Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
Jesus said: “I am the Living Bread, which comes down from heaven… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
“The Jews disputed among themselves: How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
How indeed? It’s a shocking, revolting image if we take it literally. The notion of eating the flesh of another human being crosses into the forbidden zones of human culture; the idea of drinking the blood of another person is equally gruesome. We cannot interpret this passage merely at face value. Something else is at work here.
Jesus is still very much alive as the story is being told; on the previous day, from a few loaves of bread and a few small fish, he has provided enough food for five thousand people. The use of bread as a symbol of life and sustanence is very old. For Jesus’ first hearers, the image of the bread of the ancestors refers to the manna, the mysterious food that had sustained the children of Israel during their 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Any bread, even the most ordinary, is a complex object and symbol, full of meaning. This series of images, from the feeding of the five thousand through today’s passage of the gospel are not “just” about ordinary eating and drinking in any case.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Jesus is no longer physically present among his followers by the time these words were first written down and read aloud. And yet they understood him to be present with them, among them, in their eating and drinking together.
We will hear Jesus say something like that later on, in the Upper Room on the night before his arrest and trial and crucifixion. “Abide in me” he tells his followers “as I abide in you. Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit; apart from me you are rootless and fruitless and barren.” (John 15: 4-5)
In that upper room, as John the evangelist tells the story, the bread and wine of the Last Supper are not mentioned. Jesus washes the feet of his friends, and then teaches them what that means for them. As a result of what he has done among them and with them, they will now go and do these things among and with others, who will themselves become the friends and followers of Jesus. They will wash feet, and teach others to do so as well. They will eat and drink together, and teach other table companions how to recognize Jesus present among them as they do so.
Abide in Me, Jesus tells them. Remain and live and flourish, in and through my life growing in and through you.
This “abiding,” this “remaining” is not geographic—because Jesus’ followers did not remain static in the places where he spoke to them. They went out, from that synagogue in Capernum where he was teaching them after the feeding of the five thousand. They went out from that Upper Room, where they ate and drank and had their feet washed, where they talked and questioned and sang and prayed. On the day of Pentecost, they went out from the place where they had been listening and waiting for the power of God to move in and through them. And even so, they continued to abide, to remain in deep contact and relationship, with Jesus and one another, wherever they went.
It is this same call to “abide in Christ,” to remain rooted and grounded in the life of the Spirit of God, to which the writer to the Ephesians calls his hearers. “Be filled with the Spirit,” he says, “singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of Jesus.”
Perhaps we need to add a line here, our own interpolation of Scripture.
“And the people of St. Augustine’s disputed among themselves: Giving thanks—at all times? For everything? Really?”
Here as before, a deeper reality is being brought forth into our awareness. The call to give thanks, always and everywhere (as we will say again in the liturgy in a few minutes) is not because everything is always easy and comfortable and hunky-dory. It’s not. Sometimes the circumstances of life are really truly awful—for us as individuals, for us as a community, or a nation, or as residents of planet Earth. We are worried about our children, or our parents. We wonder how we are going to pay the bills, or get through the next electoral cycle, or survive the next natural disaster predicted on the nightly news or the Hysterical Channel. We wonder what—if anything—can be done.
And that fear and anxiety can stop us in our tracks faster than anything else, more than even some imagined potential disaster itself. For it is still and always, FEAR—nothing more or less—that stops our breath, stops our hearts, seizes us with a cold hard death grip that seems unbreakable. We feel unable to move, unable to flee, unable to resist.
And it is precisely in that place, that hell of paralysis and panic and desperation, that we hear God’s invitation in Christ Jesus.
In Jesus’ call to remain and abide in him, in the call to give thanks—always and everywhere, regardless of circumstance or emotion—we receive the tools, as God’s beloved daughters and sons, to break that grip of fear. To say, to those powers and principalities of death and destruction, that regardless of circumstance, we have placed our trust in One who has faced the forces of fear and sin and death, and who in all these things has had the last word.
And what is that word?
Peace be with you. My peace, which is beyond all understanding and circumstance, be with you all.
It is this deep peace to which we are called, brothers and sisters. And it is this peace we are called to carry with us, and to share with those around us. Not a false peace based on domination of the powerful over the powerless; not an imposed peace that forces uniformity upon diversity of persons or points of view. But the peace of Christ, crucified and risen, who holds nothing back but gives himself in every way, that we may take the fullness of himself into ourselves, and so become his body, his blood, his life-force, in this world.
We eat the bread and drink the wine, which we call the Body and Blood, so that we may become the body and blood. We receive the outward and visible signs of the Sacraments so that we ourselves may become sacraments—outward and visible signs of the grace and mercy and peace and love of God in this world.
May it be so for us.
May it be so among us.
May it be so in this world, this place, this day.