“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.’”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Any time I am in a conversation with another Christian who makes a snide remark about how strange they think the beliefs of other religions are, I like to remind them of passages like this one where Jesus tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. This language is shocking, right? Jesus tells the people, tells us, that his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. Upon first hearing, the most shocking thing about these words might feel like the graphic imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood. But I have actually wondered if what feels truly unsettling, maybe even offensive, about the use of these eating and drinking verbs is something a little deeper.
Pastor Dexter and I spent a week at the beginning of this month on the unceded lands of the Tsi-Laan (see-lan), Enteatqua (en-ti-at-qwa), Wenatchi-Colville, P’squosa (p-skwOW-sa), and Wenatchi-Yakama tribes, a place now called Holden Village. This little Lutheran camp in the mountains is a place many friends had told me about previously, and you would have thought that the number one thing people would have told me about prior to going was something like the striking mountain views, the hiking trails, the deer walking feet away from you at every meal outside, the rich times of learning provided by speakers who had come to teach, or the beautiful vespers services that took place at 7:30 every evening. But actually, the main thing people told me about with stars in their eyes prior to my arrival was the TOAST. That’s right, there was homemade bread, Holden Village’s special recipe, available 24 hours/day in the kitchen with one of those industrial size conveyor belt toasters right next to it and plenty of butter and jam in small containers on the side always ready for toast-topping. I was skeptical when everyone raved about the toast being so legendary (it’s just toast…), because how could this be the most memorable part of this place for all these people who had gone before?
And when we arrived for that first lunch meal, I saw all that bread sitting next to the toaster and thought, “OK, that just looks like normal bread. What’s the big deal?” Then I started eating it for myself, my first slice toasted brown and crispy to perfection, with that rich butter and tart apricot jam smeared on for good measure. And you know what? All these people were right. And not for the reason you might think. It’s not just that that one slice of perfect toast rocked my world. It’s that I started to realize throughout the week that the life cycle of that bread was threaded throughout every part of my time there. I sat down to rest on a bench outside the kitchen the next day and a huge fan pumped the smell of the fresh bread baking out into the courtyard for all of us to smell. Another day, I peeked back in the kitchen to see volunteers kneading bread by hand with love and care as they chatted with their kitchen mates. I realized that any crusts thrown away actually went into the compost bins behind our lodges, turning into fertile goodness to nourish the soils of their spectacular garden, which gave us all kinds of veggies to eat during meals. At every meal, the bread was loaded on top of the full plates of those who would sit down in Adirondack chairs al fresco to listen to and share stories with and laugh out loud alongside one another. When I unceremoniously fell while stupidly running down a hiking trail on the first full day there, my friends who reached the bottom of that hike first had gone out of their way to make me a special toasted PB&J from that bread so that I’d have something to eat the moment I finished limping down the mountain. The bread was there again on the last day to be shared in our closing communion service, broken, fragrant, ready to be eaten alongside the wine. And finally, the bread was there when it held together the sandwich I had packed for the boat ride that took us down lake when it was time to leave. Eating this bread was not just a momentary, sustaining snack. To eat this bread was to enter into of a whole life-cycle from kneader to baker to me the eater to sharing community to compost in the garden to kitchen staff all over again, with giving and receiving, with life, woven throughout every single moment of the bread’s journey. Bread was not just a meal. Bread was a way of being, one that had swept me up the moment it passed my lips with that first bite of toast.
To eat Jesus, the bread of life, is to be swept up in the entirety of his way of being. It might have been more comfortable for us if Jesus had said he is like the living bread that came down from heaven, that whoever thinks about this bread will live forever, or that those who consider Jesus’ flesh and and blood will find life. Verbs like those keep Jesus at a safe distance. We can take or leave that Jesus, stepping on or off the ride whenever we get too freaked out and uncomfortable. But eating Jesus, well… that’s something personal and intimate, and I wonder if that’s why the verbs in this passage unsettle us. Eating Jesus is to take his body into our body. Eating Jesus is to say yes to the reality that there is no separation between his life and our life. If Jesus is God and God is love, then eating Jesus flesh is to say yes to that love nourishing us and then flowing right back out again. Eating Jesus is saying no to half-measures and yes to every part of the life of Christ. Eating Jesus is to say yes to joining him in actively resisting the empire’s ways, even as it costs us our lives. Because a loaf of bread is something we eat, and also something made specifically to be broken into pieces, cut into slices, and shared. What I loved about being at Holden Village was that the bread was there, all the time, everywhere I turned. It reminded me that every single moment of my life was like this bread: always an opportunity to get swept up in the life of Jesus.
These are uncertain times. With the overwhelming aching of this world, it can feel difficult to know where to begin to engage in the work of liberation. And the good news of this passage is that participating in what God is doing in the world to overcome oppression and build a world of abundance for all begins at the most basic level of our being, the level of eating and drinking. Top-down power structures and power-over-others hierarchies have taught us the lie that God can only be found in flashy displays of power and superhuman feats of strength. But maybe Jesus tells us to eat and drink him because practicing God’s way of love starts on the level of things we do every single day – sitting down for the meal to connect with others, making sure everyone has enough to eat, redistributing the bread so that everyone is full, listening to one another as we tear off a piece of bread to share, and then using these in-breaking moments of the Kin-dom of God as the building blocks for the rest of our world. Johnny Cash sang it best in his song ‘Breaking Bread’:
“It’s not the barley or the wheat
It’s not the oven or the heat
That makes this bread so good to eat
It’s the needing and the sharing that makes the meal complete.”
Bread makes community, it makes space for love, and if this isn’t the body of Christ in the world, I don’t know what is. Every moment there is needing and sharing, we find bread, and we find Jesus too. We practice on the smallest level, the eating and drinking moments, the world as God has imagined it. But we don’t start until we actually risk everything and take that bite. A bite of bread that doesn’t leave us where it found us. A bite of bread that ushers us into the way of Jesus, the way of life. A bite of bread that makes us also into Christ’s body, a bread so abundant and delicious and filling and shareable that it can bring life to the whole world. Amen.