Sunday, August 12, 2012

Eating Jesus

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 12, 2012
by the Rev. John Kirkley

“Nothing is more practical than 
finding God, than 
falling in Love
 in a quite, final way.
 What you are in love with,
 what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
 It will decide 
what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings,
 how you spend your weekends,
 what you read, whom you know,
 what breaks your heart,
 and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
 Fall in Love, stay in love,
 and it will decide everything.”[1] 

These words, attributed to the Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe, capture the essence of Jesus’ teaching in John chapter six.  It is a very practical teaching about that which determines the quality and direction of our life.  It is an invitation to experience eternal life by falling in love with Jesus in an absolute, final way.  This intimate communion with Jesus, eating his flesh and drinking his blood, gives us a share in God’s own life. 

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me . . . the one who eats this bread will live forever.”[2]

This is a strange and even shocking teaching.  The Jewish authorities were scandalized by it, both for the intimacy with God that Jesus claimed and for the way in which he described sharing it with us:  by having us munch on his flesh like a cow chewing her cud.   The language Jesus uses here is rather graphic.  He meant to offend his interlocutors, purposely switching midway through the conversation from using the standard verb for “to eat” with reference to humans, to using a more vulgar form that connotes an animal munching or gnawing on its food.[3]

What is Jesus up to here?  Why the need to offend?  I think Jesus is pushing his hearers to grasp more deeply what it means to share in God’s life, and how Jesus makes this sharing available to us.  Earlier in John chapter six Jesus invites the crowd to believe in him, to trust him, to embrace the risks and challenges of intimate relationship with him.  He doesn’t want them to simply follow him, or just imitate him, but to participate with him in the very life and love of God.

Now, as the focus of the narrative switches from the crowd to the Jewish authorities, Jesus presses this invitation further.  He invites them to embrace both the light and the shadow revealed when we are vulnerable to love.  He does so by underscoring the sacrificial nature of love, in both its negative and positive dimensions: how love’s vulnerability can nurture and how it can consume. 

Think of it this way.  When we first “fall in love” with someone we see in the other only what we want to see.  We don’t fall in love with the person, but rather with our image of the person.  We idealize them and are drawn to that ideal because of the needs within us that it fulfills.

This pseudo-love, if you will, is really about me.  It isn’t about the other person qua person at all, but rather about what he can provide for me.  This pseudo-love stage is akin to the experience of the crowd following Jesus.  He makes them feel better, he heals them, he feeds them, he is Mr. Wonderful, Mr. Right – “let’s make him our king,” they say. 

They want to give themselves to an ideal that serves them.  To become someone’s king in this way is to actually become their slave; and when you are no longer able to live up to the ideal – which is inevitable – then watch out: it is “off with his head” before you know it.

Jesus’ disciples have moved to a somewhat more mature form of pseudo-love.  They actually try to imitate Jesus.   They want to reflect back to him the good they see in him.  This is a familiar experience for many lovers.  We want to mirror back to the beloved the good qualities that we see in him.  We want to become more like her.  We want to be the ideal for her that she has become for us. 

Here, the projection may at least be mutual, but it remains superficial.  We only want to see the beloved as evoking our good qualities and vice-versa; we aren’t interested in seeing and integrating the shadow side of ourselves.  After a while, trying to be the beloved’s ideal becomes a burden.  It leads to resentment.  Recall that the disciples weren’t really feeling it when Jesus told them to share their food with the hungry crowds.  They resented mimicking a compassion they didn’t feel. 

It is funny how just when we start to resent the “demand” to meet the expectations of others, we begin to notice how little they manage to meet our expectations.  Suddenly, we project our shadow side on to them and notice very clearly in them the very failings we fail to acknowledge in ourselves (but that they manage to see without any trouble).  Who does he think he is?  What makes her think she is so special?

It is here that we find the religious authorities in relationship to Jesus.  The Jesus idealized by the crowed and mildly resented by the disciples is treated with contempt by the religious authorities.  For them, his invitation to trust, to intimate relationship, feels like a threat.  They fear vulnerability and what it might reveal about them, so they harden their hearts against the very thing that could open them to love.  They are unwilling to embrace a mature love that allows them to see themselves whole, shadow side and all.

Mature love moves through and beyond these idealizations, projections, resentments, and fears to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of the beloved.  We are no longer interested in making them our king or imitating them, but instead become willing to internalize their perspective and thereby expand our conscious awareness. 

We allow the beloved to enter into our subjectivity if you will, creating a kind of mutual indwelling or coinherence.  We begin to think and feel with the other from the inside out, while maintaining our own personal integrity.  Such vulnerability can be painful.  We don’t always like what we discover about the other or about ourselves.  And it can be risky.  The knowledge gained can be used against us:  those who know us best can hurt us worst.  And it can be healing:  allowing us to live a more aware, integrated life with a greater capacity for compassion.

This is the double-edged sword of Jesus’ invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  On the one hand, it is a profound image of the kind of intimacy Jesus wishes to share with us.  It expresses his desire to make himself vulnerable to us so that we can enter into his subjectivity and he can enter into ours:  so that we can have the mind of Christ and become imitators of God from the inside, out. 

On the other hand, it is a troubling image of our own capacity to eat each other alive.  We participate in the scapegoating and sacrifice of others quite as readily, if not more so, as we practice sacrificial love for the sake of others.  As painful as it may be, we can only become whole when we are willing to acknowledge our complicity in chewing on the flesh and blood of others. 

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”[4]  With these words, Jesus looks back to his Incarnation and forward to the Cross.  In eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we acknowledge both our capacity to share intimately in the life of God, and to live atop pyramids of sacrifice.

It is only by participating in the subjectivity of Jesus, by falling in love with him in an absolute and final way, that we can heal our desire to feed off of others and instead “give life to others out of our inner being as if we were bread.”[5]  This falling in love is a process.  We come to share the mind of Christ as we open ourselves to Jesus through prayer, Holy Scripture, the grace of the Sacraments, and through patiently discerning the will of God with others in Christian community.  Falling in love with Jesus takes time.  It is messy.  But it is worth the cost.  Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

[2] John 6:56-57, 58c.
[3] Andrew Marr, OSB, “On Being Bread from Heaven:  The Way of Mimetic Participation” accessed at on August 8, 2012.
[4] John 6:51.
[5] I’m grateful to Andrew Marr, OSB, op. cit., for this insight in the last paragraph of his essay.

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