Mystery and Hunger

Proper 21            August 26, 2018

John 6:56-69

This is the fifth Sunday in a row that the lectionary serves us up a generous portion of the sixth chapter of John, Jesus’s long and difficult talk centred on the words “I am the bread of life.” Now, it is a beautiful theme to reflect on and preach about – but five Sundays in a row? I have managed to leave most of the preaching on this to Lynn and Ed – but I did want to chime in today.

This chapter is as close as John gets to talking about the Eucharist, the core of our weekly service. It is one of the oddities of John that he does not tell us (unlike the other three gospels) about Jesus sharing the bread and wine at the Last Supper. His account of the Last Supper goes on for several chapters, and includes the footwashing – but no mention of the bread and wine. It is here, in the context of the feeding of the 5000, that Jesus speaks to the crowds and to his disciples in terms that we can only consider eucharistic: “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.”

Could he phrase this in a way that sounds more like cannibalism? The reaction of his first century listeners would have been the same as anyone today hearing these words for the first time: Yuck! Indeed even more so. Jews did not consume blood at all: it is one of the core principles of kosher slaughtering that the blood must be thoroughly drained from the meat. So when Jesus starts talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood – remember, these people had never heard of the Eucharist – it’s no wonder they start to drift away, probably shaking their heads. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

And for us, who know the Eucharist, who love it and live by it? What a contrast! Jesus’s words, if we really hear them and take them literally, sound so horrible and ghoulish, like something out of a horror movie. But nothing could be further from our experience of the Eucharist, which is something warm and nourishing and life-giving, the pure grace of receiving God’s love.

I was wrestling with this contrast this week when I came across a book, a slim little classic from the 1970s entitled “The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World” by the Catholic theologian Monika Hellwig. And a couple of her ideas came to life for me, helped me to see what is going on when we share communion in a new way.

She begins by pointing out that we have to understand the Eucharist as a mystery. Well, you have probably heard that one before. It sounds like the sort of thing we tell children to get them to stop asking questions: it’s a mystery, we’ll never understand it, so stop trying. That is not exactly what she means. When we talk that way about the Eucharist, we are treating it like magic, just something we are supposed to accept, by shutting down our thinking.

A mystery works differently. A mystery is a sort of sacred encounter that doesn’t block understanding, but leads us ever deeper into understanding. The point is, our understanding is never exhausted, because we never get to the bottom of it. We can never say: I understand this completely, I have it all laid out in my mind, like that frog I had to dissect in high school.

Think of the way we encounter another person. That too is a sacred mystery. If we think we know this person completely, understand them inside out, then we are deluding ourselves: we are engaging in that kind of superficial knowing that is so common in way we treat each other. As we know when we embark on trying to seriously know another person – a project like marriage or raising children – there is always more to know. That is why loving another person is a sacred mystery, a sacrament: it’s not that we can’t understand them, it’s just that we will never understand them completely.

That’s what the mysteries of our faith are like. Of course we can understand them, engage them with our minds. It’s just that we can never know them completely, they will always lead us to deeper understanding.

Or, to use another example from Monika Hellwig: it is like the way we know a work of art. A musician can study a Mozart sonata, can learn it and analyse it and perform it. But no matter how much we know it in our heads, we only really understand it when we listen to it and are moved by it. It’s not how we grasp it that counts, it is letting it grasp us and move us and change us. And that is true of the Eucharist, too. All the theories in the world don’t really help us, if we do not experience it, do not let it grasp us, and feed us, and strengthen us, and comfort us, with the assurance of God’s love that reaches us inside and out.

That is the beautiful logic to the way we worship, Sunday after Sunday. Our services have two high points, like a double-humped camel, two places we encounter God reaching out to us: in listening to and wrestling with Scripture, and in sharing the bread and wine. The point is, these are about exactly the same thing: they are about encountering the living God, reaching out to us through the Spirit. First of all in words, ancient words that occasionally take fire across the centuries and speak directly to our hearts. And then a second time, so that we don’t make the mistake that it is all about understanding it in our heads, God comes to us as the incarnate word in Jesus, feeding our bodies and souls directly through the one who took on flesh and shed his blood in solidarity with our existence as creatures of flesh and blood.

This brings me to the second big idea that this book reminded me of. In the eucharist, God comes to encounter us by feeding us. God comes to satisfy our hunger. I think we often think of our spiritual hunger, we are aware of our longings and our needs when we come to this table. But we may forget our physical hunger. After all, no one comes to communion to fill their belly.

This is a luxury we enjoy, though. We live in a place and time where most of us never really experience hunger. Not all of us – there are the children, far too many, who come to school hungry, in this very town. But most of us here never need to go hungry. And if we never go hungry, we can begin to forget who we are. We can forget that we are not just thinking minds and feeling souls, but also creatures of flesh and blood. We can forget how very vulnerable we are, dependent on so much to keep our bodies going. That is, until illness and the aches of aging come to remind us.

Let’s remember where we began five weeks ago at the beginning of chapter six of John: with the feeding of the 5000. They had gathered on a deserted hillside to hear Jesus, the day was getting late, people were getting grumpy. This hillside, John reminds us, lies at the root of what we do when we gather around this table, just as much as the upper room where Jesus gathered with his disciples. Jesus fed people who were genuinely faint with hunger. It was not just a poorly planned picnic. Among the peasants of Galilee there surely would be many who knew what hunger felt like, often. The bread of life is not just about physical hunger; it is about feeding our spiritual hunger, too. But it is about feeding both together, about God coming to us and caring for us as who we fundamentally are: not purely spiritual beings, but beings of body and soul, incarnate beings.

I was reminded of what it means to be flesh and blood just this morning: trying to rush to get my breakfast, when suddenly I was caught by two brown eyes watching my every move, patient, pleading, a bit reproachful. They cut through to the heart every time. So I had to take time to feed the dog, because I know she was hungry. My point is that those puppy-dog eyes say something about all of us. We’re not that different, we too are creatures of flesh and blood, looking for our next meal before just about anything else.

The eucharist, Monika Hellwig clarifies, is not just about being fed – it is about sharing food. This is a place where we share with one another. It is a place where we drop our pretense of being strong and independent, and acknowledge that we need one another. We need one another spiritually, as friends who care for each other’s sorrows and share each other’s joys; sometimes we need each other practically. Sometimes we just need a meal.

So we who gather at this table should gather as those always mindful of the hungry in the world. We remember them, because this is a place we come to acknowledge and share our own hunger: our spiritual hunger, but also our physical hunger, which, but for the grace of God, is just around the corner. That is why it is so important for us to support our food banks and our Fair Share ministry, and the Primate’s Fund. These are not extras we do: they flow directly from this table.

And when the mighty and influential gather to debate public policy, to wage wars and carry on diplomacy, to divvy up the billions of dollars we put at their disposal – well, maybe the question we need to raise, as people who gather at this table, is “what will the children eat?” Because it is easy for the mighty to forget, if they do not gather at this table to remember their own frailty, that the children need to eat.

This is a fact of life, but it is also a sacred mystery: that we have been created as creatures of flesh and blood and spirit and soul, capable of great aspirations and high-flown ideas, but also vulnerable to hunger and illness and death. And this vulnerability is not our shame; it is our beauty and our glory. It is as creatures of flesh and blood that God loves us, loves us so completely he came to share our flesh and blood, and sanctify it by his presence among us. It as creatures of flesh and blood, creatures that hunger, that we are called to love: called to love and accept ourselves in our infirmity, just as God loved us; called to love and help others in their infirmity. That is what we rehearse at this table, week in, week out: that we are creatures of hunger, and that that, in God’s gracious love, is alright.