Text: John 6:35, 41-51
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Forget all the niceties of going to Church, forget all the pretence to respectability, or social standing, forget all that bland, saccharine, fixed-smile goody-ness that exudes from Songs of Praise… what we gather to do this morning is scandalous! Outrageous, obscene and immoral!
Christ is a challenge to norms of society, and his Gospel message subverts and challenges and asks us to be shaken from our complacency into a new relationship with God and with our neighbour. Christ makes this outrageous, obscene and scandalous idea no clear when he invites us to eat of him: the bread of life.
Surely, you say, he can’t mean exactly what he’s saying, and yet Christ is very clear about when he is talking in parables, in metaphor and when he means it. “I am the bread of life. Eat my flesh and live. I give my flesh to the world.”
Jesus declares , ”I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
There is more to life than physical hunger, physical thirst. Eat well for breakfast, and you will still be hungry by sundown. Ever wanting more, ever seeking physical satiation which we know deep down can never be satisfied.
However, when we turn to the two sources of sustenance which transcend the physical and reach into the metaphysical, here is something which has the power to silence all grumbling, the ability to be all sufficient, because it’s physicality is only an outward shell, and inwardly we eat of Christ himself. The two sources are the sacraments of the altar, and God’s holy word embodied in Scripture: both eternal, both immortal, both wrapped in an outer physical form which has been a source of controversy as the body and blood of Christ manifest in bread and wine transformed is resisted by some, and the word of God is wrapped in the culture and context of a far-off, ancient land which makes God’s word harder to hear within its pages.
So, on this holy altar, this sacred table, we meet with Christ in the Mass. Meals are always about connection: think of Christmas Dinner or a birthday party, and at this most sacred meal we connect with the Christ who bids us come, the bread of eternal life who offers himself.
We connect with Christ, and we also connect with each other, and with all Christians before and after us (Peter, James, John, St. Francis, Mother Teresa, even the great, great grandchildren we’ll never meet). Think of the imagery of the wedding banquet, or the great feast of the book of the Revelations to S. John the Divine, where all are welcome and none are turned away.
Early Christianity took the Lord’s Supper so seriously that they were often referred to as cannibals. In Roman documents the threat of this religious sect that practices cannibalism by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their crucified leader produced much persecution. The language is surely graphic because the cross is graphic. Jesus died for me. Jesus is really present in this sacred meal for me. Jesus is forgiving, atoning, and changing everything about life for us.
There is nothing simple about Jesus being the bread of life.
Tony Campolo, a somewhat famous American pastor tells a true story from one of his many trips to speak at conferences. He was in another time zone and couldn’t sleep so he went out at 3am and found a donut shop. In the donut shop was a group of prostitutes who had just finished a night of work. He overheard a girl named Agnes saying that tomorrow was her 39th birthday and then hearing the others make fun of her. She responded by saying that she didn’t want a cake or a party – in fact, she had never really had those before. When they left Tony asked the shop owner if they came in every night at the same time. When he found out they did, he came up with a plan to decorate the donut shop and the shop owner’s wife even baked a cake.
The next night at 3am Agnes came in with her friends and everyone jumped out and screamed surprise and began the happy birthday song. When they went to cut the cake she asked if she could wait – she just wanted to take it home and look at it. When the night was over Tony said a prayer for the girl. The donut shop owner finally realized that Tony was a pastor and asked him what kind of church he ran. Tony said, “I run a church that throws 3am birthday parties for prostitutes.”
Churches should never be recognised for what they stand against (and these days even in the Church of England you can pick some label for what you stand against: women priests, women bishops, gay people, you name it there is bound to be someone on Radio 4 saying outrageous things which diminish the body of Christ), and yet Christ said “come”. Without exclusion. Without exception. Without judgement, but with love. “Come”. “Come and eat of the bread of life”.
This is why the Church should be identified as open, welcoming, inclusive, gender and sexuality blind; because that is the model of Christ, his way, his welcome, his sacrifice. For all.
Scandalous. Outrageous. Offensive.
The Gospel is scandalous, outrageous and challenging. The Gospel is what reaches out and treats prostitutes at 3am like human beings and not like the dregs of society, the Gospel is what challenges our complacency and asks us to be valued by what we can do for others rather than being valued by our income, or social status.
If Jesus is the bread of life, who needs to eat?
If Jesus is bringing eternal life to the world, who needs to live?
So here’s to birthday parties at 3am and here’s to the victory of the cross and the power of the resurrection which transforms the world.
May the parties of God continue to invite, to feed, and to change. Amen