So they said to him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as Scripture says: ‘God gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
So Jesus said to them, “The truth of the matter is, Moses hasn’t given you bread from heaven; But God gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
So they said to him, “Teacher, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them,”I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (John 6)
There are some stories that we tell often enough that they become central to who we are. Whether we mean for that to happen or not.
What are they, for you? For your family? In mine, one of them is that I’m a terrible cook. There’s lots of supporting evidence for this, but all of it is from about twenty years ago. Still, my family delights in retelling the stories, in making my mistakes come alive again, so that, however much things change, I will always, always be … a terrible cook. The stories are sort of funny, and they also make me feel sort of … stuck. There’s no getting out of that identity for me.
For a friend of mine, the story his family told about him – and to him – was much more damaging. They told him he would be healed. They told everyone who met him that he would be healed. They took him to church every Sunday, marched him down the center aisle during the hymn of invitation every Sunday, and as he knelt, the church passionately told stories of Jesus healing those whose bodies, like his, didn’t work quite right. And then eventually – when he was eleven, and it became clear that his cerebral palsy was going to stick around, that no amount of elders hands could anoint it away – eventually they started telling him that he didn’t believe strongly enough, that he didn’t pray fervently enough, that he didn’t hope faithfully enough. He left the church for fifteen years. Then he went to seminary to learn to tell different stories about Jesus. Or to tell the same stories, but differently. To try to make the healing stories not so harmful. To be able to hear them, in his own body, in all its glory and with all its limits.
There’s a story we tell about Jesus. Every week. The Scriptures change and the music changes and our own lives change but every week, regardless of what else we say and what else we pray, we come to a particular point in this service and we get serious, we get reverent, and we tell the story that Jesus was betrayed. That his body was broken and his blood spilled. We tell that story often enough that it has become central to who we are. Whether we meant for that to happen or not.
And maybe, more importantly, whether Jesus meant for that to happen, or not. I would propose that he didn’t. The story about the betrayal, the first time it’s told, is in the Gospel of Mark. There are a few verses at the beginning of chapter 14 that warn that something bad will happen – they were looking for a way to arrest him, but to be sneaky about it. And then there’s a story about a meal, and a woman who brings Jesus a gift. And that story is followed by a couple of verses that return to the earlier concern, and tell us that a disciple agreed to turn Jesus over to the authorities.
And every week we tell the outside story. The shorter one. The one about Judas. About betrayal. On the high school mission trip to Joplin, when the kids who were leading worship were trying to remember the words of institution, whatever else they couldn’t remember about what came after, they all knew, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” They knew that the ritual began with those words.
But the story that comes in between – the story about the woman – do you know it? It’s longer than the other – there are these gorgeous, these, these luxurious details. It tells us that Jesus is reclining, he’s a guest in a home and he’s laying back, after the meal, and a woman comes into the room – she wouldn’t have been allowed, you know, her being there would have been problematic – but she comes in and she releases this exquisite fragrance into the air, she pours this expense perfume on his head. The disciples harass Jesus about it, and he tells them that what she did was what she could, and that it was beautiful. And he tells them that wherever the Gospel is preached in all the world, what she did was the story to tell. Her extravagant generosity, her pouring out of gratitude and honor and beauty – that’s the story, he says, that should go with the gospel. Where good news is preached, say also that there was this woman, who disregarded the rules that tried to keep her in a particular place, or in a particular role, and instead she came forward, offered what she had to her neighbor, to her God, and it was beautiful.
But we don’t tell it that way. We tell it as though we believe that whatever else happens, whatever else about Jesus’ teaching or Jesus’ embrace or peoples’ faithfulness, whatever other details help to fill out the story, the center of it is that he was betrayed, and his body broken, and his blood spilled. That is the story we tell, ritually, every time we gather.
We’ve taken language from the apostle Paul, meant to be a story, and we’ve turned it into our liturgy. The words come to us in the middle of other instruction, in the first letter to the Corinthians, and he’s telling them that women ought to wear head coverings when they pray. And then he’s telling them about all the ways their community is doing this sacred meal wrong – like they bring their own private meals, he writes, and at the end of the feast, one person goes home still hungry and another goes home drunk. They bring divisions with them to the table and at the table, they intensify those divisions. He’s trying to correct those practices, and in doing that, he offers the language that we still use today. He says, “This is how it happened, ok? On the night that Jesus was betrayed…”
And I’ve been trying to imagine how that language might have come about. The disciples are the first ones to share the communion meal together, to say that it’s symbolic of Jesus and his life among them. And I wonder if there’s some conversation they have about it. They’re in mourning, they’re trying to be faithful, and maybe someone says, “How does this go?” And someone else answers, “Well, there was bread, and wine. Like every meal.” And another says, “When was it? The last time we ate with him? What did he say? It’s all so blurry…” And another says, “Don’t you remember? It was that same night, there at the end. That night we were all there. The night he was betrayed.” And others nod. “Right. Right, that’s when it was. What an awful night.”
I can imagine that happening. The first time, maybe the first few times that they gathered. But we know that the betrayal is not the only story told by the early church around this table. We know that broken body and spilled blood are not the only images used for this meal. Sometimes, our ancestors talked about it as fire, and spirit. Ephrem, an early church leader, used to say, “The Fire of compassion descended and took up residence in the Bread. See, Fire and Spirit are in the womb of her who bore You; See, Fire and Spirit are in the river in which you were baptized. Fire and Spirit are in our baptismal font; In the Bread and the Cup are Fire and Holy Spirit.”
Sometimes the cup was not understood as blood or as spirit, but as oil, like for anointing… Another early church leader, Cyril, in Jerusalem, invited those who came to take communion, after they drank, to touch their wet lips with their fingers, and moisten their foreheads. He taught that this kind of anointing would help restore right perception, so that all who feasted at the communion table might then recognize the whole created world as filled with the spirit of God.
We’ve lost those images. Somewhere along the way, we’ve turned Paul’s story into liturgy, and we repeat it every week as if it’s the only way. We’ve done this with some other parts of our tradition, too – the Lord’s prayer. Clearly, the words that we choose to do this with matter. So I’ve been testing out some other scriptures in my head – not the words of Paul, but the words of Jesus. Like today’s scripture. What if we gathered around this table and we said, “On the day that a hungry crowd followed Jesus to the other side of a lake, Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” How would that change what we do here? Or what if we thought back to earlier in his ministry, and we said, “On the day that many people gathered around Jesus on a hill, to hear him teach, he said, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you are hungry now, for you will be satisfied.’” We are partway there. We already speak of this table as open, as abundant, as celebratory. But there is this disconnect, then, sometimes, when we follow that with the stories of betrayal and violence that we’ve enshrined.
There’s a story we tell in this country, over and over again. Too often. Twenty-one times since the year 2000, we have told a new story about a mass murder, like the one that happened in Aurora at the movie theatre. The stories are all different but there are similar threads, and we respond similarly. We collectively deny that those stories shape who we are. We respond with shock and sympathy, with prayers and promises to be more diligent. We respond by looking into the mind of the perpetrator, as far and as deep as we can, to find that place where he is different from the rest of us, that thing that makes him and only him capable of acting in ways we would never dream of. We try to understand, and explain. And, on the whole – maybe not us here, but statistics show, we, Americans – buy more weapons. After attacks like this, gun sales go up. Predictably. As a people, we have come to believe that violence will save us from violence. And I can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection between that belief and our practice, as Christians, of telling and retelling the story that violence – submission to violence, violence done by people, violence willed by God – is what saved us.
Here at Saint Andrew, we don’t talk a lot about it. We don’t preach the power of the blood, or that the crucifixion called us back from certain condemnation. We are careful about that, actually, having seen the damage that theology can do – how it historically has been used to sanction abuse, and torture, and worse. But we still use it – the language of betrayal and death – we still use it around this table. We say it as if because it’s the tradition, it’s untouchable. As if because people around the world gather around a table using this formula, there is something about it that is sacred, something that must remain. We can change the liturgy at any point to reflect the season, or the character of the congregation, or the news of the world, but when it comes to the Words of Institution, it’s as if our hands are tied. As if that’s where our power ends, and only the ritual remains.
That’s how ritual works. That’s why it has such hold on us. Because it is this connection to what came before; it invites us into a world not of our own making. This story, of betrayal and body and blood, is what connects us, across time and space, to all other Christians, around this table. Except now we know, from the early church, that that’s not true. We know that other Christians were creative in their coming to the table. We know that they used more life-giving images, also found in scripture. And they held a tension – they spoke of beauty and mystery – early church father Augustine told his congregation, “You are Christ’s body; it is your own mystery that lies here upon the table of the Lord, and it is your own mystery you receive.” And Ephrem said, “Christ’s body has been newly mingled with our bodies, his blood too has been poured into our veins. His voice is in our ears, his brightness in our eyes, In his compassion, the whole of him has been mingled with the whole of us.” Early Christians did not deny the reality of violence in the world, or the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion, but they did tell more than just one story.
Once upon a time there lived a holy rabbi. He was a good man, and he was brilliant. He knew the answer to every question, to anything anyone could ask of him. He traveled from town to town, telling stories and answering questions. And in one of these towns, after he had taught for hours and answered every question the crowd had posed to him, a young girl cried out, “Rabbi! I have a question I’m sure you can’t answer.” And he smiled at her, and he encouraged her to ask. She said to him, “I have a bird, hidden behind my back, held carefully in my hands. Is the bird dead or alive?” She figured she could make the rabbi wrong, regardless of what he said. If he said the bird was dead, she could set it free, and it would fly away. If he said the bird was alive, she could crush it in her hands; she could kill it.
The rabbi knew that the girl wanted to trick him. To do it publicly, to bring him shame. He considered how he could answer without shaming her. He stayed silent for a moment. And then the answer came to him – how he could respond, and still give her some dignity, too. He had trouble getting the words out, but he told her, “My dear child, you hold the bird in your hands. The answer all depends on you. You can let it live, or you can take its life. The answer is in your hands.”
We can tell stories about betrayal or we can tell stories about beauty. We have tried for a long, long time to tell both. And it is true that both are real, and both deserve our attention. But which stories we tell often enough that they have the power to shape who we are – that is up to us. It is in our hands.