This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on August 19, 2018, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost and is based on the lesson for the day, Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58.
Have I told you that I love to cook? It’s not just a matter of getting dinner on the table, but the care for fresh ingredients, the proper cooking method, and the combinations of flavors. My two sons share in my love of cooking and when we’re together, we have frequent conversations about the wonder of how a few simple ingredients and a few seasonings can be combined to make flavors and textures that are simply marvelous. For instance, they were here this past week, and here’s what Tim made: sauté some onion and garlic; when they get soft throw in a whole bunch of fresh cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes carmelize and the skins pop, so you have this fresh sweet juice. Put your pasta in the pot and a few cups of water and simmer until the pasta is al dente. Voila! The pasta absorbs not only the water, but the heavenly juice of the tomatoes. Man, my mouth is watering.
Food matters. Three years ago, I visited Greenfield Village In Detroit. It’s a reproduction of an historic 19th century small town. I was once again reminded how much taller we are than our ancestors. Over and over, I walked through reconstructed historical homes where I had to duck my head. Historians estimate that our great-grandparents were, on average, four inches shorter than we are — primarily due to nutritional differences.
Food matters. Thirty years ago when I was a youth pastor, I never asked about food allergies. Now, we always ask about that, knowing that missing something could have catastrophic consequences. Many of you have discovered that you are gluten intolerant or lactose intolerant or acid intolerant or peanut protein intolerant. So we plan our diets to avoid those kinds of things.
Jesus does not beat around the bush in saying that he is our most important food — he is the bread of life itself. Lest we misunderstand what this bread is, he continues, “The bread that I give for the world is my flesh.” In fact, the text startles us in its candid emphasis on eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood, referring to such eating eleven different times in eight short verses. The text is perhaps more graphic than we would prefer. A little too much information.
A long time ago, Martin Luther got into a debate with another scholar named Ulrich Zwingli about holy communion. Luther was defending the real presence of Christ in the sacrament and he wrote these words, “This is my body; this is my blood.” And he underlined the word “is.” “This is my body; this is my blood.” Luther didn’t claim to know how Jesus was present in the bread and wine, but he would not budge in the belief that Jesus is really and truly present in the meal.
See, Luther gets at the heart of what’s at stake in this discussion. If we see the meal as a gift because it calls us to remember that Jesus gave up his body and blood for us on the cross, then it can also follow that our experience of grace in the meal is dependent on the vividness of our memories and the power of our emotions. Luther’s underlining of the word “is” takes the burden off our feeble memories and emotions and recognizes the bread as pure gift, whether we recognize it or not, whether we feel it or not. In my own times of doubt or questions on my own journey of faith, it’s vital for me to trust that the gift of the meal is not dependent on my thoughts or feelings. Jesus is present. Jesus does visit me with grace and forgiveness, strengthening my faith and nourishing me for life. It’s pure, objective gift that comes from outside of me and does not depend on me to be effective. Food matters.
In the reading from Proverbs, Wisdom invites us to “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. . .and walk in the way of insight.” Here food matters because of its power to shape the way we walk — the way we live. If Jesus is our true bread, then his real presence in our lives courses through our veins, our muscles, our minds and our wills. It affects how we live. Jesus affirms again and again that his flesh gives life. In John’s gospel, eternal life begins now, in a living relationship with Jesus. In fact, I think this is a good a summary of what the Christian faith is — it’s a living relationship with Jesus that joins us to his body and changes the way we live in the world.
The people that were addressed in the letter to the Ephesians encountered temptations that could entice them from walking in God’s ways. “Be careful how you live. . .because the days are evil.” Temptations are real and strong and plentiful. We can get drunk on wine, or high on opiods. We can get drunk on our own exalted self-importance or the accumulation of things. Technology provides entertainment forms that can keep us occupied 24/7, blurring our vision and our ability to see the neighbors God calls us to love and serve. Food matters. As an antidote to that way of living, we take in Jesus whose body and blood in the eucharist lead us to eucharistic living. Eucharist is the Greek word for giving thanks. Paul urges a life that is bathed in a spirit of deep gratitude for God’s constant and rich goodness. Eucharistic people begin their prayers not with please, but thank you.
Food matters. We are called to be filled with the Spirit — to satisfy our hungers with the bread of life. As we are hosted by Wisdom with a capital W, the Lord Jesus himself, we may need to give up something of our previous knowledge or understanding in order to be shaped by God’s wisdom. At the table of God where Jesus himself is the meal, we eat in a way that changes us. The bread, while a free gift, is also costly. Jesus promises to abide in us as we eat, and that abiding presence will not leave us the same. The loving will of God is to be in relationship with us, ever forming and reforming us. In those changes, like the rising of bread, the reign of God is tasted.
As we become God’s people around the holy table, we are drawn into the holy mystery and we become food for others. Here in this congregation, this ministry, we are called to be a banquet hall where week in and week out we welcome all to God’s lavish feast, where we offer the gifts of food and drink that bring us to Jesus. Eating our fill in this banquet hall, we leave strengthened to walk in God’s ways, resisting the temptation of worldly food and finding strength and vision to share God’s love and justice for the neighbor.
Hymnwriter Susan Briehl expresses the paradox beautifully: In our living and our dying, we become what we receive: Christ’s own body, blessed and broken, cup o’er flowing, life outpoured, given as a living token of your world, redeemed, restored. The poet W. H. Auden puts it this way: The slogan of hell: eat, or be eaten. The slogan of heaven: eat, and be eaten.