Sara Miles • St Gregory of Nyssa
Sermon 7:30PM • 24 August 2003
…Jesus said, Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person. As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me…..After hearing this, many of his followers said‚This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it? Jesus was aware that his followers were complaining about it and said, Does this disturb you?…Many of his disciples went away and accompanied him no more. Jesus said, What about you, do you want to go away too? Simon Peter answered, Lord, to whom shall we go?
Eat my flesh and drink my blood.
Does this disturb you?
What about you, do you want to go away too?
Yes, I want to go away, fast. Because this disturbing demand of Jesus, that we eat him and become him, is just so intolerable, so invasive, so shocking I can’t accept it, want to go away.
But to whom shall I go?
I plan to talk about children a little bit tonight. But not their cuteness or their niceness or anything sweet or pastel. I want to talk about children as the gift of life. That is, about sex and pain and blood and eating.
And no, I’m not going to tell you amusing stories about what it’s like to be a mother. (It’s pretty wild.) You may not have kids, so what I’m going to tell you, remind you of, is what it’s like to be one. Because we all are.
You are somebody’s child. Think about this. You grew inside a woman, you came out of her, you ate her. You ate her body, literally, to live. You became her and she became you. She’s in you in ways that ––if you’re like me—can still feel as elemental and violent as the moment when you were pushed out from between her legs in a great rush of blood.
This is intolerable.
You are somebody’s child.. A man helped make you, in ways that are ridiculously mysterious and absolutely powerful. He went inside somebody else’s body and became a part of you. The shape of your hands, the way you clear your throat, the color of your eyes—he lives in you, literally in the code that turned on each cell of your being, and in your spirit.
He became you, and you became him, in ways seen and unseen, that will follow you all the years of your life.
This is intolerable.
We can read tonight’s Gospel story as being about the ways Jesus’ disciples and the people gathered at Capernaum were shocked by his breach of religious convention There certainly was enough in Jesus’ claim to set the teeth of the faithful, and their priests, on edge: who was this man daring to come into the synagogue and use the language of blood and sacrifice? How dare he talk to them about their ancestors, who ate manna in the wilderness and died there? What was he doing, telling them to be cannibals? Some of this story is about the ways God, through Christ, turned religion on its head. And the idea that God may still, through Christ, be doing that today is certainly hard for us to take.
But I think what we really find intolerable in this story is the literal truth. God’s truth, that Jesus tells us without flinching. Without pastels. That we were made out of flesh, and are also suffused with a huge longing spirit we can’t entirely understand. That we each are someone’s child–– a new body made by other bodies. That we hunger to eat our parents, that we do eat them, that we are eaten ourselves, that our bodies help make new people. That we are penetrated by and inside each other, irrevocably and indivisibly connected to each other, that we live through each other’s flesh.
Do you want to go away, now, too? Yes.
But to whom shall we go? There is nowhere in Heaven or Earth to hide from the intolerable fact of our own bodies and blood connected so intimately to others; nowhere to escape the vivid reality of our unseen spirits, nowhere God is not. God is in our mouths, our stomachs, our flesh, in all the blazing facts of creation.
I took communion for the first time in my life about five years ago. But that’s backwards. The truth is, communion took me.
I had no intention at all of doing this. I grew up without ever going to church. I never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian—or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut.
I walked in here at eight o’clock one morning because my wife, who also had no intention of joining a church, just wanted somewhere quiet to sit and pray. We came here and sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all peaceful and sort of interesting, and then we started moving up to the Table. And then we gathered around it. And there was more singing and standing, and then someone was putting a piece of fresh bread in my hands, saying, “the body of Christ,” and then giving me a cup saying, “the blood of Christ,” and then something outrageous and disturbing and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.
It was intolerable. I could not accept it. But I was so hungry I kept coming back. This went on for a while–– me taking the bread and crying and drinking the cup and crying. I started to read the Bible. I sat by myself a lot and mused about God. I thought I got control of myself and thought I understood things. I started to feel pretty sanctified and pleased about where this little adventure of mine was headed until, a year or so later, I began to serve as a deacon.
So I started to deacon. And then I had to pass the body of Christ to you, the body of Christ. Well, that was to lead to my baptism. Which is another story. And to the setting up of St Gregory’s food pantry, which is another story, though maybe it’s really the same one.
But right away it disturbed my nice, pastel plan for my religious future. What happened once I started distributing communion was the truly disturbing, dreadful realization about Christianity: you can’t be a Christian by yourself.
And while you can work quite hard to find the religious community, the denomination, the particular church where you feel comfortable, and while you can make a real effort to impose rules that keep the wrong kind of people out of your cozy tradition, sooner or later you’re going to have the inescapable reality of your connection to other people, without exception, right up in your face.
You are going to be touching Christ’s body through the angry old guy with the clenched jaw. Looking into Christ’s eyes, through the face of the self-satisfied yuppie with the sports car. Listening to Christ’s voice, through the middle-aged woman with the annoying nasal whine. You are not going to get to sit by yourself and think loftily about how much God loves you in particular. You are not going to get to have dinner, eternally, with people just like you. You are going to get communion, whether you want it or not, with people you didn’t choose. People you don’t necessarily like. Screwed-up people, with bodies. The people God chose for you.
Sort of like the way God chose your parents.
These are hard words, Jesus’ followers say, and they’re right. Each of us has to be born, eat, drink, bleed, and die in the most intimate communion with strangers – our mothers, our fathers, the boring, infuriating, unacceptable, intolerable people around us. Like you, Christ is in them, and they in him. Like you, they are becoming God.
Each of us on Earth has to eat, drink, bleed and live in communion with other people’s bodies, and with their souls. And with God, whom we didn’t choose. Who chose us.
So, are you ready for some bread and wine now? Come, let us draw eternal life