Today’s Gospel is about connection: about the close connection between Jesus and his disciples. Disciple means “follower”: not only in the literal sense of following Jesus around, but also in the sense that disciples take the teacher for their model, learning not only to “talk the talk,” but also to “walk the walk.” “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher” (Matt. 10:24), as Jesus says somewhere else.
Disciples relate to the leader, and are related to him. Jesus was a good role model for the Twelve, in spending time with them, mentoring them and guiding them. “You did not choose me but I chose you” (Jo. 15:16), he says later in the Gospel of John, which puts the relationship on the right footing, as one initiated by Jesus. You’ll take the point, I hope, that there is a close connection between Jesus and his disciples.
But Jesus is taking this connection to another level in our Gospel today. Here, it’s not so much about following or modeling or relating but about “abiding” or (in an alternative translation) “remaining” with him. The disciples are not just called to follow but, in some sense, called to be with Jesus. Now that’s intimacy and connection.
The connection is a close one, a virtual identification, no matter how it’s put. In his letters, St. Paul talks about Christians being “in Christ.” “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Here, being “in Christ” means a fundamental change in identity, away from ourselves and toward identity with Christ. Or as Paul writes in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Christians can only carry forward the work of Jesus precisely because of their identity with him.
The language of identity and connection makes it impossible for us to keep Jesus at arm’s length. If you don’t mind my saying it, a lot of so-called religious talk acts as a defensive mechanism to deflect Jesus’ claim upon our lives. We tend to think that God’s over there, and we’re over here, observing what we think is a respectful distance. The whole purpose of the incarnation, God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, however, is to collapse that distance, and to bring God into our world and us into his presence. The connection is a close one. As St. John says in the very beginning of his Gospel, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jo. 1:14).
In our Gospel today, Jesus talks about “abiding” in him, which extends the theme. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus often uses the language of intimate connection. “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (Jo. 15:15). Jesus speaks the language of friendship and love when he talks about his relationship with the disciples. In the same breath he tells them, “Abide in me, as I abide in you” (Jo. 15:4). We’re connected to him; we dwell with him, and he dwells with us.
Our reading puts it this way: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (Jo. 6:56). Remember how the first chapter of John talks about the Word made flesh? In our reading today the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the means by which we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, and share his life. “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (Jo. 6:55), Jesus says in our Gospel, and the real food that he gives us, his real flesh and blood, is the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Jeremy Taylor, the 17th century Irish Anglican bishop, once wrote that the sacraments are the extension of the incarnation. The Word is made flesh, in Jesus’ incarnation, and it through our baptism and by joining in the Eucharist that we become one body with him; that we become identified with the One who has taken our flesh and come to dwell with us. The Sacraments are means of connection with Jesus; of intimate connection and sharing.
In the Eucharist, where Christ is really present, we abide with him in love and friendship. We’re identified with him as his disciples. Joined with him this morning, we are joined to one another, and together we become inheritors of the kingdom of God.