“I am the living bread that came down from heaven…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Does anybody understand what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel lesson? If you do, I’m going to cede the pulpit to you…because I’m still trying to figure it out. Maybe if we read it again….
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
53So 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. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.
6Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This 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 forever.” (John 6:51-58)
Did that help? Yeah. Me neither. These words of Jesus are hard to understand. It sounds like cannibalism, pure and simple, doesn’t it? But we’re not cannibals. We’re civilized, proper Protestant Christians! What does it mean for us to eat the bread and drink the juice, we who don’t generally believe that the elements literally become the body and blood of Jesus?
Understanding…We Protestants are big on understanding, aren’t we? We are people of the word. We love trying to figure things out in our brains. Ours is a thinking faith. We’re quite proud of that fact.
But the truth is that there are some things connected to faith that simply aren’t figure-out-able. Some things are mystery. Some things can’t be explained; they must instead be experienced.
The two sacraments of our church—baptism and communion—are things that must be experienced. Oh, sure. There have been lots of explanations of our sacraments over the last two millennia, but explaining baptism and communion is only one, partial way of knowing these rituals. To gain a fuller knowledge of the sacraments requires engaging not just our heads, but our bodies, as well.
Cade’s baptism just a minute ago … we could explain that. “A baby was baptized at our church yesterday,” you might say to a friend at lunch tomorrow. If that friend asked you what it means for your church to baptize a baby, you could explain that “baptism is the ritual, the sign of the church’s welcoming that baby into the body of Christ. At Cade’s baptism, we committed ourselves as a church to help nurture him into the Christian faith until the time when he is able to accept the faith for his own.”
We could say all of that….but would it communicate what just happened here a few minutes ago? The joy of seeing that baby and his parents….the anticipation of what he would do when the water was poured over his head…the smiles that came unbidden when we sang “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise”…. the sense that we now have taken on the responsibility to help raise Cade into the Christian faith? We can certainly explain all that—kind of like I’m doing now—but explanations only tell part of the story…the rest just has to be experienced.
The same is true for communion. And nothing conveys the need to get out of our heads and just experience communion more than these puzzling words of Jesus from John. “Eat my flesh…drink my blood.” There’s no way we’re going to be able to figure that out logically. (Sigh.)
Of the experiential nature of communion, Will Willimon writes: “Those of us who have been conditioned to think through cool, detached, distant, and dispassionate consideration will find it strange to be told that if we are to think about the Word made flesh, we must think through ingestion, consumption, and intimate, deep engagement.”
He goes on: “There is no knowing who the Christ is without visceral, total engagement. We will not be able to comprehend him by sitting back, comfortable in the pew, and coolly considering him as if he were an abstract, disembodied idea. Incarnation means that we must get up, come forward, hold out empty hands, sip wine, chew bread…” (Feasting on the Word)
In a Pilgrimage Daily Devotion this week, Don Tawney wrestled with the un-figure-out-able-ness of John 6:51, the first verse of today’s passage where Jesus calls himself “the bread of life,” and says that “the bread I give for the world is my flesh.”
I don’t fully understand what Jesus means when he says he is the Living Bread, Don wrote. I don’t have to understand. I move with it without waiting for the thud of definitive understanding. For me it means reading his words, reading about his actions, thinking about them, praying to him…wanting to be like him. I want to view my dependence on him [in] the same desperate manner that I view my dependence on food.
Don’s prayer after these reflections was especially apt: I’m glad I’m confused by these words in John. It tells me you’re still working with me. Thank you, God. (PUCC devotion, 8/14/12)
Isn’t that great? Have you ever thanked God for being confused?
Okay….so now I’m confused. If the key to a fuller understanding of the sacraments is experiencing them, then why am I up here still trying to explain them? What say I hush and we get on with experiencing the second sacrament in this worship service, the sacrament of communion?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012