Every day at around 3 o’clock the excitement begins to build: Within an hour or two hours or, if I’m lucky, in about 15 minutes, the mailman will arrive. I have no way of knowing what will be in his bag or if he’ll even come to our house — but that doesn’t matter. My ear is cocked for the sound of approaching footsteps, for the beep of a scanner. I’m imagining the secret surprises and forgotten treasures that will be left in my mailbox. And as I see our postman approach, I can’t help but burst out in the Mail Song from Blue’s Clues.
I’ve always loved getting mail — but nowadays, it means a little more to me because a card or a new book or even a package of cleaning supplies provides that spark of happiness I crave in this seemingly endless pandemic. Getting something in the mail reminds me that I am not alone, that I am still very much alive despite the fact that death could be lingering around the next corner.
Which is kind of a melodramatic thing to say. But if you take a moment to reflect, you’ll find that we’ve all adopted those kinds of habits and that way of thinking. After a year-and-a-half of COVID-19, a year-and-a-half marked by hundreds of thousands of deaths, confused messaging, and little steps forward followed by big steps back, we are all scrambling to find the things that will distract us or give us some kind of relief from the invisible war we can’t escape.
But as I am reminded every day the mailman skips our house, nothing we do or buy can keep the anxiety out forever. Try as we might, we can’t ignore that the world is not okay, that things are not alright, that what we thought would give us life simply doesn’t.
“Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus tells us, “but [work] for the food that endures to eternal life.” Something better, something more nourishing and sustaining awaits us here and now in the midst of chaos and fear. We need only reach out and take it.
After feeding the 5,000 on a mountainside and after attempting to outrun them without success, Jesus spends longer than we might think possible talking about a very different kind of meal than the one he had just provided. We’ve spent a month thinking about it with help from the great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, who reminds us that the bread Jesus offers for us to eat is not like anything anyone might encounter at family dinner or out at a restaurant. It is not even like the bread that fed the Israelites in the desert. It is me, Jesus says, my body, my flesh. “I am the bread of life. . . . If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
This is a hard saying, one that caused many of Jesus’ disciples to leave right then and there because for all they knew Jesus was describing some kind of cannibalism. What he was really talking about, though, was even more incredible, more offensive. After all the years of humankind trying and failing to live with a holy God, fellowship with him — with life eternal — was in reach. All that was needed was the belief that what Jesus said was true. All that was needed was that his disciples should eat of his flesh and drink of his blood.
It’s really no wonder they were frustrated enough to leave. In the midst of suffering, no one wants a saying that sets their teeth on edge. And we are no different. Think about it: What help is Jesus’ mysterious sayings when the world is burning around us? We want immediate gratification. We want immediate escape. And when Jesus doesn’t promise us that, we go looking for something that will.
“After hearing Jesus’ message, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”
Try as we might to find something that will rescue us from the anxiety and sorrow of the past 18 months, none of it will ultimately satisfy. Because life, the life that knows no end and no change, that cannot be erased by disease or hate or injustice, can only come from God himself, from Jesus Christ our Lord. When Jesus said on the night he was betrayed, “This is my body, this is my blood,” he was making a promise — that every single time we come to the Table he is there for us.
And that is the truth we cling to through whatever comes tomorrow or the day after. The bread we eat will not crumble. It will not go to waste. It is a meal that becomes a part of us. It is the way Christ becomes a part of us, transforming our souls and our bodies, our whole being into vessels of his mercy, into a temple more beautiful than Solomon’s.
As we hold Jesus in our hands, as we feed on him with faith and thanksgiving, we are bringing the Savior of the World into the places of our deepest fears and most secret hopes, the place where he can and will change us. This is the hope we have, the shield between us and the world, that whatever Jesus touches, he will redeem. AMEN.