Rev. Danielle K Bartz August 15, 2021
John 6:51-58 “A Messy Faith”
I’ve told this story before, but it is a good one and bears repeating. When I was in seminary, we celebrated Holy Communion during our chapel service on Thursdays. A student would provide the bread and juice, and often the bread was homemade. We also almost always had a guest preacher on Thursdays. Towards the end of my third and final year, we had a guest preacher – a distinguished, older African American man. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember that he was wearing a three-piece suit – which was quite a contrast to a group of over-worked, under-rested rag-tag seminary students.
When it was time to celebrate Holy Communion, our guest invited everyone to come to the front of the chapel and stand in a circle around the Communion table. We would be passing the bread around the circle, serving each other. Our worship leader took a beautiful, golden loaf of bread in hands, blessed it and us, held the bread high in the air and broke it. But, it was only then that we all learned, while golden and crispy on the outside, the loaf was completely raw on the inside. As the crust broke, the raw dough formed a perfect ‘U’ hanging in the air over our guest.
He was a professional, or maybe he was like the rest of us – in shock and just didn’t know what to do, so ignored the problem. He kind of pulled the dough apart, stuffed it back into the crust halves, and passed them around circle. I don’t remember him saying anything, maybe other than suggesting we each only take a piece of the crust to eat.
As we passed the two doughy halves of the bread around, we each tried to pull off whatever fully baked piece we could find. We all tried, and we all failed. Our hands were quickly covered in raw dough. But, we kept our cool – perhaps knowing that in our careers unexpected things like this would happen to us too, and we needed to learn not to freak out. We kept our cool, that is until our guest worship leader asked us all to hold hands for our benediction and blessing.
All attempts at maturity quickly dissolved as we took the hands of our neighbors, our hands squishing together. As our bodies shook in silent laugher, we were blessed once again by our guest and sent forth into the world to serve. And when we tried to pull our hands apart, we couldn’t. The dough had stuck them together, we were stuck together by the presence of Christ’s body in that moment. Holy Communion, so often a clean, even antiseptic ritual in most churches today, had become messy. And in that messiness, in the rawness of the sacrament, we were bound together in body and Spirit. The joy we felt that day was not just in the humor of the situation. It was in the messy presence of Christ.
Stories about bread are ubiquitous in the Bible, Old and New Testament. Bread was the substance of life, and still is. In the ancient times and today, bread helps our bodies to thrive, giving nourishment and strength. Unleavened bread, manna from Heaven, miracle feedings of thousands, the Last Supper – these are all key stories of our faith. And so is the lesson that Jesus taught in today’s scripture, though on the surface it seems odd, even wrong in some way.
We studied this scripture in Bible study a few months ago. I can’t remember who, but someone said that scriptures like this must be part of the reason so many think Christians are weird. Which is understandable. The language is blunt and leaves little room for imagination. Hear it again: Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…for my flesh is the true food and my blood is true drink.”
The language doesn’t feel like metaphor, and religious scholars have argued for millennia what Jesus meant – including my clergy group who argued about it Tuesday morning, perhaps just a bit too loudly in Acoustic Café. Whatever Jesus meant, the language is powerful and it is clear a point, an important point, was being made. We are to consume, to make a part of our very bodies, the presence of Christ, of God made flesh.
The Gospel of John, where today’s scripture comes from, doesn’t include the Last Supper. The ritual of Holy Communion, the “Do this in remembrance of me,” isn’t in the Gospel of John. Instead we have today’s scripture that adds to our understanding of Holy Communion but also helps us to understand what it means to embody our faith.
As told in the other Gospels, during the Last Supper, Jesus takes bread and breaks it, saying the broken bread is his body and when we share in it we are remembering him. The same for the cup of wine that is poured and shared. Those words are the words we repeat each time we participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. But the Gospel of John takes those words a step further, it takes away the bread and instead offers nothing by flesh. In Jesus’ lesson, we don’t remember him by eating bread, instead we are told to consume the very essence of Christ. It a lesson not meant for the mind, but for the body.
And perhaps that is why it feels so strange, even frightening. A faith that is all about idea and thought and distant prayer – that is a faith that is devoid of risk. But a faith that is part of the body, of action and touch and flesh and blood – that is a faith that is filled with risk. The distance is removed and instead our very bodies become the vessels through which our faith is lived.
I believe that is what Jesus is trying to teach us in this lesson. Please understand, I too find the words, the images, distressing. I much prefer a faith that is safe. A faith about thought and words. But Jesus is teaching our faith is meant to be more than that. Our faith is meant to be lived, a faith that is meant to be embodied, a part of our very bodies – our flesh and our blood. Jesus is asking that our devotion to God be an act of our whole selves, not just our heads.
Teresa of Avila was a 16th century nun, her life devoted to God. She was an extraordinary woman, a thinker and a doer, devoted to her Catholic faith even while the Protestant Reformation was consuming Europe around her. She is remembered today as a Saint and a teacher, but for much of her life she was treated as a thorn in the side of the church. She was a woman who understood that a life devoted to serving God was not just a life of words, ideas, and prayers. It was a life of faith lived through the body. She understood what Jesus meant in today’s scripture. She said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”
Jesus taught that we are to consume the very essence of Christ, to give God flesh on earth today. As Teresa of Avila understood that lesson – we become the hands and feet of Christ. Our faith must not remain at a safe distance, but rather it must become the very blood that moves throughout our body.
That Thursday in seminary, the uncooked bread ceased to be symbol for Christ, and instead it became a physical reminder that we are held together by our beliefs, our hopes, and our actions. Our faith is more than passing words, our faith is flesh and blood – and all of the messiness that contains. But, that is not a burden. That is a gift. A gift of life. A gift of hope. A gift of presence that we can never be separated from. When we accept that gift, fully into our bodies, we cease to keep God and God’s call at a safe distance. Instead, we become the hands and feet of God on earth today. Amen.
God of flesh and blood, you are a part of our very bodies. You are the breath in our lungs, the blood in our veins, and the flesh that gives us shape. You are the essence of our lives.
Jesus, seeking to teach of your presence and hope for all of humanity, asked us to acknowledge your presence within us. We hear the lesson and we confess that at times it feels like too much. We fear the closing of the distance, a distance we know that only exists in our minds. We far too often try to hold you away from us, feeling content with ideas and musings of what you mean for our lives. We confess this, and as we do so, we seek and find your grace.
In our prayer to you today, we seek to embrace your presence in our lives. We feel you within and around us. We, if only for a moment, let go of our fear and instead embrace the joy. When we struggle with this God, we ask for your help. Your gentle reminders that we have never, and can never, be separated from you.
As we pray for ourselves, we also pray for those around us. The friends and the strangers. We offer prayers that they too may find joy and experience peace. We pray that they too know they can never be separated from you.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher and guide, who taught us to prayer together…Our Father…