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Sunday, August 19, 2012

You Are What You Eat (or Drink?)

What we eat and drink changes our bodies, changes who we are from within.  Today Jesus invites us to take him in, be filled with him, eat him – and we also will be changed, from the inside out, into different people, people like Jesus.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 20, year B; texts: John 6:51-58; Ephesians 5:15-20; Proverbs 9:1-6

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

This is where it gets really difficult, isn’t it?  For some weeks we’ve been working through this sixth chapter of John, and a grouping of Jesus’ teachings about himself and his life for the world.  We’ve heard people compare him to Moses who gave them manna, and we’ve heard his response that he isn’t Moses, he’s the bread from heaven, the new manna.  He’s called himself the bread of life, and said that those who come to him will never be hungry.  All this after miraculously feeding thousands with only a few loaves and fish.  This has challenged us.  But today’s words really cross a line.

Now he says that the bread he will give is his flesh.  And then he says, “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.”  Five times today he tells those who follow him that they are to eat him.  Even drink his blood.  And in Greek, the verbs change from a regular verb for eating in the first instance to later uses of a verb that is better translated “gnaw, crunch, munch.”  So the language gets more intense as the passage goes on.  Don’t just eat and drink me, Jesus says, chew on me, gnaw on me.  This is really hard stuff to hear, to comprehend, to understand.

Now, it seems obvious that we tie this passage to our understanding of the Eucharist.  Surely this is what we mean in the Lord’s Supper when we say that we eat and drink the body and blood of our Lord.  We use this language.  It seems likely that John’s community, for whom this Gospel was written, would have made connections of their own to their practices of sharing the Lord’s Meal when they heard this.  But it may be too easy and too quick to jump to the Eucharist right away.  Martin Luther, in a sermon on John 6, says this cannot refer to the Sacrament because Jesus promises eternal life in this eating and drinking and some people have eaten of the Sacrament and still faced damnation. [1]

Well, that may not be an argument we want to make.  But I do want to hold off thinking of Holy Communion for a moment and focus on this very real, very disturbing, but potentially life-giving image Jesus is laying before us.  What does it mean to eat him, drink him?  Why such visceral language here?  It’s so powerful, such strong language, that perhaps it is meant to signify something equally powerful, equally strong, and worthy of our attention.

We have this expression, “You are what you eat.”  And we know from science that is literally true.

Originally it seems to have come from nineteenth and twentieth century healthy food initiatives.  People were encouraged to eat healthily so that they would also be healthy.  There wasn’t a sense that you became the thing that you ate, though.

But increasingly I’ve read of studies which show that what we eat actually does have a serious effect on us, changes us.  The chemicals we take in our food, for example, show up in our cell structure, and change our systems, from our immune system to our nervous system.  We know that if we eat fatty foods, we’ll have fatty deposits in our blood vessels.  But now it looks like some things we ingest literally change our body into something different.

I’m now straying to the edge of my scientific knowledge on this subject, but here’s my point: if in fact what we eat changes us even at a cellular level, maybe that’s our inroad into what Jesus is saying, to his metaphor today.  And while we hold that thought, let’s consider the drinking imagery of the other readings for a moment.

In Proverbs, Wisdom personified offers a feast, a rich banquet, for those without sense, those who are immature.  And she invites them to drink of her wine she has mixed.  To take in Wisdom’s wine in this image is to become wise, to become mature.  To become what you drink. But just as we’re thinking we’ve been told to have a little wine, Paul slams that door shut in Ephesians: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.”

So Wisdom says, “come, drink my wine.”  And Paul says, “Don’t get drunk on wine.”  But this inspires a little word play.  It seems that what these two readings offer is a distinction between intoxication (being drunk) and inspiration (being filled with the Spirit of Wisdom.)

Intoxication has the word “toxic” in it – it means that we are literally poisoned, filled with toxins to the point of inebriation, where we act differently than normal, we are different.  It’s easy to see why Paul would advocate against it.

But inspiration is being filled by the Spirit to the point of becoming something different, too.  Only instead of poison we are filled with God’s Spirit of life, and so we are acting differently in a way that brings life and grace.  To use Proverbs’ image, we’re filled with wisdom when we drink of Wisdom’s wine.  We are given a new mind, not new knowledge, but wisdom to know how we are to be in the world, to know and trust in God’s providence for the world, wisdom to see God’s hand in all things.

So the question before us today seems to be: what is it we take in ourselves of Jesus that gives life, and what is it we take in ourselves of the world that leads away from life, to death?

Surely this is the critical point Jesus is making here: we are invited to be reshaped from within by him, and not by the world.

If we think of what we eat and drink, or, more broadly, what we consume in the world that is not healthy, the list is long.  And it’s not just food, though that’s on the list.

We fill our minds with media that may or may not be edifying and uplifting.

Our society obsesses on commercialism and a consumer culture, where we are bombarded, and truthfully we permit ourselves to be bombarded by endless messages of what we lack, what we need, why our lives would be better if we only had this thing.  And so we live in abundance as if we lack everything.

We’re constantly spending our time and our lives on things that do not bring us to God, that distract us from the needs of the poor and needy, that fill us but only last minutes after the fill, and we need more and more.

When Paul cautions against drunkenness, he certainly would look at such a list and call it the same thing.  The prophet Isaiah named this nearly three millennia ago, when he said, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? (Is. 55:6)  Why, indeed?

Let’s change metaphors to see if this helps.  We can consider what happens when a computer gets a virus.  Software is written which runs a computer, tells it what to do, when to do it.  Modern software can have a computer do marvelous things.  But someone can write a virus which if implanted in the computer completely rewrites its programming and tells it to do things differently.  Even to the point of destruction.

What do we consume, seek, spend our lives and time on that does that, re-writes how we think, act, live in the world?  And is it good, or ill?  Of the Spirit or toxic?  That’s the question.

So when Jesus invites us to eat him, drink him, he’s really saying that we are to take him in us in such a way that we are changed at the cellular level, at our core software, at our deepest roots.  To take in his teachings, his wisdom, his grace, his love, his warnings, his life, his very person, and be changed by it.  What he’s saying is that following him is not following an abstract idea, a good set of teachings.

It’s taking him into ourselves until we look like him.  Until we are him.

So this is what Jesus means by “abiding” in him, something he says a lot in John’s Gospel.  And it’s a matter of life and death, that we abide in him until we become him.

We know this because he says it today: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  That’s what’s at stake here, the life of the world.  Take him into yourself and you will have life.  Or don’t, and you will find death.  And that life is meant to restore the whole world.

But of course being changed into Christ is a matter of life and death, too.  We know this.  If our spiritual DNA is rewritten by Jesus, if our internal programming is reformatted, if our cells are changed in their composition by taking Jesus in – whatever metaphor we want to use, we are changed.  We lose things, even while we gain.  Why else would Jesus describe discipleship as “losing one’s life to save it”?  (Matt. 10:39, 16:25 and parallels)

What we gain is life, eternal life now and always, abundant life now and always, life lived in the grace and love of the Triune God.

But we will be changed.  Our selfish natures will be transformed into giving natures.  Our destructive natures will be changed into creative natures.  Our hateful natures will be re-made into loving natures.  All that sounds good, but let’s not underestimate our desire to cling to some of those bad natures and what they seem to offer us.

And now we can finally come to the Lord’s Table.  Because even though we Lutherans teach that our Lord Jesus is truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine, is truly present in his Body and Blood, I’m not sure in practice we don’t fall into the habit of thinking it only a symbol.  We don’t imagine crunching or gnawing Jesus when we come to the Table, even though he uses those words.  We’ve sanitized it to the point of even getting nervous about crumbs going in the wrong places.

But in fact, Incarnation, flesh, is messy.  God becoming flesh for us was incredibly messy.  Even bloody, as Jesus was crucified for us.  Maybe we need to open our minds and eyes to consider the truth that Jesus gives: we are eating and drinking him.  In all the messiness that implies.  And in so doing, we are taking in his very essence and are being changed, bit by bit, day by day.

We are becoming what we eat, and what we drink.

I realize that this is an uncomfortable thing to think about this way.  But that’s what Jesus has left us with, this graphic image.

And in the end, it actually is so powerful an image it’s the only thing that conveys properly what Jesus expects to happen.  That we become changed from the depths of our being into him, into children of God, into the people God had in mind from the beginning.  Let’s not fear the changes Jesus will make.  Let’s eat, and drink, and welcome the transformation in store for us and for the world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s works, vol. 23: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, p. 118.  (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

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