Christ’s Living Meal

Jay’s sermon from Sunday, August 16

John 6:51-58

Jesus said, 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.” 52 The Judeans then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “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. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Congregations have different practices when it comes to the age at which one is invited to receive the bread and wine and communion. Here at Holy Trinity, we approach the question individually with families. We welcome all children who want to receive when their parents believe they are ready for it. Some families wait until confirmation, as was the practice in my church growing up. Some begin much sooner—even as soon as children can first stretch out their hands to take the gift of bread, which is for them, as for us, the real presence of Christ.

Children bring joy to our gathering around the table here at church, just as they do for any family meal. While kneeling at the rail, kids may look up at me earnestly with a piously outstretched hand…or they might act a little silly and suddenly get the giggles, something that can happen to any of us at church. Very often, our Holy Trinity children demonstrate that they are proud to be included in what they can so easily perceive to be a very important act of the church. From time to time, I’ve witnessed a child of 4 or 5 break off a piece of their bread and share it with a younger sibling. How can something so important not be shared?

If a child starts receiving communion in the early school years, I like to meet with them first to talk about the sacrament and prepare for the big day of receiving it the first time. I usually begin by asking them to describe for me a special meal that they have recently shared with people whom they love. I ask them to draw a picture of that meal, and then I watch them as they carefully reconstruct on paper dining room and kitchen tables, with stick figures of moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, and even siblings. Memories easily come into their heads, and they describe for me birthdays, holidays, or even just last night’s supper. Sharing special meals with people we love is a great starting point in talking about communion because each one of us knows well what that means. Each one of us needs to share such meals often.

When I went to the clinic with my own two daughters last week for their regular well-child visit, one of the questions their physician asked was “Do you share family meals together at home at least three nights per week?” She asked that because we have discovered as a society how important eating meals together is for a child’s health and well-being. She asked about the food, too—“how many servings of fruits and vegetables each day?” But just as important as the food’s nutritional value for a child’s overall health is the experience at the table, shared with people they love.

We know that there are unhealthy tables, too. There are tables set with violence or neglect, which are seriously harmful for the children who seek to be nourished there. There are young people who eat from school cafeteria trays all alone in hallways or restrooms, out of fear of the bullies who are gathered around other tables or the worry that there simply won’t be a place for them at any table. Here again, the food children eat matters very little in comparison to everything else that they take into themselves at mealtime—body, mind, and soul.

In all of these ways, meals are crucial for the spiritual health of adults, too. This is part of the reason why meals and feasts play such a central role in the imagery of our scriptures—both the Old Testament and New Testament. Certainly, these texts arise out of communities for whom actual, physical food was not easy to come by, and where bread made up at least 50% of a person’s regular diet. Tables filled with a variety of dishes were surely a common fantasy. But meals then, as now, were still about much more than the food. The culture in which Jesus lived was a lot like a middle school cafeteria, where who is sitting around the table with you has profound significance. One biblical scholar (John Dominic Crossan) has said that a meal table in Jesus’ culture was “a miniature map of society’s vertical discriminations and lateral separations.” In other words, all you had to do was take a look at where people sat at a table to see where they stood in society.

For something so common to human life as eating, it sure is complex. And into all of this complexity and anxiety, Jesus speaks a promise: “At the table of life, I will be your host and your bread.”

It is laid out before us: a meal where we can be nourished with what we most need, where we can be assured that we are beloved children of God worthy of all of God’s great gifts, where we can receive forgiveness offered freely no matter what burdens we’ve been carrying around with us, where we can be set free to be our true and authentic selves in communion with other people and all that God has made. It is a meal of mystery and promise and self-giving love that has been offered to us without cost, and a place where everyone is welcome. Today we have come to gather around Christ’s table and to be fed.

The really amazing thing is that these gifts of Christ are offered to us each and every day to feed and nourish us, not just on Sunday mornings. Christ continually invites us to a table of abundant grace, where we receive love and freedom. The challenge for us is that we may quite often listen and respond to other invitations: “Come to the table of resentment and anger, bitterness and envy. Come share in a meal of stressed-out competition and rivalry, where you can earn your place at the top if you learn to do enough, if you learn to be enough. Come and be fed by anxiety and the scarcity-driven frenzy of life. There is a cost, yes, but that makes the meal even more delicious.”

We try to respond to both invitations. We want the free, healthy, whole-grain bread of life, while also buying a little of the junk food of foolishness, too. We want to live freely and faithfully, while also keeping up with the ways of the world, to live well, to accommodate, collude, compete. And trying to juggle our responses to these two very different calls can be exhausting. In fact, it cannot work. Responding to Christ’s invitation to feast demands saying no to some other, very attractive invitations. It means recognizing the other calls of the world as invitations to meaningless, junk-food frenzy and participating instead in what really satisfies.*

Two weeks ago, Holy Trinity participated in the open streets day on Lake Street. The city had blocked off the road to car traffic, and a stream of people walked and biked past our church all afternoon. We had decided to set up a table there on Lake Street and hand out free sweet corn to passersby. It was originally just a way of supporting local farmers, but then we also decided the corn was also in celebration of our church’s ministry of lending an ear to the neighborhood for over 100 years. In any case, we handed out 1200 ears of corn that day, and our neighbors were delighted by it. One by one, we caught people by surprise with our offer, and many couldn’t believe it was free. Someone took a picture and tweeted it out on social media, saying, “The Lutherans are giving out corn!” You wouldn’t believe the pile of corn we had out there, and yet it was gone in just a few hours.

I’ll admit that I almost didn’t take part in open streets and the great corn giveaway two weeks ago. I had just returned from family camp. I was tired, and there were tasks to get done at home, as there always are. But I am sure glad I did go. In the span of just a couple of hours, I talked with friends from Holy Trinity and friends from the neighborhood, residents of the apartments and relatives of residents, our state representative, business owners, neighborhood activists, and many strangers. The life experiences and life concerns varied greatly among them. Someone engaged me in a theological discussion; someone wanted to talk about our church’s work with payday lending; someone told me about a troubled relationship with his son; someone just wanted to sit in the shade with me for a while. And what I found as I handed out corn and talked with people on the street is that I was being fed as much as anyone that day. I was getting a taste of God’s good, wide-open kingdom. It turns out, I was a guest at a very unique banquet.

A meal like that changes your perspective. It makes a difference for how you go about the rest of the day, even the rest of the week.

Christ invites you today to be fed and changed by a living meal.

*With thanks, as usual, to Dr. Walter Brueggemann, including his 1997 sermon, “Sabbaticals for Rats?”