In nomine Jesu!
Gluten-free. There, I said it. The elephant in the Lutheran chat-room. Subject of endless inanities among the ELCA clergy Face Book group. Catalyst for at least one Metropolitan New York Synod resolution. Hot topic in our Living Room, even hotter topic among the bread bakers of our parish. Even hotter topic among our brunch makers. Medical issue or diet fad? I'd invite you to "tawk among yourselves," but I know exactly where that conversation will go and, if you saw the expression on most of your faces, you'd know too.
On the Second Sunday of Easter I had a gluten-free moment during the distribution of Holy Communion which came close to rivaling my first Easter Sunday here when a member of this congregation brought her parrot to church. You can't make these things up.
Anyway, on this past Second Sunday of Easter, a stylish woman, who I later learned was visiting from a Midwestern urban congregation, presented herself to me to receive the Eucharistic bread. "The body of Christ given for you," I said. She responded, "I'm gluten-
intolerant." I, in turn, responded, "It's gluten-free," to which she responded -- and I will never forget this -- "I don't believe you." Then she smiled at me, skipped past me and went over to Sharon to drink from the chalice. I'll get back to all of this in a moment.
Food matters -- which is precisely the point Jesus makes in the 6th chapter of John's Gospel and precisely the point the Church wants to make with the other readings that illuminate the Gospel during these five theologically rich "bread" Sundays plunked right down before us in these dog days of summer. What we eat makes a difference. Historians estimate that our great-grandparents were, on average, four inches shorter than we are -- primarily due to nutritional differences. Those with serious food allergies understand this. My wife teaches in a "nut-free environment" (I've often envied her) precisely because of the growing number of students who are allergic to peanuts. If you want to knock off our bishop, feed him shellfish. We plan our diets to avoid certain foods. On the other hand, most of us have foods we love; we call them "comfort foods."
Jesus does not beat around the bush when he
says "ego eimi," that is, "I AM," which is to say "God is" our most important food -- that God is the bread of life. Jesus proclaims himself the bread of life and promises to end hunger and thirst for all who come to him.
And the crowd responds -- by complaining!
We may not complain with the crowds, but that's the only mistake we don't share with them. Of course! We know that Jesus really isn't the "son of Joseph;" but otherwise we are just as confused as the crowd. They were convinced they knew just enough about Jesus to determine what to listen to and what to dismiss. We just as blithely believe we know enough about Jesus' origins and intents to tame his words. We can tell you who Jesus would vote for, where he would shop, and what he would do if he had access to all the facts that we do.
Jesus, on the other hand, doesn't appear to be all that interested in petty disagreements about how he would conform in limited understandings -- ours or the crowds. "Don't complain among yourselves," he says. Don't sweat the small stuff. Recognize instead that "no one comes to me unless drawn by the Father." Recognize that
everyone is welcome because they come by God's invitation. Under the auspices of the unifying call of God, Jesus invites us into a continuing conversation.
Isn't that part of Jesus' point when he quotes the prophets "all shall be taught by God"? To come to Jesus is to be drawn by God, to be taught by the one who comes from God, to eat the bread that gives life -- eternal life. For those who come to Jesus die -- to self, stuff, sufficiency, security -- and that sets them free to live.
Jesus speaks of the crowds' desire for a sign like their ancestors had, of a hunger for manna in whatever form it comes -- signs, certainty, success, satisfaction. Those who eat such manna get hungry again. Worse, they die! On the other hand, those who eat of Jesus, who consume and are formed by him, will neither hunger nor die. For in consuming him, they know life that is qualitatively, quantitatively, different; whole and meaningful and eternally renewed.
But Jesus final word is the real kicker. Jesus says the bread he gives for the life of the world is his flesh. Clearly he speaks of the path of self-giving as the bread that gives life. To walk that path
with him is to eat that bread and live.
But this is the Gospel according to Saint John. Can there be only one meaning in this multilayered, sacramentally steeped language? Could it be that Jesus is not only speaking of his flesh, but also of his body? Is it too big of a leap to suggest that at the same time Jess speaks of giving his flesh, his life, he is also giving his body -- the church -- for the life of the world?
Ultimately, such fine distinctions are immaterial. Whether eating the flesh or being the body, there's no missing our call to daily die with Christ, not for our life "but for the life of the world."
It's exactly that daily dying -- to being in control, being in charge, or even to just being right -- that lets us live in the kind of community envisioned in the letter to the Ephesians; a community not divided by anger, but built up by encouragement, where each looks out for the other, confront with the truth and forgive with grace, and are "members of one another." When we and others eat that kind of flesh, taste that kind of bread, experience that kind of body, we all can exclaim, "Taste and see that the Lord is
good," and consume it all with relish, for no one is allergic to this.
Which gets us back to "gluten-free." We use "gluten-free" bread here precisely because of the multilayered, sacramentally steeped element that is bread, God for us. God for the world. We use it so that all can eat and so that no one need say, "I don't believe;" and all, like Elijah, will find a meal of this bread to be sufficient for the journey, enough, and a little bit more, of all we need for life.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
In the city of New York