Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for August, 2018

This Is My Body: The Womb of God

Christ: Our Mother, Our Brother, Our Savior

[Title from Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love]

I didn’t stay quite long enough in Hawaii to avoid the bread and circuses season of preaching that has “bread of life” texts padding our lectionary with metaphysical carbohydrates through the end of the summer. And having sat through all of them, I have concluded that I like last week’s lesson better, and next week’s even better.

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is seventy-one verses about bread, mystical and mundane. Bread was the primary form of nourishment in the world in which Jesus lived and the production of bread and maintenance of bread producing crops was an ongoing daily task. This meant that people often lived and ate hand to mouth. They didn’t stockpile bread though they stored flour and grain. Often the word bread was shorthand for any solid food, including meat. Jesus teaches his contemporary disciples to ask for today’s bread and tomorrow’s in a world in which blight, mildew, fungus, rats, or a poor crop could greatly imperil food security and survival. Bread in the scriptures is the stuff of life, that without which we cannot survive, and that which enables us to do more than survive, creates the possibility that we will have the opportunity to thrive.

The Gospel of John talks about bread nearly twenty times, twelve of those are in this chapter. This is a crucial point for the evangelist who focuses on this language and imagery instead of–or perhaps as–a Last Supper Eucharistic moment. This is the context for Jesus’s shocking statement: “I am the living bread that from heaven came down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

            This text invokes the spectre of cannibalism which explains the responses of those around Jesus at the time. In this gospel that many want to read theologically, Jesus is emphatic that his hearers, his fellow Judeans, (and by extension, we who hear ourselves addressed in this text) eat his flesh. The uproar that followed was understandable: Then the Judeans, Jesus’s fellow Jews, argued among themselves, saying, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”

            Written nearly a century after Jesus’s resurrection, the author of John is heavily invested in differentiating Christians from Jews, a distinction that did not exist in the life of Jesus. He and his Judean disciples were Jewish. They were “the Jews” as much as the people John prefers to identify as Jews, folk who disagree or debate with Jesus. The one word, Ἰουδαῖοι, means both people from Judea and people who followed the religion of Judea, Judaism. What gets complicated is that Ἰουδαῖοιis also used for followers of Jesus who are both native Judeans and continue to understand themselves to be Jewish. While the gospel written almost a century later is trying to put people in different piles, we will not. Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not would have equal difficulty with this command.

            [So Jesus said to them,] “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves.”

            Jesus uses an expression from his childhood faith, from his scriptures which we now share that means human child, son of humanity, human-born, woman-born, emphasizing his mortality and that God’s power would be wielded through someone who from the outside looked like every other person born of a woman. Ἀνθρώπουmeans human and includes women and men just as anthropology from the same root is the study of all people, not just one gender. It has always struck me as bizarre that the Church translated this as “Son of Man” while at the same time claiming that Jesus was woman-born but had no human father. The degree to which Son of Woman is hard for some folk to hear is the degree to which “man” is perceived as a normative category and woman is still not quite representative of humanity. That’s why some of us are working on the language we use and hear in liturgy and in preaching in the Episcopal Church.

            Jesus whose life story up to this point was already mindboggling–healing miracles, meal multiplication miracles, and resurrection miracles–Jesus now says, “I am the living bread that from heaven came down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” and, “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves.”

Eating blood was and still is taboo for Jews and cannibalism is taboo for practically everyone. And were that not enough, it looks like we have now moved from cannibalism to vampirism. Can the zombies be far behind? Just the other day I saw someone on Twitter claiming that Christians practice witchcraft citing this verse. It would have been so much easier if Jesus had said “spiritually” or explained his saying as a parable or metaphor. But he insisted:

            Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will also raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood in me they abide, and I in them…whoever eats me that one will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like what your ancestors ate; they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.”

We read and hear this gospel long after church fathers fought and sometimes had each other excommunicated over what all of this means while shaping the way we hear this text. We also read knowing, if not fully understanding, that the divine mystery that is the Blessed Sacrament conveys Christ in its bread and wine, that Christ is very present in the sacrament and therefore in us. And so we too will live as he lives–beyond death. We read knowing that Jesus’s flesh was and is human and divine – because he was born of a woman and killed by a man, raised from death to life after which was touched and held, and dropped by for breakfast on the shore after his resurrection. The church fathers had fits over whether the rest of his digestion system worked after resurrection–how could there be latrines in heaven?

Too much blood and ink has been spilled over trying to understand and explain what happens–or does not happen–when a priest says the ancient words that go back to Jesus himself, “This is my body.” Each of the other gospels and Corinthians preserves these words from Jesus which are the heart of our Eucharistic feast. You will hear them today. But the author of John whom Bishop Spong urges us to read as a theologian leaves us with a much more visceral image: Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves… for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

Over and over this gospel makes this claim. Jesus says these elements are his body and blood and we must consume them to share his life. He must become part of us, literally and physically as well as spiritually. And since we are Episcopalians, we are free to come to our own determination about what that means to us and are still welcome to the table no matter what understanding or doubt we hold. This table is a place of welcome and transformation.

It is this transformation that equips us to survive the evils of the world and to do more than just survive them, transform the world that has spawned them to the image of the reign of God. We have all the strength we need in God no matter how often we commune. The Eucharist does not wear off. But coming to the table regularly reminds of who it is that empowers us. The same Jesus whom the grave could not hold stands with us and within us when we stand up to bigotry and hatred. The same Jesus who started throwing furniture in the temple when God’s house was polluted stands with us when we stand against the abuse of God’s children by clergy in every church–including ours. The same Jesus surrounded himself with Samaritans and Syro-Phoenicians stands with us when we stand up to bullies at the border. Christ within us empowers us to do his work in the world. And we are reminded of that every time we receive the bread of life and cup of salvation.

            The elements are transformed and we who consume them are transformed by Christ’s very presence working in us. We are nourished by Christ’s body and blood just as we are nourished by the body and blood of our mothers in the womb. Pregnancy offers a way to think about what it means to consume the body and blood of Christ that isn’t cannibalistic, vampiric, or zombie-geist. Julian of Norwhich who wrote the song of praise we used earlier called the church to contemplate the mystery of Christ as Mother, Bother, and Savior:

Our highest Father, God Almighty, who is ‘Being’, has always known us and loved us: because of this knowledge, through his marvellous and deep charity and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity, He wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Saviour.

It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. Our Father desires, our Mother operates and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms; we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being, to thank him reverently and to praise him for having created us and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Ghost, to obtain help and grace.

            Today when you receive the Blessed Sacrament feel yourself surrounded by the enveloping womb of God’s love wherein you will receive all that you need to survive and thrive, grow and become who you are called to be, and live in this world and the next. Amen.

 

John 6:51[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that from heavencame down. If anyone eats of this bread they will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

52 Then the Judeans, his fellow Jews, argued among themselves, saying, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” 53So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I say to you all, unless you all eat the flesh of the Son of Woman and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will also raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood in me they abide, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me that one will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like what your ancestors ate; they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.” [Translation, Wil Gafney]

Song of Praise, (adapted from Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Revelations of Divine Love)

Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.
Jesus Christ who himself overcame evil with good,
is our true Mother.
We received our Being from Him
–and this is where His Maternity starts–
And with it comes the gentle Protection
and Guard of Love
which will never cease to surround us.
Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.
As if to say, I am the power and the Goodness of the Father,
I am the Wisdom of the Mother,
I am the Light
and the Grace which is blessed love,
I am the Trinity,
I am the Unity,
I am the One who makes you love.
God Almighty has always known us and loved us:
and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity,
God wanted the Second Person to become our Mother,
our Brother, our Saviour.
Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.