“The one who eats this bread will live forever”, says Jesus in our Gospel reading. This passage comes after the story of the feeding of the 5000, but it isn’t the bread he has just distributed to the crowds that he means. He is talking about his own flesh and blood. We are so used to this imagery that we probably don’t stop to think about it too often, but if we do it’s not hard to see why it was so baffling and offensive to those who first heard it. It said in the Old Testament law that eating flesh with the blood in it was forbidden. People believed that the blood contained the life-force, given by God. It was sacred, not to be eaten or drunk. That’s why animals for food are still killed in a manner that allows their blood to drain away. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus seems to be suggesting here that the flesh and blood he wants people to eat is his own body.
One of the accusations levelled against the early Christians was that they engaged in cannibalistic rituals – their opponents took these words literally. Of course Jesus doesn’t mean this at all, but he is drawing on the symbolism of blood as a life-force in what he says here, though. We are invited not just to be spectators, but to share in his life, to take that life – the life of God – into ourselves. You can’t get healthy by just looking at a plate of broccoli, and you won’t get fat by looking at a slice of cake. It’s only when you put these things in your mouth, chew them up and swallow them that they make a difference to your lives – for good or ill. We are what we eat, the saying goes, and that is just as true spiritually as it is physically. Eat our five a day and we will be physically healthy; feed on Christ and we will be spiritually healthy, fit for the work he calls us to do.
So how do we feed on Christ? We do it through prayer, through reading the Bible, through coming together to worship, through the Eucharist, the most direct reminder of God’s longing to be part of our lives by giving us his own. But if “eating Christ” really means sharing his life, we can also be nourished by doing the things he did, treating others with dignity, loving and being loved, working for justice, recognising his presence in those at the bottom of the heap and giving all people their true status as children of God.
At this morning’s All Age Worship I gave out small lumps of bread dough for people to take home. I often say that my sermons are intended to be a bit half-baked. What I say always needs to be taken away and put into the context of your real lives if it is to be anything more than empty words, but this sermon wasn’t baked at all. That was the point. It emphasized, I hope, that it’s what we do when we leave the church that really makes a difference. Whatever we have heard and thought when we gather together can only really change us if we take it home with us, ponder what it means for our lives and apply it. I don’t know how people got on with that exercise. The rolls I made worked, and I have one here for us to use in place of our normal, rather tasteless, wafers tonight, but the point was that each of us has a responsibility, to make real in our lives what we hear with our ears and say with our lips. Each one of us has a glorious opportunity to embody God in the world, a blessing for ourselves and for others.
And that is the bread that makes us live for ever, the bread of his life which can nourish us not just for a day, for one holy moment, but forever.