Sunday, August 15, 2021

Fed By Christ


August 15, 2021 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 12:30.

What do you do well on an empty stomach? I am fairly productive first thing in the morning, when there’s nothing in my tank except a few cups of black coffee, but, by the early afternoon, if I have not eaten anything, things begin to go sideways. I get distracted. I get irritable. I get “hangry”—that particular kind of angry that accompanies a lack of food. I can’t say that I am at my best when my stomach is full, but, when it’s empty, I have my limits. Just ask my family or my colleagues.

As the academic year begins, our local schools are providing free breakfast and free lunch for all students through the end of the year. That’s good news for everyone. During the pandemic, our schools have looked for ways to feed hungry children, whose families normally depend on free or reduced meals at school for their children’s nourishment, but it hasn’t been easy with many children learning from home. No matter where you are, it’s hard to learn when your stomach is growling. It’s hard to stay focused when the pain of not eating demands your attention. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts physiological things like food, water, clothing, and shelter at the very bottom—the first need that must be met if a person is going to grow and develop—and an empty stomach leaves someone a long way from self-actualization—from being able to want to become the person you have been created to be. Just ask a kindergarten teacher.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ teaching on the Bread of Life takes a bit of a regression—from lofty metaphor to basic reality, from philosophical aspiration to physiological necessity. What had been a provocative image for spiritual salvation now becomes an even more provocative image for physical sustenance. At the beginning of this teaching, Jesus likened the Bread of Life to manna in the wilderness, but now Jesus wants to compare it with his flesh—the literal “meat” of his body—in ways that would eventually become fuel for the cannibalistic accusations that were levied against the early Christians. But for us it offers the hope that in Christ God is concerned not only with our spiritual welfare but also with the most basic needs of humanity—with the hunger that so often seems to get in the way of our spiritual growth.

In Jesus’ time, manna was often used as an image for divine revelation. Wisdom and truth from above were likened to the flaky white substance that God gave the ancient Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. We, too, describe unexpected gifts as “manna from heaven,” acknowledging that something good has come to us from an unexpected source. When Jesus described himself and his teachings as “the bread that came down from heaven,” the religious authorities grumbled against him because they saw nothing otherworldly about him. “We know Jesus,” they scoffed. “We know his parents and his siblings. He didn’t come from heaven. He came from Nazareth!” Jesus may have grown up in Galilee, but we know that the wisdom and truth he brought to the earth had indeed come from above.

We have the advantage of two thousand years of theological interpretation and instruction. Back then, the religious authorities were struggling to see beyond the reality they knew. Jesus had offered the crowd a challenging message: that he was the one who had come to sustain God’s people not only for a wilderness journey but for all time. He was the one who could feed them in a way that could give them eternal life. But it’s hard to wrap your mind around that lofty truth when the spiritual equivalent of your stomach is grumbling. It’s hard to believe that Jesus can give us spiritual fulfillment when our faith in God is in its infancy. We need basic nourishment first.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus said. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” If you thought spiritual bread was hard to digest, just wait until you try to tackle the body and blood of Jesus. Like a precipitating agent that causes a substance to fall out of solution in a chemical reaction, Jesus’ identification of the bread from heaven with his body pushes those who hear this message in opposite directions. 

Those who take issue with his claims about having a heavenly origin find this latest assertion impossible to swallow. No one eats human flesh. We don’t need a divine teacher to tell us that. And, according to Jewish law, blood can never be consumed because, as the life of a creature, it belongs to God. When Jesus begins to speak of his flesh and blood as if they are food for God’s people, the religious authorities need no more reason to write him off. That is sacrilegious nonsense.

But, to those who are hungry for the salvation that Jesus offers, who are looking to him to meet their most basic needs, this invitation to feast on his flesh and blood becomes not a gruesome, unholy practice but a way to meet God through the most basic of human pursuits. In Christ, we find God in something as ordinary and essential as bread. In him, we discover that God wants to feed us first in order that that nourishment might grow into something much more substantial.

Traditionally, we approach life as if there is a tension between the spiritual world and the physical world—between the soul and the body. But in Christ we discover that they are inseparable. By giving us his body, his flesh, Jesus invites us to receive him not through some rigorous spiritual practice but in something we can touch and smell and taste and chew and swallow. In case we missed it—in case we think that this is just another strange philosophical metaphor—halfway through this gospel lesson Jesus stops using the generic word for eating (φάγω) and replaces it with the word that means munching, gnawing, or chewing (τρώγω). When we feast on the flesh of Jesus, therefore, we do so not only in our hearts and minds but with our mouths and stomachs, too.

The Holy Eucharist, which we gather to celebrate today, is a strange and beautiful thing. We eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus not only to remember his death and resurrection but to partake in his life-giving body and blood. This is how we make our Communion with Almighty God—not by elevating our minds to the heavenly places but by receiving the corporeal Christ here in our hands and mouths and stomachs. How freeing it is to know that we encounter God not because we have molded our spiritual selves into the right shape but because God has taken on our flesh and given that flesh up for our sake! We meet God not only when our minds are perfectly attuned to spiritual realities but even when our stomachs are rumbling and the distractions of our physical needs press in upon our prayers. How is that possible? Because Jesus gave us not only wisdom and truth, which feed our spirits, but his flesh and blood, which nourish our whole selves.

This means that Holy Communion is not only a foretaste of the banquet that awaits us but also sustenance for the journey we are on in this world. It is how we carry the power of God with us into the world where God’s presence can sometimes be hard to discern. As John Chrysostom said of the Eucharist, “Christ has given to those who desire Him not only to see Him, but even to touch, and eat Him, and fix their teeth in His flesh, and to embrace Him, and satisfy all their love. Let us then return from that table like lions breathing fire, having become terrible to the devil; thinking on our Head [meaning Jesus], and on the love which He has shown for us.” [1] We return from that table and go out into the world like lions breathing fire not because we have ascended to the heights of spiritual contemplation but because Jesus Christ has descended to us and filled us with real food, his own flesh and blood, the Bread of Life. 

1.   Chrysostom, John. “Homily 46 on the Gospel of John.” Accessed 13 August 2021.

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