Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; Saint John 6: 56-59
In nomine Jesu!
Grace and peace to you from God – Father, ☩ Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” Jesus says. For two millennia the Church has recognized those Eucharistic words — and our Eucharistic practice — for what they are, not metaphor, but paradox: God’s Yes to two opposing realities and our Yes to God’s Yes.
But we humans have never liked paradoxes, and so many in Christ’s Church have tried valiantly – often with dangerously unsatisfying results — to resolve them. Jesus fed the five thousand with real bread; bread real enough to satisfy real hunger. Christ’s Church does the same with holy communion: we use real bread to satisfy real hunger. When I was serving my parish in New York, the children in the assembly would mob me and the other liturgical assistants each Sunday to take and eat the remaining eucharistic bread – ours was made with honey. Hungry kids delighted and satisfied! Yet today we hear John’s Jesus identify that bread —bread real enough to feed five thousand, bread real enough to delight and satisfy — with his own flesh. Believing Christ’s words and following Christ’s example, the Church has continually made that same paradoxical identification; and that’s where, even at the Church’s very beginning, all the trouble starts. John reports this as a “dispute” — the first of many about the bread and the wine and a whole lot of other things — each beginning with the same question “how can this be?” We haven’t stopped asking that question, about the bread, Christ’s Church, and a whole lot of other matters of faith, ever since.
In today’s Gospel, John wants to make clear that Jesus is not speaking metaphorically, since metaphor is one of our primary ways to dismiss or resolve a paradox. Don’t even think this, John begs us. So John’s Jesus speaks of real flesh and real blood and real bread when he says, “whoever eats me will live.” Nothing metaphorical about that! Yet Jesus’ words in have not stopped some in the Church from looking for other ways — beyond metaphor — to resolve this paradox. “Ah,” some, “the bread represents Jesus Christ.” “No,” others counter, “since Jesus says this, only one thing can be true, the bread is no longer be bread but is only Christ.” Representation, consubstantiation, trans-substantiation and more: all these are attempts to resolve a paradox we don’t want to live with it.
But here’s the thing, and it’s bigger than this bread box: If we intend to live in this very real world trusting God, we must learn to live with paradox, because everything about living by faith — everything about Jesus, everything about the Word, everything about the sacraments, and everything about us — is a paradox; a parallel “already-but-not-yet” reality.
Think about it. Jesus Christ is Lord and servant. God’s word is judgment and promise. And we? Baptized into Jesus Christ, the only death we have to fear already lies behind us, yet the grave or our columbarium niche still yawn before us. We are simultaneously sinners and saints. Our Eucharistic food is both bread and wine and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Paradoxes all. Each true. Each real. In Christ, God says Yes to both realities.
For Jesus’ contemporary critics, John’s later readers, and all too many of us, “this teaching is difficult.” Better to have things cut and dried; right or wrong, true, or false. But God’s Yes about seemingly contradictory realities about the bread, our baptism, our life, our death, Christ’s Church are exactly what we get. And that, dear friends, is Good News.
It’s easy to dismiss this as not very useful for Twenty-First Century life, but nothing could be farther from the truth. For, at every service of holy communion, we hear as we take the bread: “the Body of Christ given for you” and, eating and drinking, we not only hear become the same paradox. We eat and become the Body of Christ. We remain fully human — diverse, sometimes perverse — with all our many differences intact. As we eat, Christ’s Church, this church, also remain very human — remains the dreaded “institutional church” — with all the fissures, flaws, and foibles every institution normally exhibits. Yet in Christ we are, individually, not just sullen sinners, but singing saints; and in Christ we are not just a fractious community, but a holy communion, Christ’s very earthy Body, living out Christ’s earthly mission, methods, and priorities, each of them exactly the opposite of the way every community of every time and every place use to create success. Each time we are gathered and nourished at Christ’s Table, we affirm that, like Jesus Christ, we are simultaneous “flesh and blood” and “bread” sent by God for the sake of world; nourished and transformed to shape the kingdom of God as it is on earth into the Kingdom of God as it is in heaven.
And that, dear friends, is a great definition of Christ’s – and our — mission: Bread for the world.
To make bread, grain is gathered and milled; other ingredients are added; the whole batch is pressed and pummeled, pulled and patterned, baked, and broken to become our nourishment. So it was with Christ. So it is with us, which is why forgiveness, healing and renewal is essential to our life together. It’s all for one purpose; one goal: that we might be nourishing, not toxic, to the Church, the city, and the world.
Pressed, pummeled, pulled, patterned, baked, and broken, that’s what’s been happening to us –- particularly here at Christ the King Church — over these past weeks and months and even years, as the Holy Spirit has formed us anew to live faithfully and fearlessly in this confounding, contradictory, cantankerous world. Pressed, pummeled, pulled, and patterned; always a paradox, which God gives for the sake of the world.
Jesus says, “I am the Bread of life.” Try saying that about the Church. Try saying that about us. Try saying that about each other. That won’t make us right or wrong, holier than others, but neither will it allow us to be cut and dried. We’ll just be that most wonderful of paradoxes, the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. The kingdom of God, even here in Houston. Try it, so that all whose lives we touch can “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Amandus J. Derr
Interim Senior Pastor
Christ the King Evangelical Lutheran Church