Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Body and Blood of Christ—this time of year is like a sanctuary for endangered species with strange and exotic theological mysteries huddled together in one place for easy viewing. Easy viewing doesn’t make for easy preaching though, so I was delighted to discover a tidbit about “Manna” that at least got me started: to our ear the word Manna sounds like a well-behaved noun but apparently it originates in Hebrew from an exclamation. Something like “What is this stuff?!” … I have this vision of unruly Israelites standing round in the early morning shouting at Moses—”You expect us to eat this stuff?” … The same incredulity and rising disgust can be heard in the Gospel as well —”He’s going to give us his what to eat?”
So, on the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we have a question—what is this stuff? What’s going on here?
The first thing I notice is that though each of the readings this morning is meant to be about Eucharist there’s not a word about priests. In fact, despite the focus on bread and wine, the central point of the texts isn’t about any thing but about memory.
“Remember,” says Moses; “Do not forget the God who brought you out of slavery, who gave you water in the desert, and fed you in the wilderness with a strange food.” “Remember!” But why remember? Not for entertainment, not for nostalgia, but so that the people might remember who it was that made them a people, and remembering might love—love God and love each other. We believe this text is part of an ancient liturgy in which the Israelites every year gathered to remember where they came from and how, and remembering, committed themselves once more to each other.
The same thing is going on in Paul’s letter too. By sharing a cup and a loaf the people—the little community in Corinth—remember both who it was that made them a people and just who they have been made to be. One human body broken on the cross: one loaf of bread broken and shared: one community broken open for all. “Remember,” says Paul; “Do not let yourselves be divided … do not forget who you are.”
Jesus, too, in John’s gospel, conjures up a memory—a memory of manna and that strange, humiliating feeding in the desert that made his people long ago. But he gives it a twist and, in the face of complacency, restores the shock of the memory with his own disgusting language. Just listen, and hear it afresh: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you.” This is the stuff that got John’s people thrown out of the synagogue—Jesus as messiah had some possibilities—but not this revolting blasphemy of blood and guts. “You expect us to eat this?”
John’s people became a people when they made their own exodus—from the synagogue, from their homes, from their comfort—carrying only the memory of a death with its spilt blood and agonised flesh but still insisting that this death, this flesh, this blood, meant for them life and love and the end of death. It is this memory which made them a community and, over and over, re-made them as they remembered and committed themselves to be who they were.
So we have Moses’ community in Israel, Paul’s in Corinth, John’s who-knows-where, and ours in Oakland—each made by a disturbing memory into a community of life. We who share in the one cup and eat the one loaf are made by memory into the flesh and blood of Christ. Yes, in the comforting sense of being kin, being family, being bound by bonds of blood to God—but also, in a shockingly literal way that takes us beyond metaphor into the “icky” realm of flesh that is muscle, meat, guts; blood that is warm and sticky and wet. How can there be life there? “You expect us to eat this?”
Jesus says, “see me and you see the Father,” then in his going passes that witness on to us, so that as we gather today we have to say, “See us and you see Jesus.” It is Jesus we remember and Jesus we become. His flesh, his blood. That question—”What is this stuff?” only finds its answer here, in our gathered flesh.
I hope you’ll forgive me if I end on a personal note. When I first came here—just over two years ago—I knew I wanted to learn to be a deacon and I knew that I would only find out how if you were to teach me. Two years later I can honestly say that you have done that—and more—with your kindness and your tolerance, your encouragement and your love—with your blood and with your flesh.
In a day or two I fly off to England and in July will be ordained priest—but in my flesh I know that you have already done that for me. Begun to make me priest. And when I return in the Fall my wish, my request to you, will be—is—”teach me to be a priest”—teach me to stand up here, at ambo and altar, and not get in the way of what you are doing; as you celebrate Eucharist, as you remember Jesus, as you call God to be here in flesh and blood, to make us all, once more, into God’s own body.
June 9th, 1996