They Abide in Me, and I in Them

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on August 19, 2018 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

A long, long time ago, back in the 13th or 14th century, a woman had a vision. Her name was Hadewijch, and she lived somewhere around Antwerp, which is part of modern Belgium. She was an accomplished writer of poetry and devotional works, though not much is known about her personally. And she recorded mystical visions that she experienced.

In one of them, she is in church on Pentecost. During the liturgy, she experiences severe longing. And an eagle flies to her from the altar. The eagle is common in churches as a symbol of John the Gospel writer, so it’s not unusual that she saw an eagle. But since this is a mystical vision, it’s a talking eagle. It tells her to prepare herself for Christ coming to her.

Then Jesus seemed to come down from the altar toward her. First as a baby. Then he is carrying the wafer and chalice of the Eucharist, appearing as he would have at the last supper, “in that day when he first gave us his body, that appearance of a human being and a man, showing his sweet and beautiful and sorrowful face, and approaching me with humility.”

Jesus gives her himself in the form of the sacrament. Then it gets even more intense:

“But all too soon I lost sight of the shape of that beautiful man, and I saw him disappear to nothing, so quickly melting away and fusing together that I could not see or observe him outside of me, nor discern him within me. It was to me at that moment as if we were one without distinction.”

In those days, mystical visions related to the sacrament were relatively common. But I share Hadewijch’s vision because I think it says something beautiful. On the altar, the bread is joined with the Body of Christ, and she sees that as a human body, coming to her, feeding her, and then disappearing again. Where is this Jesus who came to her, who fed her? First he is invisible, then he becomes visible, and finally he is invisible again.

But this time, he’s invisible because he is one with her. “I could not see him outside of me, nor discern him within me.” In this moment of receiving the sacrament, the two had become one.

And while most of us don’t have mystical visions like this, it’s what happens every time Christians celebrate the Eucharist. First, Christ is invisible to us. We hear his voice in the Word of God, but we do not see him. Then he becomes visible under the forms of bread and wine, which we can see and touch and eat and drink. And then, when we’ve eaten and drunk, he is no longer visible, because he is within us. The Body of Christ takes flesh for us, and we eat it, and then we become it. We can’t see the Body of Christ any more because we are the Body of Christ.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus encounters opposition when he says that he is the living bread come down from heaven, and that the bread that he will give for the life of the world is his flesh.

And of course he encounters opposition when he says this. It’s a strange and shocking thing to say! Like so much that Jesus says and does, it only starts to make sense after the events of his death and resurrection, when he gives his disciples a new command. When he tells them to give thanks, eat bread, drink wine in remembrance of him, and to believe in that moment that they are the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for all people for the forgiveness of sins. When he promises that he will dwell with us, forever. Not as a memory. Not as a moral example. Not as a spiritual influence. But really, truly, fully, dwelling with us, body and soul. Becoming one with us. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

It’s an amazing thought to me, after so many Sundays and festivals of watching or making it happen:

God and humanity are joined in Jesus Christ;

Jesus Christ is joined to the bread and wine;

and then when we eat the bread and drink the wine, Jesus Christ is joined to us.

God comes down to earth, and we are lifted up to heaven.

God stoops to enter under our roof, and we are raised up to our full stature in the vast temple of God’s kingdom.

All so that we would not be left without comfort. So that we would not be left to worship an absent Christ. All so that we would know, in our inmost being, that Christ has joined himself to us forever.

And then, when it’s over, we look around, and what do we see? Not Jesus, the infant of Bethlehem or the man of Nazareth. Not his sacrament, the promise of forgiveness of sins. But his true Body— joined together without distinction, sharing with each other and all the saints in heaven the power of God’s eternal life.

This is how much you are loved by God. This is how much you are sought by God. We are his, and he is ours—in faith, in acts of mercy, in love, in the image of his Son in the world, without distinction. Amen.

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