“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.”
This is one of the most uncomfortable images in the Bible, and I can’t tell you the number of times that non-Christians have said to me, “so what about this 'eat my body, drink my blood' thing? Are you guys cannibals?” It’s hard imagery for us to engage, and we’re tempted to turn away, and look instead at the more palatable readings, like Solomon’s prayer, or the psalm…but there is some value in struggling with uncomfortable texts, just like there is occasionally some value in eating that which is unfamiliar, at a table that makes us uncomfortable.
A few years ago, I had a feast, a barbecue really, on the sands alongside the Persian Gulf. The sky was that rich satiny cerulean blue you see on saris from India, and the sand was creamy and smooth underfoot. In the water, little luminescent fish actually leapt and danced across the tops of the waves. There were chairs under the tents, and a majlis, an entertainment room with floor-level cushions and a sheesha, a waterpipe for smoking sweet tobacco was in the corner. But it was the food that I want to tell you about today, on this day when we again talk about Jesus as the bread of life.
In the US, we like our pork barbecue, smoky baby back ribs, pulled pork sandwiches - it makes me hungry just to think of it. But when you are in a Muslim country, pigs are not on the menu. The barbecue meat you’ll find more often than not is lamb. The lamb most likely was chosen and butchered in the souk just a few hours before, and it had been trucked out to this spot past the sand dunes and the wadis to serve us as part of a seashore buffet – something for the rich Americans to talk about when they went home again.
May I tell you it smelled fabulous? Beyond fabulous. Smoky, flavored with za’atar, with wild oregano, sumac. And there were the usual side dishes - hummus, tabbouleh, grilled peppers, amazing bread. But it was the lamb that was the centerpiece. We lined up with our plates to serve ourselves. And some of the meat was recognizable – hunks of leg of lamb, lamb shank…but there were some other things that bore no resemblance to what you find wrapped in plastic at Harris-Teeter. And when we enquired, we found out that they were …how shall I put this delicately? …parts that we Americans rarely ate. “But madame, these are some of the most delicate and delicious cuts of the lamb,” the guide told us. Was I brave enough to try them?
I took a little bit. Just a taste. My fear of being impolite was counterbalanced by my fear of eating something yucky, by my fear of becoming ill. My plate was filled with the things I could recognize, with just a little bit of the more exotic stuff, the organ meats, part of the head…could I handle this culinary adventure?
Well, I figured I had managed the Turkish style porta-potty, I could certainly manage a little bit of odd meat that I was assured was delicious…
So I ate. Some of it was tasty. Some of it, not so much. But I took the risk, because my curiosity and manners compelled me to. And eating it had a twofold effect on me: first, I learned I could eat some stuff that had sounded pretty awful, second, it told our guide that I was willing to enter into his world, his culture, in a way I might not be comfortable with. When I looked in his eyes, I saw him differently, and he saw me differently as well.
There’s often a high risk-reward ratio in eating unfamiliar things. It can be a transformative moment.
That’s something that the prophets knew. Part of some of the stories of the prophets was the requirement that they eat the scroll on which God’s words were written. The Hebrew word for scroll is the megillah, as in “he ate the whole megillah…he ate the whole big complicated thing.” For example, in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, we have just such an instruction – eat the scroll, eat the whole thing. Consume the word of God, digest it, make it a part of you. And you don’t get to choose which parts of the scroll you eat, what words you eat…you eat the whole thing. This is not an intellectual exercise, it’s a physical one. You’ve got to do something very visceral, very real, you eat it and it becomes a part of you. It transforms you.
So Jesus is instructing the disciples and us to eat the whole scroll…remember how the Gospel of John begins? Jesus identifies himself as The Word…the Word of God. Jesus IS the whole scroll… Jesus himself. And he uses the metaphor of eating his flesh and drinking his blood – a radical concept for Jews who believed that the blood was unclean – to drive home the same point as the prophets’ stories…you have to eat the whole thing, the whole Word, absorb it into your own body and soul like the barbecue on the beach, like the scroll itself…you have to feel it in your belly, digest it slowly, incorporate it into you fully. This is what communion is…becoming one with Jesus, becoming one with the Word, understanding it on a level beyond simply reading it on the page. When we do that, it transforms us even as it feeds us. It gives us the ability to digest the difficult parts, gives us the grace to accept that not all of the Word will be comprehensible to us in our lifetimes, gives us the sense that we are joined together in this communion with Jesus, with all those who take the bread and the wine, even if we don’t always understand how we could possibly be connected.
This feeding, this digesting…it is a gift of love, isn’t it? A gift that says, “I know that God is difficult for you to understand. I’ll help. I’ll help by becoming like you, a human being, flesh and blood, living among you and talking to you. And I’ll give you what you need, what you crave, a way to feel that love that my Father has for you, a feast of that love.”
That gift of love, that feast, is the way we connect with the Divine each Sunday. It is a meal delivered with love and by love, to help us know the love God has for us. And it recalls the imagery of Jesus as mother that was so commonly used by monks in the 12th Century, monks like Bernard of Clairvaux and Anselm of Canterbury. Jesus work in awakening our souls, in Anselm’s writing, is said to be like childbirth. Bernard and the English monk Aelred both talk about the nurturing aspects of Jesus, using imagery of nursing. And that reminds me of one of the delights of this past week, visiting our Parish Administrator, L, and her husband J, at the hospital and seeing their newborn son T. What a gorgeous baby! Perfect in every way, pink, round, healthy. What a joy to see this child, so cherished, and so responsive to that care and love in his obvious health!
Contrast T, then, with a baby who did not come into the world with such love and support, who did not have parents to coo and nurse her and hold her in their arms…the diagnosis was “failure to thrive.” The baby, at more than four months, weighed no more than little T did at birth; her prognosis was not good. The nurses at the orphanage where she lived doubted she would survive. But she was taken in to the home of a couple who longed for a child. She was fussed over, cared for, loved, fed in a thousand different ways…she lived, and she grew, and she thrived.
It was that feeding of body and soul that made all the difference for the baby, as it does for us. We are fed, body and soul, when we come to the communion rail, and we respond to the nurturance by thriving in love.
That’s the miracle of this strange banquet to which Jesus invites us. Yes, the words sound strange - “eat my body, drink my blood” – but the result of this nurturing feeding is twofold. First, it fills us and feeds us and gives us a way to connect with a God who is beyond our comprehension. Second, and just as important, it reminds us of the great love of God the Father and of Jesus Christ, that great sacrifice for us, not only to feed us but to save us from all the imperfections that plague us and our world.
This odd and unexpected meal is not flesh and blood in the physical sense. We still taste only bread and wine. But what we feel when we are fed is the sustenance that does indeed bring eternal life; it does bring the opening of the door into knowing God through God’s love, God’s nurturance, God’s constant care for us with the comforting food at the uncomfortable table.
May we be fed, and may we share that food, and that knowledge, with others, all our days.