Series

We Are What We Eat

Jesus said: “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them…the one who eats this bread will live forever.” This is the way Jesus starts his dialogue with some of his students this morning–and it’s important to note that the people he’s speaking to are his disciples, not his opponents. And yet look at the pushback he gets! And you can understand why–what is Jesus talking about? Is he telling us we should be cannibals? Now for those of us sitting in a church twenty centuries later, we have hindsight, and hindsight is 20/20. We know that Jesus is referring to this meal that we share here. But his disciples at the time had no idea, and I think even for us today, it’s still striking: “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood.” What is Jesus really getting at here? Why should this be so important?

He says that if we do this, he will abide in us, and we will abide in him, and then he goes on about eternal life. That’s some dense language. You know, Jesus likes to provoke his listeners, and then step back. He asks questions, he raises problems, but he really doesn’t offer a lot of answers. We have to struggle with it. So what is he getting at? What is he promising if we eat his flesh and drink his blood?

There are a lot of ways of answering that, but as I struggled with this passage this week, it seemed to me that if I stepped back, and I just thought about religion and spirituality in general–what is religion about? What are we seeking to do when we come to a place like this, when we engage in spiritual practices? I think you can sum it up, and boil it down, and say that religion and spirituality are really about facing–and trying to overcome–suffering and ignorance. If that’s right, if that’s what religion and spirituality are about (and of course they are about more than that: we come to celebrate birth, marriage; we come for fellowship and community, and sometimes we come to just face the mystery of our existence, but I do think that in the end, facing and overcoming suffering and ignorance is still at the core of what religion and spirituality are about) then what Jesus is saying here should also direct us to overcoming suffering and ignorance.

If this is right, then how does sharing this meal–eating his flesh and blood!–help us overcome suffering and ignorance? It’s just some food and drink! The more I thought about this, the less sense it made, I couldn’t really move forward with it, and so as I often do, I went to another part of Scripture to try and help me with what Jesus is saying. And we’re still in Paul’s (“Paul”) Letter to the Ephesians this morning. I think Paul is talking about what we’ve already been thinking on. He’s talking about overcoming suffering and ignorance. The way he phrases it is that we have to “stand against the wiles of the devil.” Now I don’t know what all the wiles of the devil are, but I’m guessing that suffering and ignorance are at least two of them. And he goes on–where Jesus likes to provoke and then step back and shrug his shoulders–Paul tries to fill it in, he tries to be a little more concrete. Listen as Paul talks about what this struggle is really all about. He says “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh”–there’s the flesh and blood language again–“but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Our enemies are not of flesh and blood, but of–something else. The King James Version of the Bible calls them “the principalities and powers”. Now I said that Paul gets more concrete for us, but at first glance you might not think that’s the case at all! What is Paul talking about, with these powers and rulers in the heavens? It’s really important as modern readers and hearers of Scripture that we don’t interpret this text the way we would interpret something written today. We like things to be literal and straightforward; that’s how we talk, that’s how we write. But that’s not how Paul is communicating. We have to be careful to not confuse the image with the meaning.
If an artist depicts an angel as a sort of human-esque being in a white robe with wings and a halo, flying around, that doesn’t mean the artist literally believes that such a being actually exists as an embodied creature and flies around the sky. That image conveys a meaning: the wings symbolize God’s message being quickly and clearly delivered. “Angel” just means “messenger”. We can’t confuse the image with the meaning.

So when Paul uses this rich, poetic imagery in Ephesians, what is he really trying to say? Well if I was going to translate what Paul is saying into more contemporary language–and there are a lot of ways of doing this–but I would say something like this: these principalities and powers are what we would call structural evil. Our enemies are not of flesh and blood–evil is not caused by individual humans who happen to be bad. We’d like to think that the world would be a totally fine place if we could just get rid of a few bad apples, right? If we could just replace this CEO, or this boss, or this general, or this president–we’d like to think that everything would be OK if we could just get rid of that bad one and put in a good one.

Paul is more of a realist than this! He’s confronting us with a very different message: our enemies are not of flesh and blood but the very structure of our society and existence: the economic, political, and cultural structures that incentivize bad things. If we incentives bad things, we shouldn’t be surprised when bad things happen! It’s not about getting rid of a few bad apples. I think that’s part of what Paul is getting at here: the struggle against suffering and ignorance is not just the struggle against a few individuals. Oftentimes, leaders–whether in government, or business, or the church–are responding to the incentives and rewards of the institution, not their own personal beliefs or preferences. They’re responding to the incentives of their office. They’re protecting their power and their role. In the last week or two, we’ve had another reminder of this behavior, as we’ve heard about new allegations of wide-scale abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church (though we should not pretend that this problem is limited to that church alone).

Now it has come to light that many people have been involved in covering up this abuse. It’s possible that some of these people were just born evil, that they’ve been awful from day one. But I doubt that. Many of them were probably pretty decent, moral people, who were trying to do a good thing as they entered ministry, but over time they decided to put the interests of their institution ahead of justice and truth, and they thereby became doers of evil. I think that’s part of Paul’s message. We have to be so careful: it’s not about just replacing this bishop, this priest, this leader, this president. Of course we have to hold leaders accountable, but we have to do so much more.

The victory of justice is not going to come from replacing one leader with another; the victory of justice is only going to come when human society and human life are utterly transformed. Now if we are right to read Paul this way, then Paul is a revolutionary–a radical revolutionary, a deep revolutionary, calling for this utter transformation of our world and of our lives. And if Paul is a revolutionary, it stands to reason that his teacher Jesus is a revolutionary. (It’s true that Paul came to this school pretty late, but nonetheless!) Jesus is a revolutionary.

Though his revolutionary rhetoric is so much subtler. If we return to his demand that we eat his flesh and drink his blood, what could this have to do with the struggle to overcome suffering and ignorance? How has Paul helped us to see that more clearly? Well, if it’s true that we are what we eat, then Jesus seems to be telling us that we have to take on his mission of radical transformation. To share this meal is to accept this mission–of radical, unconditional, unlimited love–and to commit to challenging anything and everything that harms God’s creation, God’s children. We have to become Jesus. That’s what he’s saying: we have to become as radical and as crazy as Jesus was and is.

In a world marked by suffering and ignorance, we have to be willing to change anything that causes that suffering and ignorance. Our enemies are not of flesh and blood, but these economic, political, social, and cultural institutions that we take part in, these structures and relationships that condemn us to repeat the patterns and habits of abuse, and exploitation, and violence. If we incentivize violence, if we incentivize deception, if we incentive exploitation, we shouldn’t be surprised if that’s what we get.

So if we say–and not everyone in this room would say it, but many of us would–that in Jesus, God comes into the world, then what we are really saying is that in Jesus, God is working to re-create the creation, to utterly transform everything that causes suffering and ignorance. And we are being called to be Jesus, to be transformed into another worker of God’s justice in the world. That’s not easy work! But I think if we come to share this meal–whatever we believe or doubt about God or Jesus–if we come to this table, that’s what we’re signing up for: to be radical transformers (not the robots that turn into cars!) but radical agents of transformation in this world.

Two weeks ago, I suggested that if we wanted to go out into the world and change things, and make things better, we had to be prepared to be changed ourselves. This week, though, I hear Paul pulling me in the opposite direction: he’s suggesting that if we really want to overcome our own suffering and our own ignorance, we have to be committed to overcoming all suffering and all ignorance. That’s the radical program that Jesus has introduced. That’s the radical lesson that Paul is trying to teach us. And so the only question is: are we really ready to commit to this? I hope so! Every time we gather around this table to share this meal, let us re-commit to challenge all suffering and all ignorance.