You Are What You Eat

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Jesus said, “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.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” [The full readings for this morning can be found here.]

Jesus said, “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.”

In the name of the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Good morning, good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you here this morning, and I’d like to thank your provost and your clergy for this kind invitation. I should also thank you for your warm hospitality while we’re visiting with you today.

You know, when I was growing up, out in West Texas, one of the things my mother used to tell me all the time was, “You are what you eat.” She was trying to be wise, trying to convince me to avoid junk food and so she often repeated, “You are what you eat.” This, of course, explains my lifelong aversion to cauliflower, asparagus and brussels sprouts. You see, I did not like brussels sprouts, asparagus and cauliflower, and I did not want to be brussels sprouts, asparagus, and cauliflower. Thus, I did not eat them. That being said, I have come to believe, as has happened so often, that my mother was right. We are, we become, what we eat.

Our gospel passage this morning sort of operates as a summary of a fairly long discourse Jesus began in Chapter 6 of John’s gospel. It’s well worth exploring. If you’ll remember, this chapter begins with the feeding of the five thousand, one of the signs in John’s gospel that reveal the true identity of Jesus. As in the earlier passages, there’s a clear We also hear the echo of the story of Moses and the burning bush, when God tells Moses: I am who I am. John piles layer of meaning upon layer.”

Now, it’s worth remembering that for Jesus’ audience, “bread” probably meant something very different than it does to most of us. For most of us, bread is something nice to accompany an otherwise pleasant meal. We might even shun it if we’re watching our carbs because there’s plenty of other things to eat that are good for us.

But most of Jesus’ audience, and most of John’s audience, lived on a subsistence income, making barely enough to live on for that day. And for them, “our daily bread” often meant the difference between living and dying. Just as for the five thousand who came to hear Jesus, or the Hebrews wandering in the desert, bread was the solution to the ever-present problem of hunger. Bread was the solution to the problem of living another day.

Remember that Jesus says that whoever eats of his bread will live forever. That’s a variation of the Greek phrase for “eternal life.” Too often, we hear that and we think Jesus is talking about going to heaven, but I think Jesus understood that phrase differently. Notice Jesus says whoever eats this bread “has” eternal life. Both in the Greek and in our translation, the phrase is in the present tense. So this life is “eternal,” signifying that it is imbued, or a sharing, with the divine. And that’s a characteristic that belongs exclusively to the divine. Because we know every created thing fades away; nothing lasts forever.

But this divine or eternal life Jesus is offering is available now, not simply later on, in heaven, somewhere out there or up there. Jesus was telling his audience, and by that I mean us, that this life is already available to us: right here, right now. The sacramental life is not like a mortgage, where you wait until you make the last payment until you get the title. The sacramental life is a sign that God is already waiting for us—right here, right now.

I don’t want you to walk away from this passage with the impression that Jesus is only talking about some misty, ethereal, spiritual food. As Frederich Buechner has observed, “We don’t live on bread alone, but we also don’t live long without it. Remember, Jesus has just fed lunch to five thousand people. In part, Jesus is talking about real food in the kingdom that he announces. In his sermon in January 1980, Archbishop Óscar Romero spoke of the great poverty of most of the people of El Salvador. “There is hunger not because the land has not produced enough food,” said the archbishop, “but because some people have monopolized the fruits of the land, thus leaving others hungry.”

Romero knew that the church, in the effort to announce the kingdom of God and establish signs of its present reality, could never restrict its mission to people’s spiritual problems and dissociate itself from their temporal ones. If we want to share in the life of Jesus, in the kingdom, then our concerns should be the concerns of Jesus. And he was concerned with feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and binding up the brokenhearted. Or, as Saint John Chrysostrom said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the door, you will never find him in the chalice.”

We cannot tend to the spiritual needs of people and ignore their lives. We cannot look after their souls and ignore that they are starving. For the same reason, we cannot follow the “spiritual Jesus” and ignore the real man who was born in a stable and died when they hung him on a tree like a scarecrow. Toward the end of this chapter, when the crowd is horrified at Jesus’ teaching, he asks the disciples, “Do you also want to go away?” And Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of life.”
Peter was right, or he was almost right. Jesus not only has the words of life, he is the Word of life. And we are called to feast on that word, that life, so that we may share in it. We are, after all, what we eat.

This passage focusses us on one of the great mysteries of John’s gospel: the mystery of the Incarnation. Unlike the story of the manna in the desert where God feeds the Jews, God (in the person of Jesus) has become our food. And Jesus promises that this food is God’s invitation to participate in the divine life: not later, when we die, but now. We don’t need to, and shouldn’t, wait until the moment of our death to feast on God. It’s right here, at this table: so take, and eat. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018

One response to “You Are What You Eat

  1. R Dennis Alvarado

    Appreciated Your perspectives Brother James! Especially the addition of: “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the door, you will never find him in the chalice.”, by Saint John Chrysostrom. Those words brought out a more sincere meaning, it seemed like, to myself. God Bless You and all Your efforts to pass on the Good News, Sir!
    Dennis

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