The Next Grace-Filled Thing
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: John 6:56-69
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I grew up in a faith taught me that I could only be saved through the strength of my individual belief. “If you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.” Romans 10:9. That verse haunted me. Was I believing hard enough to be saved? I said it over and over again every night before I went to sleep just to make sure. “I confess that Jesus is Lord and believe God has raised him from the dead.” It was frantic, fearful.
This brand of faith also taught me that when I was sick, it was because I didn’t believe hard enough that God would make me well. “By his stripes we are healed.” Another verse I memorized. Isaiah 53. Appropriated from our Jewish siblings and overlaid onto Jesus. When I was really young, I regularly had pretty terrifying asthma attacks. When I did, I remember sitting in a closet repeating that verse to myself hoping that my belief would heal me. Until it got so bad that I had to admit I wasn’t believing hard enough and ask my parents to take me to the hospital.
It kind of sounds silly now. And sad. My religion made me so scared. It constantly made me feel like I wasn’t enough.
Maybe today I can think that I’ve grown beyond all that. And I have in some ways, but I think this kind of believing is embedded in our culture. It’s still embedded in me.
We think that our own efforts will save us. If we just research hard enough, we can make our opinions facts. If we just work hard enough, we’ll have everything we need. If we just believe hard enough, we’ll be saved.
But that’s not what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel. In fact, what he does say is: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”
This can be interpreted in a number of ways. A lot of Christians—including the apostle Paul—have chosen to take it out of context to show how the flesh, or the material world, is sinful, and that only those things of the spirit are pure.
First of all, there is no separating the material world from the spiritual. Our spirit, the animating force of God running through everything, cannot be divorced from our cells, our words, our actions. Without our flesh, without our bodies, without this world, how could we enact the power of the spirit? Not to mention that it was God who created our flesh, our bodies, this material world. How can that which was created by God be useless? The very embodiment of God through Jesus shows us that materiality matters.
So I don’t think Jesus is saying that the flesh is this burden we have to bear until we can achieve our pure spiritual state.
What I do think he’s saying is that it’s not just about the flesh. That we cannot rely wholly on our bodies. We cannot rely wholly on ourselves.
At its very core, having faith means admitting that we are not in control. It means trusting in God.
Jesus took on a body and blessed this material world by taking it. That body was broken, and it was given for us. Take, bless, break, give. These are the words you hear in every Eucharistic prayer: On the night before he died, while he was having supper with his friends, Jesus took bread and blessed it. He broke the bread, and gave it to them, saying: “Take, eat. This is my Body: it is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In his breaking and giving, in his death and his rising again, Jesus took on the sin of the world and God’s endless grace wiped it away. Yes, not even our sin can keep us away from God.
That is what the Eucharist means for us. It is a reminder—using the materiality of this world, the bread, the crackers, the wine, the juice—that we are not in control. We cannot earn our way into eternal life, nor does our sin doom us. There is only grace. We belong to Christ’s Body. We are not alone.
When we take communion, we are reminded that we’re already saved. We already belong to God. But communion is also a call to action: to be Christ’s Body in this world, to be the bread of life for others, to embody grace in this flesh—to help people know they are already saved, they are already enough. We are Christ’s Body, God’s grace moving on this earth, helping everyone to know that they belong, that they are not alone.
I’ve been thinking about all this as I’ve read this news this week. The crises in Afghanistan and Haiti are not incidents contained within their individual borders. There’s not enough time to go into the complicated political situation between the former Soviet Union and the United States that created a destabilized Afghanistan. There’s not enough time to describe how the world’s economy impoverished Haiti—a poverty that forces people to build cheap, rickety homes and infrastructure on top of giant fault lines. There’s not enough time to explain that these crises are not merely political or natural disasters, but disasters made worse because we refuse to acknowledge, on a global scale, that we belong to one another. Because we refuse to acknowledge that Christ’s Body has no limits. The suffering and devastation happening in Afghanistan and Haiti belong to all of us.
This is not to say, of course, that any one of us can solve the situation in Afghanistan or mend the destruction in Haiti.
I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago where the host was talking about the hopelessness she felt around the enormity of climate change. She’d given up her car, stopped buying plastic, and all the things she thought she was supposed to do, but it didn’t seem to matter. But over the course of the show she learned from people who were thriving despite really difficult situations that hope is about doing the next right thing. Instead of being paralyzed by the enormity of their challenges—disease or political oppression or whatever their struggle was—these people were living their hope by giving their full love and care to the people and situations immediately around them—and to themselves. In every moment, they did the next right thing. They took the time to listen to a stranger who was crying on the train. They started feeding a stray cat they saw every day who was skin and bones. They learned how to play an instrument. They ran for local office.
That felt very Body of Christ to me. We can recognize that the people in Haiti and Afghanistan belong to us through the Body of Christ, and there are things we can do to help from a distance. But being the Body of Christ is about doing the next right thing. Or I would say doing the next grace-filled thing. It’s about choosing to embody God’s grace with whoever you encounter in whatever situation. Over and over and over again. Every day. At work. In the grocery store. While driving. Even as you struggle. Especially as you struggle.
Which reminds me of a tweet I read this week. It said:
I have to admit, something about that image brought tears to my eyes. These men who’d all suffered the very worst thing the pandemic could bring them, all reaching out for support, and all becoming that support to one another. I’m sure it’s not always perfect. I’m sure these men get irritated with each other. Their kids fight. God knows what messiness their shared grief is bringing to that space. But they recognized that they couldn’t do it alone, and that they weren’t alone. They saw that they belong to one another.
That’s embodying grace. That’s communion. That’s the Body of Christ.