In a liturgical church such as ours where mass is celebrated daily, it is easy to forget how offensive Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel reading would have been to the Jewish authorities he was talking to. In the course of the mass we are used to hearing Jesus say, and I am going to use the words from Eucharistic Prayer C which we’re currently using,
“Take, eat: this is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for remembrance of me. After supper he took the cup of wine, gave thanks, and said, ‘Drink this all of you: This is my Blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for remembrance of me.’”
The words and the rite are so familiar, we can get carried away with grace of the liturgy and not really hear or listen to what’s being said. But when we really actually do listen to it, it’s very graphic—eat, this is my body; drink, this is my blood.
And regardless of whether or not we as individuals believe the bread and wine actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus during the Eucharistic, it is a symbolic action, or something else in-between (and of course as Episcopalians we’re not all of one mind on this), we still need to pay attention to what is being said because it tells us something very profound about the nature and person of Jesus. God not only became incarnate through Jesus, that is became flesh and blood, and all it entails, we are also to partake of God, of Jesus, in a very physical way.
The Eucharist is not just a lovely ritual. For Christians, it is our life.
But during Jesus’ time talk of eating flesh and blood, let alone the flesh and blood of an actual person, would have been completely sacrilegious. For one thing, Jewish dietary laws forbid Jews from eating meat with any blood in it.
So Jesus’ suggestion as we hear in the Gospel, that in order to have eternal life people must eat his flesh and drink his blood, was at a minimum highly distasteful in its explicitness, and worse a direct contradiction of the law.
It is no wonder the Jewish authorities disputed what Jesus was saying among themselves. In fact, some scholars have suggested a better translation from the original text would be they had violent arguments among themselves—and probably not just about the content of what he was saying but most likely what to do about him as well.
However as we see throughout the Gospels, Jesus was never afraid to say what he believed needed to be said, regardless of whether or not it was shocking, offensive, incendiary, or merely confusing.
But in this case, the explicitness of this language points to a larger truth. Life with God, devotion to God entails the whole of who we are. On a lot of levels I get it when people say they are spiritual and not religious, especially when they see religion as an institutionalized set of rules, laws, and “shoulds.”
But to say we are spiritual beings, while true, can discount the rest of our lives. We are also among other things, physical beings with physical needs, functions, and desires. Thus our life with God includes what happens in the kitchen, the bedroom, in conversation, how we work, treat each other, and take care of ourselves.
Interestingly enough, these same kinds of issues have been at the heart of many of the discussions we have in with our current forum series on what makes long and lasting relationships.
And, they were also on the minds of many of us a couple of weeks ago, who attended an event at Skyline Church in La Mesa entitled “A Conversation about the Definition of Marriage,” the subtext being should marriage be defined as between one man and one woman, or be expanded to include between two men or two women.
Jim Garlow, the senior pastor of Skyline has been a very vocal advocate against same-sex marriage, so first off, I really do want to commend him for putting together an excellent panel of speakers very capable of making their points.
And as hoped, the conversation while painful at times, and I have no doubt it was for many of you here that attended, it was also frank and by and large respectful. Something which must have been difficult for all the speakers at times given the strong values and beliefs they each held.
But afterwards, upon reflection as I noted in our Cathedral blog the next day, without wanting to take away the good, and I’d say historic nature of the evening, I do wish the conversation had been about marriage itself rather than the definition of marriage, because to talk about the definition of marriage seems a bit sanitized. And maybe the folks at Skyline felt that was as far as they could go this time. I get that, they took a risk in having the event.
But it is in the actual living out of a marriage, or to use the emerging term, covenantal relationship, we see how the fruits of the Holy Spirit are made manifest in the relationship. Or not.
It is one thing to talk about marriage or covenantal relationships in the abstract—what’s ideal, how we should behave, our regard each other, and what these relationships should look like. But as most of you know, real life is another thing entirely when the two people are juggling work schedules, schlepping kids around, enduring each other’s friends, relatives, odd habits, hobbies. And of course caring for each other when it’s hard, especially when it is hard—be it from illness or something else.
It is precisely in these times, these day to day times, when we need Jesus to be with us the most.
And not just as some spiritual force surrounding us but right in the midst of our interactions, our minds, our actions, our moods, our disappointments, our joys, and our physical bodies. When things work out and when they don’t.
As Bishop Gene Robinson noted at the Skyline event, marriage, gay or straight, is about consciously and prayerfully bringing God fully into the midst of our most intimate relationship.
And it is in this real life situation, as in all our real life situations, we need the living bread which came down from heaven, in order to be fed and nourished, right down to the very essence of our being—mind, body, spirit, and soul. There is no part of who and what we are off limits to God. Absolutely none.
The graphic language from today’s Gospel compels us to move out of our comfort zone and deal squarely with the reality of the incarnation. Life with Jesus is not a sanitized, pristine way of being but rather one deeply involved in the triumphs and messiness of the whole of our lives.
And as we increasingly come to embrace this, by the grace of God, we will find our lives not just enriched but made holy in ways we could never imagine otherwise.
So this morning as we come to the Eucharistic table, let us hold close to our hearts the following words and give thanks to God for all the tangible and intangible ways Jesus choose to make himself known and feed us:
Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table forsolace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not forrenewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas
19 August 2012