He in Us and We in Him
12 Pentecost B
August 15/16, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today the teaching that flows from the feeding of the 5000 reaches its climax. And it’s not a little uncomfortable to modern ears.
You gotta admit, it’s so very GRAPHIC. Jesus basically says, “if you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have life within you.” That’s a little in-your-face for modern people, I’d think. And it was a little over-the-top for Jesus’ hearers as well. There are too many images that come up if you’ve seen any horror movies lately. Flesh. Blood. Eating that flesh and blood. Oh my.
There’s a story told by a Lutheran pastor named Martin Copenhaver. He tells about how once he had the altar all set with the elements for Communion. He consecrated the bread and the wine, and used the words in the Lutheran liturgy that say, “This is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you” and at that point a little girl in the congregation suddenly cried out, “Ew, yuk!” [David Lose, “In the Meantime,” August 10, 2015, at DavidJLose@gmail.com]
Of course I would feel really sorry for this little girl’s parents because they must have been mightily embarrassed. But actually her reaction was spot on.
These words are graphic. Eat my flesh. Drink my blood. They might sound cannibalistic. Christians were actually accused of cannibalism in some quarters of the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries.
Now, Episcopalians believe that the consecrated bread and wine ARE the body and blood of Jesus the Christ. We believe that because he said it was—in many accounts of the Lord’s supper—in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and in Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth. He told us to “do this in memory” of him. And so we do, and we believe that by God’s power the bread and wine are indeed the body and blood of Christ, in a way we cannot begin to understand. It’s pure mystery.
I was thinking about the gospel this week and I realized something. If we truly are eating the body and blood of Christ, then it stands to reason that Jesus’ very essence is being digested and used in our body’s cells—just as the body uses any other kind of food. Jesus is present with us on the cellular level. He is in us more than we may have realized. He’s actually a part of our bodies.
There is an ancient Christian doctrine called theosis. It’s the teaching that as we live the Christian life and ingest the body and blood of Jesus, we begin to grow into the divine life. That is our end, our purpose, that is the answer to the biggest question of all: what’s the meaning of life?
The meaning of life is that we are called to participate more and more in the divine life as we journey through the years of our lives.
Now, this doctrine has caught on more strongly in the Orthodox traditions, but we do have hints of it in our own liturgies. For instance, in Rite One (which is our 8:00 traditional language service during the school year) we have this sentence at the end of the prayer before Communion that was written by Thomas Cranmer. He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury after the break with Rome, and author of the first BCP. He wrote, “Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son, Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.”
Cranmer was talking about mutual indwelling—what Jesus says in the gospel when he tells his listeners that “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We live in each other, we abide in each other, and it is forever.
That’s what he means when he says we have life in us if we eat his body and drink his blood. He is the way, and the truth and the life. And we have his life in our bodies. We take him into ourselves and right down to our cells we incorporate his presence. And as long as he is knit into us in this way, we have eternal life--now. Our bodies will die but Jesus will take us with him back home.
Another place we have the doctrine of theosis in the BCP is in the Collect for the 2nd Sunday of Christmas season. We ask God to “Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” This line also echoes a line from the Roman liturgy. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans: we all believe in theosis. We just don’t teach it enough.
So here’s theosis in a nutshell: We are being made over, bit by bit, as we eat the body of Christ and drink his blood. We are being restored in the image of God, and we carry God knitted into our very bodies. Our destiny is to partake of his nature fully.
So let’s be careful about how we live, what we choose, how we express ourselves, and what we value. For we very truly carry Christ in our bodies, our selves.
May we remember / and honor that truth.