I went to a Christian college where a number of the girls there claimed to be unavailable because they were “dating Jesus.” Maybe you’ve heard that phrase before. Or maybe you’re as I was, completely baffled and a bit disturbed by that idea. For the girls at my school, “dating Jesus” was their way of saying that they wanted to focus on their spiritual lives and not be distracted by a relationship with some boy. Interestingly, I never once hear a guy say that he was “dating Jesus,” but perhaps that’s a sermon for another time. Of course, for a lot of these girls, when an interesting boy finally came along they would date that boy. It left me wondering how Jesus took it when he got dumped…
I’m poking fun at this, but actually there is a long tradition of dedicating one’s self entirely to God. My classmates in college probably didn’t realize this, but they were dipping their toes into a long and ancient tradition of celibacy. This is what monks and nuns have done for over a thousand years. They abstain from marital relationships because they have devoted their lives to loving God. They see God as their spouse. Saints Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Francis of Assisi all claimed to be in love with God—not the way two bros claim to love each other—but the way two spouses claim to love each other.
It’s alright if the idea of marrying God sounds strange to you. It was a much more common way of talking five hundred years ago than it is today. The heart of this idea, though, is a hunger for a deep, abiding, meaningful relationship with God. For thousands of years men and woman have been so hungry for God that they have devoted their entire lives--every aspect of their lives—to God.
And it is that hunger that Jesus addresses today in our gospel reading. If you remember, we are into week four of Jesus’ long speech about the bread of life. Today, Jesus makes a startling claim. He says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” If the idea of eating Jesus’ flesh and blood grosses you out and reminds you of zombies or vampires, then you’re in good company. Early Christians were accused of cannibalism because they claimed to eat and drink Jesus’ body and blood.
What is Jesus getting at when he invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood? It’s really tempting to think immediately of communion. After all, we claim that the bread and the wine are, in some way, Jesus’ body and blood. But in John’s telling of the gospel, Jesus never celebrates communion with his disciples. The story of Jesus offering bread and wine as his body and blood only appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels—not John’s. So, in the spirit of trying to understand better what John is trying to tell us, let’s set aside our ideas of communion, and ponder what else it might mean to eat and drink Jesus’ flesh and blood.
The word “flesh” in today’s reading, should jog our memories. It’s the same word that John uses in the first chapter of the gospel to say that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” When Jesus talks about his flesh and blood, he is drawing our attention back to the incarnation. The incarnation, as a reminder, is a fancy word for God becoming a human being. God, who is spirit, “takes on flesh.” That’s what John claims at the beginning of his gospel. That’s the incarnation.
And incarnation is the most important theme in John’s gospel. He sees it as the point upon which everythingdepends. I’ve mentioned before that in John’s view the world is broken because the world has fallen out of relationship with God. For John, Jesus’ incarnation is the way in which God repairs that broken relationship. Humanity cannot repair the brokenness, nor span the gap between humanity and God; so God vaults over the chasm, becoming a human being like us. We could not come to God so God came to us, as one of us.
The incarnation is like God’s divine pickup line. It’s like you and God are sitting on opposite sides of the bar and God comes sidling over to you and says, “Hey. I noticed you noticing me.” Then God turns your glass of water into a nice Cabernet and says, “This might sound crazy, but I feel like I’ve known you forever and loved you even longer.” And then you swoon because you also know it to be true.
This is what Jesus is trying to explain in today’s gospel reading. When Jesus says eat my flesh and drink my blood, that’s his way of inviting us into an intimate relationship with him. When monks and nuns swear their vows of celibacy, it’s because they want to feel the same intimacy with God that spouses have with each other. Sex is intimate, not just because it involves parts of our body we generally to do not reveal to others, but because through it we reveal to our partner a deeper knowledge of ourselves. That’s what intimacy is all about: revealing our true selves to someone else.
That’s what God did in the incarnation. And that’s what God wants us to do for God.
If you go onto Amazon and search “books of date ideas” you will get over 20,000 results. Pages and pages of people trying to help you come up with fun ideas for dates. One such book is titled Little Book of Great Dates: 52 Creative Ideas to Make Your Marriage Fun, which I find a little ominous. The title seems to imply that your marriage is terribly boring and probably doomed, but with this book you can go to a carnival or a picnic or play racquet ball together and your marriage will suddenly be repaired and fun! But I digress.
Look I get it. On the rare occasions when Isabel and I get to go out on a date, our minds instantly go blank. We have no idea what to do. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a list of options, some fun ideas to choose from when you can’t think of something to do. The same should be true of our relationship with God. God has offered us intimacy through the incarnation; and there are lots of ways to engage God intimately. But sometimes it’s hard to think of how.
So—here’s a list for you. Consider this Rev. Jim “the Love Pastor’s” Little Book of Divine Dates. Sure, most of these things boil down to praying and/or reading your Bible. But there are ways to do that that don’t seem as boring as just praying and/or reading your Bible. Every relationship develops its routines and they may sometimes feel mundane. But intimacy is not mundane—it’s exciting. Like any good marriage, your relationship with God might not always be exciting, but it should be exciting at least sometimes.
Here’s the list: You can go for a long walk in the woods and talk out loud to God like you were talking to a friend walking right next to you. You can sit down and write a love letter to God. You can turn off the TV, put down your phone, and rest quietly in God’s presence, knowing that there is absolutely nothing required of you in that moment. You can draw a picture of your beloved God; or you can take a long look at a picture someone else has made of God. You can try to find Jesus in the faces of the people you meet. You can keep a gratitude journal thanking God for something different each day. You can sing songs to God. You can read a passage of scripture and then ask God every question you can think of. You can come to communion at this table, eat Jesus’ flesh and blood in bread and wine, feel the intimacy of such a moment and give thanks to God for it.
That’s just a starting list. There’s plenty more.
Few have understood intimacy with God as well as Teresa of Avila, one of the nuns I mentioned earlier. In her book The Interior Castle, she makes the claim that God already knows us more intimately than we know ourselves, and God has set up God’s home at the center of our hearts. The truth is that each of us already has a deep intimacy with God; the challenge, the trick, the task, the joy is to find ways to experience that intimacy, to remind ourselves of it, to feel in our hearts and know in our minds what we already sense to be true in our souls.
So eat Jesus’ flesh. Drink his blood. Know him intimately. And experience his love.