August 16, 2015 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
By the time you’ve had your fourth kid, you’ve probably learned to let go of most of the critical whispering that happens among parents at the playground. Their kid never behaves. I hear the teacher had to call his mom to come down and get him. Well, he is a preacher’s kid—what do you expect? That’s just the way it’s done. Parents greet one another with a warm, loving smile and talk about how beautiful and smart and sweet each other’s children are, and then they stab each other in the back as soon as they can pull out their phones and text their other friends about how unbelievably horrible the encounter was. After a while, you learn to ignore it—well, most of it.
There are few labels that get the attention of even the most seasoned parents as quickly as that of a biter. No one wants his kid to be a biter, and no one wants that reputation to get out because it spreads like wildfire and you quickly find that your child can’t get a playdate with even the snotty-nose, potty-mouth kid down the street. In the world of preschool, biting is the definition of bad. Most preschools have policies in place that if your child bites another kid more than once or twice, your child is expelled from that school. But how do you teach a two-year-old that biting is wrong?
Some parents prefer to say an emphatic “No!” and send that child to time-out, but how well can a toddler make the connection between crime and punishment? Other parents spank their child or pop him quickly in the mouth, but that only teaches the kid to hit instead. I’ve heard some parents say that you’re supposed to bite your kid back in order to teach her that it hurts, but that seems absurd. By the time we’re six, we’ve learned that sinking your teeth into another human being is wrong—that we just don’t do that—so why, then, is that exactly what Jesus is telling us to do?
“The bread that I will give for the life of my world is my flesh…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink…whoever eats me will live because of me.” Hearing Jesus tell the crowd that they are supposed to eat his flesh, which is really, truly food, makes me think of grabbing his arm and taking a bite right out of it. But that’s absurd. Sure, we’re called to eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and we partake of his body and blood each week in Holy Communion, but we’re not cannibals…are we?
There’s something about this bread that is more than bread, but it isn’t really meat either. It’s the body of Christ, and, although Jesus did give his flesh for the life of the world, taking a bite of the crucified one isn’t what he meant by “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood.” A few years ago, on a Sunday just like this one, a parishioner, friend, and vegan came to the altar rail and stuck out her hands to receive the bread, but I looked down at her and asked, “Are vegans allowed to eat the body of Christ? Isn’t that against the rules?” I’m not really supposed to make jokes at the Communion rail, but the only way that one worked is because we both knew that it wasn’t really an issue. Even though we say it, this isn’t flesh. But it isn’t just bread either. So what is it that we eat?
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life. They are the ones I will raise up on the last day.” Oh, now I get it. This is magic bread. Whoever pops a morsel of this in her mouth and takes a sip of that cheap port wine will get to go to heaven. Well, isn’t that just good news? But, of course, it isn’t because it doesn’t work like that because that’s not what Jesus meant either. Surely we don’t believe that the winnowing fork that separates the heaven-bound from the damned is as ridiculously simple as determining who took Communion at some point in his life. But Jesus says that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood have eternal life. They are those whom he will raise up on the last day. So, if feeding on the flesh and blood of Christ is essential for salvation but it also clearly isn’t as simple as coming to the altar rail and snacking on a sacrament, what does it mean to feast on the body of Christ?
Last week, I preached about what Episcopalians believe—about the foundation of our faith. I proclaimed that the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, is good news for the world, and that there is really no other reason to come to church than to celebrate it. That is the part of our faith that unites us with all other Christians. It’s where we start. But there’s another part—a particular way in which we celebrate that good news—that makes us different from most other churches. It’s the part that helps us make sense of Jesus’ strange, provocative, life-giving words. It’s our sacramental understanding how God works.
We believe that God reveals himself to us in ways that we can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear. We believe that God reaches out to us in ways that are not just understood with the mind but also experienced with the body. God comes to us in ways that are real and true and powerful and that, unlike the spoken word, do not depend upon our understanding for us to grasp them. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” How do you wrap your mind around that? You don’t. You simply experience it. You experience the life-giving, sustaining, nourishing, saving body of Christ. And this is where you can find it.
It is a mistake to think that God exists only to be understood by us. It is too small a thing to believe that the sum total of our relationship with God is however much of God we can comprehend. In church, we do more than sit here and talk at you for an hour because we believe there is more to being a Christian than sitting and listening and thinking. We believe that God’s love should be encountered in ways that exceed our capacity for understanding. We believe that as Christians we are a part of something much bigger than a collection of individuals. We are the body of Christ. And it is Christ’s body—yes, on the cross; yes, in the bread; but also sitting in the pews and gathered together around the world in Jesus’ name—that sustains our very existence in this life and brings us to the next.
Communion bread isn’t just bread, and it isn’t all body either. It’s the currency of communion with one another and the whole Christian community and all the saints past, present, and future. And how does that work? It works because it is Christ himself and the sacrificial gift of his body that holds us together. When we come to the rail and receive a piece of the bread and take a sip of the wine we aren’t just eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus in some mystical, unfathomable way. We are participating the body of Christ because we are the body of Christ and this is where we are again united one to another. Something happens here—something we don’t understand but something that is real and bigger than all of us.
Partaking of that body means a lot more than eating a piece of bread. It means living in, dwelling in, residing in, participating in the body of Christ and letting the very real flesh and blood of Jesus be our sustenance. That cannot be limited to what happens here. Kneeling together to receive the bread and wine is only one tiny fragment of our common life. Our communion with one another and with our Lord and Savior must not stop here. This is only food for the journey. Being a follower of Jesus Christ means a lot more than showing up on Sunday mornings.
So come to the rail and be fed. Come and be united with each other as the body of Christ. But don’t stop there. Get up and go from this place and keep feeding on the one who gave his life for the world. We cannot have life apart from him. We cannot have life apart from one another. We are the body of Christ, and the body of Christ is what sustains us.