Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"I Am the Bread of Life" (Reflections on Pentecost 11)

I dread it every three years when it comes around in the Revised Common Lectionary--that freakin' "Bread of Life" summer!I don't know what the folks who devised our Lectionary were thinking, but every third summer, in Cycle B, there are six--yes, SIX!--Sundays in a row when the gospel lesson focuses on Jesus as the Bread of Life. That's always a good time for either the pastor or the congregation to go on vacation. I mean, just how much can I think of to say about bread?

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." (John 6:51)

To non-Christians, the response to the above quotation might be, "Yech! Sounds like cannibalism!"And I have to confess that for some Christians, asleep in the pew, the question of what it means to eat the flesh of Jesus might not be something we really ponder. So I wrestle with the question of, "Why would you want to do something which sounds so disgusting?"

Glad you asked. Some years ago I stumbled upon a wonderful book titled Rabbi Jesus: The Jewish Life and Teachings That Inspired Christianity by Bruce Chilton (Doubleday, 2000). I recommend it highly. Professor Chilton made me look at the sacrament of Holy Communion in a new way.

He begins by describing Jewish ritual sacrifice at the time of Jesus. Animals were brought to the Temple of Jerusalem, their throats were cut, and their blood was splashed against the burning hot metal altar. Then, the flesh of the animal was thrown onto the fire. The sputtering steam of the blood and the smoke from the animal's body were seen to ascend--symbolically to God on high. To offer sacrifice in this way to atone for one's sins was one of the holiest things a Jewish man could do.

Unfortunately, not all men--and no women--were permitted to enter the inner court of the temple to participate in this ritual. Gentiles were forbidden, as were those deemed to be ritually unclean. Jesus himself, because of his questionable parentage, would not have been permitted full participation in the sacrifice of the body and the blood.

Mary and Joseph were not married when Jesus was conceived. Prof. Chilton notes that any question about who Jesus' father might be would automatically classify Jesus as a mamzer--one who could not be assumed to be 100% Jewish. Such a designation would have put Jesus on the margins of society.

So what does Jesus do? He institutes his own holy practice. He eats ritual meals from which no one is excluded. He eats with those who are deemed to be ritually impure: tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners of every kind. His followers will even share this meal with gentiles. Those forbidden to touch the body and the blood of the sacrificial animal in the temple will not only touch but eat Jesus' body and drink of Jesus' blood. And Jesus, by his death, will be the sacrifice for all.

What more intimate and necessary thing can we do than share our food? Think about it: you don't even have to know a stranger's language in order to offer him or her something to eat. In Near Eastern culture, to share food was to create family. If you eat of my bread, you become one of my household.

As a pastor, I love to preside at Holy Communion. I need to share the common hunger we all feel--for forgiveness, for wholeness, for community. And I need to ingest the man who loves with his whole body and soul and whose love knows no distinction of persons--young or old, married, single, divorced, re-married, gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, conservative, liberal. All human. All God's family.

If you come to my congregation some Sunday, we'll welcome you to our table. We simply can't let you be a guest in our home without feeding you.

God bless you, my friends!

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