In the name of God, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. Amen
Last Wednesday, my youngest sister (who is 20 years younger than I am) and her daughter flew in from Dallas for a surprise visit. Our small family in the Twin Cities gathered at my nieces’ home for dinner that evening. After we’d all had our fill of spaghetti and meatballs and garlic bread, and my 15 year-old niece and 8 year-old grandniece had disappeared into the basement to play dress-up, the five of us adults sat around the table talking and catching up. At one point someone wondered when was the last time we’d all been together.
Somehow when people get together for a special meal, it’s natural to recall other times they’ve gathered. We all do it – on Thanksgiving and Christmas and at birthday and anniversary celebrations. We tell stories about what happened and the people who were there. Some of those folks we know well, others we’ve never met, but have heard about from family members and friends. There is something about sitting around a table together that prompts memories and stories.
Today we have something like that going on. We are all here, gathered around the table for Eucharist, and we’re hearing stories of other meals from our tradition.
The lesson from the Book of Proverbs introduces us to Lady Wisdom, a figure from the Old Testament who may not be very familiar. In this story, Wisdom has been quite busy. She has built a banquet hall as big as the fabled Temple in Jerusalem. She has prepared the food and wine from scratch and has sent out messengers with invitations. Not content to invite the usual suspects, she goes out into town, to where the ordinary people are and cries out to everyone: “Turn in here! Come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed!”
She takes a risk – who knows who will come wandering in to her feast. She prepares for all sorts of people – the wise and the foolish, even people with no sense at all. Wisdom throws open her great house, and she assures everyone that if they will only come in and eat and drink, they will live.
The promise of life is made to the people a number of times in the Old Testament, and it usually involves making a decision. Here the choice is between living wisely and living in immaturity. Lady Wisdom is sure that even people who are foolish can become mature and live with insight. There is hope for all of us!
Our second story is from the Gospel according to John. You know, there was a time when new members of a monastery were not allowed to read John’s Gospel. That was because one needs a certain amount of the maturity of which Lady Wisdom speaks to begin to understand and appreciate John. John’s gospel is a mystical and poetic text and we do well to remember that when we read it. Poetry and mystical literature always have several layers of meaning. Reading on only a superficial level can lead to misunderstanding of the text.
In this story from John, Jesus has returned to Capernaum after the feeding of the 5,000. For the past three weeks, we have heard about Jesus telling the crowds that he is the bread of life, and they’ve been complaining about him.
But Jesus stays vulnerable, saying what is true, who he really is. Once again, Jesus says to them, “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. If you eat my flesh and drink my blood you will have eternal life. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them; whoever eats me will live because of me.”
We can hear this and say, “This topic isn’t fit for table conversation!” Along with the disciples and Jews, we can be shocked. The images that Jesus uses can be shocking. They certainly were to the disciples and the crowds. Jewish dietary laws didn’t permit eating meat with blood in it. Blood was considered to be Life and so it was holy. So what Jesus said was really pushing the limits.
But we may be shocked by the wrong thing. What is truly shocking in John’s gospel is that God wants so much to be one with us, that God in Jesus desires intimacy with us. He wants union with us so much that he gives us his very self, the wholeness of himself, his very flesh and blood.
“Flesh and blood” is a way of naming close relationship. My sisters and nieces and grandniece are all my own flesh and blood.
St Augustine of Hippo, a fourth century African theologian and bishop, wrote in an Easter sermon that, “What we receive, we become.” In receiving the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, we become Jesus’ flesh and blood. This is the intimacy that God wants with us.
As in the story about Wisdom, life is on offer with this meal. But this time it is eternal life. And that isn’t a way of talking about what happens after death. It is life here and now. We abide in God and God abides in us. To abide means more than simply living in close proximity to another. Abiding implies a relationship of mutual self-giving, an intimate relationship.
Thinking about intimacy with God can be frightening. To be just who I am, to choose to be intimate and vulnerable with God can seem beyond me. How do I learn to do that?
I can only relate to God as I relate to other people. I have a few really close friends, a few truly intimate relationships. And they are not easy relationships. To choose to be just who I am, to be vulnerable with another, is quite challenging.
Each of us has our own reasons for avoiding vulnerability. Some of mine have to do with the twin illusions of control and safety. I learned quite early in my life that being in control of things was safer than not being in control. At least it seemed that way. So I developed ways of being in control in order to feel safe.
Most of the ways I used to feel safe in my youth were actually barriers to other people. My favorite song growing up was Simon and Garfunkle’s ‘I am a rock, I am an island’ – not conducive to building close relationships with anyone, God included.
I’ve been blessed to have therapists, spiritual directors and friends who were patient and able to bear with me as I healed from old patterns. Some of you sitting here today have borne witness to that healing and change in me.
Vulnerability remains difficult – I think it is for most people. There is freedom, though, in letting go of barriers and defenses. There is freedom in getting to know and being in real community with others, freedom in being myself with God who desires so much to be in union with me.
Telling stories with one another around the table, and really listening to them, can be both challenging and life changing. Sometimes the stories themselves push us to go deeper. Sometimes the people with whom we share the stories push us to go deeper. Deeper is where vulnerability resides in us.
May we open ourselves to the vulnerability with one another that enables us to be so intimate with God that we may be Jesus’ flesh and blood in the world.