August 15, 2021
Last week after worship we had an outdoor coffee hour to mark the midpoint of this unrelenting series of readings about Jesus as the Bread of Life. We made bread – or carbs, more broadly – the theme of the coffee hour, and we enjoyed all kinds of treats. I could try to describe for you the delicious beer bread that Christine made (only three ingredients, she says) or the wonderful cornbread that Stacey made. I could try to tell you about the muffins or the cake, how each thing tasted flavorful in our mouths. I could try, but it wouldn’t be very satisfying to you, would it? Without tasting it for yourselves, your understanding of the beer bread remains only hypothetical.
At this point in the sequence of Bread of Life gospels, Jesus shifts into some pretty visceral language: “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” It sounds almost cannibalistic the way Jesus describes it, so we can understand the confusion of his friends and neighbors in this Jewish community. Of course they would ask “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” You and I would probably ask that too.
There are some good, heady theological answers to that quesiton I could give you. The Gospel of John, for example, unlike the other gospels, doesn’t include a specific place where Jesus institutes what we call Holy Communion. There is a final meal with his disciples in the Gospel of John, but there isn’t a moment in John where Jesus says “Do this in remembrance of me,” the language we’ve come to understand as the origins of the sacrament of Holy Communion. So there are many biblical scholars who see the Bread of Life discourse we’ve been hearing over several weeks, especially what we hear today, as John’s version of Jesus introducing Holy Communion. And it makes sense, right? Especially when Jesus says: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them…the one who eats this bread will live forever.” These words of Jesus, strange though they are, reflect our Lutheran understanding that in Holy Communion, Jesus is truly present here with us, and that in this sacrament we are promised forgiveness and eternal life.
That is a rich and appropriate interpretation of what Jesus means here. But I also wonder if Jesus is inviting us to consider something more than Holy Communion alone. Consider how the way he talks about these things has shifted over this long and winding discourse. A few paragraphs back Jesus was saying this: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” There’s still that theme of eating, being nourished, but at that point he’s talking about people coming to him. Believing inhim.
But today his language is different, more “fleshy” if you will. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Eating the flesh of Jesus seems different than merely believing in him. To digest Jesus is more intense, more intimate, more personal.
Remember that the Gospel of John is the one that begins with the Word becoming flesh and living among us. Jesus as God with skin on. Con carne. With meat on his bones. To talk as Jesus does today suggests a personal encounter with Jesus, a relationship in which he enters into us and changes the way that we in turn enter into and engage with the world. Jesus does not want a hypothetical relationship with us from a distance. He wants an actual relationship with us, one that we experience in real and tangible ways.
While this long bread of life commentary from Jesus might make us think that he is the world’s most long-winded preacher, it helps to remember that most of what we see Jesus doing in John’s gospel is up close and personal – with tangible actions that accompany his words. He doesn’t just talk about healing. He touches the eyes of the man born blind with mud that Jesus has made with his own spit. And that man’s sight is restored. Jesus doesn’t just talk about feeding people. He takes those couple of fish and a few loaves of bread and he makes it into an all-you-can-eat, family-style meal on that hillside. He doesn’t just tell his disciples to love people. He gets down on his knees and washes their feet with the tenderest of care.
A Savior who heals and feeds and washes with his very own hands is also the One who gives his very body as a sacrifice. A love that is willing to die is not a theoretical love. It is real.
I read a poem this week that reminded me of how much we experience life in the particularities. The poet is Laura Foley, and the poem is called “The Once Invisible Garden.”[i] As I read it, listen for the details that you can most easily imagine. What would be the details that you would name in your own life?
How did I come to be
this particular version of me,
and not some other, this morning
of purple delphiniums blooming,
like royalty – destined
to meet these three dogs
asleep at my feet, and not others –
this soft summer morning,
sitting on her screened porch
become ours, our wind chime,
singing of wind and time,
feeding bees and filling me –
and more abundance to come:
basil, tomatoes, zucchini.
What luck or fate, instinct,
or grace brought me here? –
in shade, beneath hidden stars,
a soft, summer morning,
seeing with my whole being,
love made visible.
I love the details in this poem: the purple delphiniums, the dogs at her feet, the wind chime, the tomatoes. The speaker understands these concrete things in her life as part of what has shaped her, a received grace that she calls “love made visible.”
This is the kind of love to which Jesus calls us. Love made visible, tangible, real. Not theoretically taking care of each other, but actually taking care of each other.
Think of a sick kid in the middle of the night. The kid doesn’t want someone waving from far away and wishing him good luck. The kid needs the hand on the forehead, the ginger ale to settle his stomach, the blanket tucked in tightly around his legs. Love made visible.
Think about the people to whom we offer food each Wednesday afternoon here in Chatham, to whom we offer fresh produce – blueberries and lettuce and tomatoes – as well as milk and eggs and literal bread. The bread of life. Love made visible. And we receive in return the gift of continued relationship with them, the prayers and conversations that we share together from week to week. Prayers for a family member undergoing chemo, prayers for the people of Haiti, prayers for a daughter taking the LSAT and applying to law school. Love made visible.
The grace of God has brought each of us to this place with a love that in a few minutes we will hold in our hands before we eat it and drink it. We will sing “On Our Way Rejoicing,” carrying with us the promise that Jesus is our safety and our joy. We will give our financial resources to support the work of God in this specific time and place. We will pray for the needs in our lives and the needs in the world around us, naming for ourselves the specific people and places on our hearts. And we will wake up again tomorrow to find new ways to love and serve. However small they might seem, they can become another person’s experience of grace. We will do all of these things in the name of the One who has first shown us what that kind of love looks like up close.
Love made visible, thanks be to God. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] From the collection How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope, edited by James Crews, p. 43.