Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
So here we have it. The words that so many of us stumble over from scripture and indeed in the service itself are front and center this morning: The flesh and the blood of Jesus. So, I’m going to preach on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Just kidding.
Here are some of the words: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life within you.” and again:“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me in, and I in them.” These words may be a hard to swallow…
So, let’s try to make sense of all of this because it does make sense. One of the underrated realities of Christianity, one of the reasons I returned to this religion myself, is that as I came to understand Christianity more and more, the more sense it made, and this greater logic brought more joy to my life. That is my hope for you as well. Maybe today will be helpful in that process.
I am going start by telling you a story from a book I just finished titled The Tiger by John Valiant. The story is set around a remote village in Russia that was being terrorized by a man-eating tiger. It is a story of Russian history and ecology and perestroika and tigers. There are a lot of stories told within this story. One was about a scientist named Sergei Sokolov. While doing research on tigers in the sprawling Russian forest, he was attacked by one. Sokolov battled this creature, and finally, with a punch to its nose, brought it, as Sokolov says, back to its senses and it wandered off into the woods.
For many months after the attack, Sokolov’s life hung in the balance due to a terrible infection passed on to him from the tiger. It turns out tigers have notoriously unsanitary mouths. It took him eighteen months to recover, but when Sokolov finally walked out of the hospital, he claimed a virility and power like he had never known before.
His story gets a bit salacious going forward…but what he claimed is that this new strength was given to him by the tiger, through its saliva and blood now coursing through his body. This is an idea, even to this day, that drives much of the illegal trade in tiger-based supplements. The name Viagra incidentally comes from the word vyaaghra, which is Sanskrit for tiger.
We believe we are what we eat because it is true at some level. That’s not to say that if we eat a lot of broccoli we become broccoli, any more than if we eat a tiger we become a tiger. Though if I eat tons of cotton candy, I may have a particular look that reminds you of cotton candy.
In the ancient world they were well aware that they didn’t become broccoli or a tiger if they ate those things. And yet, for a tiger, more than broccoli, they believed these dynamic creatures had a spirit, a charisma, that transferred from the animal to the person who ate it. This core intuitive insight that we are biochemically connected to our food has generally been understood by cultures throughout time.
The ancient Jews were no different. But the Jews also believed they were made in the image and likeness of God and that humanity sat at the apex of creation, and so, to eat an animal, to assume its animating charisma, was always a downgrade, even if you ate a tiger. To assume the spirit of a lesser being, in other words, was to diminish God’s intention for humanity’s role in creation.
It is for this reason that Moses, I suspect, in the law of Leviticus chapters 7 & 17, commanded the Jewish people to never consume the blood of an animal. Of all of the dietary restrictions in the Old Testament this is the only one that tells the reader why the law was made. What it says is — that the life force, the vitality, the energy, the charisma, the spirit of the animal is found in its blood. The power is in the blood. That is what they believed. And so, to consume blood was a downgrade… because everyone knows we are what we eat, and so to ingest the spirit of the animal is to diminish one’s place in the hierarchy of creation; it is to diminish one’s humanity…and this is a sin against God.
So, as a precaution, the Jewish people developed a process of draining the blood out of an animal before eating it. It is called kashering, which gives us the word kosher. Kashering set a systematic, institutional floor, if you will, that kept people, who kept kosher, from accidentally ingesting the spirit of a lesser being, and thus accidentally sinning against God.
Mostly the blood produced from kashering was poured directly onto the dirt, but some was saved to be used at the service of Yom Kippur each year. Yom Kippur is a service of atonement where the Jewish people seek to get back into right relationship with God.
In ancient Israel, at the time of Jesus, it was believed that the high altar in the Temple in Jerusalem was the place where God lived. And so, on the feast of Yom Kippur, it was the place the High Priest went to renew and refresh the people of Israel’s relationship with God. Sins were cleansed, and since a sin was anything that was set as a higher priority than God, the blood of a lesser thing, usually an ox, was used to wipe the altar clean. Ox blood was poured upon the altar, and then washed off to symbolize how the priorities of lesser things were removed and a pure relationship re-established between God and God’s people. And so, by this act, for another year, the Jews returned to the apex of creation, perched on the pedestal between the temporal and the eternal. And each year they fell off again.
As the early church fathers put it: “God became human that humans might realize that they are gods.” Or as Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians: “Be imitators of God as beloved children of God.” (Eph 5:1) Or as it is written in the 1st Letter of John: “Whoever abides in Jesus, should walk like Jesus.” (1 John 2:6) Or as Jesus said: “Is it not written that God said: ‘you are gods.’” (John 10:34)
And now, we move to the words flesh and blood. There are two things to keep in mind as we seek to understand what Jesus meant when he used these words:
- Jesus intentionally taught within the common understanding that we are what we eat.
- He believed that humanity does meet God on the altar, but that the altar of God includes the entire world.
So, if we are what we eat, Jesus called his followers to eat divine things, to seek aspirational food, to feast upon the love of God. The kashering system set a floor that only those within the Jewish community could walk upon. Jesus sought to lift the ceiling, so all humanity could taste God. That is what Jesus himself did. “I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (John 6:57)
How do we feast upon Jesus? We do what he did. We model our life on his life, within our own context. To do this we must know him, and we must remember him. That is why he instructs us to: “Do this in remembrance of me.” He gives us a meal, the Eucharist, as the trigger for this memory of him. Pretty genius, since we all have to eat, and we all believe, at some level, that we are what we eat. Jesus invites us to eat him, saying “I am the bread of life,” whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and they will have eternal life.
Eat aspirational food. Eat things that are greater, not lesser.
We bring our life to Jesus, and we meet him at the altar, up there, so as to remember that the altar of God is everywhere and accessible to everyone, because Jesus has wiped the altar of the world clean once and for all.
The symbolic moment of this worldwide cleansing was the kashering of Christ, if you will, on the cross as the Roman guard pierced his side with a spear, and his blood ran out onto the ground, cleansing the world, which is the altar of God. Because of Jesus, sin can no longer separate us from the love of God.
I want to finish up this sermon by giving you some language around the blood of Jesus and the flesh of Jesus. Two words to remember: power and presence.
Power = blood.
Presence = flesh.
And they are both available to you.
We know that in the ancient world blood was thought to hold the vitality of a creature. When you approach the Communion rail, and are offered the blood of Christ, think of it as your accepting the vitality, the power, the energy, and the charisma of Jesus.
When you drink the cup, you are acknowledging that: You are divine, and you are eternal. The blood of Christ is the vitality of God, and we are what we eat. The wine is given to remind you that this power of Jesus is within you.
And when you eat the bread, that little wafer, called the body of Christ, think of the word “presence.” The body holds presence in space and time. God set your body here, to be God’s steward of creation, to care for it; including tigers.
I bring the tiger back in here at the end of the sermon to remind us that this world, while it is God’s, was given to us to care for. The extinction of tigers around the world is a bell-weather warning that the ecosystem in which they once thrived is compromised.
God has blessed the world, God has cleansed the world with the blood of Christ, but it is ours to care for. And in particular yours and mine, right now, to care for, because God bore our bodies into this place at this time.
And as I am fond of saying: We are meant to live our lives as Jesus would if he had your life or my life. When you are given the body of Christ at the altar rail, remember you are designed to be Jesus’s presence in the world.
Live as if you have the power of Christ within you. Live as if you are the presence of Christ in the world. Remember Jesus, every Sunday, as you eat his body and drink his blood; being fully mindful, with aspirational intent that we are what we eat.