“Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” What a thing to say. Shocking, really.
If I were in charge of the readings we use on Sunday—which in our church I’m not, they’re given to us—there might be a temptation to sort of skip through this whole section. But it’s a very vivid way to say that Jesus himself is the answer to our deepest hunger. It’s an invitation from him to become one with him in a way that is both intimate and life-giving. He says, “Those who eat my flesh abide in me, and I in them.” Abide in me, remain in me. We are in each other.
Every time I read this part of the Gospel, I’m reminded of that saying you are what you eat, you know? It’s actually the title of a diet book from the early 1940s. I doubt that any of us would know the specific details of the diet, but we all know the phrase and we get the point. If you don’t eat well, you can’t be your best self.
Interestingly enough, it also sounds a lot like something Saint Augustine said in an Easter sermon way back around the year 400. He said that when we receive the Eucharist—worthily, with the right intentions—”we become what we receive.” [i] We become the Body of Christ. You are what you eat.
Through the Eucharist, through the living bread that Jesus offers, we are one bread, one body. We become the Body of Christ. We become one with him, and through him with all other believers. I think this talk of living bread, bread from heaven, it’s kind of like poetry. It’s the language of mysteries too deep for ordinary words.
Jesus is asking us to take his life into our own, to share his life and everything about it. Surely, there’s consolation in this intimate presence, in this abiding with him. But entering fully into the life of Christ has to mean entering into his suffering, too. When we join our pain with his, and make his suffering our own, we’re also joined him through him to all human suffering.
The strange, and unexpected, and sort of mysterious thing that happens is that out of this unity of pain and suffering, compassion is born. Instead of turning inward to contemplate how much we hurt, we open ourselves to the pain of others and we come to love them all the more because of it.
There’s a poem called “Kindness”[ii] by a woman named Naomi Shihab Nye. It reflects on the way that embracing pain and sorrow can lead us to greater kindness and compassion. And again, poetry—it’s a way of expressing these deep truths that ordinary words struggle to describe and explain. So, I want to share just a few lines from that poem, “Kindness”:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore …
It is only kindness that makes sense anymore.
What do you think of when you hear the word kindness? Kind of wishy-washy, right? Nice. I think it’s about more than being nice to other people. I think of kindness as the action component of compassion. I think of it as a powerful antidote to evil.
If we practice kindness as the virtue, as Nye says, that is the deepest thing inside, if we let kindness and compassion shape our thoughts as they inform our actions, I believe that kindness has the power to spread to the world like drops of food coloring falling into a glass of water.
Did you ever do that thing with food coloring where you put food coloring in a glass of water? Then you put a white carnation in it and whatever color you’re using, the carnation turns that color? Green for St Patrick’s Day or whatever. Blue.
Kindness is something that we’re all capable of, and it spreads that way. We’re all capable of it. Each and every one of us. When I say kindness, as I said, I mean more than good deeds. I mean an attitude toward life, a way of being in the world. It’s something that we all have to offer to a world that seems colored now by suspicion and its relatives.
I think suspicion is the root of fear, and fear is the root of hatred, but kindness has the power to break that cycle. It has the power, quite simply, to change the world.
Jesus invites us to nourish ourselves with the living bread that unites us with him and all others in the body of Christ, and he invites us to enter through this union into both joy and suffering and to be transformed into people of compassion and kindness.
I think that if we really are what we eat, then perhaps we should be very careful about what we consume through the media we read, and watch, or listen to, and through the stories that we share with others, that we pick up somewhere and pass along.
If we really are what we eat, then what will consuming a diet of fear and suspicion turn us into? Maybe we need to be more intentional about adopting a diet of kindness and compassion to get away from that. I wonder what would happen if we made a point of living on the bread of kindness.
So, of course I mean doing acts of kindness, those little acts of kindness, but also telling stories of kindness, paying attention to politicians and opinion shapers who model kindness and compassion instead of bullying and suspicion.
I mean steeping ourselves in kindness and compassion like white carnations in a glass of blue water, letting our whole way of seeing and receiving the world around us be shaped by kindness, letting kindness color the way that we understand and receive the sufferings of others, the sufferings of those right around us and the sufferings of those in the bigger world.
So, here’s an example of what I mean. I want to tell you a story of one of the Spanish-speaking immigrants who was living in my community. All I’m asking is that you hear his story with compassion, not to judge him, but to open your heart to his pain, which I think is what Jesus is asking of us as well.
So to set the scene, and I’ve probably mentioned this before, there are quite a few Spanish-speaking people who have settled in the community where I live. They’re the backbone of the restaurant industry in New Hope and Lambertville. Pretty much every kitchen is staffed by Spanish-speaking people. They also do a lot of the landscaping and the house cleaning in the area.
Many of them joined the church that I used to attend back in the day. For a while, we had a priest who spoke Spanish, and we also had a service on Sunday morning in Spanish. No, not Sunday morning. I shouldn’t say Sunday morning. We had a service Sunday afternoon because in the morning they’re at work, but then they get off. Bruch ended, I guess.
Many of these people were documented, and many were not. I didn’t necessarily know which were which. They all had loved ones at home and they all kept in touch. There’s a little tiny grocery on Bridge Street in the heart of New Hope. What they advertise in their window is phone cards to Central America and how you can send money back. Because that’s what they were here for. There were no jobs for them to at home.
There are a lot of reasons people come, but many come for economic reasons. A lot of them left loved ones at home. Sometimes back in the day they left their children and home, too, and they would call back and send the money they made home.
In addition to the regular jobs that people had, say in restaurants, there’s a convenience store in Lambertville that sort of is a hiring hall. If you go there in the morning, you’ll see guys standing around outside waiting for someone to come and get them and hire them for day labor.
Well, this guy was hired not just for one day, but for a week of days by someone, a homeowner in our area. I guess must’ve been one of those pretty big … What do they call them? McMansions. He hired this guy to work all week. He said he’d pay him at the end of the week. The end of the week came and the job was done, and he didn’t pay him. There was nothing this guy can do about it. He talked to the priest. I think the priest talked to the man. I think that the idea of the collar was supposed to scare him into a reflection on moral behavior and good people, but it didn’t work. So, there really was nothing he could do about it.
I’m not telling you this story as a prelude to a discussion of immigration policy, although that’s an important thing to think about. I’m simply asking you to hear the story and let your heart respond as Jesus would, to the injustice that he experienced. Let that be part of a pattern of molding our hearts to compassion and kindness to all the stories that we hear.
There’s a woman named Naomi Remen, who’s a doctor who works with people who have cancer. She herself has a chronic illness, so she knows what it’s like to live with something like that. She tells the story of a cancer patient who was experiencing anger and resentment and isolation along with her physical pain. It was a terrible time for this woman. She was having an experience of intense emotional suffering that was like nothing she’d ever known before. And of course, that was on top of the physical pain that she had.
Somehow, mysteriously, miraculously, in the midst of this terrible pain, Remen says that there came a day when she simply knew “that all suffering was like her suffering, and that all joy will like her joy. From this had come an enduring inner change, a kindness that is almost involuntary. … “
Remen goes on to reflect on the way that suffering can change us by opening our hearts, and how that opening to kindness and compassion might change the world. She says, “Perhaps the healing of the world rests on just this sort of shift in our way of being, a coming to know that in our suffering and our joy we are connected to one another with unbreakable and compelling human bonds. …”[iii]
So, she doesn’t use these words, but I would say that unbreakable connection is our connection to the Body of Christ. Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh abide in me, and I in them.” All of us. All of us.
So if we come back to Jesus asking us to consume his body and blood, and in doing so, to embrace his life and all its triumph and all its pain and to be joined through him to all human suffering, we come back to letting that suffering transform our hearts to compassion.
Perhaps, as Naomi Remen tell us, the healing of the entire world rests on letting our hearts help us to understand how profoundly we’re all connected.
Perhaps, as Naomi Shihab Nye says, “It is only kindness that makes sense any more.”
If we are in what we eat, then let us be very careful about what we consume. Let us make our diet the bread of kindness and compassion, the bread of life that we’ve been offered in Jesus Christ.
Let our whole lives be our amen to those words that we hear at God’s table, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”
[i] Sermon 227.
[iii] Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, 139-140.