Sunday, August 09, 2009

You are what you eat (Proper 13B, Aug 9, 2009)

I constantly hear stories about obesity in the US in particular and the developed world in general. Fast food and processed food bear a large share of the blame for that, plus the constant bombardment of commercials that urge us to eat to excess: We grew up with “umm ummm good”, “where’s the beef?” and “nothing says loving like something from the oven.” We are told that we live in a “consumer culture.” What an apt description! We are not told that we live in a culture of buying and selling, but a culture that consumes.

The obesity epidemic is nothing compared to the epidemic of overspending and overbuying. We have an appetite not only for food but for clothes, car, electronics goods, and for any number of other things called “consumer goods.” We don’t just purchase these things; they become a part of us and we feel deprived if we don’t have them or if they are taken away. Each thing we purchase or consume becomes a part of us.

“You are what you eat”. That famous quotation comes from 19th c. German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach was an atheist and his point was that human beings are nothing more than matter. Our bodies incorporate the food that we consume, but when we die and are reduced to our essential elements, we, in turn, become food for others.

But perhaps Feuerbach spoke more truth than he knew. Jesus also said that we are what we eat, but he offers us a different kind of food: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven . . . the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (v. 51). The heart of today’s Gospel reading is a contrast, “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (v. 58). In other words, your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and died, but those who eat the bread that came down from heaven" will live forever. What is astonishing about this promise is not just the assurance of eternal life, but the fact that Jesus joins the promise of eternal life to the most mundane of human activities: eating.

I would like to look at both the promise “eternal life” and the means to achieve it -- eating the bread that came down from heaven.

First, the desire for life after death seems to be fundamental to human nature, The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume once said, "It is a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever," but I am not sure that many people agree with him. Indeed, in 21st century American culture, there seems to be an almost desperate need to believe that there is life after death. Suddenly there seems to be a half dozen TV shows that deal with the idea of life after death and the possibility of communicating with the dead.

Eternal life is not an “unreasonable fancy” — it is at the very heart of the Christian faith. To divorce eternal life from the Christian faith is to render the faith anemic and puny. In today’s gospel reading Jesus reminds us that “the living Father" (v. 57) sent him. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about life, both here and hereafter. To accept that death has the last word is to accept that Gods power is limited, but that is not what the Bible teaches. Jesus promises that he will raise “raise up” those who are nourished by his body

and blood.

It is just as true, however, that the Christian faith is about life BEFORE death, just as much as life AFTER death; life in the here and now, and not just life in the hereafter. Indeed, there is continuity between life in this world and life in the next. As priest and poet john Donne put it, " . . . all the way to heaven is heaven . . . [the] soul that goes to heaven meets heaven here . . . the true joy of a good soul in this world is the very joy of heaven . . . (Sermon LXVI in Herschel Baker, ed., The Later Renaissance in England, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1975, p. 561). The promise that eternal life belongs to those who eat and drink Christ’s body and blood grounds us in this world. The promise of eternal life is not annexed to some elaborate ritual; we are not askaed to bathe in a sacred river or to offer sacrifices or to repeat a magic formula. Instead, we are invited to a meal.

I imagine, however, some asking, can it be that simple? Can we really receive eternal life by eating and drinking at the Lords table? To answer that question, first, imagine how we come to the Lord’s Table. In the world of Jesus, bathing was relatively uncommon, but if one was invited to a dinner party one bathed and anointed oneself with oil. Similarly, before we come to the Lord’s Table, we are washed in the waters of baptism. Also, to sit down at table in first century Palestine implied that the guests were at peac e with the host and with one another. Jesus admonishes us to be reconciled with one another before offering our gift at the altar (Matthew 5.23-24).

The 16th century Protestant Reformers condemned the mass because the consecrated bread and wine had become isolated from the other parts of the liturgy; they had become ends in themselves. However, when we properly celebrate the sacrament of the Lords table, then we will have met Jesus all along the way. We will have been baptized into his death and resurrection; we will hear him speak in the voice of scripture; we will be reconciled with those against whom we have sinned; we will be nourished on his body and blood; and finally, we will hear him command us to go into the world to do his will.

The late second-century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons, called the Sacrament of the Lord’s Table “the medicine of immortality.” Jesus did not employ the metaphor of medicine, but he did promise that if we are nourished on his body and blood, we will have eternal life.

Jesus wants us to live in a different kind of consumer culture. He wants us to create and live in and invite others into a culture that consumes the bread of life, in scripture, in prayer, in service to others, and in the sacrament of the altar.

The meal we share with believers on earth is the heavenly banquet in earthly guise. Saints and angels gather around whenever we set the table, whether the sacrament is celebrated with all the pomp and ceremony at St. Peter's in Rome or with loaf bread and jug wine at summer camp, because it is the earthly extension of the marriage feast of the Lamb. Come and take your place at the table. It’s time for dinner.