I wonder whether you share the experience of admiring something so much that you just want to eat it. It’s a pretty basic kind of instinctive feeling, but there’s little doubt that when we really desire something or someone we find ourselves saying somehow something like – ‘Oh, I could eat it..’ or even, ‘I could eat you.’ It happens with babies, for example, – people say it a lot, sometimes even surprising themselves. I can recall a wonderful short story by Sara Maitland about someone who so admires a baby’s peachy bottom.. that she wants to eat it. And there’s a children’s story – called So Much – about too very enthusiastic Caribbean grandmothers with the constant reframe ‘I want to eat the baby. I want to eat him so much…’ And they hug him and they love him…
In the reading we heard from John’s Gospel Jesus talks about people eating him and drinking him, as though he is the only thing worth eating and drinking. And he uses this language in a way that feels scandalous. Understandably the people who heard this said, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ And Jesus doesn’t just say ‘Don’t worry, it’s just a metaphor’. But he persists with this kind of language, seeming to make it even stronger – ‘for my flesh is true bread and my blood is true drink’. It’s strange language.
I confess that I read this Gospel passage set for today and then thought I’d be better off preaching on another text. It’s such a strange text I’d prefer another one. But there’s always something about a hard text that makes you think that there must be something there to be wrestled with, to be grasped, something worth pursuing, something you’ve missed if you haven’t got there yet.
I’ve looked up commentaries and commentators to see what other people say – it sometimes helps. And perhaps it’s inevitable that people often write as though this is about communion. And then they are off writing on those debates about whether the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus. And it becomes a familiar conversation about what we believe about communion or the mass or the Lord’s Supper… But I wonder whether it might be better to forget for once about that link with communion, to recognise that this passage belongs with another, much more basic kind of thing altogether and start somewhere else.. What about sticking with the way we use that metaphor of eating something that’s important to us, the way it gives us a sense of the strongest and most basic desire? Let’s give it a go..
So, I want to explore what this passage might mean if we think for a moment about what it means to want to eat something or somebody with a strong and powerful appetite and what it means to be fed. What does it mean to make anything or anyone the source of your life, the thing that keeps you alive, the thing that forms who you are, the thing that actually makes you what and who you are?
In 1826 it was a French writer who said, ‘Dis moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es…’ (‘Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.’ And I think I first met this idea through a theologian called Ludwig Feuerbach who said, ‘Der Mensch ist, was er isst’, which translates as something like ‘we are what we eat’.
Of course, there is a kind of a literal sense in which we are what we eat – that if we eat good food then we are healthier etc. But there’s a metaphorical sense too in which we are what we consume, we are what we swallow in our minds, what arguments and ideas we digest. We are what we feed on in terms of thoughts and prayers and ideas and words…, what we drink in in terms of spend our time looking at, poring over, allowing to shape us. We are what we eat, in a wider than literal sense sense..
This reality is made vivid sometimes as we speak about life. For example, we talk about, we may even have, a Twitter feed. We use the language of feed to describe the posts we are looking at, the things that people send us to read, the ideas we take in, the language that comes to us, the things that we feed on, the things that shape our lives, for good and bad. You can find messages on-line that offer advice about how to control your Twitter feed, how to make sure that you don’t get overwhelmed. But it’s fascinating to me, that it’s called a feed. And we use the word ‘feed’ to describe other things that give us energy and reasons to get up and be alive and ideas that shape us, as well as to describe how we eat.
If we think about Jesus using language in this way, we can imagine that he is asking us what feeds us, what gives us power and hope and all that a human being needs to live by. He is offering us the chance to feed on him, to let his words, his life, his story, his very being be the thing that feeds us and sustains us, that gives us energy and life – rather than any of the other things that might.
We need to ask what it is that feeds us, what it is that keeps us alive, keeps us human, keeps us going. Is it Jesus, or is something less fulfilling, less satisfying, less desirable? Are we living off thin gruel, or the rich and full diet of the one who can show us the life of God? Jesus, or whoever it was that put this message into this vivid and powerful metaphor, is saying that he can offer us what we need to live, and to live well, to be spiritually nourished and healthy. Twitter might offer us one kind of feed, but Jesus offers us something else; food for the hungry soul, bread for life, wine for joy, what the Old Testament calls wisdom. And if it’s true that what we literally eat has an impact on our bodies, then it’s also true that what we eat metaphorically will shape our souls…
All of us human beings need spiritual bread as much as we need food each day. But we don’t always have it. I think that perhaps our spiritual noses are not as attuned as our physical ones. When we are physically hungry we can smell bread a mile away… and we are drawn to it and long for it.. and can’t wait to eat. But spiritually it may be harder to see and know what we are being offered – or to know our purpose as the church which is to be a house of bread and to offer spiritual (as well as physical) bread to the world. There are those, admirable and unconventional people sometimes, who seem to know God not as an idea or an abstract thing, but as something more like life, air, and food. They know their own hunger and they know where to find food. But some of us might know a lot about spiritual things, but not realise we are actually meant to eat it, to consume it – not just read about it or think about, but let it become part of our bodies, like the food it really is. I wonder if this chimes with you?
There’s the most wonderful poem by George Herbert which some of you might recognise. It’s called ‘Love bade me welcome’. The poet is invited to a banquet, to the feast of life itself, and he feels unworthy to be there. But Love insists and takes his hand and smiles and says, ‘You must sit down and eat my meat.’ And the poet says, ‘So I did sit and eat’.
In my own life, with my own physical bodily life, I’m having to think about what I eat these days. I know I need to eat more healthily, fewer calories, less bad cholesterol, more good fish and fruit, a little red wine perhaps for my heart, more vegetables, more friendly bacteria. But I am also learning, more and more, that I need to eat healthily in these other metaphorical and spiritual ways too. If the biblical writers could say that the scriptures were sweet as honey to the taste, then I take that as wisdom about reading them, about letting their words become so instinctive to me that they are part of my body that can never be taken away. People sometimes say that they devour books – and my Kindle offers me samples and tasters. But I know that it matters what books I read or eat, it matters what ideas and writers are becoming my daily diet, what things I read in my ‘feed’. And I know that the bread, the staple, the stuff that gives me life, has to be the living bread, Jesus Christ. It is him, the one who shows me more than anyone else what it means to meet with God, it is he who I want to devour like daily bread and wine. It is Jesus I want to be the food and drink that makes me who I really am. Just as I am what I eat for breakfast, I am what I read and pray. And this comes to me not as a kind of burden, but as a promise and a hope. I know how people can be transformed by diet. I know someone who has just lost more than six stone. She is a new woman, because she has changed what she eats. But I think that’s just as possible through spiritual dieting – or perhaps spiritual feasting – too. We are what we read, what we pray, the one we turn to first in the morning and last at night, the prayers we repeat, the scriptures we learn by heart. We all need bread, and Jesus is the living bread, the one who can transform us from the inside.
You may remember that Jesus was often criticised for being someone who liked food rather too much; a wine-bibber and a glutton, some said. And perhaps you can visualise those pictures of Jesus drawn by Stanley Spencer who shows Jesus, very unusually, as a rather chubby man. I don’t think for a moment that Jesus would have been overweight on a first century Palestinian peasant diet, but perhaps it’s theologically right to show how Jesus is the best kind of nourishment for the hungry soul, the best kind of bread and wine for daily life, the living bread from heaven.
When we do take communion, we might sometimes imagine or believe that we are taking Jesus, and all that he represents and is, into our bodies – that he is becoming our body and we his. But I think we might do that too as we read the Gospels, or as we pray and think and walk in his footsteps in all sorts of ways. He can be the living bread that sustains us and nourishes the best of life in us. He really can. What a gift from God! Amen.