that which is the Christ – the one anointed and sent by the Father – you have no real, lasting, true life in you. For Jesus, if you do not eat of what Jesus really is, you will be spiritually malnourished and die.

Consider the portion of our lesson today from the fourth gospel in which the author recounts the story of Jesus teaching about the meaning of the gift of himself, his flesh and blood, as Eucharistic food and drink. The outward sign of a profound spiritual truth, the bread and wine, through the power of God and the invocation of the Spirit, become for us the body and blood of Jesus – in other words, they become for us Jesus (Messiah, Christ, Anointed, Redeemer). And, in faithfulness and commitment, we consume Jesus and we become what we eat – the body of Christ.

The Bread We Eat
Although those of us in the sanctuary that night didn’t get to eat it, the pizza made me think about how the story of Jesus is one about delivery. It’s not about take-out or not pick-up; but, rather, it’s about a divine delivery of God’s fragile but mighty self into our midst. It’s about God delivered into a manger in Bethlehem; into the humble fishing life; into the suffering of ordinary human beings; into the hands of those who would kill him on a cross. 

Aretha Franklin sang in her early gospel phase: 

“Yes, I hear a voice pleading with me,
Quietly, quietly commune with me.
Just steal away in secret and pray
Quietly, quietly, come break bread with me.” 

Sometimes, in the age of low-carb diets, we think of bread as optional food; but, in Jesus’ day (and still today in many parts of the world) bread was the staple! We almost always had Sunday dinner growing up! It was sometimes something like a roast or ribs but, as I remember it, more often than not we had spaghetti and meatballs. And on the table for dinner, there was always bread – rolls from the grocery bakery or that bread from the cardboard tube. You couldn’t really eat Sunday dinner without bread involved. Bread, you see, enables you to eat properly, especially when a sauce is involved because you can take that roll and sop up every last ounce of goodness on the plate.

Likewise, when we eat of Jesus, we get everything God offers. I realize it sounds strange but Jesus wants you to know that he comes to deliver God’s life all the way inside of you. You are what you eat, and when we partake of Jesus, it’s like we have that roll to sop up every last ounce of goodness that God offers. 

This meal embodies the self-giving and self-sacrifice that Jesus is sent to deliver. If you think about it, every act of eating involves a sacrifice somewhere. It might be the chicken that gave its life or the wheat that was cut down or the labor of the grandfather making sauce. Most of the time, I think we eat without thinking about that. I know I do! Food implies sacrifice, and this meal that Jesus gathers us around is no different. The fact that Jesus spent his life coming down from heaven to be with you, to feed you, to heal you, to walk with you, is the reason why he gathers you around this table to break bread with you.

And here at the table can be found all of God’s forgiveness and mercy, all of God’s love and compassion, all of God’s justice and concern for the poor and marginalized. All of God’s grace is given to us in this meal. It is a visible, tangible reminder of what Jesus comes to do: give himself for the life of the world. Eating is necessary for life, and so if we’ve got a new life in Christ, it will require food.

As Iraneaus wrote so many centuries ago,

“The word of God, Jesus Christ, on account of his great love for mankind, became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.”

Jesus leaves himself with us and for us, and eating what is the Christ nourishes us into what he is – because we are what we eat.

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