I had some pretty great meals this past week.
On Monday I got to sit down for lunch with a young adult friend who recently graduated from college in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. After a year of Skyping with each other every few weeks he is now in the process of relocating to Chicago and we had the luxury of a two hour meal, face to face. It was fascinating to me how different it felt to talk to him with a plate of food in front of me than it had looking at the screen of my laptop. Before there was a pressure for one of us to be talking at all times, since we were nothing more than two-dimensional faces staring at each other. Now there were thoughtful pauses as we chewed on our meals, considering what the other had said.
On Friday morning I had breakfast with one of my dearest friends who also got married this summer. It was the first time we’d been alone since our weddings, so there was lots of reflecting back on the highlights and the surprises of our respective ceremonies. We struggled with what to order from a menu filled with too many good choices, and in the end decided to share a sweet and savory split: an order of cinnamon roll french toast and a plate of tofu scramble with feta and pesto and summer vegetables. We moved from talk of weddings to more general talk of work and home, talk about our friends and colleagues, as we reached across the table to dip a bite of our bread in the puddles of molten cream on each other’s plates. At one point, as I looked at my friend, I was struck by how many times we’d done this. How many meals we’d shared, how many challenges we’d tackled, how much life we’d lived together. As I tried to share with her all the memories pooling up in my mind, I got choked up. She was the only person I’d known when I moved to Chicago almost a decade ago, and now we were practically family. There weren’t really words for it, so we just kept eating our sweet and savory split as I wiped the tears from my eyes.
There were other extraordinary meals. The sandwiches and cream sodas that accompanied the slow work of listening and reconciliation in a relationship that had been stretched and stressed. The coffee I drank while listening to a colleague describe her hopes and fears for the global ministry of our church and her passion for the young adults she works with. The salsiccia and roasted peppers I consumed as Kerry and I got the report from a friend just back from a gospel music conference that had been profoundly healing. The last minute Friday night backyard dinner with friends collapsing around a table pulled up from the basement and draped with a cloth before being weighted with offerings from each of our kitchens and stories from each of our lives that were more than we could ever fully consume. All in one week.
Relationships go better with food. Maybe it’s like Pavlov and his dog, that experiment with the food and the bell, where the dog was trained to associate the sound of the bell with the imminent arrival of food. Maybe it’s as simple as that, that we all have to eat, and so we end up eating together, and over time we come to associate food with togetherness. This seems to be the case with Jesus as he continues his post-prandial conversation with the crowd he’s already fed with loaves and fishes. The English translation we’ve grown up on is actually a little thin. The Greek is much meatier. What Jesus really says is something like, “Those who chew on my flesh and drink my blood have the life that lasts and I will stand them up on the last day.” The words John’s gospel uses aren’t ethereal or ephemeral, they’re visceral and embodied. They’re the stuff of incarnation. They echo back to the very first words of this gospel, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” (John 1:14)
John’s gospel is the last and the latest of the four canonical gospels to be written, so there’s lots of scholarly conversation about how much it reflects the worship practices of the early church. It’s certainly hard to read these passages in worship and not think of the Lord’s Supper that’s still yet to come, but I want to avoid making that leap too soon. Once we start talking about Holy Communion it’s so easy to reduce it to a set of beliefs about Holy Communion. We’ve got two thousand years of disputes over beliefs about the sacrament, which is really not the same thing as the sacrament itself.
Jesus has a similar struggle with the crowd. He has already fed them, he has already saved them from their hunger, and they want to argue with him about their religious identity and beliefs: “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness.” (6:31) As the conversation deepens, Jesus responds to their certainties about the past with a fierce urgency in the present that points to a new future. Look at how often he repeats the words “eat” and “live” or “life” or “living” over and over in just these seven short verses: “living bread,” “whoever eats,” “live forever,” “life of the world,” “eat the flesh,” “eternal life,” “the living Father,” “I live,” “whoever eats me will live,” and “the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
The gospel of John at this point bears less resemblance to any of the celebrity chefs glutting our televisions with their highly specialized and technical approaches to food, and more of a resemblance to my mother at any dinner party she has ever thrown, “Eat! Eat! Can I get you some more of anything? Are you sure you won’t have a second helping? Or a third, or a fourth?” There’s always more food, and there’s nothing you could do to make her happier than to eat it.
Jesus also wants to get away from the highly specialized, technical approaches to religious identity and life together. He’s less interested in what your ancestors ate in the wilderness than in what will sustain you right here and right now. He wants you to eat, eat! Feast on the God who is not content to remain a Word, but insists on flesh. Dine on the one who promises to be powerfully, truly present whenever the meal is shared because God dwells in our own flesh and makes our own lives sacred so that all our eating and all our gathering is holy communion.
Years ago, after a horrible break up, one of the most painful things I had to get used to was eating alone. I read all the advice about taking yourself out on dates, and I treated myself to some pretty terrific meals, but what I was longing for wasn’t amazing food but abundant life.
There are lots of ways we end up eating alone. Sometimes it begins as a relief, the kids have finally moved out and there’s a little peace and quiet. Other times it results from an unconscious neglect — we fill our days with too much work and grab food on the go, forgoing the opportunity to create holy communion with our friends or families to get just a little more work done. And, of course, some of us are only too aware of our solitude, having lived on after loved ones died, or became ill, or moved away.
The world is starving for the kind of love that will move beyond its ideas about love in order to actually embody it. The kind of love that will relinquish its prejudices about people in poverty in order to actually eat with them. The kind of love that will surrender its judgment about its neighbors in order to invite them over for dinner. The kind of love brave enough to trade certainties for possibilities. The name we have been given for that kind of love is God, the face we have been given for that kind of love is Jesus, and the story we have been given to tell is that words are not enough, only flesh will do.
So bring your flesh to this table, your sacred bodies, your scared bodies and your scarred bodies. Bring your heartache and your loneliness, bring your joy and your thanksgiving, bring your passion and your craving, bring your memories of all those you’ve loved and miss, bring your hopes for those who’ve just been born, bring your whole self — not just your idea of yourself but your body, your flesh to meet the God who abides in flesh and bread and wine and you, who longs for you to eat, eat! And live.