“Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” . . . “Oooh, Jesus, this teaching is, um, difficult.” If that isn’t a biblical understatement, I don’t know what is. Well, let me start by assuring all of you, especially any new people, we are neither Cannibals for Christ nor Zombies for Jesus. Ah, so it’s just a metaphor. It’s like one of Jesus’ parables. Weeellll, not exactly. Correct, Jesus does not literally turn himself into a loaf of Jewish rye. We are also not literally eating little bits of bloody Jesus tartare. (See cannibal statement above.)
You see, this goes beyond simple figures of speech and hits on a much deeper, even more substantial reality. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard quite a bit about bread. God giving Elijah bread and water for his journey. Jesus feeding the multitude. Jesus saying, “I am the bread of life. . . . 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.” People, stuff just got real. Jesus is going beyond just giving people food to eat. Beyond just good teachings, beyond miracles or signs of power. He’s giving himself, his whole self as the food that we truly need. Not just the bread for today but the bread for eternity. This is God’s absolute and sufficient provision for us that Rev. Nat told us about a few weeks ago.
But wait, how can Jesus give himself to us as food? How do we even begin to understand this? Is there anything in our lives comparable that can help us grasp it? Maybe there is. Now go with me on this. A little while back, I was watching the video of a sermon at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, and the preacher mentioned this artist, Ben Wildflower, and a piece of his called “Take and Eat.” I’m afraid I don’t have the actual picture to show you, but you can see it later on his website benwildflower.com. In the background is a large chalice with a host standing within it. Above it are the words, “Take and eat. This is my body.” In front of all that is a woman breastfeeding her child. Just as we had last Sunday in Linzi’s sermon, so here we have an image, an icon even of the Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord. The artist writes in the description, “Before we were fed by Christ, Christ was fed by Mary.” Then I looked some more at that picture and began to notice something. Without the breast that’s out to nurse the baby, it’s kind of hard to tell what the gender of the person is. There isn’t really any other particular feature to indicate man or woman. I don’t think the artist intended that sort of ambiguity, but it connects to something else in our tradition.
Now come along with me for a bit, back in time. 14th, 15th century England. Norwich, to be exact, a major city then but one not untouched by the troubles of the time: climate change, famines, political and economic turmoil, revolts, plague. And in that city was a church dedicated to St. Julian, and attached to it was a small cell, aybe 150 to 200 square feet, in which lived a woman we know today as Julian of Norwich. She lived there as an anchoress, someone who’s chosen to isolate herself for religious life. Well, sort of isolate. To the inside of the church, there was a door and window through which she could watch the Mass and receive communion. To the outside was a window through which she could provide spiritual counsel to visitors. Medieval Zoom, you might say. Of a sort. (Solitude but also connection, except a voluntary kind.)
At one point in this cell, she fell ill and was close to death, and during this time Christ came to her in a vision, a series of “showings” as she called them in the account she wrote, the first known work written by a woman in English. Here Jesus revealed himself to her in humility, in vulnerability. Revelations of Divine Love, the title we know it by. She expounds upon these revelations in ways we don’t often associate with God in general but particularly with Jesus. In a famous (but not uncontroversial) line, Julian writes, “And so Jesus is our true Mother.” And she goes on to describe three ways this motherhood works: in nature by our creation, in grace by his Incarnation as a human being, and in the continuing works of motherhood. “And in that,” she writes, “by the same grace, everything is penetrated, in length and in breadth, in height and in depth without end; and it is all one love.” Even in the midst of a world that seems to be falling apart, we still have the assurance that God has never abandoned us and never will, who in not only a Father to us but also a Mother.
Last week Linzi described Mary as the person closest to Jesus from the very beginning on his life here on earth. Bearing him in her womb, giving birth to him, nursing him at her breast, raising him through childhood to adulthood, witnessing his death, living in his resurrection. But even this falls short. No mother, no father, no parent of any sort is perfect or can provide absolute and sufficient provision, not even the Virgin Mary. “No one,” Julian states, “ever might or could perform this office fully, except only [Jesus.]” Mary fed him with the milk from her breast, and in a certain way, one might say that Christ feeds us with the milk of divine grace. But even this doesn’t go far enough.
A human mother, of course, provides the biological building blocks for the fetus in her womb. One might even say that she gives herself as the food but only until the birth. Even nursing at the breast, as intimate as it might be, is not the same kind of direct experience and is still only temporary. The kind of feeding that Jesus provides never diminishes nor ends. As Julian writes, “Our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does . . . with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life.” We take Christ into ourselves, his Body and Blood, the fullness of his humanity and his divinity, eternally abiding in us. But we also abide in him. “The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast.” Now, we can also imagine abiding in Christ in another way. Nicodemus, misunderstanding Jesus words to him, asked how a person can enter the womb a second time and be born again. Well, do we not do so in baptism? In those blessed waters and the power of the Spirit, we enter into the tomb of his death, but do we not also enter into the womb of his life?
Paradoxically, while we are ever nourished within that womb, we are also always living outside it. We are ever being born into new life, not just as individuals but also together as a church, as the Body of Christ himself in the world. He carries us in himself, but we also carry him in ourselves and out into the world, continuing his mission of reconciliation and healing. He feeds us in the breaking open of the proclaimed word and in the breaking of the bread, his Body given for the world and his Blood poured out for the many, not just for a few. In the bread and wine, the gifts of nature and the work of human hands, we bring our whole selves, our souls and bodies. And we receive our Savior back, knitting us into his Body and filling us with the life of his Blood. We are made more and more like him, and we become more and more who we are meant to be, made in the image and likeness of God.
There is so much more I can talk about here, so many depths we can explore, but I must let you go. So go now with this in mind: Choose. Choose to follow this difficult teaching. Choose to accept the motherhood of Christ – the love, the vulnerability, the gift of new life. Choose to receive and always remember the waters of baptism. Choose again and again to receive Christ at the altar, in your minds and hearts and in your very bodies. And choose to go forth bearing Christ to others. Amen.