“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” John 6:56
If you had to name a food that you strongly associate with the place you grew up, what would it be? A Philadelphia cheesesteak? Iowa corn? Pork roll…or Taylor ham…or whatever it’s called?!? As a southerner, I have many examples, but one of the foods I love most are hush puppies. I hope you have had the pure joy of eating hush puppies – all the better if you were able to eat them with some good fried seafood and maybe some cole slaw. Hush puppies are so simple – just fried balls of cornmeal and a couple of other ingredients. But they are delicious, especially when you eat them with some honey butter.
I remember an evening when I lived in the Bay Area of California. I headed to San Mateo for dinner with some friends, and Jeremiah, one of our hosts, had prepared a wonderful menu that included (you guessed it) homemade hush puppies. He had worked so hard to find the right recipe and to perfect the technique of frying them – which, for the record, I have never been brave enough to do myself. I remember biting into those hush puppies and thinking, “Oh my goodness. This tastes like home.” I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. It was amazing.
That’s the power of certain kinds of meals. Wherever we might be when we gather around a table and eat certain foods in the company of loved ones, we experience more than a good meal. And it’s about more than wonderful hospitality, although that’s important. It’s also about identity. Food prepared in love, offered in love, and shared in love shapes the story of who we are. It nourishes not just our bodies, but our very souls.
That’s the kind of meal of which Jesus speaks in today’s gospel. I know you’re wondering if he’s ever going to be finished with this bread of life language, and the answer for today is “not yet.” Last week we heard how many of his listeners scoffed at the thought of Jesus being the bread that had come down from heaven. He was someone they knew. They knew his parents. He couldn’t be all that special, could he?
This week the pushback is getting worse – although we can hardly blame people for their skepticism. To those of us listening to Jesus’ words after centuries of Christianity, we can’t help but hear the language of Holy Communion in what Jesus is saying. But remember that at the time Jesus is speaking, Holy Communion doesn’t yet exist as a practice. However, Jesus eating with all kinds of peopleisa common practice – with sinners, outcasts, the sick, the struggling, foreigners, outsiders – generally the people no one else invited to dinner parties. Just before he launched into this big, long speech about bread, he’s fed thousands of people on a mountainside. Jesus loves sharing food with people, so it’s no wonder that the early church made eating together a central part of gathering for worship.
But long before all of the ritual developed around Holy Communion, we hear Jesus saying words that would of course have baffled anyone who heard them: “Thebread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Without knowing the layers of meaning that would emerge over time around these words, the crowd has every right to be confused.
Even with all the baffling talk of eating flesh and drinking blood, it’s important to hear that Jesus talks about it in terms of relationship. He uses the language of abiding: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” That word – abiding – shows up a lot in the gospel of John. It means that we remain in the presence of Jesus always – no matter what. It means that Jesus comes to us and stays with us through all of the joys and perils of this life. The times that make us laugh and the times that make us cry and the times when we are too exhausted to do either.
That’s what we experience when we receive Holy Communion. We may not feel it like some sort of magic spell week after week, but this meal is about Jesus abiding with us. It’s not just gathering around a table with loved ones, although that’s important. And it’s not just about hospitality, although that’s important too. It’s also about identity. Jesus gives us his very self, and this food prepared in love, offered in love, and shared in love shapes the story of who we are.
I’m convinced that the relationship between food and identity is one reason that the imagery of feasting appears so often in scripture. We hear it today in the first reading as Wisdom is personified as a hostess preparing a meal for her guests. The animals have been slaughtered as food. The wine has been poured. The table is set. And while the invitation may not be the most flattering you’ve ever heard (it is, after all, addressed to “those without sense”), it seems appropriate given that Wisdom is summoning people to enjoy this meal she has prepared: “You that are simple, turn in here!…Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
What an invitation. Here’s how God counters the foolishness of this world – the divisions, the pettiness, the backbiting. By inviting us to pull up a chair to Wisdom’s table and enjoy a meal together. Here we can lay aside immaturity and receive what only Holy Wisdom can give – new life, new beginnings, the way of insight.
The extraordinary writer and scholar Elizabeth Alexander has described her late husband’s experience of fleeing Eritrea, a small, war-torn country in Africa.[i] He arrived in the United States in 1981 as a refugee, forced from his homeland to avoid being slaughtered. When the death squads were getting too close, when too many of his classmates had disappeared, his mother sent him away as a 16-year-old. He walked to Sudan and then to Italy and then to Germany and eventually made his way to the United States, where he settled in New Haven and became a citizen.
A few other family members followed later. Elizabeth writes this about her husband’s sister:
One of my sisters-in-law, also a refugee, began a new life from scratch in the United States before her husband and remaining child at home could join her. She left everything material behind in Ethiopia — home, car, furnishings, jewelry. A few things eventually made their way back to her. She’d get a call to meet a plane at Kennedy Airport and a package of something precious would come: spices, fabric, a packet of documents.
The best was when her small coffee table came, with compartments for coffee cups, and a small rug made of artificial grass. She did the sacred Eritrean coffee ceremony and for a moment was no longer a refugee but rather a woman performing the rituals she had performed all her life.
“I am home now,” she said, as she poured us cup after cup of coffee…
We may not all be refugees in a literal sense, but we know what it is to feel disconnected from the places we’ve known as home. We know how much it matters when we can gather and share food in a way that reminds us of our history and our identity – where we came from, who we are, whose we are.
This morning God extends to us a holy invitation to be fed in the way that only God can give, to abide in the presence of the One who never lets us go. Come, eat of this bread and drink of this wine. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]See, for example, this piece, from which I quote: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/21/opinion/sunday/how-to-make-a-life-from-scratch.html