August 19, 2018
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 Ephesians 5:15-20 John 6:51-58
Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Those of us who have spent a long time in the eucharistic tradition will have little initial difficulty with today’s Gospel reading. It makes the link between Jesus and his sacrifice, and the bread and cup of those who want to share in his mission. It is a simple and direct interpretation of the sacrament we have come together, once again, to receive.
The temptation when we meet this text, I think, is to try to explain the Eucharist. That’s the way I suspect most of us grew up. When I was a child and a teenager, you had to be confirmed before you could receive Holy Communion. And the way to be confirmed was to take confirmation classes. The classes that I took focussed on understanding and a bit of memorization. They were based on the old catechism, a series of questions with the “correct” answers. We even had an exam, and I got the prize for the highest mark. I’m not sure what that said about my understanding of Christianity or my readiness to make the promises of my baptism my own, never mind the maturity of my faith. About the only thing that prize demonstrated was that I had a good memory.
When my children were born, the Anglican Church of Canada had begun to re-evaluate its practices around Christian Initiation and the admission of children to Communion. At that point, in the 1980’s, a child could be admitted to Holy Communion before Confirmation, provided they were able to articulate some basic understanding of the sacrament, say around the age of 6 or 7. And so we developed classes to help young children understand what the Eucharist was about. There were workbooks, books for parents and children to read together, and activities designed to help children connect the life and death of Jesus with the sacrament and their own life in the church. They weren’t bad attempts; the activities were designed with the developmental stage of the children in mind, and I think the adults got as much out of the classes and activities as the children did. But they were designed, at least in part, to allay the anxieties of adults who feared that children, whom they thought were incapable of understanding, might behave inappropriately at the altar. In fact, I’ve witnessed greater reverence and appreciation of the sacrament from small children than from a few adults. And I used to respond that, although I had a degree in theology, if I waited until I fully understood the Eucharist, I would never receive it.
Fast forward another few years, and our church’s practice evolved to say that all baptized Christians may receive Holy Communion. If God, through baptism, makes us members of the Body of Christ, then a member is a member is a member; there are no degrees of baptism, and all members participate fully in the sacramental life of the church. And so, you will now see babes in arms, toddlers, and preschoolers receiving the bread and wine regularly. And, in a further evolution, many parishes, including St. Peter’s, issue an open invitation to the table, on the basis that the desire to receive Holy Communion is a sign of the seeking that is part of the journey of faith, and must remain part of that journey throughout our lives. If you want to come, you are welcome.
What strikes me about our 5-week exploration of the sixth chapter of John’s gospel (which will conclude next Sunday) is that Jesus does not give the crowd a discourse on the Bread of Life until after they have eaten their fill of the loaves and fishes. Jesus gets the people to sit down, but he does not give them a lecture so that they will understand the significance of what he is about to do. Instead, “he took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted”. It’s not until after the people go looking for him the next day that he invites and challenges them to look beyond the bread that satisfied their hunger to the bread that gives life forever.
In today’s verses, where Jesus himself makes the connection between the bread of life and his flesh, he is less concerned with getting the people to understand, and more concerned with getting them to eat. He tells them that it is absolutely necessary for them to eat and drink: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” The words “flesh and blood” point to the cross, where Jesus’ flesh will be broken, and his blood spilled. The moment of his violent death is the moment when he will give his whole self for the life of the world. And there is a shift in the Greek that unfortunately doesn’t translate into English. The text changes from the usual polite verb for eating to one that means to crunch, to gnaw, to grind with the teeth. It is a visceral, very literal word. No wonder the people were offended! When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we share in the death of Jesus and all that he promised. We also share in the means by which that promise was fulfilled.
In this discourse on the Bread of Life, Jesus does not instruct or explain. Jesus promises. He promises that whoever eats of the flesh of the Son of Man and drinks his blood has eternal life. Not “will have”, sometime in the future, but has eternal life now. Jesus promises that he will raise them on the last day. He promises to provide food for the life of the world. He promises to nourish the world with the gift of himself. The flesh and blood of Jesus, his life and his death on the cross, is life-giving food for us and for the world. In the bread and wine of the Eucharist, which really are his body and blood, Jesus nourishes our faith, forgives our sins, strengthens and sustains us in our pilgrimage, and empowers us to share God’s love with a world that is hungry and thirsty for this good news.
All through this sixth chapter of John, Jesus has tried impress upon his hearers – upon us – that the life God is offering through him is something not so much to be explained and understood as it is a relationship to be trusted and embraced. Eternal life does not come through understanding correctly or believing the right things or even doing the right things. Eternal life comes from being “in communion” with Jesus. He invites us to eat and drink, to take him in, to incorporate him into our bodies so that he may incorporate us into himself. Eternal life is to remain in Jesus and for him to remain in us. Or, as Jesus says, to abide. I love that word “abide”. A favourite hymn of many people is “Abide with me”. It doesn’t mean visit or hang out. It means to remain, to stay, to dwell. Your abode is your home, the place where you live. Jesus promises to make his home in us so that we may be at home in him. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” As we eat and drink, Jesus brings us closer to himself and closer to the life of God. We become intimately one with him, as he is one with the Father who sent him. “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
Is understanding important? Yes, it is. God was pleased with Solomon when he asked for wisdom and understanding to rule the people well. But it’s not the first thing, or even the most important. The great theologian of the early Middle Ages, St. Anselm, wrote a meditation on knowing God and called it Faith Seeking Understanding. (Later on, he changed the title and called it simply An Address to God.) But it was also Anselm who said, “I believe in order that I may understand.” Notice the order. Not “I understand in order that I may believe” – that’s something we might say – but “I believe in order that I may understand.” Belief/faith/trust in God comes first. Being in relationship to God through Christ/abiding in Christ/experiencing God’s love in Christ, comes first. Understanding comes when we reflect on that relationship, that experience. It follows, then, that anyone who reflects on their faith experience is a theologian.
Faith and understanding lead to action. Last week, we heard the writer of the letter to the Ephesians instruct his audience, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Here again is the connection with Christ’s sacrificial death. It has consequences for the way we live. The Eucharist unites us with Christ in his death, and also with all those for whom Christ died, in other words, everyone. Not just all people, but the world and all its inhabitants – as the Elders I worked with would say: the two-legged and the four-legged, everything that swims, crawls, or flies, the water, air, land, rocks and plants. We are to love the world that God loves.
Being united with Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist unites us especially with those who Jesus sought out most of all. Think back to the original story of the feeding of the multitude. What was the bread made of? It was barley bread. “One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.’” Barley bread was the bread of the poor. I don’t think it’s an accident or a coincidence that the John specifically said is was barley bread. I think that was intentional. We cannot ignore the social context of the feeding of the 5000. Last week, Lissa explored with us the significance of the manna which fed the people of Israel throughout their wanderings in the desert. They had to go out and collect it every day, enough for each day. There is a clear connection with the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us today our daily bread”. How is it, that in this good land, some go hungry while others have more than enough? How is it, that in a world where there is more than enough food to feed everyone, where surplus crops are destroyed, and some farmers are paid not to produce, children die of starvation every day while the potential of countless others is eroded by malnutrition? To pray each day for our daily bread while failing to share it with those who lack is, in my opinion, nothing short of blasphemy.
“I am the living bread,” said Jesus. The bread of the Eucharist unites us to him in his suffering and death. It unites us also with the marginalized and forgotten people, those to whom he gave a new vision of life and hope, not as some kind of “extra”, but as a core part of our relationship with him. It is not enough to claim “life”, in the way Jesus means it, for ourselves only. If we truly have this life, we will show it in our daily lives, in our relationships with one another, and in our dealings with the world. Otherwise, our words are a lie. The incarnate Word of God, the bread of life, is present in every Eucharist we celebrate. He is present in and among us, the eucharistic community, as we live and share the life he gives for the life of the world. Amen.