“It is the Spirit that gives life. The flesh is useless.”
Are spirit and flesh, or perhaps spirit and matter, separate? Divided? Opposed to one another? Spiritual or religious values and attitudes are often considered to be antithetical to those we consider materialistic. If I were to place before you for consideration the Dalai Lama on one hand and the Kardashians on the other, who would you describe as spiritual and who would you describe as materialistic?
The two words evoke vastly different sets of associations. Spirituality: monastic life; meditation; prayer; inner peace; simplicity. Materialism: advertising, fast-fashion, enormous single-family homes that could comfortably house dozens; our intractable consumerism and the havoc it wreaks on our planet.
Given these associations, it is sensible to prefer the spiritual to the materialistic.
And yet, what if the problem with this sort of materialism is that it isn’t materialistic enough? The materialist values things superficially, for their symbolic content, not for the thing itself. The appeal and price point of a Rolex isn’t based primarily on its superior comfort and functionality but rather on what it signals, in the status it’s thought to impart. The materialist abandons items that were once coveted and sought after when they lose such symbolic value due to changing fashions. So, there’s never much love for the matter in question. The kind of materialism doesn’t make for very good materialists.
Now, let’s turn again to the words of Jesus: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” What if he is the true materialist? He says that his disciples must not only trust him and follow him but eat him.
Eat the flesh and blood of Jesus? Surely he must be speaking metaphorically? Like, inviting Jesus into your heart? Maybe. His choice of words here doesn’t seem to leave that open. When he says eat my flesh, the verb used is not the classical Greek verb used of human eating, but that of animal eating: “munch,” “gnaw.” Pretty physical.
What’s this all about? Well, this text is from John’s Gospel. John is all about the Word made flesh. The Word, the Christ — the one who is eternally with God and is God, became a man named Jesus. Divinity and humanity — spirit and flesh — perfectly united. And so, to eat the flesh of Jesus is to eat God, to receive God into our souls and bodies and, in some sense, to become God, for “you are what you eat.”
This idea is about as old as Christianity itself. As Athanasius of Alexandria famously wrote in the 4th century, “God became human so that we might become God.” Or, as another ancient Egyptian theologian named Cyril put it:
“If one joins two pieces of wax, one will see that one has become part of the other. In a similar manner the person who receives the flesh of Christ and drinks his blood… shall be one with him.”
And this is where we can see the deep materialism of Jesus. He says that we cannot be saved by an idea, an abstraction, or an institution, but by flesh and blood. As Johnny Cash said, “flesh and blood needs flesh and blood.” Jesus is saying that the way to God – to life in the Spirit – is not away from but through matter and flesh.
In John’s Gospel there is no Last Supper account of Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist as we find in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Instead, John places Jesus’ Eucharistic theology here in the middle of the story. We hear in this same discourse: “This is the bread that came down from heaven… the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
Now, is this only a matter of the bread and wine that we use for Holy Communion? Is that the only place where spirit is joined to visible matter? Without sacrificing or losing sight of the unique nature of this sacrament, can we also listen and look for what it might tell us about the relationship of God to all material reality?
After all, having this bread and wine here depends on many prior conditions. Bread must be baked, and wine must be made. Before that, seeds must be sown and wheat harvested. For wine, we need grapes to grow, and to be crushed. All this requires human labor. Where does the bread and wine end and the world and people from which they emerge begin?
The naturalist John Muir put it this way: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Thomas Merton, adding a personal dimension to this insight, said: “A human being is in the world as an eye is in the body. The world is our body.”
Now, understanding and appreciating this intellectually is only part of the journey; information is not transformation.
It is not our rational minds alone that need conversion. It is our selves, “our souls and bodies.” In the ancient languages of Pali and Sanskrit, the word for heart and mind is the same. If we wish for liberation and transformation in our own lives and in the world, what we require is the knowledge St. Peter speaks of today when he tells Jesus, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” The Greek word for now here is also used in the New Testament for physical intimacy. It’s the word that Mary uses when she expresses her bewilderment at being told she will be the mother of Jesus: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”
Perhaps we might also think of this kind of knowing as a way of seeing. William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” Aldous Huxley later used this for the title of his book, The Doors of Perception. In it, he describes looking at his office furniture and having what he called “the sacramental vision of reality… where everything shone with the Inner Light, and was infinite in its significance.”
When seen and known this way, all things appear as they are – interconnected, infinite, and shot through with an inner radiance, in which all the world feels as though it were part of oneself, and oneself as part of the whole world, as if it were all within your own skin, so to speak.
Philosopher and psychologist William James explored such states of consciousness in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience. For my second Sunday sermon in a row(!), I will use this quote:
“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness…”
What if the Eucharist were our requisite stimulus for for beholding — and receiving — the Christ in whom all things hold together? We would truly know that “we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members of another.” This is God’s gift and by grace this can be our gift to those with whom we share our lives and our world. We ourselves could become sacraments of communion. We live in a time of so much pain, loss, confusion, uncertainty, fear, isolation, and division. In contrast to all this, what Christ offers – what we can offer – is communion. As we approach the altar, may we behold what we are and become what we receive.