Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15B] - August 16, 2009 (John 6:51-58)

© Peter Menzel from the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

After four consecutive weeks of readings from the sixth chapter of John and being reminded that Jesus is the Bread of Life, I feel as though we are never going to get the chance to digest anything else. At this point it just seems like bread, bread, and more bread.

It reminds me of my astonishment years ago at my young cousin, Amanda, when she was barely 18 months old, and we went to visit her family in Germany. In restaurant after restaurant, meal after meal, Amanda used her infant grasp of vocabulary to order the same thing, over and over: bread and butter. Occasionally she would branch out and try something small from someone’s plate, but for the majority of that trip she seemed to subsist on nothing but bread—mind you it was good, hearty, fresh-baked European bread—but bread nonetheless. Bread, bread and more bread. I had never seen anything like it, and wondered whether her health would be the worse for it.

And yet, to our unpleasant surprise, we find out that this is how so much of the world survives. As a Christmas gift this past year I received a large coffee-table cookbook entitled Hungry Planet: How the World Eats, which is the result of a huge project by a husband and wife team of photojournalists who wanted to create a culinary atlas of the world at a time when the world’s food habits are changing dramatically. To do this, the authors ate dinners with 30 families in 24 different countries and then documented it. Each family in the book is photographed in their kitchen (or whatever room or fire-pit that happens to function as their kitchen) surrounded by all the food they would typically consume in one week. Each family also shares one of their typical family recipes. I introduce to you the Aboubakar family of the Breidjing refugee camp in Chad, population 30,000: In a typical week, over 90% of the Aboubakar’s diet by weight comes from grains and other starchy foods that are rationed out by various aid organizations. Here is the recipe that the mother, D’jimia offers for us to cook in our own homes. Aiysh, it is called; “bread” in Arabic.
• Approximately one pound of millet flour
• 2 quarts of water
• A dab of vegetable oil
Bring water to boil in a pot.
Add millet flour in small amounts until it begins to thicken and bubble.
Stir constantly, pulling mixture toward you in the pot until it holds together in a gelatinous mass.
Press mixture into an oiled bowl to make round shape. Invert onto plate or tray.

Maybe I’ll cook it for you some time if you come over, since I have the recipe.

The Aboubakars eat aiysh two times a day, most of the time by itself. They, like the thousands of others in refugee camps and food-poor areas across this hungry planet, subsist on something like aiysh not because it’s the only thing on the menu they like, but because there simply is nothing else to eat. And one must only look at the rounded bellies and sunken eyes of malnutrition to know that bread isn’t really enough. Funny thing, then, that aiysh is also an Arabic word for “life.”

So, you can imagine my wonderment when I hear Jesus say over and over again that he is the bread of life who is come down from heaven. Images of pots of bubbling, gelatinous aiysh and a rosy-cheeked infant clutching buttery toast in each hand pop into my head as Jesus makes the further outlandish claims that his flesh—no less—is true bread and his blood is true drink.

And that he gives this bread for the life of the world.

And that the one who eats it will never be hungry.

And that the one who eats it will live forever.

Like the disciples and the Jewish leaders who have followed him to hear more about the bread that was multiplied for the thousands, I am drawn in to dispute: Surely Jesus does not mean his body? How can he be bread and drink? Will he suffice? Are we missing something in the translation?

And yet it seems we do understand him correctly, for the church’s practice from the very beginning included at the center of its own life this exact practice of eating and drinking elements which give eternal life. Justin Martyr, a Christian leader writes in the second century something about Holy Communion that we all could recognize, explaining that those who worship God in Christ “do not receive these things as common bread and common drink, but as Jesus Christ our Savior who became incarnate by God’s word and took flesh and blood for our salvation" (1 Apology, 65).

Just as bread is an essential menu item for most of the world, Jesus’ own body and blood is a staple for the community of the baptized. A photograph of them around their supper table with their rations for one week would depict them with nothing but a small plate of what looks like pita bread and a cup of what looks to be wine. They eat it and are rejuvenated. They experience the joyous rebirth of their baptism once again. No malnutrition to speak of here. It is suffices.

For the incredulous religious leaders who argue with Jesus, the only workable comparison they have is manna, the flaky stuff that fell from heaven to feed their ancestors in the wilderness as they made their way to the Promised Land. They remember it as the unlikeliest type of sustenance, appearing mysteriously before the Israelites each morning and only lasting long enough to be consumed on the day it was gathered. Jesus relates that he, too, has been mysteriously granted by God from heaven above, his own body and blood as life for the world to gather and eat and drink.

But, as Jesus points out, there is one big point where the comparison to manna breaks down: they ate it and eventually they died. The manna sustained them for their life on earth, but no further. On the other hand, Jesus’ body and blood—the true food and true drink—offers eternal life. Those who eat of it, he says, live forever. It is an exciting proposition, to live forever. And, if we take the Bread of Life at his word, it is here—on our supper table—for the taking.

There was a provocative movie that came out in the mid-1980’s called “Cocoon.” Directed by Ron Howard, it was a science-fiction film that tells the story of a group of senior citizens who happen accidentally upon a swimming pool that magically restores them to youthful vigor. As it turns out, the pool is storing the cocoons of some aliens who are about to be transported back to their home planet. When the aging senior citizens swim in it, the life-force from the alien cocoons makes them feel young and healthy again. In fact, it even reverses the effects of one man’s cancer. At the end of the movie, the aliens end up offering the extra places on their space ship to whomever wants to come. If they go, the humans will climb aboard, never to return to earth, but also never to face death or disease because they will live forever.

The suspense of the movie hangs not on what happens with the alien cocoons in the swimming pool or whether they return safely, but how many—if any—humans beings will be on that spaceship when it flies away that final night. The promise of eternal life is hard to turn down, even when there are sacrifices.

Yet, the eternal life promised in eating Jesus’ own body is not that storybook kind of eternal life that forestalls death or that takes us to a special place where our bodies are returned to youthful vitality. Rather, this eternal life takes us beyond death, to that last day when he rules all in all. When we eat of this meal, we are taking part in the one flesh in the history of creation that has already succumbed to the power of death and the, by the power of love, lives beyond it. It may, at times, sound a little science-fictionlike, but here’s the deal: at Holy Communion, our very bodies become united on a cell-by-cell level with that life that has conquered death. His flesh and his blood are already eternal, because he has already been raised.

Yes, he has been raised, and the eternal life to which that points is free from sin, filled with forgiveness, and replete with love that surrounds us forever. And as we partake of him, we partake in the very source of the Divine, since, as Jesus reminds us, he himself has come from the Father. This is not simply a ritual of eating and drinking, but it is a simple act of partaking in that which assures something vitally important: that our faith is not something that just rumbles around in our heads, confined to the ways we think about people or feel about the world, but becomes rather a real, physical life that we live, a connection to the One whose body really hung on the cross for us.

Just as the family of D’jimia Aboubakar grab for her plate of aiysh to get them through another day in the camp, Christ’s body and blood strengthen our bodies and blood for another day of participating in the physical acts of forgiveness and compassion in the world. In the form of bread and wine, the Holy Spirit grants us the ability to live that eternal life now, living out the healing and reconciliation he has brought. We are, it turns out, exactly what we eat, and we go from our family table here to embody his love even in the face of our own death.

Perhaps, then, at this point we are not much more than a kind of refugee on this hungry planet, or an infant eating bread from the hand of our parent. Weary and worn, yet by God’s good grace hungry enough and simple enough to step up to Wisdom’s table. Hungry enough and simple enough not to board some spaceship, but rather to take that which looks like highly a unlikely sustenance, but which, from our Father’s good hand, is the true bread and true drink that helps us truly live.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.