Proverbs 9:1-6 | John 6:51-58
There is something about food.
In particular, there seems to be something about sharing a meal together that has been valued by cultures across the world and throughout history.
Sharing of food seems to be almost synonymous with sharing of life: we eat together with the people that we live together with – our families, our friends, our communities, our colleagues.
And the sharing of food is a common theme throughout the scriptures as well. From the fateful shared piece of fruit in the garden of Eden, to the heavenly banquet of Revelation, not to mention all of Jesus’ teaching about how to behave and who to invite to dinner; his own example of sharing meals with outcasts, foreigners, women, sinners; the miracle of the feeding of the 5000; and, of course, the last supper.
And for much of the Biblical narrative, the simple language of ‘bread and wine’ is used; not, I suspect, because the meal was just a loaf of bread and a glass of red, but because in some way, in the culture of the day, bread and wine represented the gifts of God in food and drink.
Our reading from the book of Proverbs portrays wisdom, personified as a woman, as wisdom is throughout the book, inviting those in the town to a banquet in the majestic, seven pillared home that she has built. The offer is made to all – she sends out servant girls, but in case anyone doesn’t hear, she also calls out from the highest places of the town: “come, eat of my bread, and drink of my wine”
But what is on offer, of course, is not food – what wisdom is offering, to those who know that they are simple, is wisdom. There is a definite sense in the language here that the meal that wisdom is offering is actually herself.
Which is made even more interesting when you know that the language used of wisdom throughout the Old Testament is ever so close to the language used of God – to such an extent that Jewish scholars will sometimes refer to Wisdom – Sophia – as the feminine representation of God in the Old Testament literature – the books of Wisdom have even been called “Sophia’s Torah” – “Wisdom’s scriptures”.
Hold that in your mind, for a while: God, as Wisdom, inviting all those who know that they lack Wisdom, to a meal, to receive the gift of God: herself, Godself, Wisdom.
So perhaps Jesus’ description of himself as the bread of life isn’t so radical a departure for Jewish thought as it might seem.
John, writing his gospel, has spent a whole chapter building up to this. He begins chapter six with the feeding of the five thousand, and ends it (in next week’s reading) with ‘the words of eternal life’. It begins with Jesus meeting the very practical, immediate human needs of those around him – feeding those who are hungry – and then follows their response, as he challenges them bit by bit to think more about what this might mean: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life”; “it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven”; “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”; and to his punchline: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”
We might note, in passing, on the way that the Church, at its best, has reflected that same progression: meeting people in their need and serving them, and then, as they seek a deeper engagement, inviting them to reflect more on things eternal; and also perhaps how the Church, at its less good, started at the other end, opening the conversation with eternal life, salvation, damnation, heaven and hell…
Wisdom offered herself figuratively as a gift to all who would receive her: Jesus does the same. But in doing so, of course, he is also foreshadowing a much more literal giving of himself, a theme that he will, of course, return to, most famously in the words of the institution at the last supper. When he took the bread and broke it and gave it to them saying “this is my body, broken for you”.
They surely remembered his words from before – whoever eats this bread will live forever.
And no wonder, then, that when the early Church started to commemorate the gift of Jesus, and to remember his death, it was to the bread and the wine that they turned.
For in this sacrament, the deep seated human tradition of sharing a meal with those who are your people merges with God’s offering of God-self to all who would receive.
The offering of wisdom – right living, in the Hebrew understanding of the terms – has been expanded to the offering of life itself; life eternal, life with God, here and hereafter.
At this festival, God calls out as wisdom did: “come, all who are in need! All who seek life! All who struggle under the burdens of being who the world expects them to be! All who are plagued by the memories of their past misdeeds! All who have hurt the ones they love, and would do anything to be able to make it right! All who have been told they are not good enough! All who have been rejected because of their colour, their accent, their sex! All who would come, come, eat the bread, drink the wine”
“Whoever comes, and eats of this bread, the bread, my life, that I give for the world, will live.”
So from the very earliest days until the present, in what is (other than baptism) the most consistent and longstanding ritual of our faith, the Christian Church has celebrated communion, the meal of the body of Christ.
The bread which is body – life, the wine which in blood – death, together at this table.
So as we come to this table, as we join with Christians throughout history and throughout the world, let us hear again the words of Wisdom, the words of Jesus: “eat my bread, drink my wine; live with me, die with me; whoever does will live eternally”.
God invites all to eat the gift that is freely given. The bread of Christ’s life and the wine of Christ’s death, lived and died and given for all humanity, all creation.
This is God’s meal, not ours; we are not the host here, God is. We are not in charge, God is.
We, all of us, come to this banquet because we have heard the voice of wisdom calling from the highest places of the town:
“Come, you who are simple; come in; and live.”