I’m guessing that we’ve all had the experience of having a sudden inability to remember what it is we’re supposed to be saying, of forgetting words that we’ve said a thousand times, stumbling over phrases that we know we know by heart. Without any warning, when we’re called upon to say them, we find that we suddenly can’t remember the words to the national anthem, or the Gloria or, occasionally in my case, the words of the collect for purity. Where once there was a well-established pattern of text, suddenly there is just an enormous blank page, and the more we think about it, the less likely we are to come up with the right combination of sounds and syllables to get that pattern started again.
One of my colleagues in seminary had this happen to her when she was serving as a new seminarian at a large church in D.C. She had only just begun her field education work there, and she was assigned to the chalice during their very large 11:00 Service of Holy Eucharist. She was nervous, a bit, trying to make sure she followed the right priest and paten, trying not to skip anyone, and, of course, desperately trying not to spill wine all down the front of someone’s Sunday best. She was so nervous, in fact, that she was several rows into her chalice-bearing that she realized that the words coming out of her mouth didn’t sound exactly right. When her brain finally tuned into what her mouth was doing, what she heard was horrifying. She was going down the row, person after person, sip after sip, saying, “The cup of blood. The cup of blood. The cup of blood.” But then once she heard what she was saying, she could of course in no way remember what she was supposed to be saying. The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation was as far away from her lips as the moon from Miami. So she just kept saying, “The cup of blood, the cup of blood, the cup of blood,” all the while apologizing in her heart for repeating this phrase that was so…well…gross.
Because gross it is, ladies and gentlemen, gross it is. It is a cup of blood that we’re offered at the altar, right after we’re fed from a heaping plate of flesh. In today’s Gospel passage that continues on in the sixth chapter of John, Jesus ups the ick factor considerably. He’s been talking for weeks now about bread: I am the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven, the true manna that gives eternal life. Bread, bread, bread. But now, just when everyone’s mouths are set to watering by all of this bread talk, Jesus throws in the zinger. I am the living bread that came down from heaven, he says, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Er…eww… And he goes on, telling his listeners that they need to eat his flesh and drink his blood – and not just eat and drink it like one might sip tea out of fine china with one pinky raised, but chew on it and gulp it down. His language is visceral here, raw. Take a big ol’ bite and a giant slug of me, he says, and we will abide together forever.
This kind of language is just trouble. It got Jesus in trouble then, as the religious leaders who heard this repulsive talk openly challenged him to explain himself. After all, what he was proposing was not only, well, gross, it also went directly against Levitical law, which contained clear prohibitions against drinking the blood of any animal, against forcibly taking an animal’s life force in this greedy and presumptive way. It got Jesus in trouble then, and it got his followers in trouble centuries later, as it led to Christian persecution based on false (but understandable) claims of cannibalism and bizarre stories of babies baked into communion bread. And it gets us in trouble now, when we find ourselves stumbling around our own theological language for what really happens at the altar. Like last week at our choir camp, when one of our youngest campers looked at me with wide eyes and said with all sincerity, “You shouldn’t drink blood. I don’t think it’s good for you.” I offered some thoughts about how all of this works – about wine and prayer and the real presence of Christ – but honestly, he looked less than convinced.
It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t seem particularly concerned about explaining the mechanics of all of this. When the religious leaders ask aloud, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus answers them not with the how, but with the why. Take my flesh because then you will have life in you, because then you can have eternal life, be risen up on the last day, live forever. All good news indeed, but he just keeps pounding out that word – the flesh of the Son of Man, eat my flesh, my flesh is true food. Flesh, flesh, flesh. And is it just me, or is flesh is a word that just gives you the willies. You wouldn’t want a waiter to talk to you about the expertly seared flesh of the cow you were about to eat or the soft flesh of the salmon that’s being prepared for you. Call it a steak, please, or a filet – call it meat, maybe, but not flesh. Flesh is something that quivers or decays, something other and entirely unappetizing.
But flesh is the word Jesus uses here, and Jesus, of course, knows exactly what he’s doing. Because it was flesh that the Israelites craved in the wilderness, the fleshpots of Egypt that they missed with all of their leeks and garlic and meat. It was flesh that the Israelites longed for in the desert instead of just manna. And so Jesus tells his followers that not only is he the true bread that comes down from heaven like manna on the fields, but that his own flesh will satisfy their longings for rich, lasting food. All desires will be satisfied – bread and manna, flesh and meat.
But that word flesh also reminds us of something else – something early and new, a promise made in the prologue to John’s Gospel, that Jesus is not just a prophet or a healer or a feeder or a teacher but God made man – the Word become flesh, human, real, the stuff of you and me. And so when John tells us that Jesus offers us his flesh to eat, he is tying all of his great Gospel together, reminding us that the flesh and blood of the Eucharist is the same flesh and blood of the Incarnation. The flesh born in Bethlehem is the same flesh offered to you and me, on the cross and on the altar.
And this is beautiful. This is glorious. This is a message of powerful, potent hope, of light in the darkness, of God’s purpose being worked out in miraculous and humbling ways. And this is so utterly magnificent that the how of the flesh offered in bread and the blood offered in wine pales in the real presence of the wonder of it all. And Jesus invites us into the very heart of this great mystery – not just to observe it like a snapshot on Instagram but to sit down and to eat, to take this very mystery of God made flesh and flesh given freely into our own weak, undeserving flesh, to absorb this holiness into our own being, to digest it and let it fill us with energy and life. Jesus’ flesh and blood are true food and true drink, a pathway that opens the door for us to abide deeply in him and for him to abide deeply in us.
And so sit and eat. Hear Jesus tell you to take his flesh and his blood, to take all of it. Eat every morsel and drain the cup to the dregs. Treat this meal less like a delicate sandwich offered on fine china at high tea and more like a hearty stew that you eat by the heaping spoonful and sop up with crusty brown bread. Take it – consume it all, and then come back tomorrow or the next day and consume it again. Find here something true and lasting to gnaw on, something well-aged and wondrous to gulp down. Open your own beautiful, fleshy body to the mystery of the incarnation and the Eucharist and let it abide there, deep within you, this great gift of God that frankly makes no earthly sense but that makes all the difference in the world. Feast on this flesh, on the scandalous self-offering of God and know that when we feel that sense of scandal or shock at what looks like too much love, or too great a gift, or too large a tent, or too intimate an embrace, it’s a pretty good sign that God is there, moving in the world, moving us, showing us what the kingdom of God actually looks like. True food and true drink. A plate of flesh. A cup of blood. Words and a meal to remember.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
16 August 2015
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia