Principle Lesson: John 6:56-69
There’s a story told about a young black woman in the 1940’s who invited her boyfriend to join her one Sunday at her Episcopal Church. He was hesitant because he knew that was also black and he knew that his girlfriend’s congregation was mostly white. In our 21st century churches, this can perhaps be an uncomfortable dynamic. In the 1940’s, such a situation could have been dangerous.
When it came time for Holy Communion, the boyfriend noticed that everyone went forward to the altar together and they all drank from the same chalice. People who could not even share a drinking fountain in public were using the same cup to drink the blood of Christ. The man followed his girlfriend to the altar rail. He watched as she took the body of Christ bread, and then looked intently and in awe as the priest lowered the chalice to her lips and said, “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.”
In that moment, the young man experienced the boundary-breaking and reconciling mission of God. And, as he drank from that common cup, he was transformed. This man would go on to himself be ordained priest in the Episcipal Church. The couple would marry, and one of their children would grow to become the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Michael Curry.
In light of this story of how his parents experienced the Episcopal Church, Curry says,
Communion is a sacrament of unity that overcomes even the deepest estrangements between human beings.Michael Curry, in Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, leaving and finding the Church, 150-151
Deep estrangement exists today, formed through political differences, founded in socio-economic status, and grounded in the different ways we experience the world because of race, gender, creed, or sexual orientation. We need this “sacrament of unity” today, perhaps more than ever. We need to gather at the table with no other agenda than opening our hearts to the power of love. We need a way to bridge gaps. We need a way to forge some unity because until we can find unity among ourselves, we will struggle to find union with God.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56) This is a difficult teaching for those crowds that followed Jesus; so much so that we are told “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” But the theme of eating the flesh of the Son of Man, of consuming his body and blood, of taking in all that Jesus IS – this is the prevalent theme of this chapter in John. But not only this chapter, the whole of John is about accepting Jesus, of taking him into your very selves, in order that we might live. Indeed, the point is made repeatedly, at least six times in this chapter alone:
- Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. (6:27)
- 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. (6:35)
- I am the bread of life. (6:48)
- “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” (6:51)
- “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.” (6:53)
- “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” (6:54)
- “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (6:56)
- “Whoever eats me will live because of me.” (6:57)
- “The one who eats this bread will live forever.” (6:58)
I’ve heard all this before; so have you. We heard some of this last week, and some of it the week before. We know the words Jesus speaks, but do we have the life of which speaks?
That is THE question. Is there Life within you and me? That’s the narrative question behind the sixth chapter of the fourth gospel. It’s an important enough theme that Jesus raises it nine times. Jesus repeats himself so many times in this one discourse, not because he is forgetful of what he has said, but because Jesus is mindful of our need to hear and of our hunger for life. The repetition is a way of getting our attention, of disturbing us, and waking us up to an invitation to examine the life we are living.
That is why this is such a hard teaching – so hard that some of his disciples will leave because of it. This teaching invites us to take an incredibly deep look at ourselves and to ask the question: Is there life within me? This teaching is hard because it invites us to an incredibly thoughtful approach to the world. Loye Bradley Ashton, in his contribution to the Feasting on the Word series, writes about the Eucharist and the Incarnation,
“The ethical imperative at the heart of John’s incarnational theology of the Eucharist is clear. Will we treat the world around us as incarnational or simply as material?”
This teaching of Jesus invites us beyond the comfort of routines that satisfy our immediate needs and even our own sense of fulfillment. If we treat the world—the whole world—as incarnational, we will need to include people we despise. Not only will we need to include them, we will need to put our faith in them and in the Living God’s agency in their lives.
- What if eating the flesh and blood of Jesus (digesting his life in ours) is about connection to something more, something larger than ourselves?
- What if our Eucharisitc connection was lived out in such a way that we began speaking, acting, and living as “we, us, and ours” instead of as “me, my, and mine”?
- What if we acted as though the life, hopes, joys, needs, hurts, losses, and sorrows of others are as valid as our own?
- What if we, as a Eucharistic people, created a place where everyone belonged, not just tolerated or included, but really belonged with a place, dignity, and connection?
I think this is what it really means to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, bread and wine of communion. It happens here at the altar rail. And it happens when we (a communion people, the body of Christ) engage at the dinner table and in our prayers, in our reaching out in compassion to others, with our acts of justice, through our weeping at the pain of the world. It happens when we recognize others as children of God, brothers or sisters in Christ.
When we share in this Eucharist, we share in an experience of the Living God that breaks down barriers. By living Eucharistically, we recognize the Living God in others, embracing each other as gifts. Remember the exuberance of the child on Christmas morning, Eucharistic life invites us to treat everyone (and every moment) with the same kind of exuberance, as if everyone (and every moment) were a gift? This is the way Jesus lived: as if everyone possessed something special that was worth getting to know and worth connecting with.
This is the way Jesus lived, and this is the way we can live.