John 6:51-58                                                                                                   Susan J. Barnes

August 16, 2015                                                                                  St. John’s, Minneapolis

 

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.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 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 forever.”

 

Some of you know that I have spent a lot of time studying the paintings of Anthony Van Dyck–17th century Flemish artist.   We don’t know much about Van Dyck’s life even after he became the famous painter to King Charles I of England.   So I can’t pretend to understand the artist as a person–his life, his motivations and his choices.   Hey, it’s hard enough to understand myself.

But Van Dyck left a remarkable body of work: 100s of beautiful, masterful paintings are in museums around the world and in the English stately homes for which they were painted.   Examining many of them closely, writing about them and installing them in exhibitions, after 35 years I do feel that I have begun to know them.     I have a relationship with Van Dyck’s art, the paintings themselves.   It probably sounds funny, since they are inanimate, but when I’m in the presence of an authentic painting by Van Dyck–particularly from the Italian period–I feel like I know it in my senses, in my soul and body.   I know it in my bones.

That physical sense–that bodily knowledge–came to mind as I pondered the gospel we just heard.

How do we know Jesus?   When do we know Jesus?   We have the stories, of course.   In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus uses stories to point to the kingdom of heaven.

But the fourth gospel isn’t about knowing the kingdom of heaven, it’s about knowing Jesus.

Jesus isn’t telling stories here.   Our text is from the tail end of a long discourse.   Jesus has been talking about himself as “living bread”.   Now he cuts to the chase.   “Eat my flesh. Drink my blood”, he says.

Live in me and let me live in you.

Live in me and you will live forever.

Eat my flesh.   Flesh is a really strong, evocative word in English.   In Greek, too: it’s sarx.     Sarx is used often in the Hebrew scriptures for the flesh of sacrificial animals.   John insistently uses flesh in this passage while Matthew, Mark and Luke choose “body” (soma in Greek), for the same offering “this is my body”.

Eat my flesh, drink my blood.   Those are Eucharistic words, but they aren’t where we expect to find them–at the Last Supper.   John’s community felt free to choose the stories they loved for their gospel, and arrange them in the way that meant the most to them, to their faith. It’s a reminder of just how alive the gospels were to them and can be to us.

In John, you recall, the Last Supper is focused on Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet–the ultimate act of humility and service.

In John, Jesus makes this eucharistic self offering–his body and blood–in the middle of his ministry, in a teaching after feeding 5000 people who were lost in a wilderness.   He’s connecting the dots for the disciples and for us.   Here, the Eucharist isn’t a farewell meal, in the shadow of the cross, it’s a feast laid here and now: in the midst of life.     Jesus meets us where we are–in the thick of things or in our own wildernesses–to nourish us, to strengthen us for the journey. Sharing the bread, sharing the cup, we take those elements into ourselves, we become one with Jesus and each other.

Knowing Jesus is all about relationship.   Like any relationship it takes time and commitment.   And like any other relationship it develops in different ways.

One way of knowing Jesus, of course, is the gospel stories. We are to study them–as the collect says–“to learn, mark and inwardly digest” them (interesting choice of words!).   Also, it’s good just to sit with them, listening for where they connect with our experience.   I did that for several weeks on sabbatical, a contemplative study of Matthew.   I read through the gospel, sitting every day with another paragraph or so, letting it speak to my life in that moment, and writing the responses I felt.

I had been a practicing Christian for twenty-five years, and ordained for a dozen.   But I confess it was only then, only through that time of study that I came to know my heart and soul that Jesus is my savior. Jesus was the one who was healing me then, who is healing me now.   Jesus is the one through whom I know the living God, the one I am called to serve.

Another way of knowing Jesus is walking where he walked: the verdant fields beside the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum’s recently excavated synagogue with the narrow streets and tiny houses around it; the vast, rugged wasteland of Judean desert where the Jordan River suddenly appears as an oasis; the endless wonders of Jerusalem including the poignant remains of the Temple–the monumental stones where Jewish pilgrims come to pray, the Muslim mosque, the Dome of the Rock.   My sabbatical pilgrimage to the Palestine of Jesus brought the gospels to life; when I read them now, I SEE the land.

Knowing Jesus in the stories and in prayer can transform our behavior.   This gospel insists that our transformation be physical as well, that we can and must know him in our bodies, through the bread and wine.

Week after week Jesus calls us to this table to feast on his presence, to take him into ourselves, to become like him not just in actions, but in our very being. If we do this, Jesus says, we will abide in him, live in him and he will live in us.     In Matthew’s sermon last week, he confessed that that prospect was a bit scary to him.

To me, too. Let me tell you about that.

Years ago, when I was an art museum professional and I first came back to church, for several days I felt a presence with me, shining a light on my way of being and thinking: my words, my actions at work, with friends.   It was curious and kind of comforting.   But it was also very unsettling to see myself in that new light.   Not that there was a judging, scolding voice, simply a clarity in what I beheld, including my need to achieve, to succeed, my deception of self, my superficiality, my need to please the people whom I loved and admired. (Those of you who know the Enneagram will recognize what I later discovered: that I fit the description of the Enneagram 3–completely unredeemed!

I did nothing to nurture that light, that presence.   In fairness, I didn’t know how.   I was a baby Christian.   I had NO prayer life. But I also had seen enough.   I was relieved when the presence went away.   And I knew where I needed to begin to repent, to change my life.   The path had been illuminated, and I’m still trying to stay on it.

Can I hold back from surrendering my being to Jesus? Yes, of course.   I did then and I do now. Stubbornly I try to preserve the illusion that I have any control over my life–even worse that it’s a good idea.   Really?

Still, I am being transformed by the grace of God.   And I am privileged to watch as you are, too.   Week by week, bit by bit, sip by sip as I join you in the eucharistic banquet, more and more we can grow into the image and likeness of God in which each of us was made.

That possibility is the amazing gift to us of the Word made flesh–and blood.