I hope that everyone ate a good breakfast before you came this morning, because this sermon is going to make you hungry.
There is so much eating and drinking in our texts for today. In our first reading from Proverbs, we have the figure of Lady Wisdom sending out her messengers and inviting everyone to her banquet of bread and wine. Our psalm talks about hunger, and our second reading, from Ephesians, talks about getting drunk with wine. And of course, our gospel reading takes us back to the sixth chapter of John once again for another heaping helping of the bread of life.
Eating is such a powerful and relatable image. That’s why eating often plays a central role in the stories we tell, the myths and fairy tales and legends we pass down from generation to generation – the stories that tell us who we are. For example, in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the pivotal moment of the story is when Snow White eats the poisoned apple. Hansel and Gretel make the mistake of eating the witch’s gingerbread house. Alice in Wonderland eats mushrooms and mysterious cakes labeled “Eat Me.” In more modern stories like the Matrix, Neo has to choose whether to eat the red pill or the blue pill. In cartoons, Popeye eats spinach so he can get his strength. Video games like Super Mario Brothers and Pac-Man revolve around players eating things, like mushrooms and fruits and… dots to get power-ups. And even in our own actual history we mythologize events like the first Thanksgiving: a story totally rooted in eating.
Eating is also crucial to our biblical self-understanding. The prophet Ezekiel is commanded to eat the scroll given to him with what he is supposed to say to the people of Israel, and it is “sweet as honey” in his mouth. Esau trades his birthright away to his brother Jacob for a bowl of stew (must have been some pretty amazing stew!). The Israelites eat manna and quails in the wilderness, provided to them by God. And in one of the best known stories of the bible, way back in Genesis, Adam and Eve disobey God and eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Eating is central to what it means to be human. It is one of our most basic needs and our most common daily realities. We eat every day. And eating is about more than just physically nourishing our bodies. Eating is a huge part of how we relate to other people – we go out for coffee with friends, we gather with family for holiday meals, we join in fellowship with our congregation after worship every Sunday. Not eating is often used as a political statement; so is choosing to eat in certain places or with certain people.
Eating is life. It permeates absolutely everything we do and everything we are.
I know I am really hammering a lot on this point, but that is exactly what Jesus is doing in our gospel reading for today and what he’s been doing for the last several weeks. Jesus has been going on at length about the importance of eating the bread that comes down from heaven, the bread that gives eternal life. And today, he finally says plainly exactly what this mysterious bread of life is: him. Jesus IS the bread of life. And just in case anyone thought that they might have misheard him, Jesus gets graphic:
“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… 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… whoever eats me will live because of me.”
Wow. We are so used to hearing language like this in our communion liturgy, in our prayers, and even in our hymns that I think it’s easy to forget just how shocking and upsetting it really is. Reading texts like this, it’s hardly surprising that early Christian communities were often accused of cannibalism. That is true! Even the people in the story itself react with shock and revulsion to what Jesus says, asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat??” Gross!
But I think that Jesus does this on purpose. I think he is deliberately trying to shock his hearers out of their complacency. He wants them to wake up and pay attention. He is using the metaphor of eating to paint a vivid picture of the relationship he wants to have with all humanity. Eating is such an intimate and personal act; it’s taking something into ourselves and allowing it to become part of us. That is how Jesus wants to relate to us, how Jesus chooses to encounter us.
Eating is not a passive act or a theoretical act. We aren’t fed by just sitting back and talking about eating or by watching someone else eat. We have to do it. We must pick up the food, put it in our mouths, chew it, swallow it, and digest it. In the same way, Jesus demands to be taken seriously, not just philosophically.
And as the saying goes, we are what we eat – literally. The nutrients, minerals, and elements in our foods are the building blocks of our very bodies – what we eat physically shapes and forms who we are. I know I’m preaching to the choir on this point. Living in a farming and ranching community like Schuyler, you all know this very well. You know how the composition of the soil affects how the crops grow; you know how what you feed a cow or a hog affects their development. In the same way, what we consume – what we choose to take into ourselves – affects our growth and development. It shapes the people we become. Of course this happens physically with food. But it’s true of everything we consume. The movies we watch, the hobbies we pursue, the relationships we invest in, the ways we choose to spend our time: all of these things become part of who we are.
We make choices every day about how we feed ourselves – both tangibly and intangibly. And Jesus wants us to choose him. He invites us to eat him in order to become more like him, to grow in wisdom and maturity, to do good and seek peace and be filled with the Spirit. We eat Christ to become more like Christ, so that we might grow more and more into the image of God in which we were first created.
Jesus is urging us to take him into ourselves in as intimate a way as we eat bread or wine. But unlike our regular daily bread that satisfies and sustains us for a day, Jesus is the true food and true drink that sustains us for eternity. Jesus is the food that feeds us for eternal life.
And although we may think of “eternal life” as a far off thing, something that only happens after we die, Jesus makes it clear that there is actually more to it than that. In verse 54, he says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” Present tense! Eternal life isn’t just about a promised future. Eternal life is a promised now. It is the quality of a life lived in Christ. According to our reading from Proverbs, this life means living and walking in the way of insight, of wisdom. In our Psalm, it means lacking no good thing, and enjoying many days to savor the goodness of life. And in our reading from Ephesians, it is singing and making music and living every moment in joyful gratitude to God. This is the life promised to us when we accept Christ’s invitation to eat his body and his blood – when we choose to take Jesus into ourselves and let him shape who we are.
And this is the feast, here and now. Gathered together as God’s people, we feast on God’s word and on sacraments of bread and wine and water. We are not passive participants in this feast. This is not a theoretical thing or something done to us or for us or at us. We gather together, and we eat. And we go from this place out into the world, full of the eternal life that we have been promised, life that broadens the boundaries of our world beyond even the limitations of death, life that sustains us today, tomorrow, and for all eternity.
The table is set and the feast is ready. I hope you’re hungry.