Wednesday, September 16, 2009

John 6 Eat flesh, Communion

Service of Worship, August 16, 2009
John 6:51-60: Eat my flesh
Jesus stands with open arms
Bienvenidos and welcome to worship. This is a day that the lord has made!  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

On Friday, Claudia, Trasie, Ruby and I had dinner with a couple from Iglesia Betesda, the Spanish speaking church that gathers here for worship on Thursday and Sunday evenings.  After dinning, having heard more of each other’s stories—
how we came to Santa Fe, and how we have experienced God in our lives-- Hermano Cruz turned to me and said, “There’s always a reason for why people do the things they do, there’s always an explanation for what motivates people to do things in a particular way.”

I agreed. But it has taken me some time to come to this understanding.  Sometimes people do some strange things that seem beyond explanation. 
They just don’t make sense, at least not in my mind.

In this morning’s service, things are a little different.  But there is a reason…
The entire service of worship has a specific focus on the practice, the ritual, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. 

What do we know about this act of breaking bread and dipping the bread in the cup?  Why do we do this? Why do I and other ministers and priests do and say so much?  Why does this church have communion twice a month, and other churches have it more often and others less often? What happens to the bread and juice in this practice?  Does it become flesh and blood? Who can partake? Only those who are baptized? Only those who “believe”? Who can serve? Just elders? Doesn’t the bible say something about self-examination before participating?  What if I don’t participate?  Will people look at me funny?
We call this a supper, even a feast, why don’t we have more than just bread and juice?  Why do we rip and dip?  Tear a piece of bread and dip it in the cup?

Believe it or not, there actually is a reason, an explanation for why we do this practice the way we do, even if they aren’t necessarily satisfactory or make a lot of sense. 

I’m not going to be able to get into all of the possible questions and attempted answers this morning, unless you want to skip lunch (we are having communion). 
But, I hope to at least begin the exploration of a very challenging passage found in John, and a very sacred and special practice of observing the Lord’s Supper;
which I pray my deepen our experience of this ancient act, that has profound and meaningful implications for who we are in relation to God, and what our life is about.

What are some of the names you’ve heard the Lord’s Supper called? Holy communion, Eucharist, divine liturgy, breaking of the bread.  Regardless of the name it is called, it is a deeply Trinitarian celebration.  And to emphasize this Trinitarian aspect, every time we have communion we offer a prayer…
some feel like this is a long prayer.  It is actually called a great prayer of thanksgiving.  And the first portion of the prayer is focused on the mighty acts and attributes of God the Father, the Creator.  Then we sing the sanctus….santo, santo, santo es el SeƱor….
Then our great prayer has a focus on the acts and attributes of Jesus. Born of Mary, word made flesh, before time, present with us, hope for the future. We conclude this portion with the memorial Acclamation. “Great is the mystery of our faith: Cristo ha muerto…Cristo ha resusitado…Cristo vendra de Nuevo.
And finally the great prayer focuses on the mighty works and attributes of the Holy Spirit.  Come and be present with us!  Empower us to be your servants in the world.

Did you get that?  This entire service is in a way designed to be a great prayer of thanksgiving, as we are reminded of all of God’s lavish gifts in the creation and preservation of the world, and most of all Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for our salvation.  The first portion of the service will focus on God the Creator.
Then we will sing Santo Santo

The second, with scripture and preaching will focus on Jesus the Redeemer, Then we will sing Cristo ha muerto.

And the third segment, with prayers of the people and offering and announcements of ways we can be Christ’s body in the world, on the Holy Spirit, the sustainer. 

Please note that the actual great prayer of thanksgiving will come toward the end of each section, it will be prayed by Claudia Aguilar.

Now, always before we begin the great prayer, there is an invitation offered to the table.  Something like: Jesus says, “come to me all who are weary.  Jesus said I am the bread of life…whoever comes to me will never be hungry.

To begin the service, we sang a song, “Jesus stands with open arms.” The invitation has been extended. Who can participate in the Lord’s Supper?
Well, in this church, we understand that not I, and not any other person we see here is the host at the table. The host is Jesus himself, mysteriously present with us.  So instead of asking, “Who can participate?” Maybe we could ask:  Who would Jesus turn away? “Jesus stands with open arms and welcomes any and all who come.” 

And we welcome one another.

Are there any guest who wouldn’t mind being introduced this morning?

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, desires all to be at peace with one another. 
As we prepare to share in the feast, let us welcome one another as Jesus welcomes us, by sharing a sign of peace … The peace of the Lord be with you all.

Reading from John 6:51-60:
I love the last verse of the passage Erik read:  “This teaching is difficult, who can understand it?”


Jesus had just told those who were gathered that he is the “bread that comes down from heaven”.  And as if that isn’t challenging—better yet agitating—enough.  Now he puts the claim even more outrageously: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.[1]

His flesh.  The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ Kind of like with Nicodemus—How can one enter his mother’s womb a second time?—Jesus has confounded his audience

Is this Cannibalism? And it’s even more offensive to a jewish audience than we understand, because they were forbidden to taste blood (Lev 17:10-14; Deut. 12:16, 24).

How is Jesus going to explain this? Amen Amen.
‘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.”

This teaching is difficult, who can understand it?

Perhaps the very passages in Jewish law that forbid the consumption of blood may give us some insight into what Jesus is saying: Leviticus 17:14 says, For the life of every creature is it’s blood.
Blood somehow meant life.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, Jesus said. Something mysterious is taking place here.

There must be some reason for this saying? Some explanation for the 2000 year old practice of the Lord’s Supper? The Lord’s Supper is often thought of as Jesus’ last supper with his disciples before he was betrayed and crucified.  There in the upper room, with gathered disciples he holds and breaks a piece of bread and says, “take and eat, this is my body broken for you.” Later he pours wine into a cup and says, “Take and Drink this is my blood shed for you.”

We find this story told in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Paul also tells of this tradition passed on to him in 1 Cor 11.  But in John, this particular aspect of Jesus’ last meal with disciples—breaking bread and sharing a cup— is absent. 
Instead in John we see Jesus multiply barley loaves and fish to feed some 5000 people.  And then he begins this very long explanation of what is happening. 

And for John, Jesus’ ability to do something incredible like a fast food miracle is just a sign that points to something else.  Don’t believe in me because of what I do, believe in me because I am…I am the bread of life…. 

Not only is the miraculous feeding a “sign” pointing toward the Eucharist, also in John’s gospel both this miracle of multiplication and the eucharist celebration become signs pointing to Jesus death.

Eat my flesh, drink my blood.  You’ll never be hungry, you’ll never thirst! You’ll experience life! Jesus tries to explain it to friends and to adversaries. He draws upon familiar stories of the people’s past, Moses, Manna in the wilderness.

But, their response: This teaching is difficult, who can understand it?

It was great. Before Ruby was born, I went to a bible study at Libby and Gaspar’s house and the topic was this very passage from John.  Eat my flesh, drink my blood. There at the bible study was Gaspar who takes bible study and his faith very seriously, but who is protestant, and very proud of his protestant heritage. 
and his dear friend, Cisto, who takes his bible study and his faith very seriously, and who is a staunch Roman Catholic. Eat my flesh and drink my blood.
Gaspar attempted to use sound logic.  “Sisto, you really think that Jesus meant he was going to cut a piece of his arm for people to eat? ...and then filled up a cup with blood coming out of his same arm?

Sisto just looked at Gaspar and said…what does the bible say? “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Oh we had lively discussion on that evening.

For two thousand years, the church, followers of Jesus trying to be faithful have practiced this Lord’ Supper, With bread and wine or juice while trying to make sense of what he was talking about—eat my flesh, drink my blood.  We’ve come up with interesting concepts like:

Transubstantiation – that’s a big word.  This is the idea that the substance of the elements of bread and wine is transformed by the power of God into the substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  The “accidents, or outward form, of the elements—those qualities that can be seen, tasted, and felt—remain the same.  In other words, it looks like bread, it feels like bread, it sure does taste like bread, but it ain’t bread. It’s Christ’s body. Thus we eat Christ’s flesh…. 
Does this speak to you? 

Well it didn’t work for Luther, so we have the concept of consubstantiation or “sacramental unity”.  Which means Christ is present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine, like fire that is in and around a glowing ember. 
Christ is not just present spiritually, but bodily.  In other words, kind of like the burning bush, that isn’t consumed but God is present, the same way with the bread and wine.  Are some of you here on this view? 

If so, maybe you can explain better.
Then there is the memorialist view—the practice is essentially a memorial or reminder of what Christ did for human salvation in his passion, death and resurrection.  Christ commanded followers to express their loyalty to him by continuing to practice the Lord’s Supper. So this meal is an essential act of obedience and commitment, but Christ isn’t necessarily present a the meal. 
I bet there are a lot of us who fall here?

Is everyone still with me?
And finally I would be remiss if I didn’t share the Reformed view, as lined out by Calvin.  Calvin said that Christ is not present figuratively, or just in our memories, rather Christ is really present—present by the uniting power of the holy spirit and is received by faith.  But for Calvin, Christ presence isn’t some how mechanically affixed to bread and wine.  When we eat this bread and drink this cup Christ joins us to himself by the grace and power of his Spirit. 

I’m not suggesting that one position is right and another is wrong. Faithful Christians find ourselves with any number of ideas about how Christ is Immanuel, God with us, in the Lord’s Supper.

Perhaps those who throughout history who have tried to make sense of Jesus presence in the bread and wine, in spite of different perspectives could agree on one thing: This teaching is difficult, who can understand it?

I hope you appreciate this of Calvin: He admitted that he didn’t have a definitive explanation of the real presence of Christ in the eucharist. He said, “Now if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare.
And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it…In his sacred supper [Christ] bids me to take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine.  I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them.”

And that is just it. Christ bids us to take, eat, and drink his body and blood, bread and wine.  Who can understand it?  …but somehow…deep down…I experience it; I experience Christ.   What perspective do you have?  What emotions do you feel? 
Is Christ present with us?  Isn’t this just bread? John Burnett makes it. 
Isn’t this just grape juice, not even wine?  Doesn’t Mr. Welsh make it?

Maybe it would be a good practice as we consider our own understanding of Jesus talk of flesh and blood, and how others understand this, that instead of focusing on what happens to the elements and a particular moment of the service when the bread and wine are consecrated, we could focus on what human life by God’s grace is intended to be—a life together in mutual sharing and love.
We could focus on participation here as uniting us with Christ in his practice of table fellowship and hospitality—life together with sinners and the poor.
We could focus on our utter dependence on the Spirit of God for the gift given of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection…community, sacrificial love, life! 

The short-story writer Raymond Carver has a piece that reminds me of how the real presence of Christ can be experienced.  As Christ feeds us and we feed others. The story is entitled "A Small, Good Thing" and tells of a husband and wife who have a little boy with a birthday coming up. The couple calls the baker and orders a cake. Just before his birthday, the boy is hit by a car and killed. The couple is lost in a forest of grief. They have the viewing, the funeral. Inconsolable. Meanwhile, the baker starts calling them, urging them to pick up their cake. He calls up and leaves these strange messages and then rudely hangs up before they have a chance to respond. It's outrageous and bizarre.  The couple is furious.
They stomp down to the bakery and tell the baker what has happened--that their son has been killed. And the baker apologizes. He sits the man and woman down. He feeds them hot cinnamon rolls and fresh bread. And they talk. The pain of the child's death is still sharp, but somehow in the eating and talking, the sharing, there is healing.

In the mystery, we come to join in the feast, we must get up as we are able, come forward, hold out empty hands, rip bread, dip in the cup and sop up juice, and chew. There must have been a reason for this, right?  Look around and see….

Let us prepare for this feast by praying in silence and then singing Hymn 348 in the red hymnal. 

O Lord Jesus, captivate my heart,
Take Your place and reign in every part.
Have Your way and make my life Your own,
It is Yours, I come and lay it down….

How can this man give us his flesh to eat?
Bread, baked by the burnetts. Is this not the great mystery: Our lord has said to us through his life and through his death: If we are to be whole, we must become broken for others?

Juice, bought at a store, And does not the mystery continue: our lord through his life and through his death has said to us, if we are to be full, we must por ourselves out for others.

Eat my flesh, drink my blood, Abide in Christ, may Christ abide in you.

Sacrament…mystery….grace…love.  Life giving. Christ gave his life…and somehow in this feast I can celebrate the gracious acts of God in Jesus Christ and trust that the Spirit will empower me to in turn, give my life if not for the sake of the world, for the sake of that person in need that I see….give my life for the sake of my spouse, for the sake of a child, for the sake of a friend, for the sake of an enemy. Give my life. Christ gave his life, this is my flesh.  Drink my blood.  In small ways, and big ways, Give life to the world.

Eat my flesh drink my blood.

You have been fed, you have drank. Live into the mystery of the sacrament.  As Christ lives in you, go into the world to love and serve the Lord by loving and serving others.  Jesus laid down his life, flesh and blood.  So too we give of ourselves as we go fearing neither people nor institutions for we are all free people in Christ Jesus.  Que la gracia del Se;or JesuCristo, el amor de Dios y la communion del espirito santo les acompanion ahora y siempre amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word, p 357

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