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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 15
Proverbs 9:1-6
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:53-59
Psalm 147 or 34:9-14

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood...”

Outside of the context of church, that would sound quite different, wouldn’t it? Shades of the Donner Party, indeed! This bit of theology is one of the things that got early Christians into trouble: they really were accused of cannibalism upon occasion. Now, we need to understand that believing one’s neighbors were involved in such a thing was a bit more credible back then. In our day, we are used to this understanding of the Lord’s Supper, and we are surrounded by a culture accustomed to the reference. No one is going to walk in here wondering if we are actually consuming human flesh and blood.

The early church, however, was birthed into a very different environment. They were formed out of Jewish tradition; but the Jews, as you may recall, were an oppressed minority in the Greco-Roman world. They were surrounded by an awful lot of belief systems, and people who believed in a lot of different gods, and offered worship to those gods in a lot of different ways. Honestly, compared to some of the more extreme cults, cannibalism would not have sounded outside the realm of possibility. So, when nonbelievers heard talk about the early disciples consuming the body and blood of the Lord, they took what they were hearing at face value. This was at times given as a reason for persecuting early Christians.

However, as I noted earlier, we know better now, don’t we? We know that the substances on the table set before us are not flesh and blood, but bread and wine, food made by human hands from the fruit and grain of God’s good earth. Our belief in the presence of the Lord within them is a spiritual understanding, commended to us by Jesus as a way of remembering the life he offered for us.

Or is it?

When our daughter Carolyn was very small-- just past 3, I think-- I took her with me to an early morning Ash Wednesday service at what was then our parish. There were only a few people present (and she was the only child) as we gathered that morning in the tiny side chapel. Our priest asked her to come up and help him. She was delighted, and served as a very earnest little acolyte. She was especially pleased to be given Communion (a first, for her!), before he served the rest of us.

On the way home, we talked about the service and the “special bread” she had experienced that morning. “Do you know why it’s special?” I asked her.

She rolled her eyes at me, as only a child can do when an adult asks a particularly inane question.

“Yes, Mom. When Fr. Randy blesses the bread, it means that Jesus is in there; and when I eat it, then Jesus is in me.”

Out of the mouths of babes, as they say, oft comes wisdom.

Let’s look again at today’s Gospel reading. It sounds kind of repetitive, doesn’t it? In the Greek, however, the phrases are more distinctive. The words translated as “eat” in the first two sentences are actually different verbs. The first time, the word is a more polite form: “to take in through the mouth.” To dine upon, if you will.

In the second sentence, however, the intent is much earthier. The word there literally translates as “to bite or chew.” My lexicon adds, “to eat audibly, as animals.” No polite euphemisms there! John’s Gospel is emphasizing the importance of spiritual indwelling of the Spirit of God; but he is doing so in a very solid, tangible way.

We are physical creatures, you and I. We make sense of the world in a sensual ways-- by touch, and taste, sight and smell and sound. It is the way we are created from the very beginning, in the earthy, messy realities of conception and birth.

I think that’s at least one reason why God chose to come to us in human form. Think about it-- Jesus came among us, and lived with us, and died for us, and confirmed his bodily resurrection to us. His physical presence fostered the connection between God and humanity, bringing us closer to God in ways that we could grasp.

So, doesn’t it make sense for God to continue to come to us in tangible ways? To allow that this gospel passage means what it says: that in the physical act of eating and drinking the consecrated bread and wine, we are in some way taking the corporeal presence of God into ourselves?

Now, exactly how it happens, I do not pretend to understand. Far more learned theologians than I have been debating for hundreds of years, and there is still no universal agreement. But then, perhaps understanding is not the issue. Knowledge and understanding are also gifts from God; but they are different from wisdom. As Proverbs reminds us, it is Wisdom who has built this house, and set the table. One does not have to understand a gift in order to be wise enough to accept it. It is a gift we cannot possibly hope to earn or deserve; but one we are given freely, over and over again.

“Wisdom has set her table.” So whenever we are able, we join her. We eat and drink-- and in doing so, we are changed, in ways only God can know.

Thanks be to God.


Blogger The young fogey said...

Sounds like classic Anglicanism to me - exactly what my respected Central Church friends believe.

Regarding the verbs for 'to eat', the Latin in the Roman Canon, at the consecration (!), uses the same 'earthy' word choice, manducate (whence we get 'Mangia!').

I'd say the Catholic religion tries very hard to explain what happens. (And I dare say gets it right.) But no-one dares claim to know exactly how.

August 29, 2006 9:51 AM  

Blogger Jane Ellen+ said...

Young Fogey: Thanks for your comments. "Classic Anglican" and "centrist" probably describe my theology as often as any other descriptors. Which means, of course, that liberals think I'm conservative just about as often as conservatives think I'm liberal!

Me, I tend to avoid those labels when possible, and simply try to keep plugging away at the whole "disciple" thing. (^_^)

August 29, 2006 11:14 AM  

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