Back in the days when I used to spend a lot of time in New York City–and this was way before COVID—I saw an art installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which really moved me and which has stayed with me ever since.
It was unusual. Basically, it was a large pile of candy, hard candies wrapped in very colorful foil wrappers, heaped up under a spotlight, which made the foil wrappers sparkle. And people who saw this were invited to take one of the candies. So, over the course of the day, this pile got smaller and smaller. But every morning it was replenished to total 175 pounds of candy, which supposedly is the typical weight of a healthy adult male.
The artist was a guy named Felix Gonzalez-Torres. And this piece of art didn’t have a title but it had an official subtitle, which was “A Portrait of Ross in L.A.” It was a tribute to his partner who had died of HIV-AIDS. And the diminishment of the pile was meant to suggest the diminishment of his partner’s own body as he moved through that illness.
It was heartbreaking, and yet at the same time there was a lot of joy there. The prettiness of the sparkly wrappers, the sweetness of the candy which we shared, and the way it was replenished every day suggested one of the great mysteries of life, which is the way that joy and sorrow are inextricably bound together in our lives. And to me, because I am who I am, it also spoke of communion and eternal life.
So in today’s Gospel we’re in the exact middle of five weeks of reading from what we call the Bread of Life discourse in John. So the first week Jesus fed thousands of people starting with five barley lives, and then had to flee the people who wanted to make him king. And last week he started to talk about being the Bread of Life, the bread that endures and doesn’t perish. And in this week’s Gospel he’s talking about bread again, but also about believing and about eternal life.
Now believing and eternal life have special meanings in John, not just what we would think of in our normal use of those words. So when Jesus talks about believing, it’s not just affirming a set of facts. It’s not what we mean if we say, “Oh, I believe everything in the Nicene Creed is true.” It’s more about relationship. It’s about putting your trust in someone. It’s close to what we mean when we say to someone, “I really believe in you.” You’re not saying, I believe you exist. You’re saying, “I trust in you. I put all my trust in you.”
And likewise, eternal life doesn’t just mean heaven. I remember about a week before my dad died, on one of the last lucid days he had, I visited him in the hospital. And when I walked into his room, I found him gazing lovingly at a picture of him and his own father who had died when he was five years old. And we didn’t talk about it, but I was pretty sure that he was thinking about being reunited with his father in the afterlife.
And there is that, but I think that what John is talking about when he talks about eternal life is something much bigger than that. It’s about a life that begins now, maybe imperfectly, and builds and builds to final fruition. It’s not unlike what the other Gospels mean when they talk about the Kingdom of God, which begins now, but we’ll see its ultimate fulfillment in the future. And we build toward the kingdom and we build toward eternal life through practice, through our gospel living, through living the principles of love and justice and mercy.
So, those of you who know me know that I am an artist as well as a priest. And I think a lot about art and faith—which is how I come to have thoughts about things like eternal life and communion while gazing at a pile of candy in a museum. There’s a poet named Christopher Wiman who wrote a book about art and faith. And he says that one of the things that art does is it gives us a way to express things which we otherwise would have trouble finding words for, and if we couldn’t express them, they would weigh on our hearts. So, for example, that indescribable blend of joy and sorrow that are part of our human experience.
And, as a priest, I see that art does that. But I think that liturgy does that, too, that our prayer does that. It gives us a way to express things and practice things that otherwise we would have difficulty expressing in words.
So there are so many things going on when we gather like this. It could be a whole ‘nother sermon. But there are three that I want to mention today: grace, and communion, and eternal life.
In this Gospel, Jesus says, no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father. And I think that he’s talking about grace. It’s grace that draws us here, it’s grace that inspires us and empowers us. Grace is the lived experience of the love of God. And we reflect it to each other and share it here. I don’t know if you saw the movie Just Mercy, but the lawyer in that movie, Bryan Stevenson, who gives his life to freeing people who were unjustly convicted, he talks about these criminals who are not perfect. And he says that each one of us is more than the worst thing that we ever have done.
And I think that’s true, not only of criminals, but of all of us here. And grace is what empowers us to live gospel lives.
The second thing is communion, or belonging. This sharing that we do here brings us together as one. It brings us together in the Body of Christ. It’s a special kind of belonging. And the bread that we share, like the candy in the museum, it both reinforces that belonging and actually makes it happen. And as the Body of Christ we also embody that reality that grief and sorrow are intertwined in human experience. We have Good Friday and we have Easter Sunday, and we live here the mystery that those things are connected and can’t be separated, and together they become a pathway to the divine.
And the final thing is life, eternal life, that life that begins here in us and continues to build and build. And one thing that we know for sure here, is that this life isn’t just for this place, it’s bigger than that. It’s something that we need to share to the world.
So, I pray that, in grace, we may have that knowledge that we do belong and feel the life enough to know that we can share it to the world. Amen.
May we know in grace that our broken lives can be redeemed and our connected lives have meaning, and that part of that meaning is to bring this life to the world.
Preached at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, New Hope, PA.