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Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” – Proverbs 9:1-6
[Jesus said,] “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.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” – John 6:51-58
For a number of weeks now we’ve had Lectionary texts that dealt with bread and people being fed. We heard about the manna in the wilderness, and Jesus being the bread of life from heaven, and this week we get that taken to its logical conclusion in today’s gospel text that makes the connection to the Lord’s Supper – that unless a person eats Jesus’ flesh and drinks his blood, they have no eternal life in them.
It’s hard to imagine that the way people have interpreted this handful of words attributed to Jesus has caused more dissention, more division, more bitterness, hateful words, even violence within the church than any other subject, bar none – and considering many of the other disagreements in the church, that’s really saying something. What I’m talking about here is the different ways that different church traditions have understood what’s actually going on in Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper.
Our Roman Catholic, and Orthodox, and Episcopalian brothers and sisters interpret these words very literally, and therefore, believe that in some mysterious way we can’t understand, the bread and wine change into the literal, physical flesh and blood of Jesus, even though they continue to look, and smell, and taste like bread and wine. On the other hand, our Lutheran brothers and sisters take these same words very literally, but they say that the bread and wine remain bread and wine – but at the same time, in some mysterious way Jesus’ literal, physical flesh and blood enter in the bread and wine, intermingling with it maybe at the molecular level. Still other Christians say that Communion is just a “memorial meal,” that we do to simply remember and pay respect to Jesus because he said to do it, but Jesus isn’t actually present in any special way in the Communion.
For our part, John Calvin wrote that the Lord’s Supper is certainly more than just a symbolic memorial meal. But he also said that it seems pretty obvious that when Jesus talked about people eating his flesh and blood, he was speaking metaphorically – that it seemed pretty obvious that when it came to the bread and wine, the thing was and remained what it appeared to be. According to Calvin, Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper in a special way, and through the sacrament we’re united with him and with all believers, but that our communion with Christ is on a strictly spiritual level. Calvin basically said that in the scriptures, God chose not to ever spell out in concrete detail what was going on in the sacrament – so apparently, God didn’t feel we needed to know or worry about it, so we shouldn’t waste time arguing over something we can never really know the right answer to.
Of course, it took the churches established by Calvin, I’d estimate, about five and a half minutes to do exactly what he said they shouldn’t do, arguing over minutiae of how the sacrament works and who was to be considered worthy to participate in it. We’ll talk a little bit more about that in a few weeks, on World Communion Sunday.
In the history of the entire Christian church, arguments over exactly what Jesus meant when he said these words we heard today have led to people be excommunicated, deemed heretics, and burnt at the stake. A series of European wars in the 1500s and 1600s were fought for reasons that certainly had multiple causes, but one large cause was religious difference between Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, and largely focusing on this one particular piece of theology. It was crazy. It was insane. It was sinful.
And it’s still crazy, and in my opinion, sinful, when the same thing happens today. When different factions within the church would keep anyone professing faith in Jesus away from the Table, away from the sacrament, just because they understand the details of the sacrament differently. When one Christian tradition won’t allow members of another Christian tradition to participate in the sacrament. And it’s just as crazy, and sinful, when any group within the church would assume the power or authority to keep another professing Christian away from the Table, this sacrament, because of secondary things – whether they’re a member of the church or not, or how much money they’d given, or how often they attended, or how many times they’d been married, or what their sexual orientation is, or how they voted on abortion, or any other reason. Jesus didn’t say to come to this Table only if we knew we understood what was happening perfectly. He didn’t say to come to the Table only if we were all in agreement. And he didn’t give anyone the authority to keep another believer from participating. Jesus said to do this in remembrance of him, and he said it to each and every one of us, without need for filters or intermediaries. Anyone who can honestly profess “Jesus is Lord” – even if they have questions, or doubts, and honestly, even if we have different understandings of the definition of “Lord”, should be welcome to come to the Table and be part of this sacrament. I believe that if God has spoken in the heart of any person to the point that they want to participate in this sacrament, and they felt drawn to be united with the Spirit of Christ, then we don’t dare to set ourselves up as an obstacle to that happening.
Why is all this important? Am I just rambling on and on about some stupid, abstract point of theology that only church nerds care about? Well, if for no other reason It’s important because of this one thing. The Lord’s Supper, Communion, the Eucharist, whatever a person wants to call it, isn’t just a reenactment of Jesus’ meals with his disciples. It isn’t just a sign of the covenant between us and God that God initiated with us. And it isn’t even just a way that we renew our union with Christ, as important as that is. Beyond those things, this sacrament is also meant to be a reference to, and a reflection of a model, of what the kingdom of God is supposed to be like, what it’s supposed to be all about.
In our First reading this week, he heard about God – in this passage, called Wisdom – preparing this amazing, delicious, sumptuous feast, and inviting all of us to come participate in the feast. In fact, there are a number of places where the kingdom of God is compared to an incredible eternal banquet, that all peoples will be invited to and drawn to.
And that’s the key. When we observe the Lord’s Supper, it’s a celebration of thanks for the great, unmerited good – the grace – that God has poured out upon us. And part of that celebration calls for us to extend that same kind of grace, out to all those around us. Coming to this Table, partaking of this meal, is supposed to be a reflection of the fullness and wideness of God’s kingdom, which doesn’t wait until sometime in the future to begin, but has already begun in the here and now. We’re called to model this view of God’s kingdom – inviting, and welcoming, all to be a part of this kingdom, and not setting up any barriers to any person from hearing God’s good news for them, and welcoming them into this very communion with God and with one another. Regardless of all the other theological squabbles about the mechanics of it all, regardless of what else it might mean, this is what it means to have taken into yourself, to have consumed Jesus’ flesh and blood, to have truly internalized Jesus, to have eternal life within you.
So I guess today is another of those sermons I just leave you with a question to reflect on. As we think about ourselves – both collectively, as the church, and as we live out our lives of faith as individuals – are there things that we’re doing, unintentionally or otherwise, that serve to build a fence around the gospel, around the kingdom of God? Are there things that we’re doing that are pushing people away, that are off-putting to others? And if there are, how can we change them, in order to be more faithful to our call to be Christ-followers? Is there anything that we can be doing, individually or together, to allow more people to come to the Table, and be part of the Heavenly Feast that Christ has set the Table for?
Thanks be to God.