“Eating Jesus”

I couldn’t resist. “The round jubilance of peach.” Actually, many jubilant peaches. The big box of Colorado peaches. We finished our first box so I bought a second one yesterday! All week long, they’ve sat on the counter, fragrant and ripe, perfectly firm yet perfectly soft; colored like a magnificent sunrise: yellow/orange/pink; the skin (as the poet brilliantly captures) bites like dust before the tongue relaxes into the sweet juicy flesh. We’ve eaten them whole over the sink, sliced with yogurt and granola, in salsa and cobbler. We’ve given them away as presents. We’ve dried them into a soft fruity leather. And some may yet make it to the freezer as jam. When I came across the poem by Li-Young Lee, I knew. This poem is so right for today, as we consider how it is that God feeds us—body, mind, and spirit—how God nourishes us with the flesh of Jesus, and how it is that the human one’s flesh is also the flesh of this beautiful, bountiful world.

The religious leaders object to Jesus’ claim that his flesh is the bread through which God feeds the world. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask incredulously. The verb they use here for “eat,” phagein, describes ordinary, polite eating. Jesus responds: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” In this reply, Jesus uses a different, much more graphic verb for eating: trogein, which depicts a noisy, animal-like eating. New Testament professor Brian Peterson clarifies; however, that “The audibility of the eating . . . is not the important point; this is eating that is urgent, even desperate. It is eating as though life depends on it, because it does.”[1]

It seems to me that Jesus is mixing the literal and the symbolic here. He’s using eating and drinking as a metaphor for a deep, trusting, sustaining relationship. And at the same time, he really is talking about his flesh as the source of nourishment. He’s saying that God is incarnate in his body and his body, in turn, reveals the divine presence in the body of all creation.

Jesus’ choice of words suggests that he’s not so interested in explaining how it is that we can consume his flesh. He simply wants us to eat and be nourished. Because our lives depend on it. Jesus’ vocabulary also reminds us that the meal he fed the crowd of 5,000 on the mountainside wasn’t any fancy banquet. It was an abundance of their own peasant food, food that requires some serious chewing—coarse barley loaves, leathery dried fish. Jesus emphasizes that God gives and sustains life in the everyday and the ordinary. God feeds us where we are, as who we are.

Margaret Miles, professor of historical theology at Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, CA notes that the art of the early church clearly compares God’s desire to nourish humanity to that of a nursing mother. She writes:

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of late medieval and Renaissance paintings and sculptures depict the Virgin Mary with one breast exposed as she is nursing or preparing to nurse the infant Christ. . . . In many of these paintings of the nursing Virgin, Christ twists around to gaze at the viewer, making eye contact that establishes the viewer’s identification with Christ and invites the viewer to share the nourishment.

Miles goes on to explain how well-known theologians like Augustine also portrayed God as a mother, feeding Jesus, who feeds the world. She writes:

It was Julian of Norwich (d. circa 1416) who most explicitly analyzed God’s care as closely resembling that of a mother: Julian proclaims: “The mother’s service is nearest, readiest, and surest: nearest because it is most natural; readiest because it is most loving; surest because it is truest.”

This imagery of a breast-feeding God is challenging for us today, Miles points out, because of the way our culture has objectified and sexualized women’s bodies. Indeed, she reports,

I have not been able to find a single religious image of the breast painted after 1750. By that time, it was impossible to symbolize God’s love by depicting a nursing Virgin. Meanwhile, crucifixion scenes increased in number and in their graphic depiction of violence and suffering.[2]

I’m not making a plug for breast-feeding—or even for depicting God as a nursing mother, at least not solely. What this is is a plug for is our knowing God as someone who generously desires to feed us with God’s own self. God nourishes us through Jesus, the human one, who shows us that God is fully present in our humanity, even as God is also much more than a human being. And having eaten Jesus, having been nourished and infused with life and health by the flesh and blood God he embodies, then we too can embody this nourishing love, can give of ourselves so that others can live.

This sort of intimate trust in Jesus, and the life God offers us through Jesus, does not come easily to us. In her commentary on this week’s text, Debie Thomas remembers a particularly difficult time in the life of her family.She recalls:

When my daughter was twelve years old, she slowly stopped eating. The descent was gradual: first, no desserts or sweets. Then, no carbs. Then, no between-meal snacks. Then, no meat. Eventually, no meals at all. Just pitiful little bites, scattered and useless. A single grape. One carrot stick. A tablespoon of plain yogurt or iceberg lettuce. Barely enough to sustain life.

There are no words to express what I felt as a mother as I watched my child waste away. All I wanted in the universe was to feed her. To cook anything she’d eat, to place warm and nourishing plates of food in front of her and coax her—even if it took hours—to take those essential nutrients into her weakened body. When she kept refusing, my heart broke, hardened, and broke again. Too many times to count. I panicked. I seethed. I grieved. I begged. I experienced a kind of powerlessness I hope never to experience again. I was her mother. The one who was supposed to nurture, nourish, feed, protect, and sustain my children.[3]

We humans have a difficult time receiving nourishment. We like to be independent. We value our privacy. We don’t want to be seen as needy. We’re quick to help others but we’d prefer not to allow them to help us. And with the world burning all around us—as climate scientists declare “Code Red” for the planet, as our black, brown, indigenous and immigrant neighbors face unrelenting hate and violence, as public health is relentlessly politicized, it’s hard to trust in anyone or anything. And yet, God is like the parent who will never give up trying to feed her child. God has infinite ways to offer us nourishment. At the same time, God respects our boundaries.God’s power is the power of love, never coercion. Even when it breaks God’s heart, God waits for us to eat and be nourished.

Today we offer a blessing to our high school graduates, as you begin a new chapter in your lives. Maeve, William and Milo, there is one thing I hope you take with you into the world as a gift from this community. I’m not so concerned about what your beliefs are. I just hope you will eat and allow God to nourish you. You will need bread (and peaches!) for your journey. Trust that God will feed you with God’s own self—not only in church, but in every ordinary moment . . . in friendship and love, through study, with beauty and sometimes amid healing tears. Maya Angelou once said:

I believed that there was a God because I was told it by my grandmother and later by other adults. But when I found that I knew not only that there was God but that I was a child of God, when I understood that, when I comprehended that, more than that, when I internalized that, ingested that, I became courageous.

May it be so. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-20-2/commentary-on-john-651-58-2

[2] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2008-01/gods-love-mothers-milk

[3] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay