Friendship Park

John 6:51-58

Now, to begin with, I just want to recognize that we have been talking about bread a lot these past couple weeks in church.  In these conversations, we have remembered that we gather here, every Sunday, because we are hungry. Hungry for connection, for hope, for the knowledge that we are not alone, that we matter and that there is the possibility for grace and redemption even when we mess up.

It is this hunger that brings us to God.

We show up ravenous, saying eagerly,

“Where’s the bread?”

And for a couple weeks now, Jesus has been saying,

“I’m it.”

“I’m the bread.”

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.

Jesus continues on telling the audience to eat his flesh and drink his blood.

“What?” The crowds respond, “That doesn’t make any sense.”

At face value, the words seem like a cannibalistic statement.

There’s a temptation to get lost in their jarring-ness.

But this, my friends, is the Gospel of John.

And in the Gospel of John,

Jesus is always inviting us to talk, to think, and to live at a deeper level.

While Jesus does not mention Communion outright, scholars believe that these verses are conveying the Evangelist John’s sense of Communion. Because, in John’s Gospel, there is no communion story at the end of the book.  There is no story that says the night before Jesus was betrayed, Jesus gathered his friends at the table, giving them bread and wine and tell them to take and eat, take and drink in remembrance of him.

In the Gospel of John, there is only this:

That the day after Jesus fed over five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish, people continued to follow Jesus around because they were still hungry, in all the senses of the word and when they began to demand bread, Jesus told them that he was the bread of life and that in eating his flesh and drinking his blood they would receive life eternal, not only that but Jesus promised to abide with them.

The words that the Gospel author choses to use – in the actual text is gnaw in place of eat and flesh in place of body – convey a real sense of Jesus’ true bodily presence.  These words were carefully chosen because in the early days of the Jesus movement there were sects that did not believe Jesus had a physical body.

This words were to chosen to remind us of the real presence of Jesus.  In the Scripture today, Jesus proclaims, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” When we partake in the bread and the cup, we celebrate that Christ is present right here with us.

This truth is why I love having a practice of, before Communion, inviting people to look around.  I really mean it look around (crane your head around, get a good look) – and proclaiming that Christ is present.  This act is a physical embodiment of the Gospel truth.

I remember an instance in my own life that reminded me deeply of Christ’s presence in Communion.  This instance is part of a story that I have told a bit about in the past.  I have talked about how I lived in France for a while and struggled with the language and the foreign-ness when I first arrived. I have talked about being in church and my first experience of Communion there– because of the language barrier, I had been afraid that I would not be welcomed to take Communion but would not understand this and would go up anyway and be turned away.

Yet, the pastor clearly stated that everyone was welcomed:  And I understood.  I understood that:

Foreigners were welcomed.

People who butchered her native language were welcomed.

People who hadn’t made any friends yet were welcomed.

We were all welcomed and as we stood together in that circle side by side – drinking from the same cup and eating from the same loaf – the act brought me comfort.  It was both intimately familiar and exciting.  I had participated in it for many years, yet in that moment it ignited in me a vision of the hope for the future – I saw myself in community with the other church members, I saw the church in community with the world, I saw the ways the church is at work in France and my hometown of Rochester, NY and throughout the whole wide world.   It reminded me that no matter who I am or where I am or what life circumstance I face, Christ is ever so deeply present.

In the Scripture today, when Jesus talks about Communion, Jesus talks not only about presence but about our call to be the Body of Christ.  Jesus says, “This bread is my flesh … those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abides in me and I them.”  By linking, Jesus’ body and bread, Jesus conveys the sense that when we partake in Communion we participate in and become the body and lifeblood of Christ.

But what does this mean?  What does it mean to be the body of Christ?

When we look at the Scriptures, we understand the body of Christ as innately social.  Jesus is always going out into the community – hanging out on boats, preaching from shorelines, inviting people to come and eat and talking with strangers.

What we learn is that Jesus’ body is in communion with others.

Even after Christ is risen, we read a story about Christ walk together with two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Christ breaks bread with them and – in this moment of breaking bread – the disciples recognize Christ.  The movement here – of walking – is that of walking along side; the movement of Communion is Communion with others.  If the body of Christ is social, then when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are called into a Communion of walking alongside with others and with Christ.

Communion is about community.

In a magazine, I read of a park – Friendship Park – on the border of San Diego in the United States and Tijuana, Mexico.  For generations, residents have gathered to visit with family and friends through the chain link fence.  Through the fence, lovers have kissed, grandparents have met newborn grandchildren and people have said goodbye to dying loved ones.

This chain link fence divides the countries and yet family and friends from both sides gathered together at Friendship Park – to talk, to laugh, to cry, to touch.

For a long time, a United Methodist pastor named John Fanestil, visited the park in order to do international worship services.  For his second service at Friendship Park, he – and a pastor on the Mexican side – decided to serve Communion.  The Mexican pastor served the tortilla, the body of Christ to all the international participants, serving those on the U.S. side directly through the fence.  Even here, by international borders and boundaries, Christ broke down barriers and brought people together in this moment of worship and Communion.

However, after the service, John was told by the federal authorities that giving or receiving Communion across the fence is a customs violation.

Isn’t that interesting?

Giving or receiving the Body of Christ is a custom violations.

And yet, and yet, John and the people of Friendship Park kept coming, kept showing up, kept enacting this practice of Communion … no matter what the world might say otherwise, the folks at Friendship Park boldly proclaimed: we are one, one body in Christ Jesus.

The Friendship Park example is significant – it reminds us that when we take Communion we are brought together – in the midst of our different background and experiences – we are brought together as one people of God, bound together by Christ’s abiding presence and abundant love.

We become the body of Christ … even as the world tries to polarize us and divide us and pit us against each other.

Here at First Baptist Church in Essex, we as a congregation come together at Friendship Park; we are Friendship Park; we are a place where people come together from different life experiences, geographies, ages, sexual identities, socioeconomic backgrounds, we come together unified by Christ. As a church, we are on journey – things have altered along the way – faces have changed, children have grown but through it all FBC continues to be Friendship Park, a place where we can come together and love each other and care for each other and walk alongside each other on this path of life.

And as we live into our identity as the Body and Lifeblood of Christ, to be Friendship Park, I wonder too … if Christ calls us to reflect on the borders and fences in our own community … if Christ invites us to consider ways we might turn to the people in our area, our neighborhood and our world and say, “You are my sister or brother in Christ Jesus and we are in this together.”

Amen.

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