Sermon for Corpus Christi, Sunday, June 7 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Deut 8:2-3, 14-16; Ps 116:10-17; 1 Cor 10:16-17; Jn 6:51-58
Today is the feast called Corpus Christi, which means, in Latin, the Body of Christ – a particular celebration of the presence of Christ in the eucharist, the presence of the Body in the bread and wine. It’s a reminder that Christianity, especially in its Catholic form, is a stubbornly material faith. It is a faith which believes in stuff, in bread, in blood, in all the dirt and matter of the world; and in human bodies as a fundamentally important means through which God reaches us. We believe that God chose to take on our flesh, to be here in the world of mud and desire to restore its goodness and make it holy; and we believe that God comes to us over and over as food, as a consumable, that the immeasurable love that underlies the universe chooses to be for us a piece of bread, a cup of wine.
We forget to our peril how bizarre, how shocking, it must have sounded, especially to a Jewish audience, people for whom the consumption of blood was the greatest religious taboo, when Jesus said the things he says in today’s Gospel reading. Eat me, eat my flesh, he says. Drink my blood. We are inclined, tidy moderns that we are, to spiritualize this passage away, to turn it entirely into metaphor. But that is not the kind of language Jesus is using. This isn’t, “the kingdom of heaven is like,” this is, “my body is bread; eat my body, drink my blood.” One of the accusations made against the earliest Christians was that they were, in fact, cannibals. And yes, we do need to find a way of understanding this passage which doesn’t end up in fantasy cannibalism, or the kind of magical thinking which presumes to trap God in a wafer, but we have to do that without losing the raw physicality of it.
Because the continuity of bread and body is the bedrock of our lives. We are bodies. We don’t just have bodies, we are bodies. We are not selves without this flesh, these muscles and bones and enzymes and neurons, these desires and pains, delight and sickness, all the things that are part of the body’s life. And we believe that God came to us in one of these human bodies, an ordinary body that touched other bodies, worked at a trade probably, a body that was tired and thirsty and hungry. One of us, and God’s own, and because of this we are all God’s own.
And bodies need food. That is pretty much the bottom line of survival, and of every social arrangement we human beings have ever created. It is easy, living in a complicated political system, to forget that the basis of all politics is who will have bread today; the struggle to determine, as Leonard Cohen puts it, “who will serve and who will eat.” And we all want, understandably, to be the winners in this manufactured competition, to be the ones who eat, the ones who are safe, comfortable, fed.
But this passage turns it all upside down, as Jesus tells the disciples that he is the one who has come, not to eat, but to be eaten. To be broken, given, consumed for the world’s hunger. God gives us his flesh as Jesus goes, without violence or resistance, to be broken by power, as the flesh of this young man is handed over to power to do the worst that it can possibly do. As this loving offering of a life is redeemed when that wounded body rises, when the risen Christ stands among the disciples and eats a piece of fish, shows them the scars of love, shows them that love can never finally die.
The flesh, then, God in human flesh, nourished by bread, fed by the work and care of others as we all are; and the flesh then freely given. Eaten, in some sense; consumed, poured out for our life. But present with us now and always, in our own bodies in relationship with other bodies, present with us when we act as part of the life of outpoured love. Present in the world of matter, of bodies and stuff, God’s life filling all things; and present, perhaps, in a very focussed way, in food, in basic food, and in the sharing. This is the language that we need here, to understand what it means, that bread is holy, that God can be bread.
God comes to be eaten because hunger is real. Not hunger for an endless cascade of shiny toys or expensive indicators of status or power; but for bread, bread that is made from grain and water and fire by plain human work, bread that is shared. Gods knows this hunger. The starved, sick, dying Indigenous children in the residential schools, whose stories we have heard this week in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose stories we must keep hearing, and must honour. Or a woman on social assistance who goes without food so her children can eat, something which happens every day in this wealthy city. God knows these hungers, God wants these hungers to be fed, and we can only share in God’s life if we too are part of the work of feeding, whether that means making food or making political change. To take the bread and not to do the work is a failure of community, a failure of communion.
It is not physical hunger only – though that remains a cornerstone which we mustn’t forget, and Jesus only delivers his discourse about the bread of life after feeding the hungry crowd with real bread and real fish. The unjust distribution of resources in the world is driven, in large part, by other, stranger hungers, and those hungers, too, we must understand. There could be enough food in the world for everyone to eat. But we find ourselves driven to accumulate, to compete, to want to have more than others have, because we are hungry for something we cannot name, because we are lonely, because we are frightened, because there is a pain within us which it seems that nothing can satisfy. We feed ourselves with the quick hits of commerce and status, and mistake this for what we need.
But we can live differently. We can learn to see the empty promises of commerce and competition for what they are. We can try to learn to love each other, painfully and precisely, in our actions, in the shape of our lives. We can realize that this aching gulf within us is, can be, the space in which we meet God. Because to take the bread that is the body of Christ means becoming part of that life poured out, that complete offering, that self-emptying; and in that offering, our deep hunger becomes the place of love.
It becomes the place where we can meet one another with empty hands, with nothing that makes us better or stronger or more valuable than any other small beloved creature. All of us fragile bodies in need of bread. And all our bodies, made to become bread for the hunger of the world.
And so we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies. But – and I need to make this clear, because it’s a question on which the church has often gone wrong — this is not the kind of offering that involves foresaking the body, or despising its needs and longings. Rather, it is about honouring all bodies, especially those most often despised. For very many people, cast off by society in so many possible ways, to reclaim the body’s right to health and strength and joy is a holy act. God made our bodies for this, made us to live, and to live fully and richly. God is present in our hunger, yes, but God’s desire is to be bread to feed that hunger. God’s desire is for our joy. To be a part of God’s life of self-offering is not easy, but it is never about despising the self, or losing the body’s truth; it is about realizing it more fully, taking our part in a community of creatures, surrounded by the love of the God who came as body, who comes as bread.
For Christ is bread and love, is soil and water and harvest, is the human voice and the human hands. And we who take the bread and become the body must share that life. Must live it out now, to the extent that we can. We may be ground like wheat, we may, we will, sometimes be broken by love. But we too are loved and fed. Put out your hand, and God is there.