Life in the Flesh
There is a word that keeps appearing in the gospel readings that we’ve had for the past few Sundays, over and over again, as a verb, a noun and an adjective. In fact, in today’s gospel reading, in just 8 verses, this word appears 9 times.
It’s kind of important. Can you tell me which word I’m talking about?
The word is life. And that’s what this is all about. The whole purpose of the bread of life discourse that we’ve been reading these past few Sundays, in fact the reason that the whole of the Gospel of John was written in the first place, is so that we may have life. Abundant life. Eternal life. Life lived to the fullest. Now and forever.
What does it mean to really live as a human being? To flourish? To thrive? These are big questions. As we’ve discovered in our reading so far, it’s about more than bread, more than feeding our physical hunger - though that matters too.
What are your deepest longings? What do you need not just to survive but to thrive? Think about that for a moment, because these are the questions we need to think about before we return to the text. Take a moment, and if you want, talk to the person next to you, or for those of you online, can use the chat or comments.
When I think about my deepest longings, about what I need to thrive as a human being, I think about who I am and who I want to be. I think about the meaning and purpose of my life. About my need for belonging and community. The importance of dignity and respect. About relationships, about loving and being loved. About my sense of self-worth, and how I serve others, and whether what I do and who I am make a difference. I think about my longings for joy and peace and for the well-being of those that I love.
And it is precisely in response to these deeper longings and hungers that Jesus says:
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever trusts in me will never be thirsty.”
This is a big claim and an even bigger promise. Can we trust Jesus on this one?
That’s what we’ve been talking about these past two Sundays. Trust isn’t a given. Trust is based on relationship, and it’s something that we build day by day. We talked about that last Sunday.
In today’s gospel, however, Jesus introduces a new element:
“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.”
As soon as he introduces the word “flesh”, the religious authorities who have been complaining about Jesus for a while now take offense and go on the offensive:
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
I think that John the gospel writer is using these religious authorities and their misunderstanding of Jesus as an example of what not to do. They insist on taking Jesus too literally, their thinking is too narrow, it’s small, they’re staying on the surface. It seems like they’re still back on the mountain talking about the loaves and the fish.
But Jesus is inviting us to open up. To think big and to go deep. To ask our big questions, just like we’ve been doing, and to really ponder what Jesus is saying in response.
The whole of the gospel of John paints us a bigger picture as well. When Jesus introduces the word flesh here, there is a profound echoing of what was written about Jesus at the very beginning of John’s gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him and … what has come into being through him is life.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.
Do you hear the echo? This is the big picture, the cosmic picture, that the word flesh is meant to evoke in us.
The invitation to “eat my flesh” is an invitation to experience, trust and be nourished by the God who created our entire universe and who chose to become fully human as a gift to us. We are being invited to enter into an intimate relationship with the Word which became flesh and lived among us.
Why did God become fully human? God did so as a gift to us. That’s what John writes in his most famous verse, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” God’s gift to us was to join us in the flesh.
Why was that God’s gift to us? Because we needed it. We are “in the flesh”, there’s no other way to be human. For us to draw close to God, it really helps to have a God who is in the flesh, a God who lives among us. Because it’s much harder to know a God that we can’t see, to listen to a God that we can’t hear, to understand a God who has no body language, to embrace a God who has no body. Jesus, God in the flesh, allows us to see, to hear, to understand and to embrace God in the embodied ways that make us human. Jesus, as we get to see and hear him in our stories and our tradition, allows us to draw closer to God, shows us what God is like, and invites us to enter into an intimate, trusting relationship that is life-giving.
There’s a word for this relationship in John’s gospel. That word is “abiding”. It’s a word that is first used at Jesus’ own baptism to talk about the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit. “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abided in him.” Jesus was empowered by the Spirit who lived in him; he and the Spirit became one.
In today’s text, the word abide is used for the first time to describe the relationship between Jesus and us. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
Abiding is about as close as it gets in terms of relationship. Jesus will talk a lot more about abiding, especially in chapter 15 of John’s gospel where he uses the image of the vine and the branches. The branches, in order to bear fruit, that is in order to live fully, to do what they were created to do, must stay connected, must abide in the vine. You might say that the branches’ food and drink comes from the vine, so that they may live.
The vine and the branches are a good image of abiding. But you know, we humans, in the flesh as we are, we need more than good images. Sometimes we need something more concrete. Images are great, but we need a sacrament. Now a sacrament, in the traditional way of speaking of the church, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The sacrament that we have been given, which flows directly from today’s gospel, is the Eucharist, or to use another word, Communion. We eat bread, the sacrament of God in the flesh, and we drink wine, remembering Jesus’ words that we are to drink his blood. The bread and the wine are the outward and visible signs that we will soon share together, a sharing that brings us into communion with each other.
And the “inward and spiritual grace” that these signs point to? It is our communion with God through Jesus, God in the flesh. The bread and wine, they go right inside us and become part of who we are.
We abide in him, and he abides in us. That’s the deeper truth towards which Communion points us.
And why? What’s the purpose of all this?
So that we may have life.
Homily: Yr B P20, August 15 2021, Trinity Ottawa
Readings: John 6.51-58
Image by Cottonbro (Pexels)