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.”
“We are what we eat!” Some of us have the luxury of choice in what, and how much, we eat. We have so much choice about food in our society that we rarely think about scarcity, and most of us have no concept of what it means to go to bed hungry. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 40 million Americans struggle daily to get enough to eat. Half of those are children, and many are elderly. Yet in the US alone we throw away about 263 million pounds of food EVERY SINGLE DAY. Poverty is the leading cause of hunger is the US, and globally. The United Nations Development Report estimates that that 22,000 children, women and men die EVERY DAY as a result of poverty. Our own city is not immune to poverty. 32% of families headed by single mothers in NYC live below the official federal poverty level. One of the concrete ways you and I can help feed the hungry is to volunteer our time, and provide financial support to Ascension Outreach Food Pantry run by members of our parish on the 2nd & 4th Saturday of each month. If you are interested in this ministry I encourage you to speak to Fr. Ed.
We can only say “We are what we eat” if indeed we literally have something to eat.
Jesus gets pretty graphic in today’s gospel with his imagery, when he says “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 … those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” Jesus could well have summed up his teaching by saying “You are what you eat”. Life that is true and lasting comes from God and if you and I do not eat that which is Christ, we have no life within us. The Eucharist invites us to encounter Christ who will nourish and change us by the spiritual food of the body and blood of Christ. If our spiritual food is Christ, then the Eucharist is central to our refreshment. The alternative is to risk a life of spiritual poverty!
As Anglicans and Episcopalians we value the Eucharist: after all the Eucharist means Thanksgiving. Yet John’s Gospel does not contain an account of the Last Supper. We are not given an account of Jesus having a meal with his friends, taking bread and wine and telling them to eat and drink of it to re-call his presence. Instead through John’s eyes we have a different perspective where Jesus, in his own words, teaches us about the meaning of the sacrament: what it means to be spiritually satisfied, to no longer be empty or hungry, no longer be lonely or incomplete. What it means to have meaning in life. John’s gospel account gives us this NEW LANGUAGE to help us understand the outward sign of a profound spiritual grace when we partake in at the Eucharist. Jesus language is both real, and somewhat uncomfortable.
If then, we truly are to become what we eat, we must mind carefully what we eat and digest spiritually, for the health of our souls. The world offers us many unhealthy menu choices – diets of materialism, greed, selfishness and untold distractions from God. But if we make the time to feed on the word of God, pray, and by faith eat the bread and drink from the Eucharistic Cup, Christ penetrates our beings and reinvigorates our lives so that we can experience union with God and one other.
Theologian and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, adopted the spiritual practice for over 40 years of celebrating the Eucharist daily. In our Eucharistic prayer the bread is taken or chosen (as are we by God), it is held up and blessed (and we too offer ourselves afresh to God), the bread is broken (as we recognize our own brokenness and Christ’s sacrifice for us on the Cross), and finally given to feed the faithful and transform our lives. Each time we accept Christ into us at the meal of Thanksgiving, we are strengthened for the purpose of being Christ to others. Through the Eucharist we find the joy of living not for ourselves but for others. I think I can best explain what I mean in the words of a simple prayer I first prayed at Sunday school many years ago, each time after receiving Holy Communion: “Lord Jesus, I have found you in the Sacrament, in the forms of bread and wine. Now I go out to find you in other people, especially in those you show me who need help.”
In John’s gospel we see Jesus use daily staple foods of bread and fish to feed the five thousand. Henri Nouwen describes Jesus’ miraculous act of meeting both human need for nourishment and a thirst for spiritual sustenance this way: “When Jesus fed five thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fish, he was showing us how God’s love can multiply the effects if our own generosity …where every generous act overflows its original bounds and becomes part of the unbounded grace of God at work in the world.” If we are not offering nourishment to both friends and strangers, even through the smallest act, we are contributing to spiritual wastefulness when so many hunger both for real food and for the promise of meaning and new life in Christ.
We are all called to participation in the Eucharist, just like those five thousand who were fed by Jesus with bread and fish. Hungry for Jesus, the miracle was prompted by people responding to his call to give and to share whatever they had with them to eat. The miracle was abundant food for all, and much to spare. They all shared a meal together: families, friends, strangers, and the results were not what the disciples expected. This was a community feast, people doing what Jesus asked them to do – perhaps it was the first ever “church pot luck”. How good are we at sharing. How generous are we? Can we do more?
I often wonder what became of the five thousand? How did they act differently after they were nourished by Jesus? I believe that it was not how much or how little was shared, but the fact that they were willing to give something in answer God’s call. Our impact as the church acting together can be so much stronger when we all contribute and allow God to use us and our gifts to make a difference in the world. Generosity is about giving freely, give joyfully and give from a place in the heart of unconditional love, instead of from a place of fear and scarcity. God will do the rest.
I am reminded of the first Anglican student conference I attended when I was an 18-year-old college student, during the dark days of apartheid in South Africa. As we drove through the gates of the seminary where we were meeting, we could not help but see the armed security police in vehicles monitoring our activities. We were all a little nervous to say the least. We had a special guest that year, the newly elected Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, who was to give the closing address to our conference. He arrived and spoke passionately with his customary combination of humor and prophetic vision. He reminded us that if we have Christ within us we need to look into the faces not only of our friends but also of our enemies, and find the Christ in them also. At dinner he sat and ate with us, and we talked freely. After our meal, he took his tray into the kitchen and instead of turning to leave, rolled up his sleeves, moved to the zinc and asked with a beaming smile “Does anyone mind if I wash? Not only can the Eucharist bring joy to something as mundane as washing dishes. Fellowship should not end at the meal. We left our conference inspired, renewed and filled with the Spirit, and without fear.
As we gather at the Communion rail today, we give thanks to God, and we pledge ourselves anew to one another I invite you to think of new ways to be the bread of life to others, new ways to allow God to use you for acts of generosity. In our brokenness we will catch a glimpse of God and find the promise of eternal life. In the words of the early church father, Irenaeus: “The word of God, Jesus Christ, on account of his great love for mankind, became what we are, in order to make us what he is himself”. In Christ we are what we eat. Amen!
The Summer Lay Proclamation Series is an Ascension tradition where lay members of the congregation proclaim the Good News as part of the Sunday service.
Born in South Africa, Maurice Seaton moved to New York to work as a diplomat for Nelson Mandela’s government at the United Nations. He is a certified fund raiser (CFRE) and Senior Consultant for the Episcopal Church Foundation, and has provided leadership, annual stewardship, planned giving and capital campaign consulting services to numerous Episcopal organizations in the United States and Europe.