John 6:56-69; Ephesians 6:10-20; Psalm 34:15-22
I was seven years old when I received my first communion. It was a very big deal. I was dressed completely in white, with a white veil, and white shoes. My classmates and I were prepared all year in religion class for this major life event. We were taught that the body and blood of Jesus would enter our bodies through the communion wafer. The wafer would seem like bread, but it would in reality be Jesus, and Jesus would make his home in us.
This was my introduction to the great mysteries. I did have some big arguments with myself over the years, between my linear, scientific mind and my mystic, poetic mind. There was a mind truth (This is bread!) and a heart truth (I really, really want Jesus to be real and with me, at home in me).
When I contemplate Jesus’s words from the Gospel of John today, I find myself right at home in the stream of these early teachings. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” I like William Countryman’s more literal translation of Jesus’ words: “The one who chews my flesh and drinks my blood stays in me and I in them. The one who chews my flesh and drinks my blood stays in me and I in them.”
We may find these words repugnant and difficult, and so certainly did his Jewish disciples. “This teaching is difficult,” they complained. “Who can accept it?” This is part of the power of John’s Gospel for me. There is no making nice here. This is not a tea party with cookies and Kool-Aid. The Eucharist is an upsetting thing, something that radically upsets the status quo. The Eucharist is meant to be transformative.
The other thing that happened connected with communion when I was young was that you had to fast. You could not eat or drink anything from midnight the night before in order to receive Jesus on Sunday morning. There was big controversy over whether you could brush your teeth in the morning, because, what if you accidently swallowed some toothpaste? Maybe it was better just to use water and carefully spit. Questions like this really concerned me, I was a thorough child. I never cheated when it came to Jesus.
By the time I went up to the communion rail on Sunday, I was truly hungry and thirsty. My stomach was rumbling and I was a little faint. I was ready to eat and drink. I was hungry and even as a child I knew that this was a deeper hunger than just wanting my breakfast.
Even today, when I am going to a communion service, I fast at least a little. I like to feel my need. I like to go in hungry. The older I get, the more I understand that this hunger I feel in my body is really a yearning in my soul for something deeper and more meaningful.
We are relatively privileged people. Some of us have known real hunger, physical hunger, but most of our hunger is soul hunger. We have enough food to eat, and we are still hungry.
I would like to invite you to do a little exercise right now so that we can take a look at this hunger. This is an exercise that uses a repeating question. I will ask a simple question about five times, with a silence after each time. In the silence, you can see what comes up in your mind and heart.
I invite you to close your eyes if that feels right for you, or let your gaze soften so that you are seeing with your inner eye. Take a few breaths, and let your heart open. Let your mind be at the service of your heart. Let your heart open to God. Note what thoughts or feelings come to you when I ask the question. Your answer may change each time I ask the question, and that’s okay.
Tell me something you are hungry for.
You can open your eyes.
The ancient mystics believed that God created the cosmos because God had a yearning that could not be met otherwise. God had a desire so profound that it resulted in all of this, including us. You could say God had a hunger, and look what it led to! And since we are created in the image of God, it follows that we would have in ourselves a desire, a yearning, a hunger. And that in each of us the hunger is unique.
What are you hungry for? This may be a clue to what your soul-work in the world is. To what God is calling you to. Theologian Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the hunger of the world meet.” I’d like to propose that your deep hunger is calling you to your soul work in the world. Your hunger and the world’s hunger have a meeting point, and that is what God is calling you to.
Now, I was taught to be suspicious of my wants. Desire was seen as a dangerous thing. I was warned that wanting was likely to lead me to sin. And indeed, we have to be thoughtful. We have to be discerning. We are being constantly pressured to satiate our hunger with false and empty food, with addictions, and distractions.
How do you know if your hunger is leading you to God or into emptiness? One question we might ask ourselves is Does my hunger serve only me? Am I moving towards satiation and comfort, numbness, disconnection? Or is my hunger, my desire moving me towards deeper connection with the world, with the community? Our soul work is always for the good of all.
Discerning our soul work takes our whole life. It’s why we don’t go to communion just once in our life and be done with it. We have to go over and over again. Chew on Jesus and drink his blood. Remember, return, wake up. Take your hunger and questions and yearning to the table. Feed on Jesus in your heart, with thanksgiving, as we say in the Eucharistic prayer. Feed on Jesus in your heart.