All the world's a stage...
and all the men and women eating bread... (Shakespeare, mostly)
From Max's funeral:
A while back, Max said to me that he had realised a few nights previously that this was the night he would die. He had felt terribly ill—the worst he had been, so he got up, wrote some messages on the little whiteboard in his room in the nursing-home and went back to bed, and waited.
"In the morning," he said, with that classic Max smile, "I realised I was still here, so I got up and rubbed out the whiteboard, and got ready for breakfast." Something about death had lost its power over him.
You can listen to this sermon here.
Gospel: John 6:35-51
It says that when Jesus fed the people in the wilderness, the Passover was near. (6:4) And now, at the end of our reading today, we hear that, "Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." (6:51)
We have a mixed metaphor, if you like; meat and bread. Way back in Exodus, Moses gave people the word from God that whoever killed the lamb, and spread its blood upon the door posts and the lintel of the house, and ate its flesh, would have the angel of death pass-over... their house, and their first born child would not die. (Exodus 12) So eat of the Passover lamb and you will not die, death will not touch you. And Jesus says we can eat of the bread which comes down from heaven and not die. (6:50) And the bread from heaven is his flesh. (51)
So, of course, if you take this literally, somehow the bread on the table today turns into his body, and then we are literally eating him. It's no wonder that there were accusations of cannibalism made about the church!
Or are we being invited to step into a metaphor?
Think about how this might work: You can come into a theatre. There is a bare, empty stage, perhaps with a prop or two; a table, a plate and a cup. And you know that the actors on the stage can make that space come alive. We forget it is a bare wooden floor; the story becomes real; we are immersed in the story and, for a while, we enter a different reality. Movies do this too. I always have a slight sense of shock and displacement when the lights come on and I step out into the shopping centre in the middle of the afternoon, because I have been far away in another time and place.
You know that every so often, there is a play, or a musical, where members of the audience become part of the show. I often wonder how that feels; are they overwhelmed up there on the stage, or do they get caught up in the reality on the stage? I remember being in a play during high school; we practised for weeks, and for a moment on the night, I forgot I was in the play. For a moment, for a few moments, it was real.
So we could think of Communion as us being invited to enter the play. As being invited into the drama of real life. Because Jesus says that "the bread he will give for the life of the world is his flesh." He is talking about giving his life, laying it down. When we eat the bread, when we stand together we are in the play, we are eating the symbol of Jesus giving his life for us...
And you know what that is like. It is difficult to explain what happens to us when we stand around the table, but there is not one of us who does not feel the difference, who does not know that we have entered into something profound, and almost beyond words.
So, maybe, if we were trying to describe what happens to us, we could say that it's as though we go up on the stage, as though we enter into the movie; we enter a different reality, and we begin to see what life, what eternal life, life as the kingdom of God comes near— we begin to see and experience what the Kingdom of God is. This is how it will be...
Well... it occurs to me that I have this all back to front.
I want to suggest that one thing Chapter 6 in the Gospel of John is pointing us towards, and inviting us to be part of, is something which is the opposite of what I have suggested.
There is a play going on— absolutely. There is a pretence of life— and acting out of life— happening on a stage. Humanity is acting out a drama. We are the actors in a movie... a play or a movie that does not quite ring true. It's a great movie; the players in this movie live in luxury, with fine cars and houses, with televisions which bring the theatre into their living room, with so much food to eat that it makes them sick, with more riches than most of the world has ever known, or will ever know.
But something about it never quite rings true. It does not quite convince us. Life lacks something, and we have moments where we wonder if it is real. The richest and the most fortunate of us get to that moment when "there is nothing on TV," and we are bored, which means: we see the play is not real; it does not convince us; this is not a life after all. We need more... and more...
And some of us have found that we are living in a horror movie. We are abused and terrorised, and told this is how life is. If you are not enjoying it, it's your fault. Get over it.
I want to suggest to us that when we come down to Communion, we are not stepping out of life for a few moments so that we may get a glimpse of what life with God will be like. What we are doing is stepping out of the shallow acting of a bad play and, finally, entering into life. We are finally entering into reality. We have arrived at the place where real life is being offered to us. Where Jesus stands at the table and invites us to come up into life and not only be fed, but to remain in the different reality, the different way of being. Eternal life is not only never ending; it has the sense of being a different reality.
This is not a metaphor. A metaphor is an idea we use to understand something similar. We might say Grenfell roared through the first hymn; that's a metaphor. It describes something, but it has no real connection. Communion is a symbol, and a sacrament, not a metaphor; it partakes of what it points to. It enters the reality; it lives in and acts out the reality.
When we stand together around this table, we begin to live in the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven. Because we stand in all our brokenness and nastiness, well off and poor, sick and healthy, respectable and disreputable, and we accept each other as God accepts all people. I go to those who have remained in the pews, and invite then to eat with us, or at least to stand with us, because our Lord invites everyone to the table.
But the symbol does not stop here. The symbol is not the reality; it partakes of the reality, and it points to the greater reality of life. We live in that, too. We go out from here and work together. Some of us are good friends; we have been here for a long time. But we are often not natural friends. In a sense we carry the Communion with us; we live together in eternal life as we sit together at morning tea, or work as a church in the Op Shop, or in the kitchen, and with the people we meet.
And the symbol points further still. It points to death. Jesus gives his flesh. The bad movie out of which we are called, consists of staying alive as long as possible. Do everything you can to stay alive.
But we are in real life, which means to give life, not keep it. Jesus gave his life, which meant that he could, as he says later in the gospel, take it up again. We begin to do the same. Someone once complained to me about the time one of their relatives spent involved in a church. They were giving their lives away, wasting them, this person said. No... they were finding life, and joy, and reality. It was giving them life. It was remaking them.
We are beyond fortunate here. It is a very rare thing that our discipleship will lead to us being lynched. There is very little discrimination in our country. Priests from Liberty's home country are routinely murdered; several this year. There are people from Filadelfia who fled here for their lives. But even we partake of the symbol and sacrament each time an addict comes looking for money; each time we help an agitated person in the Op Shop; each time we act for love instead of our own security and the keeping safe of our lives.
And if we don't, we will step out of life— the real life— and climb back into the audience which has not understood that it... is the play.
We laughed on Wednesday about Max's little joke about waking up and finding he was still here. I think his equanimity— his calmness and acceptance around death— grew because he had been giving his life away for years. He had nothing to lose; he had entered reality.
Come and eat, this morning. But take it with you. Give your life away... for then you will find its reality. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2018)