I need to acknowledge my wife’s brother for this, because he posted the link on Facebook and it rather set my mind off on this train of thought. The tantalizing title was ‘Is there any Isaac Newton in my bowl of porridge?’ I don’t know why Isaac Newton or a bowl of porridge were chosen, but they catch the attention. The question is based on how frequently the cells in our body are renewed, that we are largely water and the food we take in, which forms the raw ingredients for atom and cell structure, is also largely water. The amount of water that passes through us is enormous and the cycle of water is such that it moves round the world. We are what we eat, literally. Due to how our bodies replenish and replace atoms all the time – skin flakes off, nails and hair grow, other cells are replaced – and use the food we eat to do this, basically atoms get moved about and are sometimes part of you and sometimes part of me and sometimes part of the carrots on your plate. The baby you is not atomically the same you as the older you is and the older you are, the more stuff has been recycled.
One answer, after some very big number maths, is that there will be about 10 million atoms of Isaac Newton in every ounce of what you eat. The claim is that the same is true of any other person who has ever lived. So the theory is that your bowl of porridge, or pie, or whatever you are planning on having for tea, contains the elements that made up Isaac Newton and pretty much every other person who has ever lived. Bon Apetite! Whatever the actual scale of this, there does seem to be some sharing of atoms between people at different stages of their lives. And of course that would include Jesus, because he was a real person of flesh and blood, and as he lived and grew his atoms will have changed just like ours do. Now this idea took me on an interesting thought journey.
When Jesus says ‘this is my body’, ‘this is my blood’, I don’t think he actually meant it like this, but, if this is all true, there is a sense in which it really could be. He was referring to the bread and wine at the Last Supper which have become this central act of worship, the Eucharist, and we repeat his words. Made of physical food, they are just like my porridge and contain atoms which have been recycled from all sorts of other things and people. Some of those people will have been good and some not so, even evil. Since water makes up so much of us and that water moves around the world, who knows who we are eating with this bread and wine.
The sharing of atoms means that we are fundamentally linked in our humanity, in our physicality. We turn out to be even closer than being metaphorical brothers and sisters. We are structurally linked! When we say that this Eucharist binds us together, is a vehicle of unity, then it now has a layer to it that really does link us. But we also look at this at another level, focusing our communing on Jesus Christ. To limit that, or hone in on one person in particular, something else needs to take place, beyond the surface physicality.
Here, the crucial element is Christ’s words to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. When we take this food, we retell the story of Jesus, we retell his life, his teaching, his call, his transforming love, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit to continue to guide and inspire us. We bring into the present all that he meant and continues to mean. We make his story the defining story for everything we do, not least eating the elements which will become us, the atoms which will form the cellular structure of our bodies. There is in this Eucharistic act a declared intention that we want to be shaped and moulded, guided and to live like Jesus. We take on the food that will become us and say may these elements form us into the likeness of Christ. To do that, we retell his story.
And because we are sharing the elements of Christ and the elements of all humanity, or at least a shared humanity, we are united in this sacrament in a way that I don’t think I had really thought about in these terms previously. We share the physical atoms that make up our world, our life, our shared life. These are the same elements that make up the people who work for good and those who work for evil, just like Jesus shared that fallen humanity in becoming one of us. He did not claim a special exemption here. So in him the physical elements are blessed with a holiness that raises us to the throne of God.
A 4th century Bishop of Alexandria, St Athenasius, talked of Christ sharing in our life that we may share in the divine life: ‘Christ became human so that we may become divine’. In this meal we say that what it means to be human is to share in the created order of the universe, made with the love and purpose of God, and touched by the blessing of Christ.
So take this bread and wine in remembrance of Christ, eat and drink, and be thankful. You are sharing the body and blood of Christ, in the Corpus Christi, of humanity, of the call to grow in his likeness. As you eat the elements that made him may the sharing of his story make you grow in his likeness.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral for Corpus Christi, Thursday 4th June 2015