Note: I preached a version of this sermon on August 19, 2012 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’m going to begin today with a rather personal question. Have you ever wept when you received Holy Communion? Feel free not to raise your hand, but I’ll own it–I’ve wept to receive Holy Communion. Anyone else?
In her memoir Take This Bread, writer Sara Miles describes receiving communion for the first time as a 46-year-old atheist, after wandering into San Francisco’s St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.
We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. It had some dishes on it, and a pottery goblet.
And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying, “the body of Christ,” and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying “the blood of Christ,” and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.
I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening–I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening–the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening–God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth–utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.
All the way home, shocked, I scrambled for explanations. Maybe…being surrounded by believers had been enough to push me, momentarily, into accepting their superstitions… Probably my tears were just pent-up sadness, accumulated over a long, hard decade, and spilling out, unsurprisingly, because I was in a place where I could cry anonymously. Really, the whole thing, in fact, must have been about emotion…as if I’d been uplifted by a particularly glorious concert or seen a natural wonder.
Yet that impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb. I…had no idea what it meant; I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion: It was as real as the actual taste of the bread and the wine. And the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I’d swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh.
I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away: For some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I wanted it all the next day after my first communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table at St. Gregory’s through my fear and confusion.
I can relate to that experience, and I know I’m not alone. A woman who came to faith at my last church told me that she didn’t start going to church because she was sad or lonely; she had a good marriage and a good career. But every Sunday during Holy Communion she would weep. Why does this happen?
Today we come to the moment in John’s Gospel where Jesus speaks what may be the hardest words in the New Testament. A nice thing about this book is that it often tells you when you’re hearing something that’s likely to cause as many problems as it solves:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever;
and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’
And “disputed” here is a delicate word–the original word means something more like battled, struggled, wrangled.
So Jesus said to them, ‘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, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’
As I said a couple weeks ago, we’ve reached the point in the story when Jesus’ words start pushing people away. Not because he means them to. But he is explaining more explicitly than ever before what his calling and his ministry to the world really is. And so he is opening himself up to incomprehension, to anger, to confusion, to tears. This is true even today. Consider how the great and awesome gift of Holy Communion is shrunk into a corner in so many churches: every three months, or once a month, or with little individually-wrapped cups of sterilized grape juice and a tiny wafer (“Save time and money!”). It’s as if even some Christians are embarrassed of these words.
But Jesus is saying again here that the Word of God–the power, the presence, the very being of God–has become flesh and blood in the Son. And this Son has come not simply to teach us humans something we didn’t know, and not simply to tell us to do things we should do, or even to get us to believe something with our minds and our hearts. The Son comes to bring the life of God through his own flesh and blood, which is real and present for us over and over again. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. So the life of God comes to us through Jesus through an action so basic that none of us can live without it: eating and drinking.
When the great theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote about the sacraments, he wrote about them as the way God gives us grace. “Now the gift of grace,” he wrote, “surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking in the divine nature.” This is a professional way of saying that grace is the gift we can’t get for ourselves because it is beyond our capability. It is the way we embrace the very nature of God. It is the way that the invisible, eternal Father comes to live inside of us, like a radioactive tracer that outlives our own flesh.
It’s a gift so great that it can bring tears to the eyes of the most cynical, skeptical participant. You might be a new Christian celebrating Eastertide for the first time, around a circular altar while the pastor hands out bread and the assistant brings you the cup, and the organ is playing “A Hymn of Glory Now We Sing,” and the sun is shining in the stone sanctuary, and you weep. Or perhaps you just buried your spouse of many decades, and yet you are the kind of church person who always has a hug, and a wink, and a smile for everyone, and you come through the communion line impeccably dressed and made up as always, and the assistant holds up the wafer, saying “The body of Christ, given for you,” and you weep.
Because the power that is wider than all heaven and earth, and became flesh and blood for your redemption, is now in your hands. Because the life that sets the stars aflame and makes the rivers flow and courses through the veins of every plant and animal is now in you, forever. It is a gift so great there are no words for it. It is the joy so powerful that sometimes it can only be expressed in tears.
Take and eat.