A Homily for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: St. John 6: 35, 41-51
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who gives us the Bread of Heaven, his flesh. Amen.
I have to admit it: I’m disappointed. The facts of history are not nearly as interesting as the legends.
During the early days of the Reformation, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss theologian, were at odds with each other over the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Those of you who studied the Catechism as part of your Confirmation will well remember what Luther wrote: the Sacrament is “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ….” Zwingli, by comparison, said that the bread and wine merely represent the Body and Precious Blood of our Lord, that Holy Communion is nothing more than a memorial.
To unite the disparate factions in the face of imperial pressure, Prince Phillip of Hesse brought the two feuding theologians together to the city of Marburg for a conference to hash out their differences.
I’ve heard a few different versions of this story. One tells that as Zwingli tried repeatedly to convince Father Martin that Christ could not possibly be present at the right hand of the Father and simultaneously present on altars around the world, and therefore, the bread and wine remained only bread and wine. In response, Luther took out his knife and carved into the table “This is my body.” And every time Zwingli tried to put forward an argument, Luther pointed to that carving.
In another telling, Luther was drinking a beer – because, well, that’s what Luther did, he wrote and he drank beer. As Zwingli made argument after argument, Luther dipped his finger into his drink and, using the foam, wrote on the table the words “This is my body.”
To be honest, I would be happy if either of those versions were true; they both conform to this image of Luther that I’ve built up in my head of a gruff-but-affable priest fond of good beer and dramatic actions.
All the same, the scenario played out: confronted with Zwingli’s steadfast denial of Christ’s presence in the most Blessed Sacrament, Luther lifted up as his refrain the words from the Last Supper: “This is my body.”
Zwingli would argue, “But my dear Father Martin, how could it be that Jesus is possibly on your altar in Wittenberg and at the same time in heaven at the right hand of the Father? Surely our Lord cannot be in two places at once, and thus, the bread merely represents the Body of Christ.”
And Luther simply taps at the words. “This is my body.”
“Sir, how can you believe that Jesus is simultaneously in Wittenberg and Zurich and Marburg and Rome all at once?”
*tap tap tap* “This is my body.”
“But this is clearly just a metaph…”
*tap tap tap* “This is my body.”
Why, when Luther and Zwingli agreed on so much, did they part ways over Holy Communion? Why is the lectionary putting the “bread of life” before us for five weeks? Why is it that our Eucharistic theology is so important? Why is this Sacrament something we celebrate every single week?
The Eucharist is central to our faith because it is the very presence of Christ – not merely metaphorically but in very fact. Jesus is the Bread of Heaven, and the Bread is Christ. And today, Jesus puts it as bluntly as possible: “The bread…is my flesh.”
The Bread of Heaven that Christ gives us to eat is the very stuff of the Incarnation. Back in Saint John’s first chapter, the Evangelist’s wonderful and poetic ode to the Divine Logos, we read: “The Word became flesh.” Not that God put on a human mask or possessed a human like a puppet but became flesh, became one of us in every way, from birth to the horror of death. And now, Christ tells us that he will give us a share in his Incarnation as physical and spiritual nourishment to sustain us for everlasting life.
In response to this teaching, some of us have Zwingli’s reaction: “How does that work? That doesn’t make any sense.” Others have the Pharisee’s reaction that we’ll read next week: “Flesh? Eeew. I’m not eating that.” Either way, I think the disciples summarize it pretty well in the text we’ll read in two weeks: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
And that difficulty is before you get to all the different ways that Christians have tried to explain precisely how Christ is present in the Sacrament: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, the sacramental union, pneumatic presence, receptionism. Christians have spent centuries arguing, and occasionally killing, over these differences, and yet sometimes the differences are so small that even professors struggle to understand them. (And believe me, professors struggle even more to explain them.) Don’t get me wrong: it’s worth working out the specifics of our faith. These are debates worth having – but they are not worth dividing the Church over.
We are united in the Body of Christ, and despite our own doubts and arguments, we have Christ’s glorious assurance that he is most certainly present: “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.” And in the other Gospels, “This is my Body, given for you,” and “This is my blood, shed for you and for all people, for the forgiveness of sin.” Precisely how that works remains a glorious mystery, but we have Christ’s assurance that it does, in fact, work. Whether or not we believe it, whether or not we understand it, Christ is here at the Altar for us.
Dear ones, our problem is often not with the specifics of the Eucharist. Surely, we who believe that God created the world, that God the Son became incarnate of the Blessed Virgin and the Holy Spirit, that the Spirit is present among all of us, can believe that our Lord is present on the Altar. We don’t struggle with what Luther called “mathematical questions.” It’s not about that. And despite the minor details and intricacies, we join with our Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican kindred, and Christians in various other denominations besides, in affirming that Christ is truly and physically present at the Altar for the forgiveness of sin.
Rather, we struggle with what it means. We wrestle with understanding how this sacred feast changes us, with grasping the sanctifying work of this Sacrament transfiguring us into the Body of Christ. As Jesuit priest and scholar John Kavanaugh puts it:
Our problem is not just believing that God could inhabit bread. It is believing that God could inhabit us.
But this is specifically the miracle of the Incarnation, of Christ’s birth, crucifixion, and resurrection all taken together. By becoming truly and fully human, by dwelling among us as one of us, by dying but rising again, he brings about our salvation from sin, the devil, and death. And in the Eucharist, we encounter that very same Christ – not as symbol or metaphor but in very flesh and blood. We encounter his Body and in it are joined to Christ. We receive Christ, and we become part of Christ.
And so this point of theology that we wrestle with, that is difficult to accept, that seems so esoteric, that at times has tragically become a source of division, comes so very close to the heart of our faith. In this Sacrament, we encounter the Incarnate Christ, the very Jesus of Nazareth who walked about Judea two millennia ago. We draw near to our Lord Jesus, across the seas and across the ages, so near that the Incarnate Christ is actually within us; when we eat this Heavenly Bread, Christ becomes nearer to us than we are to ourselves. And we become like him, being incorporated, literally embodying our Savior. We receive Christ’s flesh and become his Body.
Kindred, when you depart from this Altar, Christ goes with you – not only spiritually, but physically. You carry his flesh within you. And as you depart, you go as a member of Christ – as parts of his Body, as his hands and feet, as part of his Incarnation in this world. So, beloved, come to the feast and be transformed. Come to the feast and go out as members of the Incarnate Christ to show God’s love to all the world.
* I originally reported that Andreas Karlstadt, not Andreas Osiander, attended the Marburg Colloquy. Both men were Protestant reformers known personally to Luther. Karlstadt, though, took a more radical approach to the Reformation, and his views on the Eucharist aligned more closely with Zwingli.