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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Atonement Notes: 1

Mark 14:22 / “This Is My Body”

I.

A friend of mine occasionally sends me a newsletter me from a group of scholars concerned with semantics and semiotics. One of their agendas is to advocate the use of a way of communicating called “E-Prime.” E-Prime means speaking or writing in English without using any form of the verb of being, such as: is, am, was, were, be, are, been, and so forth. They suggest this on the basis of a philosophical conviction that the verb of being has basically no real meaning. It doesn’t add any value to a sentence. Indeed, it clouds the meaning of a sentence and people use it to say something when they don’t really know what they mean to say.

It is — or I should say, I find this discipline very useful in that it demands that I use more descriptive and immediate language. Without getting excessively dogmatic about it, the use of E-prime will spice up your language.

However, how would we translate Jesus’ words of institution without using a verb of being? Indeed, especially in the Fourth Gospel, a lot of what Jesus says about himself would become unintelligible. He is always saying “ego eimi,” which is Greek for “I Am,” in a deliberate echo of that other famous I Am passage, in which God reveals God’s name as “I Am,” when God appears to Moses in Exodus.

Certainly, former President Clinton’s famous problem with the verb of being, when he answered under oath a direct question and said, “It depends on what ‘is’ means,” does not make him unique. The Church has wondered, and argued about, what “is” means from its earliest days, especially in relation to this passage. “During the supper he took bread, and having said the blessing he broke it and gave it to them with the words: ‘Take this. This is my body.’”

When we try and translate this into E-prime English we have to find a more specific verb to replace the “is.” Indeed, theologians make whole careers out of this sort of thing. “Is” has so little meaning that we have to figure out what Jesus really means. I mean, he can’t mean that the bread literally “is” his physical body in any direct way. In John 6 some people asked the question, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” indicating that they just don’t get it, like Nicodemus asking whether to be “born again” means literally going back into his mother’s womb. So, since the sense of physical identification doesn’t work, we have to start speculating about what the “is” could really mean. Here are some ideas:

This bread represents my body.

This bread resembles my body.

This bread stands for my body.

This bread functions as my body.

This bread symbolizes my body.

This bread signifies my body.

This bread approximates my body.

This bread refers to my body.

This bread reminds you of my body.

This bread substitutes for my body.

This bread makes real my body.

This bread connects you to my body.

This bread feeds your spirit as would my body....

II.

The Church has always maintained the strongest view of that “is” as possible. The Church maintains that we find Christ really and actually present in this Sacrament, that means in this bread, in this cup, and in us. In finding Christ we find God. In finding God we find the great I Am, the One-Who-Is, the Source, Ground, and Goal of all that exists. In him, and in this Sacrament, we find the very is-ness of everything. “He was with God at the beginning and through him all things came to be; without him no created thing came into being,” as it says in the Gospel of John.

Many of you have read to a child the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, which is about a stuffed, toy rabbit who wished to “be real.” This story works as a parable about our own life. For as the stuffed toy rabbit yearned to “be real,” and achieved this reality through love and sacrifice, so do we. If the rabbit attained the reality of living, jumping, breeding physical, mortal rabbits through the magic of the nursery, we attain to the reality of eternal life through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Only our own love and sacrifice do not make us real. By themselves our love and sacrifice lead only to the fire, which the rabbit faced on his last night as a toy, as he lay sleepless in the trashpile. Our reality depends not on us but on the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us.

He serves as the model and pattern for our journey to reality. “Through him all things came to be.” Through him, and only through him, we too come to be. He shows us what it means, what it costs, what it involves, what it gives us, to be real. To exist.

He works as the touchstone of reality. You touch him and you catch some of his reality. You taste him and you receive some of his being. You chew him and swallow him and digest him and his being becomes part of your being even as the nutrients in this bread become literally part of every cell in your body. “In very truth I tell you,” says Jesus, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you can have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.”

For in the end we have to ask not the question of what this bread is, but of who we are. Indeed, we have to ask the even more stressful question of whether we are. Most of us are not even conscious enough to ask the questions that the Velveteen Rabbit asks so persistently: Am I real?

We tend to take our own existence for granted. We think, we feel, we act, we love... we must therefore be. Right? After all, if anyone exists, I do. I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I certainly exist, right? But what if we couldn’t do any of those things? What if we couldn’t feel, act, think, or love? Would we still be?

III.

Beyond E-prime, there remains one thing to which the verb of being does refer and that is... being. It refers to the fact of existence itself. What does it mean to exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? At the bottom of everything, what really is?

In the Eastern philosophy of Zen the practitioner tries consciously to get down to this fundamental level as well. The Zen student sits, breathes, and asks, Who sits? Who breathes? Who thinks? Who feels? Who is this “I?” “What was your original face before you were born?” Who are you, once you have stripped away all the attributes and predicates and characteristics and accidents?

You follow this reasoning all the way down until you realize in a sense that “you” are nothing. By yourself you just aren’t. Nobody’s home. We could hear that as bad news.

The good news is that you do not exist by yourself. You don’t have to hold yourself in existence by your own willpower or your own accomplishments or your own work. You are not by yourself; Someone Else is for you. God exists for you.

We find this in God’s first self-revelation to Moses. “Tell them, I Am sent you,” God says. The One “who is, who was, and who is to come,” the Alpha and the Omega, the Living One. That which exists only exists to the extent that it exists in God. You exist only to the extent that you exist in God.

So, when Jesus lifts the bread and says, “This is my body,” “I Am the bread of life,” he means, “Get real! I Am lives in this bread, just as I Am lives in everything.

When we consecrate the elements for Holy Communion, we ask God to: “Send your Spirit upon us, and upon this bread and this cup, that this bread may become the Body of Christ, and this cup may become the Blood of Christ, changing us by your Spirit.”

What gets changed in this Sacrament? What “this” does Jesus mean when he says, “This is my body”? Does he mean just this particular piece of bread?

I think he means more than this. Maybe he means this, in the sense of all this; all this gathering of believers. All you see. All this good creation. All that exists, all that God spoke into being at the beginning and holds in being every second. This is. And whatever is, in some sense is his Body. And whatever is not his Body, doesn’t fully exist.

This bread, this wine... they represent the whole creation. They represent our God-given human creativity and ingenuity. It is this creation that God embodies in Christ. The immaterial becomes material, the eternal becomes temporal, the deathless becomes mortal, the Word becomes flesh. This happens to show us the true nature of existence.

It has been said that the early Church started to decline spiritually when they went from being Christ’s Body, to merely receiving it from a priest. What is the point of the Lord’s Supper? What is the point of Christian faith? The point is to “get real.” The point is that the reality of God become our reality as well. The point is that we catch some of God’s realness and have it spread through every part of us.

Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” “In very truth I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you can have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day.” To get real is to participate in God’s reality. To get real is to live forever.

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