On Sunday I had the privilege of leading worship and preaching at the church I'm serving and also a neighboring congregation. Our two churches are close geographically and for many years shared a pastor. This is the message I shared at my congregation. The text was John 6:51-58.
Our church has quite a reputation. Last week, for the celebration of Portville’s 175th anniversary, many people made pies and other delicious baked goods. From what I have heard, many people were specifically looking for the goodies we made. They had purchased pies or fudge from us during the Heritage Days celebration. Our baked goods have achieved renown in the community.
We are a church who enjoys food and knows how to eat. Before I was officially called to be Bethel’s pastor, Ray and I had dinner together with the church council at Sprague’s. Pr. Dan Rumfelt shared that Bethel has a reputation. Then, he asked if the council knew what that reputation in the community is. Bryan Hatch piped up, “This church knows how to eat!” Not only did we did get a good laugh out of that, but Bryan professed a profound truth.
What is our relationship to food? As we eat, the food is digested and flows through our bodies to nourish us. It literally becomes part of us so that we are what we eat. We have a very intimate relationship with what we eat. We are dependent upon food and drink. Without either, we will die.
What is Jesus saying in today’s gospel? Jesus’ words were shocking to his original hearers. Understood literally, they were gruesome and offensive. To some, it may have sounded like cannibalism. The Jews did understand Jesus’ words literally. However, Jesus does not address their concerns, but takes things one-step further stating that to have life one must eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood. The Jewish law prohibits the drinking of blood! Is it any wonder that early Christians were accused of cannibalism as they celebrated the Lord’s Supper?
What is Jesus inviting us to in today’s gospel? Is it possible for us to have a relationship as close and intimate with Jesus as we have with the food that we eat, and digest which becomes part of us? From the very beginning of today’s gospel, Jesus links together food and life. Some form of the verb eat is mentioned eight times in these verses and it is connected to a form of life or living, which is repeated nine times. To maintain physical life, we must eat food and drink liquids. To maintain spiritual life, we must eat and drink of Jesus.
John is graphic in his use of the word eat. Besides the normal Greek word for eat, John uses a Greek word emphasizing the physicality of the act of eating. This latter word means to gnaw, crunch, eat, or chew. We do not normally think of Holy Communion in this way, do we? We participate together in a real meal of eating, chewing, drinking and swallowing.
We may be thinking, “Why do we do this?” The answer is LIFE!!! Jesus speaks of forever life, resurrection life, abiding life. Eating true food and drinking true drink nourishes us with true life. The Greek word for “true” can also be translated as “dependable” (Gingrich, New Testament Lexicon). We have friends who are dependable and can be counted upon whenever we need help. Jesus and the food and drink of his body and blood are even more dependable. If we are what we eat, then what do we become after receiving Holy Communion?
For some of us, life as we now know it is physically and/or emotionally painful. As we have aged or encountered illness, we simply feel like we are worn out. A new resurrected body without pain, a new heart without hurt sounds pretty good. We may look forward to the hereafter. However, Jesus wants us to experience the abundant life now! John uses the term life a lot in his writings, usually to “designate the result of faith in Christ; in most cases it is stated expressly that the follower of Jesus possesses life even in this world” (Bauer-Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). Eternal life means being in a relationship with the “living Father” (v. 57) which begins now and lasts for forever.
A quality inherent to this life in Christ is that of hope. Hope is the glue that holds our present and future together. G. Porter Taylor explains, “We experience eternal life when we encounter the living Jesus who lived in a world filled with suffering and uncertainty because in that encounter we are able to discover hope” (G. Porter Taylor, goodpreacher.com).
So…how do we get this life? Our liturgy may provide us with some keys. In the first part of the service, the Word is proclaimed. We hear this Word and believe. Afterwards, the meal is served which we need to eat and drink. Jesus comes into our lives through our ears and our mouths. Together we pray and praise God. We hear the Good News. We eat together at the table set with the food that is a foretaste of the feast to come.
God uses ordinary people like us to bring Christ’s saving presence into a hurt and desperate world. May we have a continual, holy hunger for God’s feast of relationship with himself and others. As one author challenges us, “If we are what we eat, then we’d better imbibe that grace, ask for seconds of our Lord’s love, and pass the promises of God” (Sharron Blezard, stewardshipoflife.org). After all, aren’t we are a church who knows how to eat?