This image is a piece of art called “The Treachery of Images” by René Magritte. For those of you who have never seen it is a beautifully drawn pipe with words below it in French, and the words translated are “This is not a pipe.” This surrealist painting is a popular one, but I most remember it from an anthropology class I took in college. In the class we examined theories on the meaning behind myth, magic and ritual. While I loved the content because it pushed and stretched my mind, I was always somewhat annoyed by my professor. It always seemed like everything he talked about was something he thought was beyond our understanding, as if he had some secret knowledge we could never find.
Back to this image, Magritte’s statement is simple yet profound. “This is not a pipe” conveys the truth that Magritte was compelled to share. The image itself was full of treachery to the mind, because while the mind identified it as a pipe even though it could not perform pipe functions and therefore was not a pipe. While you may have seen this popularized by shirts and billboards, Magritte’s concept in art was novel in the early 20th century. Reminding people that the symbol that represents a thing is not the same as the thing it represents.
The scripture today comes from the gospel of John, and perhaps we should call the gospel of John the surrealist gospel. For some background we should know this entire chapter has descriptions of communion. And from scholarly work we can date John’s authorship to sometime near the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. Knowing this we can know that Christian communities have existed for 2 or 3 generations at this point, and the meaning behind the ritual of communion had been given time to develop. The authors of this text had a deep understanding of what communion meant to them and their Christian community.
John 6:51-58 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
51”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.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 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. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 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.”
Today I want to invite us to focus on verse 52 where the people dispute among themselves about how Jesus can give his flesh to eat. I want to focus on this line because communion itself can be a bit confusing at times, and I have heard more than one time questions about consuming the body and blood of God. If you search the web for communion it is not long before you find an article asking if Christians are cannibals or vampires for eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. It isn’t far from the question being asked in our scripture passage today.
In our reading we also learn that the author identifies the people asking questions about consuming Jesus are of Jewish heritage. At this point in history there has been a division of the Jewish community and Christianity. A division that in early Christian history did not happen, because many of the early disciples saw the practices of Christ falling within the scope of Jewish practice. Some Jewish practice of the first century involved ritual purity and in general bodily fluids are seen as unclean. Purity is needed to be able to engage with the divine, and so one of the questions being asked here is, “How will consuming the unclean bring us closer to God?” In some ways our scripture text is highlighting what was probably an answer to an early conflict in Christianity by saying, “We have knowledge Christ gave us about why this consuming of Jesus brings us closer to connection with God.”
Just like my Anthropology teacher who drove me crazy, this gospel message seems to have some ownership of knowledge beyond the people asking the questions and the people trying to learn what this communion thing means. Within communion seems locked up meaning that is needed for receiving grace, peace and full life. This drives me crazy as a pastor and as a student of Jesus’ teachings because nowhere in the message of Christ or in United Methodist teaching should there be beliefs that keep us from God’s full offer of Grace. Yet, within this text is something powerful for me as one who has experienced the grace possible in the ritual of communion.
The ritual of communion and all the meaning it has for the United Methodist Church is reflected well in a document called “This Holy Mystery.” For us in the UMC, communion is ritual born of the last supper we read about in the gospels. A meal where Jesus sat with his disciples and shared a final meal before he was given over to certain death, only to have death overcomes by resurrection. The meal represents overall, from all theological viewpoints in our tradition, that God’s grace is available and shared with all people. This grace sharing takes place in the sharing of the meal between the people gathered. God’s grace represents a healing of the parts of our lives we are not proud of or the evils we perceive and a confirmation of God’s love active; how we share our lives to spread that love.
From time to time we debate weird things about the ritual as people who share it. For example there have been debates and papers written on whether if you just receive the juice or the bread if you really still receive the grace. Does having one of the elements still have the same effect? The answer decided was yes; taking any part of the meal represents God’s grace. Another debate that is going on now is “Can we bless and share the elements through the phone, Skype or Face Time?” We still aren’t sure on this one. The overarching question in all these debates is “How does the act of communion carry the meaning of God’s unending grace?” While scholars can debate all day where the meaning of God’s grace comes into communion, the people participating are really the ones who decide.
I have shared several times about Rev. Jerry Herships in Denver who has a church in bars who has coordinated a ministry of feeding the homeless in Denver with Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches. Each day of the week a United Methodist group in Denver can be seen sharing a meal and other needed things with the homeless and others in downtown Denver. On the days Jerry is there he also serves communion for any who want to take it.
Jerry tells of one day serving PB&J in the park along with communion; they had given away all the PB&J, except one sandwich. He put the sandwich down on the communion table and a young man sprints towards them. As he ran up he said, “Am I too late?” Jerry shared with him that all he had left was one sandwich. The young man said, “No, is communion over.” Communion is something that we think people in the community don’t want, but for many it is a ritual that lets them know God is close and people are willing to share God’s love.
People that experience something are the ones who really determine the message of it. This week I was driving down 11th avenue and I saw a man walking down the street. It was a hot day and a sprinkler was ahead of him. I kept thinking he would find the sprinkler a blessing and how great it would be to walk through the sprinkler. When he got to the sprinkler, something very different happened. He was instead very surprised; he had not been looking forward to the sprinkler as I had thought he would be.
Communion has great meaning to those of us who practice it. The church itself defines it as a moment that connects the whole community of faith together across time and space. Each act of communion is as the moment is timeless and we are having communion with all those who have taken it before or after us. During communion we receive God’s grace into our hands and then choose to make it a part of ourselves. The very intimate act connects us instantly to each other, creation and ourselves. God’s healing works in our lives, forgiveness for wrong begins to work on us, strength for the good comes in the sustenance, and we are invited to take this meal alongside our neighbors both enemy and friend. This incredible image of partaking in the body of Christ is meant to blur that which separates God and us and through grace, it connects us as one with all creation, even if just for a moment.
For many communion is beautiful and an incredible moment in which we sometime feel like running to the table to make sure it is not over. For others, sometimes it is like walking into an unexpected sprinkler. Some of us are not prepared for the overwhelming feeling of grace in our lives and we squirm. For others who have no understanding, it can seem strange that we are consuming Jesus, as if God’s grace is only made possible through the consuming of something that has been sacrificed. When instead the symbol is meant to span the ages and connect us to the all things at once, and to for one moment unite us in love again. The intimacy of the body is meant to let us know that nothing can separate us from God, and God will continually place God-self in places where we can connect to that love.
Rituals like communion are meant to help us feel transformed by the love of God, but these images can be treacherous if we do not give ourselves and others space to comprehend their own meaning for this ritual. Magritte’s Pipe was a great example to us of how something we see as a functional thing, can feel and look like a treacherous example of the untrue. Things can look like vampires and cannibals instead of connection and love. This is why we cannot pretend there is some secret knowledge to understanding communion, but instead need to create safe communities for questions about the ritual and allow people to develop their own understanding of what it means. John is very much the surrealist gospel because of all the layers of meaning contained within.
A blogger I quote often, Glennon Doyle Melton writes the blog Momastery. In it she describes a story about her child, Amma. Amma’s the middle child, so unlike Glennon’s first born children who had to seem perfect, Amma can go for a few days with something wrong and no one asking. For example, for a few days recently Glennon noticed Amma had a green blob on her forehead. She didn’t really take issue with it except to notice that when it faded a little, it usually seemed to be darker the next day.
Finally, Glennon decided enough was enough. She required Amma to take a shower and wash up well. Amma came out of the shower and sure enough the green blob was gone, but a few minutes later Amma came downstairs and behold the blob was back. Glennon shares this:
““So I said, “Sister. I give up. What’s going on with the green blob?”
And she looked up at me and said, “I’m a CHILD OF GOD, mom.” She pointed to her forehead and said, “My green is to Remember. So I can be brave.”
You guys. She’s marking herself. She’s recreating Ash Wednesday every morning.
She’s making herself a SACRAMENT, which is an outward reminder of an invisible truth.
Every morning she’s saying to herself and the world: I’m GOD’S. SO I CAN BE BRAVE.
Most Repeated Phrase in the Bible: FEAR NOT.
Awesome, God. Easy for you to say. But we’re afraid all the time. HOW DO WE FIGHT OUR FEAR?
Second most repeated phrase in the Bible: REMEMBER.
Fear Not By Remembering that YOU ARE A CHILD OF GOD. And as such you are free to dream and risk and love and fail and lose and rest and try again, forever. A child of God’s birthright is: Forever Tries.”
Communion is exactly what Glennon describes the green blob sacrament as, “An outward reminder of an invisible truth.” And in the “green blob sacrament” lies our challenge: We have to be willing to take communion and let it make us a sacrament. A sacrament that brings God’s healing grace to the things that divide our world, that divide us, and the things that make our very being feel divided. Let it help us feel brave enough to run to the table, even when the symbol is something we struggle with, even when it surprises us, and know that God will use that moment to make us whole. And most of all let us be a community of faith that holds true to the knowledge that all are welcome to this grace to experience it without some secret knowledge required and a place with space for people to ask questions about what communion with the Christian community can mean for them.
Go and share God’s grace with each other, yourself and the world.