St Bride's: Sermons

Let us feed on Him

Let us feed on Him

Detail from Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by van Eyck

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I find the opening verse of the Gospel reading we've just heard very striking. Jesus said, "He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him".

There was a charge against early Christians of cannibalism. I noticed in my preparation for this sermon that it's one that continues to the present day with a website specifically dedicated to it at 'nobeliefs.com' written by someone describing themselves as an ex-cannibal. There may often have been intentional misunderstanding of course but all this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood might give rise to more genuine questions. When thinking about how Jesus' teaching might originally have been received we should recognise that quite apart from any suggestion of cannibalism, the Torah strictly forbids the drinking of the blood of any creature.

Today's Gospel tells us that the disciples found this a difficult teaching. Jesus asked, "Doth this offend you?" and from what we hear the answer seems mostly to have been a resounding 'Yes', we are told that "many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him".

Now it's easy when something is very familiar to overlook it or take it for granted. This is why artists, playwrights and poets sometimes specifically aim at 'defamiliarisation', challenging us to in some way view the world afresh.

Recently I visited Ghent Cathedral which has a very famous altar piece by Jan Van Eyck known as the Adoration of the Lamb. It's a work that has lots of very fine detail and I'd been staring it for some minutes before one of my friends commented on how odd the central image is, of a lamb, standing on an altar, bleeding from a wound in its chest into a chalice. Perhaps you will have similar works of art that show angels hovering around Christ on the cross catching in chalices the blood that flows from his wounds.

So isn't this all bizarre, distasteful, sick even? I for one have certainly wondered about this in the past. My understand of the Eucharist was more acquired than learnt as I grew up in the church but every now and then something prompts that fresh view. Perhaps the apparent directness of that opening line in today's Gospel does that "he that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him".

So, how might we make sense of this? Well I'm going to suggest we need to remind ourselves of the context of today's Gospel, to recognise that Jesus' teaching was often both inspiring and unsettling at the same time. It divided people but it's worth recognising and learning from the response of the faithful disciples and what the Gospel writers themselves tell us.

A few weeks back now we heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand, the opening passage in the chapter from which today's Gospel is taken. Large crowds followed Jesus and were miraculously fed and they recognised him as "the prophet who is to come in to the world". Keeping in mind how these teachings might originally have been received we might note that this episode mirrors similar miracles in the stories of Moses, when manna from heaven fed the people in the wilderness, and the prophet Elijah when at Gilgal small provisions stretch to satisfy a hundred men. These parallels pointing to Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets.

Very quickly after Jesus' feeding of the five thousand, the people began to grumble. They want more. "Our forefathers ate manna in the desert, he gave them bread to eat," they complain. But Jesus challenges both their understanding of those events and their priorities. It was not Moses but my father that fed the people in the wilderness he says and he warns them "do not labour for the food that perishes but for the food of eternal life which the son of man will give you".

They are confused and ask how they should labour to please God. Jesus says, "Believe in him whom he has sent," and he goes on, "I am the bread of life... the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh" and then as we heard in the opening of the Gospel today "he that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him".

Jesus' teaching was often divisive. It was both profoundly attractive to people but also unsettling and to many repellent. The Gospels tell us that Jesus' teaching requires 'eyes to see and ears to hear'. It has a probing quality and that applies to us as it did to those who listened to him speak at Capernaum.

When many were offended and chose to go their own way Jesus asked the twelve that remain "Will ye go also?" and Simon Peter said "Lord to whom shall we go? Thou hast the word of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that though art that Christ, the Son of the living God".

Now this isn't to suggest that Peter and the other faithful disciples understood Jesus' teaching with any conceptual clarity. The Last Supper hasn't yet happened and it isn't until after the resurrection, on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room at Pentecost that we really have the sense of the disciples having their eyes opened and being transformed by Jesus' teaching and even much later when the Gospels are written and beyond we still have the sense of that effort to make sense of Jesus' teaching. This continues for us today.

What Peter and those other faithful disciples grasped in the passage we have heard this morning was that Jesus' focus was on believing in him and later what they came to realise, and what they have shared with us, is that Christ's victory was won, not as they had expected in some demonstration of divine power, but on a cross, in an act of self-giving, in the breaking of his body and the spilling of his blood. Just as talk of eating flesh and drinking blood is offensive to worldly wisdom, so too the cross, a symbol of humiliation, torture and defeat that becomes glorious in the light of Christ's gift of salvation to those that believe in him.

On that night before he died as he prepared to give himself for us he instructed those disciples to eat and drink in remembrance of him so let us feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.

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