Sermon: Symbolism of the Holy Eucharist

The Rev'd Anne Wrider | Aug. 15, 2021


Someone coming out of church last Sunday made a very insightful observation. He said that he thought that someone from a culture unfamiliar with Christian symbolism might find all this talk about eating flesh and drinking blood to be awfully close to cannibalism. He was absolutely right, and in fact, today’s Gospel points out the shocking quality of what Jesus says.


To get the full impact of what Jesus is saying, you need to remember two things. The first is that Jewish law has an absolute prohibition against drinking the blood of any animal. Part of the ritual of koshering meat is draining the blood out of the animal before cutting it up. So for Jesus to tell his disciples to drink his blood is a doubly disgusting suggestion. There were other religions around at the time that talked about eating the flesh and blood of the deity, but no good Jew would ever consider such a thing.


The second thing you need to know is that the word that Jesus used for “eating,” is really a word that is closer to “munching” or “gnawing on.” If, like most of us, the idea of eating human flesh tis disgusting to begin with, you can see how utterly repulsive this suggestion would be. So Jesus says, “Gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood and you will have life.” I guess it’s not surprising that the people listening to him were appalled.


Of course, we do know that Jesus didn’t mean this literally. He didn’t want his disciples to eat and drink his physical body and blood. But because he didn’t mean it literally does not mean that he wasn’t talking about something real. In fact, he is saying something vitally important, and he uses symbolic language to make the point. And I want to suggest that he is answering the question, “Where is God?” Let me tell you what I mean by that.


We human beings are generally limited in our grasp of the divine. We are bounded by space and time, and it’s very difficult for us to imagine things that are outside those boundaries. We think of God as “up there” or “out there,” we think of God as an old man with a beard. We don’t think of God as close or intimate. Or we make the opposite mistake, and think of God as a buddy, or friend, a god we can deal with on equal terms, who will play by our rules - a God we can force to our wills.


The Gospel is dealing with the same question. The disciples have come to know Jesus, and now believe that he is truly the Son of God. They know that somehow, God is dwelling in the midst of them, in a way they had never known before. God is not localized in the Temple any longer, but a living presence with them. What Jesus knows, and the disciples don’t, is that he is not going to be with them forever. He knows that the Cross is waiting for him, and he knows that even when he is raised from the dead, there will come a time when he ascends into heaven and is not there for his people in the way he has been. So what happens when Jesus leaves? Where is God then?


And the radical answer is that Jesus will live IN the disciples, that the answer to the question will be, “God is in the people who have become the Body of Christ.” That means a level of intimacy that is hard to imagine. 


And we are confronted with the same challenge. If we are honest, most of us would prefer God to be at a safe distance. We don’t like the idea of a parental God looking over our shoulder, we don’t like the idea that every thought, word and action is done in the presence of the Almighty. But we want God where we can reach him in an emergency. We want to know that God will be with us when we want that. What Jesus is telling us is that we can’t have it both ways. God lives in the midst of the people of God. And God is not a buddy or a pet, but the eternal God of the universe. God’s greatest desire is for our happiness and welfare, and God wants nothing more than to give us eternal life, a life filled with depth and meaning.


But if we are going to have that life, if we are going to be fully the people that God intends us to be, we are going to have to get up close and personal. We are going to have to eat and drink the love of God, we are going to have to let God live in us. It’s a daunting challenge. But it is life. 


God invites us into the deepest intimacy, to take the Divine into ourselves and to become part of the Divine Life. May we have grace to accept that invitation.