1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
A journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Wailing Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she went to check it out. She went to the Wailing Wall and there he was, walking slowly up to the holy site.
She watched him pray, and after about forty-five minutes, when he turned to leave, using a cane and moving very slowly, she approached him for an interview.
“Pardon me, sir, I’m Rebecca Smith from CNN. May I ask you some questions?”
“Sure,” he replied.
“Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wailing Wall and praying?”
“For about sixty years.”
“Sixty years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”
“I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and Muslims.”
“I pray for all the wars and all the hatred to stop.”
“I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults, and to love their fellow man.”
“How do you feel after doing this for sixty years?”
“Like I’m talking to a frigin’ wall!”
Last week I talked about change - as in personal change. And I used the example of dieting and weight loss to illustrate that place in life where we face things about our selves that we want to change and yet struggle to change. I suggested then that participating in the Eucharistic meal, which is Jesus as the Bread of Life, is a change that is easier than you might think.
A better metaphor of this joining of the Body of Christ through the Eucharist would be a swimming pool. It is easy to jump in, even easy to adjust to the cold. It’s staying that’s impossible. We are not fish. We do not live in water. So, the metaphor of the living waters of Baptism gets lost on us. The metaphor of living on the Bread of Life gets lost on us too. Just as much as it was lost on the first century Jews who were the crowd in this story from John.
Today I want to look more at the type of change we face in community. It’s important for each of us to practice self examination, and that’s hard enough, but how do we change as a community? How do we come to better understand the sharing of the Eucharistic meal as a sacrament, as a shared table? For the Eucharist is both. We come together as a community to share a meal so it is a way of enriching our common life of prayer. At the same time the Eucharist is a sacred rite that is full of mystery and meaning that we can never fully understand and so the practice is sacramental for each individual as well as the community as a whole.
In this section of John that we are working through this summer, each character of the story is metaphorical to some extent. I mean, Jesus is truly God incarnate, but getting this concept across to the crowd, of Jesus as bread and wine, as flesh and blood that we eat - well, that’s a really difficult concept for us to get. It was even more difficult for this crowd of Jews to get.
The crowd has a role in this story too. Despite the repeated explanation by Jesus about his identity, the crowd just doesn’t get it. The crowd are very literal in their thinking: given Jesus is the son of Joseph, how can he claim that he came down from heaven? So Jesus repeatedly explains that he is the living bread from heaven, but the crowd just does not get it.
John’s explanation of the Eucharist is puzzling. He doesn’t actually include the institution of the Eucharist in his Gospel. There is no last supper scene. But there are passages that seem manifestly sacramental. This is one of them. The language is shocking: it is explicit. It sounds like cannibalism. Certainly to Jewish ears, this language would have been very problematic. Drinking blood is prohibited for all in the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1-6) as in the blood of mammals that some humans eat. Now he is suggesting something that must have seemed gross. These hearers are understandably confused.
At every step in John’s Gospel, the mistake the crowd makes is to treat language literally. It is important to remember theologians are poets in John. Language is being stretched, pulled, and pushed to capture something about the divine made manifest in the life of Christ. So using words and images that make you think of things with a different perspective is some of the best stuff of scripture - particularly in the Gospel according to John.
Jesus on the cross offers his life for the salvation of humanity. In the Eucharist we receive the divine life shed for us. It is God’s vehicle for healing and hope.
This kind of reminds me of my high school English coursework. When faced with interpreting a poem, I would say, “I don’t get it,” and then, when challenged by the teacher to try, I would start talking and all of a sudden it would make sense. And the teacher would point out that I did in fact, get it.
The thing about scripture as poetry is that you have to live it to get it. Rather than try to figure it out like a math problem, we must live out our calling to become the Body of Christ through our practice of weekly Eucharist. We come together, we sing, we pray, we share the sacrament as a sacred meal and then we are sent forth. In doing these rites, we get it.
I saw a cartoon the other day in which Alice, of Alice in Wonderland, had walked into a contemporary great room full of items with tags on them that said things like iron me, wash me, sort me and feed me. If you remember, Alice was transformed into a girl who was too small for the room and then when she ate and drank certain food and drink, she became too large for the room. Then she had to eat and drink something else to become the right size. The cartoon was funny because it indicated the experience of everything around us potentially changing us. It seems in our lives there are so many demands on us. Bills need paying. Work is demanding - whether it be for a company boss or a to do list brought on by our many commitments. These commitments mean something to us but sometimes they also wear us out.
But to live into the invitation of Jesus to eat and drink these certain elements is, like jumping into the pool of Baptismal waters, refreshing and easy and transforming in ways that otherwise, without Jesus, are impossible. We can’t figure it out or make it form to our wishes. We can only surrender to His love.
In the story by Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory children and their parents learn the hard way that you are what you eat. In the film version, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, bad things happen to greedy little boys and girls based on their overindulgences. Augustus falls into a chocolate river and gets sucked up by a pipe, Veruca is thrown down the rubbish chute, Violet chews herself into a blueberry and Mike teleports himself to a few inches tall.
The Eucharist is nothing like any of that. Dahl’s story is about all those ways we humans seek fulfillment through gluttony and greed. It’s a bit like the old Brothers Grimm stories which had morals that would scare you into good behavior. Or happy endings where good characters got good results from good behavior. Charlie wins the competition because he returns the gifted Everlasting Gobstopper because he and his grandfather get busted for stealing Fizzy-Lifting Drinks. His repentance when he places that piece of candy on the desk of Willy Wonka transforms his relationship with Willie Wonka and so he wins. So, I guess there is a bit of Christian ethics in that story.
Consuming the Eucharistic meal though, is not like anything else. We are transformed through our belief in Jesus as God incarnate and so the rite is our “outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace” of becoming One with our Lord and One with each other.
We had a great conversation about all of this in Lectionary Lunch on Thursday and the question came up about all those theological words like Transubstantiation and Consubstantiation and Real Presence and I found myself talking about these mysteries in the same way I talked about poetry in high school. I really don’t think I have ever been able to interpret the sacraments articulately. But when I started talking, it began to make more sense to me.
I said that whether or not bread and wine are changed substances is not as important to me as whether or not we are changed for consuming them. And then I talked about why we are so solemn around the alter. The Altar Guild knows to act with great reverence when handling the accouterments of chalice and paten and bread and wine and water and they also know to be particularly reverent when handling bread and wine that has been blessed in the Eucharistic prayers.
Some wonder why we do all that. It seems like Hocus Pocus. Like slight of hand. It seems silly to some. Even devout Christians feel that rituals like communion are too Catholic. Like the age old, but untrue belief that Catholics are just going through empty rites with no feeling. Some believe that the only way to transformation is to feel emotional through noisy acts of worship and that’s the only way to get right with God and the sacraments are showy and meaningless.
I think music and common prayer and preaching are all important. But acting with solemnity around the altar is where great meaning is formed. If we believe that Jesus is God incarnate and that his commandments and teachings of Love and Oneness are worth striving toward, then practicing our faith through the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are unavoidable. And if you’re going to do something then do it right. If we don’t act reverently with the sacrament then we cheapen the rite and sell ourselves short.
The greatest gift I have received is the joy of serving communion and praying with strangers. In my hospice and hospital chaplaincy days, I had many transformative experiences. I once encountered a Chinese woman who spoke no English and was apparently psychotic. She was unhinged, shouting and thrashing about and so an overwhelmed staff asked if I would try to talk with her. I speak no Chinese and was timid and had no idea how I could possibly make a difference. But I asked if she wanted to pray and in order to get across what I was offering I held my hands in the universal prayer pose. The woman quietened and held her hands the same way. I bowed my head. She did the same. I began the Lord’s prayer and she prayed it with me. Every word. In English! The bridge of communication was built through part of the sacrament.
We too can build bridges. We can be transformed and go out into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. We can then change the world. But first we have to decide if we believe and then we have to decide if we’re willing to change. Change on the inside. Change as a community. Otherwise, we’re just talking to a frigin’ wall.