Molong cloudset, NSW 2011

Chomping in Church

Week of Sunday August 16
Gospel: John 6:51-58

 

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.' 52The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?' 53So 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. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This 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 for ever.'

When I was a theological student I was invited to train for a state hockey tournament, which was quite a compliment. The problem was they held practice early on Sunday mornings. I decided to go, and "pick up a church service" on the way back to the city. So, wet footed and sweaty, I pulled into a hills church at five to eleven.

We were students, with a baby. We had an old, dodgy car. My tracksuit was a sloppy joe, and a pair of old work trousers, with the bottoms slit up the hems. As I pulled on my jumper and smoothed out my sweaty hair, I saw I had pulled into a car park filled with clean, late model cars. Everyone was dressed in Sunday best as they crossed the car park. Even the six year old boys wore suits. The ladies handing out hymn books in the porch pressed back against the walls as I passed into the church.

God has an hilarious sense of humour. The sermon that day, was about how we do not welcome people who are different from us! It was well preached. I sat there, slowly cooling and drying off, and appreciating the irony. But at the end of the service, when I stood up, everyone seemed to be facing away from the centre aisle, talking to someone else. So I left my pew, where I had sat alone, discomforted the people at the door again, and went home.

I was not too bothered by this. After all, I imagine I looked, as my Mum would say, like the wreck of the Hesperus, and probably didn't smell much better. They did well to let me in the door! What really offended me was the celebration of Communion.

There was a large, fresh loaf on the Communion table. Real bread. When it came to the time of The Fraction, the pastor lifted the lid off! The loaf had been pre-sliced across the top. He didn't even lift the loaf up. He took pieces of bread out of the loaf like he was serving from casserole dish. At the end of the Communion, in what was obviously the common practice, he neatly replaced the lid!

I've always felt the inability to relate to a visitor after such a sermon, was related to that sanitised Eucharist.

A comment by John Petty on this week's gospel reminded me of this incident. John points out the other John's common technique, where Jesus is misunderstood by his listeners. "The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." says Jesus. And the people "then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'" Like Nicodemus, he of how can a man enter his mother's womb and be reborn fame, they misunderstood what Jesus was on about. John Petty points out, that whereas Jesus directed Nicodemus to the "higher" meaning of his words, here he becomes even more literal.

As Petty explains, eating "flesh" as opposed to properly butchered and prepared meat, was a scandalous thing, and forbidden. Drinking blood was as bad, or worse. "You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood." Genesis 9:4. "You shall not eat...any blood." Leviticus 3:17. "You shall not eat flesh and drink blood." Ezekial (39:17).

So Jesus has scandalised people by talking about eating flesh and drinking blood. But being misunderstood, he did not then go on to "lift" them up to the "higher" meaning. He made the statement even more offensive.

"Whoever eats of this bread..." uses a word for eats which is functional, but not that descriptive. We'd say, "He ate his lunch..." However, to be more descriptive, we would say "He picked at his lunch..." or "He wolfed down his lunch..."

Jesus says, "If you don't eat... and then instead of "eat" use a different word, four times in the following verses. It has the sense of chewing, of a deliberate mastication, perhaps. John Petty suggests "chomping." I can almost hear Mary telling Jesus, "Eat with your mouth shut."

Eucharist, and John 6 is indisputably about Eucharist, is not meant to be tidy. It is not meant to be sanitised. It is meant to be chewed. Inevitably, the Eucharist is a symbol, but as Mr Beaver might say, it is not a tame symbol.

On Sunday at Greenacres, I'm bringing the breadmaker. (Alert to Dennis: You will find the minister asleep on the couch in the Op Shop, again.) The bread will be ready as we begin the service. We will smell it cooking.

Communion will not be too dignified. We will have to shake the baking pail vigorously to un-stick the loaf, and it will tumble out onto the Communion table. It will be warm like flesh, and still steam gently, as I tear it open and we feast on it. There will be crumbs.

Bread is solid. You can feel it in your hands. You can taste it. It is not ephemeral. Eucharist bread is real.

At the beginning of 1 John it says

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life- this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us- we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

Yes, he is more than bread. The bread is a symbol. But bread is solid. We chew on it.

I rode through the hills in the fog this morning, watching car lights materialise out of the grey. I couldn't see more than a hundred yards or so... but there was nothing to touch. The fog seems without substance. Jesus is not some foggy, ungraspable idea. He is bread, solid, touchable, eatable.

Eucharist is presented in John as a way of entering that deeper, richer aspect of life we call eternal. I'd like to quote Bill Loader on this:

...the eucharist is clearly being understood as a means of opening oneself to this life. It would be a mistake, however, to isolate it as though it were the only means and especially to isolate its elements as having a power which exists independently of the Son and are somehow at our disposal, like medicine.

It is not magic. Eucharist is not only inseparable from the Son, it is inseparable from the church, and corporate worship. Part of what makes Eucharist "work" is that we eat and live together. Bill goes on to say

There is also a sense in which if we cannot connect the motif of Jesus, the bread of life, to contemporary issues of poverty and hunger, something is missing.

Sometimes, when a person is away from church, I take the communion bread, and send it home with their family. The bread leaves the church, and is a real symbol in the world. It should leave in us, too... we have fed on this. We are what we eat. We have become bread. We are to be bread to the world... real, untidy, bread.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Tom Poelker 21-08-2012
One liturgical problem is that we have built such a structure around the Eucharist that we have lost track of the meal. We need to move the non-meal elements out of the Liturgy of the Eucharist and reduce the total number of words -- that liturgy is already over. We need to be able to clearly see the simple structure of taking, giving thanks, sharing, and consuming the bread and wine which Jesus has made His body and blood. This should be the conclusion of the service. After all have eaten, no more words except the sending/mission to go and live the good news that God is among us and all are our neighbors. Let us bring up the bottle of wine from the shop and pour that into the communal cup without taking it out of the ordinary first by placing it in some special church vessel. Let us bake the bread as people are arriving and wrap it in plastic or foil or cloth and bring it through the congregation that way before putting it on its ceremonial plate, certainly not hidden in a covered dish or bowl. Let the communion take the time it takes as one holds the plate and the communion ministers tear off one piece for each person. This is not the time for efficiency but for a communal experience. Let us all sing together as we all gather around the table together to eat from one loaf and drink from one cup. If the congregation is so large that this seems awkward to some, then maybe the congregation for each service needs to be smaller. Is there any message we have missed in Jesus telling us to share a cup, not a jug? Can we form a real, interpersonal, supportive community if we are too many for all to get a sip from the contents of one cup?
Andrew 25-08-2012
Yes!

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