Preached at Alger First UMC on 7/24/2016
[Jesus tells us] I assure you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Then the Jews debated among themselves, asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One[a] and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:47-58, CEB)
One of the biggest memories from my childhood and teenage years is of my family – my 3 sisters and usually both parents – eating dinner together often. Mom saw the importance of us eating together, and she made sure that it happened at least a few times/week. It meant that we often ate early because Dad’s a pastor and often had meetings at church in the evening. And when my sisters and I got to be in junior high and high school, it meant that it was often a hurried dinner, in between school and sports practices, marching band, youth group, and everything else we were involved in. But Mom made sure it happened at least a few times/week, no matter how busy we were.
Now, I want to be clear. This isn’t a pleasant, romantic, Norman Rockwell picture of a family dinner. My family is not a quiet or agreeable bunch. But looking back on it, I’m grateful that Mom made our regular practice of eating together a priority. Because it was around the dinner table that we got close and intimate as a family. It’s where I learned how my sisters thought, how my Dad processed our crazy ideas, how my Mom tried to stay out of it and just keep the peace.
As pastor’s kids, my sisters and I had to be close because when we moved to a new place, we were each other’s default best friends – until we found better friends. But it was around the dinner table that we truly became family. Past any idealized, romanticized picture and into the messy heart of what that word really means.
Do any of you have an experience like that? Maybe you have memories like mine from your childhood home, maybe you make it a regular practice in your home with your family now; maybe you’ve seen it in a friend’s home.
There’s a quote that I’m sure you’ve all heard: “A family who eats together stays together.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that statement. Families who eat together stay together because through eating together, they come to really know each other. And despite really, intimately knowing each other – despite that, they still eat with each other, at the same table.
Now, I share all of that because I think a similar thing happens as the family of God gathers around the Communion table. I’m going to explain that in a pretty roundabout way, but stay with me, because it will all make sense at the end, ok?
In Christianity, we believe that God has a future ahead of us. Not just a future as in tomorrow or next week; we believe that God has a future ahead of us, something that’s better than this mess of a world. I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’m scared to look at the news or log into Facebook because I’m worried that I’ll hear about the next shooting or the next terrorist attack or the next ISIS threat. But our Christian faith says that there is still hope, because God has a future ahead of us that is better than anything we can picture when we look at our broken world. Some call it the Kingdom of God. Some call it heaven. Call it what you want, but it’s there.
Now this hope in God’s future coming to us does not mean that we escape this world and leave it to burn. We believe that through Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God can be experienced in this world, right now, and is even now advancing into this world, transforming everything into the image of Christ.
In fact, we believe that in some strange, spiritual, hard-to-understand way, we can taste that future at the Communion table, in this bread and cup. In fact, that’s what our Scripture passage for today was talking about, right?
Let’s be honest now – that’s a really weird passage, right? Let’s just own that. Jesus says “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” If you think about those words, that’s some freaky stuff – eating flesh and drinking blood. What in the world does Jesus mean here?
One big meaning we can get out of this passage is that in eating Jesus’ flesh and blood in Communion, in that action we get a taste of the future God has for you, a taste of the Kingdom of God; a taste of eternal life, a taste of Kingdom life – that’s what is offered at this table.
But that begs the question…how in the world does that work? What in the world does that mean – a taste of the future, a taste of the Kingdom? I think there are two ways we can look at it.
First, in Communion – and especially in Jesus’ words in today’s Scripture – we taste our absolute dependence on Jesus.
Jesus chose bread as a metaphor for himself. Bread was a staple of life for Jesus’ community – they couldn’t live without bread because most of Jesus’ people couldn’t afford fancier food. It was kind of like me and Mac & Cheese when I was in college. When I was a student at ONU, I lived on Mac & Cheese because it was cheap and easy to make. Anyone can boil water, dump the pasta in, then stir in the cheese sauce when it’s ready, right? So Jesus – in calling himself the bread of life – was saying that you can’t live without me.
Jesus also refers to the manna that the Israelites received when they were traveling in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land. Remember that story? Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, they escaped across the Red Sea, and then they faced a long journey in the wilderness, the desert. Throughout their wandering, God provided them with manna – bread from heaven that would appear on the ground each morning. The Israelites were told to only gather up a day’s worth of manna each morning, except on Friday when they would gather up two days’ worth of bread so they wouldn’t have to gather it on the Sabbath. Except on Friday, if you gathered more than a day’s worth of manna, it wouldn’t keep. It would get all maggoty and rot.
This was absolute dependence on God. They couldn’t even store food for later. Each day, they would eat all the food they had, and they would start each day with no food. Absolute dependence on God for your daily bread. This was the kind of dependence Jesus was calling for.
And if we look at the original Greek of this passage, we see this dependence emphasized yet again. In this passage, there are two Greek words that are both translated as ‘eat.’ In the first half of the passage, Jesus uses the Greek word esthio, a common word that’s pretty much synonymous with our word ‘eat.’ So that makes sense.
But in the second half of the passage, Jesus changes words. Jesus’ audience is debating and grumbling over how in the world Jesus could give them his body to eat. And Jesus, instead of making it easier to understand, actually makes it more confusing. Instead of esthio, he uses the word trogo, which has a very different meaning. Esthio means simply “to eat,” and we can understand that. But trogo means something closer to “much” or “gnaw,” it’s chewing that you can almost hear. Trogo, what Jesus uses in the second half of this passage, is the kind of eating that us urgent and desperate, eating like your life depends on it, like a starved stray dog gnawing on a bone picked out of someone’s trash.
Eating like your life depends on it – that’s what Jesus is talking about, and that’s how Jesus says we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood – desperately, like our life depends on it.
So in how Jesus describes this meal here, we catch a glimpse, a taste, of God’s future – a life lived completely dependent on Jesus Christ – our source of life, our source of nourishment, the source of food that we are so ravenously hungry for that we forget all of our table manners and chow down like our life depends on it. We get glimpses and tastes of this future life now, but in God’s future, this is how we will live – absolutely dependent on Christ for everything.
So in Communion, we first taste our absolute dependence on God. Second, we taste the intimacy and closeness that we will have with Jesus in God’s future, in God’s kingdom – we taste that at this table.
Notice that in this passage, Jesus doesn’t talk much about believing exactly the right thing and finding heaven through that way. Jesus says “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
This is a closeness, an intimacy with Jesus that we can hardly comprehend. In this meal, we come so close to Jesus that we ingest Jesus, we process him through our digestive system, and we turn him into usable energy for our bodies. At this table, through eating these simple elements of bread and grape juice, Jesus becomes a part of us.
And in that, we find a glimpse, a taste of God’s future. In the end, it’s not about how much we understood or grasped or comprehended. It’s not about believing with pinpoint accuracy the exact right doctrines. God’s future is all about being in close communion with Jesus, having a relationship with Jesus that is so close and intimate that Jesus becomes an inseparable part of us.
So when we celebrate Communion – when we eat Christ’s flesh and drink Jesus’ blood – we get a glimpse of the goal of our life in God. And that goal, that future, is an utter dependence on God and deep intimacy with Christ – that is the goal of our faith and, indeed, our whole lives.
And that’s a goal to strive for in this life, not just wait for it to come upon us in the future. In this meal that is spread before us, Christ calls us to eat like our lives depend on it – to try again and again to place our whole trust in God, to depend on God, and not ourselves, absolutely and completely.
And in this meal, Christ meets us, and beckons us, calls us, to deeper intimacy with Christ. Christ always calls us to a deeper and deeper relationship with him, and we can find that at this table – intimacy with Christ, deeper knowledge of Christ, and the precious knowledge that you are known and loved by Christ more deeply than you can imagine.
In God’s future, we will be absolutely dependent on God, and we will have the deepest and most intimate relationship with Christ possible – a picture of heaven. But at this table, we can taste that future and step into it now – in this life. We don’t have to wait.
So in a few minutes, when we again come to this table to celebrate Communion, will you just go through the motions and come forward just because that’s what you’re expected to do, but you’re certainly not expecting anything to happen? Or will you come forward expecting another opportunity to place your whole trust in God? Will you come forward expecting to be drawn closer to the heart of Christ, expecting to be reminded that you are known and loved by Christ more deeply than you can imagine, all by simply eating at this table?