Accept an invitation and receive radical hospitality!
Stephen Adam, 19 August 2018
Proverbs 9: 1–6; John 6: 51–58
When we invite others – friends, neighbours or family – into our homes to share a meal with us (break bread with us, if you like), it’s a sign of hospitality, it’s a sign of relationship with others. It’s a way of saying, ‘I invite you into my life and into the life of my family’.
In a much larger way hospitality is a gift of God, as he invites us into relationship with him. For Christians this is expressed most profoundly in the Eucharist: we are guests at the table, welcomed and invited in an act of indiscriminate generosity, as that verse from Revelation (3: 20) expresses it: ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me’.
As we read the gospel accounts, so we discover just how Jesus practised radical hospitality throughout his life – so much of that earthly life focused on sharing food and drink, the interplay of giving and receiving:
- from that first sign at the wedding at Cana of Galilee, changing the water into wine at the feast, to the feeding of the 5,000
- from the parable of the Prodigal Son with the feast laid on by his father in celebration of his return
- from the shared meal with Martha and Mary to that invitation to the tax collector Zacchaeus, ‘Come down from that tree! It’s time for me to join you at your house for a meal!’
- and then we have the Last Supper, and the Resurrection appearances where Jesus makes himself known in the Upper Room and by the lakeside at breakfast.
Again and again we see how a shared meal becomes the stage for a relationship with Jesus going beyond words. John’s gospel contains no account of the Last Supper, and perhaps for John all of Jesus’ life instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, through the self-giving love he showed – that endless flow of giving and receiving, of welcome and acceptance.
Over the past three weeks we have been hearing and reflecting on the extended discourse in chapter 6 of John’s gospel where, following the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus seeks to explain in different ways how he is the bread of life, unlike the manna that provides only immediate gratification – he is the real thing, not just fast food!
Ignatius, one of the early Church Fathers, aptly called this ‘the medicine of eternity’. Jesus wants to draw his hearers in, for them to take that step of faith, to respond to the eternal over the temporary, to respond to the love revealed in him which is from the Father.
Why the repetition week after week of the same message in different ways? Simply that, by and large, the crowds aren’t convinced by his message, and so Jesus tries different ways to communicate the truth. Jesus is prepared to exhaust every possibility until we get it, and this determination is ultimately revealed most cruelly in his crucifixion, where Jesus exhausts even his own body in trying to communicate God’s love for his creation.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus’ language becomes still more provocative as he speaks of his flesh and blood, and eating this. It’s a really difficult passage to get our heads round! We who are used to the Eucharist may not hear the full and really shocking impact of what Jesus tells his audience. For most people today who are not Christians, the sheer carnality of the language must sound really bizarre, smacking of cannibalism. Imagine then how it must have sounded to his Jewish audience, with their strict ritual taboos and their regard for blood as sacred.
I think Jesus intended to shock and bewilder; the violence of his words was calculated, to force a reaction from the crowds. They’d been happy to see his miracles; intrigued by some of his teaching; happy to come and listen when it suited and then go back to their ordinary lives. A bit like us, perhaps?
The crowds had been happy to see Jesus’ miracles; intrigued by some of his teaching; happy to come and listen when it suited and then go back to their ordinary lives. A bit like us, perhaps?
But Jesus challenges this complacency: we need to choose whether to accept his invitation to discover real life in the bread he offers, or whether to persist in choosing to consume – and be consumed by – transitory satisfactions that can ultimately sustain only the illusion of life.
And then there’s the sheer in-your-face physicality of John’s language with this word ‘eat’. Our English translation doesn’t do it justice; the Greek sense is more about ‘munching’ or ‘chewing’. And so feeding upon him carries the sense of being thoughtful, reflective, absorbing this Word made flesh into our innermost being as we chew it over, and so come to abide in him and he in us.
In his famous commentary on St John’s gospel, Archbishop William Temple makes the point that whilst Jesus’ command to ‘take and eat’ is indispensible, the key, the substance and goal of Christian life is that we should abide in him, that we should ‘feed upon him in our hearts with thanksgiving’.
When John talks of the Word being made flesh, he is I think influenced by the Wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament – Wisdom, that strange, enigmatic figure often personified as feminine, there beside God in the act of creation, a mediator of divine blessing and revelation. John identifies Jesus with this Wisdom figure. Thus in our first reading from Proverbs we hear about Wisdom setting up her house, preparing a sumptuous banquet, inviting everyone to come off the streets and feast and spend time in her company; and then they will find true life.
And so our Eucharistic meal is not simply a remembrance or commemoration of one particular event; it’s to share in Jesus’ life, and to be sustained by his presence. In the Eucharist we discover who we are and whose we are – a profound affirmation that we are people loved by God and who belong to him. And the extraordinary thing is that this invitation to the Eucharist doesn’t have to be earned, it’s not a reward for good behaviour.
Our Eucharistic meal is not simply a remembrance or commemoration of one particular event; it’s to share in Jesus’ life, and to be sustained by his presence.
Our former archbishop, Rowan Williams, has written an accessible little booklet on what it is to be a Christian, and in it he says:
We take not because we are doing well, but because we are doing badly. Not because we have arrived, but because we are travelling. Not because we are right but because we are confused and wrong. Not because we are divine, but because we are human. Not because we are full, but because we are hungry.
As we gather at the Eucharist so the Church becomes what it is meant to be – a community of strangers who have become guests, who have accepted an invitation and have received radical hospitality. And so this community, once strangers, is brought together and finds a common bond and identity in that relationship with Christ.
Ultimately, just how that God-given life of the bread and wine is digested into our own flesh and blood to work its transforming power remains a mystery. The excited chatter of theologians has to fall silent in the face of something beyond our reach or grasp.
Perhaps poetry can express something that simple words cannot. I end with a sonnet composed by Malcolm Guite for the feast of Corpus Christi entitled ‘Love’s Choice’.
This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,
A little visitation on my tongue,
A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.
This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung
A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,
Even its aftertaste a memory.
Yet this is how He comes. Through wine and bread
Love chooses to be emptied into me.
He does not come in unimagined light
Too bright to be denied, too absolute
For consciousness, too strong for sight,
Leaving the seer blind, the poet mute;
Chooses instead to seep into each sense,
To dye himself into experience.