It’s a hard thing, to hear this passage. “You cannot be one of my people unless you eat of my flesh.”
How many people when they heard me reading this, had a little bit of an “ewww” feeling?
It’s a hard thing to hear. And it has probably been a hard passage to hear ever since
Jesus said it, way back then.
I don’t know if you know this, but before Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire, in the 4th century, it was considered a minority religion, and in some places, an illegal religion. You’ve heard stories of Christians being thrown to the lions; this was why! Because they were considered anti-government by believing in Christ. Some folks were even considered atheists, because they did not believe in the official pantheon of roman Gods. And so they were “picked on”, oppressed.
I said last week, in another part of the service at the other church, that the reason there are acolytes as a traditional part of worship is because back in the days of Christian oppression and secrecy, the children, the ones who would be above suspicion, were the ones who would lead Christians to secret places of worship, sometimes even down into the dark and scary cities’ catacombs, where the city of Rome placed their dead.
There were always spies who were looking for Christians, and one of the things that Christians were always being accused of, one of the things that they were sent to the lions for, was the charge of cannibalism. Texts like this morning’s gospel passage were often evidence against Christians.
Yet another dangerous effect of literalism.
Christians understood that this passage is not literal. Christians understood that we don’t sacrifice someone, and then eat their bodies. This is not the Donner party at church.
When talks about “eating of my flesh”, and “drinking of my blood”, he is talking about participation in the body of Christ. You are the body of Christ. You’re here this morning, this makes you the body. “Where two or three are gathered, the body of Christ has been constituted. “
But we are not, at communion, sitting down to a meal of each other. We are sitting down to be the body of Christ.
When we do communion, we do it with a very specific set of language in mind. When we come to the rail, or to the cup, and stand, or kneel, or whatever, we take a little piece of bread, and a little drink of juice (or the bread is dipped in the juice). That, for us is the symbol of being the body of Christ, or participating in the body of Christ. But we in the United Methodist church believe that “stuff,” that bread and juice, that flour, and that sugar, and that yeast, and that salt, and that product of mashed grape berries; we do not believe that that stuff becomes the actual body in blood of Christ. There’s no need to go into a discussion of consubstantiation, or transubstantiation; all that’s necessary to know is that we understand a more symbolic meaning in the act of communion.
When we take communion, we may think of old Sunday school teachers we used to have, old preachers, our parents, perhaps spouses who have passed on, and in some terrible cases, children who have preceded us in death. And as we take communion together, those people in your memory are swirling around over our heads, this is what we call the “cloud of witnesses”. When we take communion, we also participate with them, in doing what it is that Jesus told us to do.
Next time we take communion, listen for the language that we use: the night Jesus was arrested, he sat with his friends, his Disciples, and he lifted a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, and gave it to his friends, and said take, eat, this is my body which has been been broken for you. He used the past tense, but it would not happen till the next day.
“this is my body”.
Then he passed around a cup, and yes it was wine; Louis Pasteur had not been born yet. He gave thanks to God, and passed around the cup, and said “drink from this, all of you:, this is my blood which has been shed for you and for many for the forgiveness, of sins.” Again, the past tense, for something that was going to happen the next day.
“Each time you do this, do so in remembrance of me.” That is the command that we follow. This is our purpose in taking and giving communion, to take and to receive, to remember. To remember our cloud of witnesses. To remember those who are at the rail with us in that moment. To remember the sacrifice of Jesus.
But what it isn’t, despite this morning’s passage from John, is cannibalism. It is a participation in the body. It is a command by Christ, and it is a remembrance of those who have come before, and for some of us, maybe it is even a promise, a renewal, every month, to make sure that the faith is passed on, even to little babies baptized.
I encourage you to go back this week, and read this passage again, with this symbolic passage in mind. Help it grow in your minds, past the initial “ick” factor, Perhaps that will be your growth in faith.
What we do is a symbol. It is a bonding action for all of us together. And only a misunderstanding of the language, a literal meaning, should be what turns your stomach.
Pastor Drew, August 19, 2012