What follows is the manuscript for the first sermon I preached in the Chapel of the Abiding Presence, our seminary house of worship. August 22, 2012. Text: John 6:51-58. What could I possibly say about Jesus, the bread of life, that hasn’t been said about the preceding 50 verses of John 6 that have been preached on during these past four weeks of the lectionary’s Bread of Life series? Well, nothing much new, probably, but Jesus’ constant repetition of the Greek σαρξ, flesh, as in “Eat my flesh,” was what caught my focus as I wrote (and rewrote. And then overhauled. And then called my mother to ask “does this make sense?” and, when she answered “not really,” rewrote again. Seriously, I was nervous about this sermon!).
Many thanks to Chris Suehr for dropping wisdom like a grenade into my anguished “Where do I go from here?” moment the day before I preached. “You are what you eat,” said Chris. “The body of Christ eats the body of Christ.” Nice one, man. And many thanks for all the encouraging feedback.
Here we go:
Grace and peace be with you all through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Victoria, one of the summer Greek tutors. As most of you are probably aware—even those of you who aren’t in the class—it’s crunch time for summer Greek. Here are these brave sister and brothers, who, having discerned a call to seminary, come trippingly onto campus, only to be thrust, in their first academic encounter, into learning half a language primer in two weeks! Their brains are hitting saturation point, the point at which it seems that no more knowledge can possibly fit in there without grey matter falling out. They’re exhausted! They’re confused! They know that something called predicate position is important, but they can’t remember why!
And yet. In the midst of the seeming impossibility of the task in front of them, there is an enthusiasm that shines through when Greek sentences begin to turn from jumbles of meaningless symbols into the Word of God, unmediated by English translators. I feel blessed when I watch these men and women joyfully engage with their newfound skill, even as they curse the name of the textbook’s author and wonder if they’ll ever sleep again.
I remember that one of my favorite things about summer Greek—after the weeping and gnashing of teeth had abated—was when learning the vocabulary lit up other words that I already knew—words like “sarcophagus.” Sarcophagus! “Phagein” means “to have eaten,” and sarx means flesh. Sarx. Sarx. Isn’t that a great word? And when you put them together, you learn that “sarcophagus,” a specimen of those beautifully designed Egyptian coffins, means “flesh-eater” in Greek. I mean, come on. That is cool.
But I must also tell you that there are moments when knowing Greek makes the Word of God weird for me. Moments like the one I had with the gospel text this week, when I realized that “sarx” occurs six times in nine verses, with a form of “estheo” paired with it three times. Moments like the one when you realize that a sarcophagus isn’t just a cool Egyptian coffin. It’s what Jesus is calling his followers to be in today’s gospel.
But it gets even weirder, because just in case we’d like to lessen the creep factor of being asked to be flesh-eaters by interpreting this eating as an allegory, John whips out the word “trogo” to describe the eating of Jesus’ flesh. Because “trogo” doesn’t simply mean to eat—it means to gnaw, or chew. We suddenly, uncomfortably know that Jesus is talking as literally as the language allows about the physical act of sinking teeth into his flesh.
This doesn’t sound like good news. It sounds like the precursor to a zombie horror movie. It’s gross. This imagery is obscenely organic. Why is Jesus using it?
The thing is, in Jesus, God is made obscenely organic. In the Nicene Creed, sarx in its verbal form turns up in “he became incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” God put on flesh. God, the ultimate divine being, source of all life, the light of the world, put on a body. God entered our human experience in the most intimate and undeniable and vulnerable way imaginable.
God becoming flesh is terrible and wonderful enough for our human understanding to cope with, but I think we struggle to grasp God’s incarnation not only because of its mystery, but because our culture thinks so negatively of bodies. This week’s news of Congressman Todd Akin’s horrifying comments about rape brought me back (with a resounding thud) to reality of that struggle.
We are constantly devaluing the experience of being enfleshed. When our bodies are tired, we answer them not with rest, but with caffeine. When our bodies are hurting, we answer them not with patience, but with pushing. When our bodies are aging, we treat them not with respect, but with resentment. And as Congressman Akin demonstrated, when our bodies are violated, our temptation is to respond with mitigating language that delegitimizes the experience of our flesh. We are so reluctant to take our bodies seriously, to treat them as something more than temporary vehicles for our far superior intellects and spirits.
And in doing so, we miss out on the beauty and wonder not only of God’s enfleshing, but of our own. These bodies are a good creation—fallen, yes, imperfect, often, but a blessing nonetheless. We tend to see our bodies’ complaints, like hunger, as weakness, but it is through this weakness that God in Christ reveals Godself to us. “I am the bread of life… The one who eats this bread will live forever.” Our superior intellects may not be able to grasp the full wonder and meaning of God becoming human, but our bodies understand the emptiness of hunger and the satiation of eating good bread. Our minds may not be able to understand exactly how Jesus abides in us and we in Jesus, but our bodies understand how when we eat something, it becomes a part of us. Our flagging spirits may sometimes weaken in their understanding of the Holy Spirit’s daily gifts, but our bodies understand how bread strengthens and sustains at every meal.
It is our bodies’ perpetual hunger that invites us to recognize the everyday grace of God’s provision for us. Norman Wirzba, in his book Food and Faith, says, “Eating reminds us that we participate in a grace-saturated world, a blessed creation worthy of attention, care, and celebration. Real food, the food that is the source of creaturely health and delight, is precious because it is a fundamental means through which God’s nurture and love for the whole creation are expressed.” Every time we eat or drink, we are feasting on the grace that permeates all the heavens and the earth.
Now, as hunky-dory as it would be to end the discussion there, in the act of eating we not only encounter grace, but also the reality of sin and death. We need to eat to survive, but in order for us to eat, the fundamental fact is that something else has to die.
Except when it comes to this living bread come down from heaven. This bread isn’t like ordinary food. This isn’t even extraordinary food, like manna. This is food that is full of life, that is apart from the cycle of death and life that permeates our other eating. This is food of the resurrection. “Eat of my flesh,” calls Jesus, but he isn’t calling us to be the sarcophagi of his remains. He is calling us to imbibe dynamic, abundant, eternal life. Eating Jesus’ flesh doesn’t simply sustain; it enlivens. And it doesn’t just keep us alive, it brings us to everlasting life.
When we recite the words of the Creed, we talk not only about Jesus’ fleshiness, but of our own as we profess that we believe in the resurrection of the dead. We confess that when Jesus comes again, we won’t only be with him in spirit, but in bodies. We’re not quite sure what these bodies will be like, but our creed makes it clear that fleshiness isn’t something we’re freed from—it’s part of what Jesus frees us into. Despite our misgivings about the unreliability of flesh, it is part of our eternal life with God, both in this present moment and in the future.
Here we are in a world where violence against bodies is normative, where even God’s own enfleshed Son knew what it was to suffer on the cross. But despite that brokenness, in a few moments we will express our faith in the grace and beauty of created bodies and God enfleshed as this body of Christ eats the body of Christ. We will gnaw the bread that Jesus is in, with, and under, perhaps chewing with our mouths closed in order to hide our obscenely organic consumption of the divine. But maybe when Christ comes again, we will all have so come to rejoice in our resurrection bodies that at the great wedding feast, our organic will no longer be obscene, and we will all chew the bread of life with our mouths open.