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On Eating and Drinking with Jesus

 

                  John 6:54         Genesis 8:13-22       Luke 19:1-10

 

I: — Time magazine, McLean ’s, together with most magazines that appear weekly or monthly, are customarily divided into sections according to subject matter.   One section discusses business, another politics, another sport, as well as medicine, education, finance, the environment and clothing fashions. The format of the magazine suggests that these compartments have little to do with each other. Sport has little to do with business, education little to do with finance, medicine little to do with politics.

Actually, all of these subjects have been artificially compartmentalized. Sport has a great deal to do with business; sport has as much to do with business as sport has to do with sport.  Education has as much to do with finance as education has to do with the philosophy of education or with pedagogical technique.  And what has become more politicized than medicine?  It’s always possible to compartmentalize a magazine; it’s never possible to compartmentalize life.

For this reason we should always suspect the magazine section on religion. It’s usually towards the back of the magazine, so that if the weary reader puts down the magazine before she finishes reading she won’t have missed much. What’s more, the article on religion is as highly compartmentalized as the other articles. We are informed that a church in a Vancouver suburb has been involved in scandal; or that there’s fierce infighting in one particular denomination; or that two religious bodies are going to amalgamate.

The magazine left-handedly gives the impression that religion is on the margin of human existence; it has little if anything to do with life.  It may have something to do with leisure time or hobbies or abstract musing for those who enjoy abstract musing, but it has little to do with life.

People of biblical conviction, however, think differently. We know that faith pertains to life, not to the margins of life.  Jesus came to restore our humanness to the glory in which it was created. He had no interest – and has no interest – in making us more religious.  People whose lives were complicated and twisted pretzel-like welcomed him; people preoccupied with religion couldn’t stand him. He said himself that he came to bring life not religion, and life richer than anything available anywhere else.

My students are startled when I tell them that a Jewish youngster, upon learning the Hebrew language, is directed first to read – read where in the Hebrew bible?  Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd” – wouldn’t that be a good place to have a youngster start reading Hebrew sentences?   As a matter of fact the Jewish youngster is directed to the book of Leviticus (a book that the church rarely reads) just because Leviticus 17-22 describes “holiness,” holy living.         We are not to bribe judges; we are not move surveyors’ stakes; we are not to falsify weights and measures; we are not to exploit defenceless people. Holiness has everything to do with life; holiness has very little to do with a trembly feeling in one’s tummy as the sun sets over the lake and the loon loons on.

 

II: — In our service today we are going to share the Lord’s Supper together.  What’s the connexion between the Lord’s Supper and any supper? Between what we eat here and the roast beef we eat in two hours?   Between this meal and any meal?

Let’s think for a minute about the matter of eating meat – ordinary, everyday meat.  Let’s revisit the old sagas in the early chapters of Genesis.  Humans are created to live, under God, in the realm of blessing.  We are also created on the same “day”, the sixth day, as the animals. This means that we are related to the animals more closely than we are related to anything else in the creation. We and the animals are first cousins; not quite brothers and sisters, but certainly cousins. For this reason we were never meant to eat them.  What sort of people eat their cousins?

Since God is the God of shalom, peace; and since he alone is Creator, the world was created to live in peace: peace between us and God, peace between us and our neighbour, peace between us and our environment, peace between us and the animals.

As the timeless story in Genesis unfolds we are told that on account of our arrogant disobedience; on account of our ingratitude and God-defiance, we are expelled from paradise.  Forfeiting God’s blessing, we now know curse.         Husband blames wife for what’s gone wrong.  Wife blames snake. Snake has no one to blame, even though snake in turn will be despised and loathed. Cain kills brother Abel. Everyone is at everyone else’s throat. Daily work becomes frustrating and only partially productive.  Difficulty and pain attend everything we do.  Creation, cursed, is spiralling down into chaos.

The next episode in our collection of sagas is the story of Noah’s ark. This story informs us that as wickedness spreads throughout the creation God’s anger is aroused and his judgement is provoked.  A flood occurs. But as I have pointed out here relentlessly, the purpose of God’s judgement is always his restoration.  When the flood has receded, Noah and his family have been borne through God’s judgment; they have been spared.  In gratitude to God for his mercy they kill an animal and offer it to God as a sacrifice; specifically, as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God for his life-giving goodness.  In addition to the animal offered up in thanksgiving to God, humans begin eating animals. At this point in the old Hebrew sagas, and only at this point, humans become meat-eaters. Permission to eat meat is God’s concession to the depravity of the human heart.

At the same time, as often as our Hebrew foreparents ate eat meat at daily meals and acknowledged the depravity of their heart (after all, they were eating their cousins, weren’t they?); as often as they ate meat at daily meals our Hebrew foreparents were reminded of the sacrifices that priests offered up on their behalf in the temple.         Sacrifices were the God-appointed provision whereby defiled people could come before a holy God and survive meeting him.  Sacrifices were the God-appointed provision whereby sinners could repent and find pardon. Ultimately, in Israel ’s history, the sacrifices in the temple came to point to the sacrifice, the sacrifice of God’s own Son that would thereafter render animal sacrifice unnecessary.  In other words, every time an Israelite family sat down to roast lamb at the dinner table, the family considered the lambs that were being sacrificed, by God’s appointment, in the temple.  And every time they reflected upon the lambs being sacrificed in the temple, they anticipated the lamb of God who would gather up all the sacrifices that had anticipated his, crowning them with his own self-offering on behalf of all people everywhere. When John the Baptist saw Jesus approaching him at the Jordan he cried “There’s the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

In two hours we are going to go home and eat meat.  We shall eat it because it sustains us.  It provides ever so much that we need, not the least of which is iron for our blood, without which we would only flop around anaemically.  Because, however, as Christians we know how it is we have come to eat meat, our eating meat will always mean more than mere bodily nourishment. Our eating meat will have about it the flavour of sacrifice, and the flavour of sacrifice in turn will direct us immediately to the lamb who has been offered up for us all.  Specifically, the dead animal we eat will point us to someone else whose death has brought us life.  We have been given life through the death of a fellow-creature who was slain on our behalf. Any occasion of meat-eating – even a burger at McDonald’s – sears upon us the truth that we are the beneficiaries of God’s mercy on account of another creature whose blood was shed for us.  In other words, unlike Time magazine or McLean’s, we who have been to school in Israel ; we don’t compartmentalize life.  Meat-eating on any occasion, for any reason, is shot through with spiritual significance.

Customarily before we eat a meal we “say grace.” The English word “grace” has two meanings. One meaning is the dozen words we utter sincerely before we pick up knife and fork and begin dismembering the meat.  The other meaning of “grace” has to do with God’s undeserved mercy. Strictly speaking grace, in scripture, is God’s faithfulness to his covenant with us; and when his faithfulness to us collides with our sin, his faithfulness takes the form of mercy.         There is the profoundest connexion between the grace of God and our “saying grace.” The words we utter before eating are intimately connected to the mercy of God, connected specifically to that self-offering, sacrifice, whereby God fashions our pardon and bleaches our stains and summons us home.  So far from compartmentalizing life, Hebrew logic renders all of life – hamburger joint snack and weekly worship, thrice-daily meals and once-only Messiah Banquet to come – a seamless whole.

 

II: — Not only was meat eaten regularly at Israelite meals; wine was drunk at every meal as well. Where wine is concerned our Israelite foreparents differed from us in two ways. On the one hand, they abhorred drunkenness, finding it disgusting, whereas we seem to find it amusing. On the other hand, Israelite people customarily drank wine at every meal.  The rare exception was the highly unusual ascetic like John the Baptist. People like John who didn’t touch wine also refrained from touching much else, including soap and shampoo. They also avoided women. They lived on the fringe of society. Their witness had its place, to be sure, but it was never the witness that God had appointed his people to bear characteristically.  John, it must be remembered, lived in the wilderness, dressed in animal skins, stank like a garbage can, and drank no wine.  Jesus did none of this.

Again and again the Older Testament speaks of wine as God’s gift that gladdens the heart of men and women.         Wine doesn’t appear to be essential to life.  Bread is essential to life, but not wine.  Yet wine is essential to life, said our Hebrew foreparents, just because joy is essential to life. Life in the kingdom of God is never to be bleak or drab or dull.  Life must never become utilitarian only.  In addition to the utilitarian there has to be a light heart and a glad countenance, a happy time and a festive mood.

Jesus, we know partied frequently.  He partied so often that his enemies accused him of overdoing it.  They said he ate too much and he drank too much.  Whereupon he wheeled on his detractors, “John came neither eating nor drinking and you said he was demon-possessed, crazy if not wicked. I have come eating and drinking, and you call me a glutton and drunkard.  You don’t care about God’s Kingdom.  You care only about spearing those who challenge your self-righteousness and your lovelessness.  That’s deplorable. But in any case I and the people who love me are going to a party.  And we’re going to have a good time.  You’re welcome to come to the party too.  Maybe you’d rather stay home and pout.  We can’t help that. But in any case you aren’t going to spoil our party.”

Wine is God’s gift that gladdens the human heart. When our Lord insists, wine cup in hand, that he is the true vine, the wine of life, he means that he is that gift of the Father who profoundly makes the human heart to sing. Whenever we drink wine, therefore, on any occasion – at the Lord’s Supper, at a meal, in a place of public refreshment – we are announcing once again that life is seamless. Jesus Christ is the one who profoundly delights and satisfies, doing for us what no one else can and imparting to us what no one can ever take away.

 

III: — Since our Lord most profoundly gladdens us through the blessing of his shed blood, the apostles, together with the church after them, have associated wine with blood. In fact the church hasn’t hesitated to speak of eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. This isn’t surprising, since Jesus himself said that he abides in us and we in him only as we drink his blood. (John 6:54)

What did he mean?  What did he mean, in view of the fact that Jewish people abhor drinking blood as they abhor little else?         The Torah forbids them to drink blood, and they take such precautions with kosher meat as to ensure that they don’t eat or drink blood. At the last supper, when Jesus took the cup and declared to the disciples, “This is God’s covenant with you renewed in my blood,” the one thing that his disciples never thought they were doing was literally drinking his blood. The thought of it would have sickened them.

It so happens that among the Israelite people to “shed blood” meant to murder.  Murder was reprehensible. It so happens that among the Israelite people to “drink blood” meant to murder and to profit from the foul deed. While it’s dreadful to murder, it’s even worse to murder and then profit from the murder.

When Jesus tells us that we are going to drink his blood, he means that our sin is going to do him in.         Humankind’s sin, collapsing on him, will crush him to death.  And humankind’s sin, crushing him to death, he will gladly bear and bear away for our sakes, thereby giving us life.  We kill, and we profit from it.  We shed blood and we drink blood.  In the paradoxical mystery of God’s grace, the treachery of the human heart, culminating in murder, the murder of the Son of God; this becomes the means of our forgiveness and freedom.  Let me say it again. In the paradoxical mystery of God’s grace, human treachery (the cross) becomes the means whereby human treachery is pardoned and purged.

Plainly we do drink our Lord’s blood.

 

What about bread, both everyday bread and Eucharistic bread?  Everyday bread, Eucharistic bread, and the body of Christ?   A discussion of this will have to wait for another sermon.

 

Today it is enough to know, as we come to the Lord’s Table, that the wine we drink is the blood of Christ. It is enough to know that two hours from now, when we eat pork chops or fried liver, we are joining in mind and heart the animal we eat (our cousin had to give up its life for us) with the sacrifice of the lamb of God, who gave up his life for us in order to give us his life.

 

Life in the kingdom of God is seamless.

 

                                                                                                            Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                  

February 2007