Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
Grace Church, Gt Barrington
51I 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.” 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 forever.”
So here we have another reading about the bread of life. There has been – and will continue to be — a whole series of these readings over the month of August, and while it can get a little tricky, preaching on what is basically one long text about the bread of life week after week, I actually so love the Eucharist that it makes sense to me too. It feels right, in fact, to highlight the life giving power of the Eucharist during the peak of summer, especially here in the Berkshires, where the life and the beauty of God’s greening power is everywhere.
Truth be told, I so love the Eucharist that several years ago I felt the need to come up with a personal prayer to say before receiving it. The desire came upon me all of a sudden, while sitting in a beautiful and empty chapel in a field of sunflowers. I was walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain at the time. Most of the churches along the way were locked, I quickly discovered, and almost all of the handful that were open had strict policies in place about the Eucharistic Table. In pamphlets printed in as many as 10 languages, visiting worshippers, many of them pilgrims along the ancient trail, were told that we were welcome to come to pray, but also that Holy Communion was reserved only for “Catholics of good standing.” This saddened me very much. 10 days of silent walking and prayer and I didn’t receive communion even once. And that lack, I think, that gaping absence, is what birthed in me the desire for some kind of special prayer. So I sat there in that beautiful, empty, sun-filled chapel and waited.
The beginning came fast, and was simple enough: ‘Lord help me always to desire your will.’ But I soon got into difficulties with the second part. “Lord help me always to desire you will…..And grant me the strength to pursue it,” is what came to me first. But after a time, I got to wondering whether I shouldn’t be praying for the weakness to pursue God’s will instead. Strength or weakness – which was it that better disposed me to Christ? Which was it I was looking for? Which was it that I needed in order to at least aim at doing God’s work? I couldn’t figure it out.
For about a year I went back and forth: sometimes praying for one, sometimes praying for the other and always this question lurked. Then, one day, inspiration struck: “Lord, help me always to desire your will,” I prayed suddenly “… And grant me whatever I need to pursue it.” This is the prayer that I pray to this day. And it feels right. It seems to me that we need both strength and weakness to walk in the light of God’s love. Weakness to remember always to turn and turn and turn again to the resuscitating love that is God; and strength to then turn and pass it on to others. Weakness to keep us on our knees, pleading for love and mercy and wisdom, as Solomon prayed in our reading form the Hebrew Bible today, and strength to — well, to do the same…right?
Was it weakness or strength, after all, that allowed Jesus to kneel before his disciples and wash the dirt from their feet before they betrayed him? Was it strength or weakness that kept him impoverished and homeless all his life? Strength or weakness that led him to the cross — and then kept him there?
It’s a hard question to answer, don’t you think, and I still don’t know. Both maybe. Or neither. Maybe it was all just love, which is life so abundant, so entirely unending that it seeks only to give itself away…
We hear a lot from certain kinds of Christians about Jesus being not simply the way to this love that is life, but the ONLY way — and this text is sometimes used to bolster this claim. But that seems to me to be only half the story – which is to say that it seems to me to be wrong. True, Jesus announces that he is the light of the world, but he also says, “You are the light of the world” True he announces “Just as the father has life in himself he has granted the son to have life in himself” (John 5:26) but he also says, right here in our text today: Just as… I live because of the father, so whoever eats me will live …”
It seems he cares less about his uniqueness than sharing all that he has and is, and so giving even his uniqueness away. He let all that power and glory go when he chose to become human after all, and chose instead to become subject to everything we ourselves are subject to – fear, loss, anger, sorrow, failure and even death. God gave up God’s own strength to embrace our weakness, that’s the thing. And by so doing, God takes our supposed weakness and transforms it into strength. How? By giving us himself. All of himself. And how more clearly could he let us know this, how more clearly show us that his desire is for us to take what he is and what he has and make it our own, than to say:
Eat of my very flesh and drink of my very blood because God’s life is in me, and my deepest desire is that that life — my life, our life – be in you too.
I am the living bread that never dies he says. And those who share in that bread, all of them, all of you, become one with me – and also with each other.
So it is that we step out of our more usual binary thinking in which one thing is constantly being pitted against its opposite: strength against weakness, right against wrong, success against failure, rich against poor, and become reborn again into the only truth that is big enough to embrace all of these things at once, which is love. By saying yes to Jesus’ offer – so moving, so complete – to share his very self, we become freed from the muddle of our own confusion and become – for a time – and like him — the light of the world. This is what he is telling us today. And more than anything I believe, this is what he wants: for us, like him, to become love. For us, like him, to become the light of the world, and the salt of the earth. For that is what we are – every one of us and all of us together:
The body of Christ united through his weakness to his strength, which is everlasting, because it is love, pure and simple.
This process of becoming happens slowly for most of us, of course. And bumpily too. We often forget who we are: God’s beloved son, God’s beloved daughter. And we sometimes remember and then quite consciously turn away because it isn’t what we want to hear right then, not really, not when the attractions of the dark are tugging at our sleeves. Occasionally, some of us even curse the one who offers us life. And that too is fine. It is all fine, because it is not our respect, or our well mannered politeness which Christ is seeking, but rather our joining of ourselves to him – even in this outrageous way of eating him so that by taking his life into or own, we may become more and more free to live our own lives in fullness.
It’s what the whole Christian story is about, after all. Resurrection; Christ’s, and our own. And in order to take part in it we need only say yes. Say yes, and in a few moments join us in coming forward and cupping our hands together like the beggars we each of us are, and dare to receive that which your heart most dearly longs for. I don’t know whether you arrived today in weakness or in strength. I don’t know if you come from a place of abundance and joy, or from a place of undercover loss and grief and exhaustion. But in a way – and just for now – it doesn’t really matter. Because however you come and whatever you need: strength, or weakness, or love, or hope, or acceptance, or forgiveness — it is here for you today. He is here for you today. Jesus himself offering himself afresh for you, so that his very godliness – his nature, his essence, his power and his weakness and most of all his love can become yours.
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