Series: “Taste and See”
#5: “We Are What We Eat”
John 6:47-56 and 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 (NLT)
Today, we have come to the final Sunday in our series on the Lord Supper, the Banquet of God’s Grace spread before us. Throughout this series, I hope you have begun to experience Holy Communion as far more than just a ritual of remembrance, something rote that has little impact on your life. I trust that, by now you are beginning to get an inkling of the transformative power of the sacrament – that as we break the bread and share the cup together each one of us is experiencing the presence of Christ – that we are finding that, as we feed on Christ each Sunday, we are strengthened in our faith and nourished for our journey.
Throughout this series, we have gained a richer understanding of Holy Communion. The first week we learned that remembrance is an action verb – that as we reenact that Last Supper, we are doing more than just recalling an event in ancient history, we are participating in it and are changed by the experience. The second week, we were reminded that, while Holy Communion is based on the meal Jesus shared with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion, it also calls to mind the Easter supper on the road to Emmaus where the risen Christ was “known in the breaking of the bread.” Two weeks ago, we were reminded how, in the great banquet in the Kingdom of God, God will go out of his way to welcome anyone and everyone who will respond to the invitation to sit at his table. Then last week, we were reminded of the bounty of God’s grace that is available to us all, and how God multiplies His love through us as we share spiritual “Bread” with those who are starving for God.
Now, as we come to the close of our series on Holy Communion, I’d like for us to reflect on why it is that Jesus commands us to eat his body and drink his blood when we share in the bread and wine of communion. As we read in our scripture for today, Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you.” If you’re like most people, that verse makes you cringe – in fact, it’s sort of grotesque to imagine, it sounds as if Christians are called to be cannibalistic. We know that isn’t true – in our tradition we don’t believe that the bread and wine change substance – that they gorging on are actually the physical body and blood of Christ. And yet, Jesus is very clear that unless we feed on him, we cannot know eternal life: He says plainly, “Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks by blood remains in me and I in him.” We are to eat Jesus. So, what happens to us when we eat the bread and wine of Holy Communion? To understand that, we have to reflect on what it means to eat, and what it means to go hungry.
Eating is essential to life. It is something we take for granted, until we don’t have enough food to eat. And then, eating becomes all we can think about. But few of us know anything about that.
You and I live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth where so much food spoils in our refrigerators, in our fields, and on our grocery store shelves, that it would be enough to feed the entire population of some third world countries. While it is true that there are some people in our own nation who go hungry at night, the vast majority of us, not only have access to plenty of food, we struggle with ways to prevent ourselves from over-eating. For us, the problem is not “famine” but “obesity.” We ingest too much food – and, too much of the wrong types of food.
You see, just because we have available to us a veritable cornucopia of foods doesn’t mean that we eat well. In America, our “malnutrition” is self-imposed.
Just consider most American families. We have to make certain that all of us take vitamin supplements every day because we don’t eat a very balanced diet. The majority of families today have schedules that are so crowded that there often is no time to prepare a balanced healthy meal, so we tend to eat on the go. We will drive-thru and grab a burger and fries, or get take-out. Or sometimes we will just settle for a handful of cookies or crackers, and call it supper.
It’s not surprising, then, that more and more people are facing health problems. The increase in heart disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and many other ailments have been linked to poor diet. It seems that the old maxim may be truer than we want to admit: “You are what you eat.”
If that is true, then we shouldn’t be surprised that, when God wanted to come up with a way to illustrate what it means to be a follower of Jesus, he used a meal to do it. If “we are what we eat,” then it is of utmost importance what we eat, because that will determine our health and vitality.
All human beings need to eat, both physically and spiritually. And just as we can fill our stomachs with junk food and empty calories that do our body little good (and may do them harm), so we often seek out spiritual junk food that leaves us spiritually unsatisfied and malnourished.
Our culture today is a smorgasbord of philosophies, cults, worldviews, and religions that Americans freely sample, hoping they will satisfy – only to discover that they still have that gnawing hunger for meaning and purpose in their lives. You see, “they are what they eat” – they are gorging on empty spiritual calories that cannot satisfy. They don’t realize it, but they long for the banquet table of God – the only food that can fill their emptiness and give them life.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the story of a man and his two sons. You probably know it, The Parable of the Prodigal Son. If you’ll recall, in the story, the younger son takes his inheritance and sets off into “the far country” to “live it up” on his own, and soon discovers that he has made a terrible mistake. It’s interesting that in the story, there are two references to “eating” that I think beautifully illustrate the vast difference between the junk food of the world, and the spiritual banquet that God offers. The Prodigal Son follows the ways of the world, squanders his inheritance, and ends up trying to survive eating pig slop. But then he remembers the dinner table back home at his father’s house, a feast overflowing with wonderful things to eat. And so, he comes home looking for leftovers, but the father will not hear of it – he kills the fatted calf and throws party, because his lost son is home again.
Our scriptures for this morning also tell us that it makes a huge difference how we go about trying to satisfy the spiritual hunger we all feel. We can eat the pig slop the world offers, or we can share in the banquet of grace that God provides. The diet which the world offers is unsatisfying and leads to death. The food that God provides brings fulfillment and eternal life.
As Jesus said in John’s Gospel, “I am the Bread of Life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. Anyone who eats the bread from heaven . . . will live forever.” Or, he could have simply said, “You are what you eat, so feed on me.”
To say “we are what we eat” in relation to the Lord’s Supper means that something transformative happens when we partake in Holy Communion – we are somehow changed. Eating the body and blood of Jesus together brings about two transformations: it changes us individually, and it changes us corporately.
First, let’s see how eating Jesus’ body and blood changes us individually:
When Jesus says, “this is my body” and “this is my blood,” the early Christians would not have been grossed out and sickened at the thought. They knew Jesus wasn’t speaking literally. He was drawing upon concepts the ancients were very familiar with.
In all ancient religions, animals were sacrificed to their gods as part of their worship. Typically, in pagan cults, the entire animal was dedicated and offered, but only a portion of it would be burned up on the altar. Portions would be given to the priests as their share and to provide them meat to eat. And a portion would be given to the worshiper to consume at a feast to be shared in the god’s honor. It was believed that, when an animal was sacrificed to a god, that god’s spirit resided with the animal, so that anyone who ate the flesh of the sacrifice would actually be taking into their body the spirit and strength of the god. They literally became what they ate – or so they believed.
This is precisely what Paul is giving advice about in First Corinthians, in the sections that come before and after our text this morning. The issue was whether or not a Christian could eat meat that had been sacrificed to one of the pagan gods. If you know that text, you remember that Paul said it wasn’t tainted meat, since the god to which it was offered didn’t exist. But he also said that, if it bothered anyone in the church, everyone should refrain from eating that meat, so not to cause a fellow believer to stumble in his or her faith.
So it’s clear that the early followers of Jesus would have understood the implications of what Jesus was saying when he said they must “eat his flesh.” They must “feed” on him to receive his spirit and his strength.
But, what about Jesus’ instruction to “drink my blood?” To us, that sounds ghoulish, as if we are supposed to become vampires. But any Jew who heard this allusion to blood would have understood the power of that command.
In the Old Testament, Jews were forbidden to drink blood. When animals were slaughtered, they took great care to make certain that all the blood was drained from the carcass before it was eaten. That is because they believed that blood represented life, and that life was given by God – so that meant that blood was sacred. In the temple, when sacrifices were offered, the blood ran freely from the place of sacrifice, and some was splattered in the holy of holies. Why? – because the blood was sacred and was the giver of life.
So, when Jesus commanded that we must drink his blood, he was saying that this most sacred life-giving blood that belongs to God himself, poured out on the cross of Calvary would convey life to all who would receive it. As we sing sometimes, “There is power, power, wonderworking power in the blood of the Lamb.” Again, we are what we eat.
So, when you and I receive the body and blood of Christ, symbolized by the bread and wine of Holy Communion, something miraculous happens: our lives are transformed. In a mysterious way we can’t quite explain, the spirit of Jesus that is present as we eat the bread comes to dwell within us; and the life-giving power of Christ present in the wine that we drink fills us with new and everlasting life. Our lives are changed!
As Paul expressed it in our text from First Corinthians: “When we bless the cup at the Lord’s Table, aren’t we sharing in the blood of Christ? And when we break the bread, aren’t we sharing in the body of Christ?” When we do it by faith, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”
So, sharing in the body of Christ changes us individually. But an even more amazing transformation happens to those of us who share together in Holy Communion – we are transformed from individual believers partaking of the body of Christ, into the Body of Christ for the world today.
Something incarnational happens in Holy Communion. One of the great theological teachings of the Christian faith is the Doctrine of the Incarnation. The Doctrine of Incarnation (which literally means “enfleshment”) is the belief we emphasize every Advent and Christmas – that God himself chose to enter the world as a human baby, to live life as a man teaching us how we should live in relationship with God, and to die our death so that we might be have everlasting life. God took on a human body, the body of Christ.
We all are familiar with that “incarnation.” But there is another incarnation that happens every time we share in the Lord’s Supper. As we receive the body of Christ, Christ becomes incarnate in us, not just individually, but corporately. That’s why Paul speaks in several places of the church being “a body with many members” with Christ as the head. As he has written in 1 Cor. 12:27 “You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
When you and I partake of the body of Christ through the sacrament, we are transformed into Christ’s Body in the world – Jesus becomes incarnate in us – Jesus’ mission and ministry in the world becomes our mission and ministry. The Kingdom he came to declare is ours to proclaim and to strive for – we become the hands and feet and mouth of Jesus, his ambassadors of love and grace.
In the 16th century, Teresa of Avila beautifully expressed how, in Holy Communion, Christ becomes incarnate in you and me, his Body in the world. She wrote:
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
with compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
Yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes,
You are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
with compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Yes, when it comes to the broken body and shed blood of the Lord’s Supper, as we feast on the body of Christ, “we BECOME what we eat.”
So, we have concluded our series on Holy Communion. But the truth is – we have scarcely even begun to scratch the surface of the Lord’s Supper, or to plumb the depths of its significance. In truth, we will never understand all that this sacrament means – it is a holy mystery. That’s the nature of a sacrament – it conveys meaning and the power of God’s grace, even when we can’t explain it. All we can do is offer God prayers of thanksgiving and praise that we can encounter his presence whenever we come to the Table by faith, and there “taste and see that the Lord is good,” indeed!