A Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: St. John 6:56-69
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Living Bread of Heaven. Amen.
A few weeks ago, we found ourselves in relatively safe territory. Jesus miraculously multiplied a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish to feed over five thousand people, a sign of God’s abiding provision. It’s a familiar story, even if it pushes us to trust in God in a way that not even the disciples Philip and Andrew could.
But as we quickly learned, that was just the prelude, and Saint John’s discourse on bread quickly took a turn towards the obscure. Soon and very soon, Jesus and the Jewish leaders were debating the finer points of Moses, mana, and the Exodus, what it means for bread to come from heaven and give eternal life, and our Lord boldly proclaimed, “I AM the Bread of Life.” And if that wasn’t difficult enough to understand, he then pushed it further, inviting us to feast on his flesh and to drink his blood. Predictably, the Jewish people – for whom cannibalism and consuming blood are decidedly not kosher – were disgusted by this invitation. (And they were not alone: the Romans, too, would later accuse the early Church of practicing cannibalism.)
This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?
Certainly not the Pharisees and the Sadducees. But even among the larger group of disciples, those who had been following Christ for days, weeks, perhaps even months, began to turn away.
It’s easy for us to judge these disciples who are falling away. We have the benefit of reading this text from the beginning with the end in mind: we know that, while Saint John’s Gospel omits the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the other evangelists will show us what takes place. We know that the twelve will join Christ in the upper room for the Last Supper, he’ll take bread and wine, bless them, break the bread, and give these elements for the disciples to consume with the words, “This is my body,” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you.” And we have the benefit of knowing that supper will lead to betrayal and death, but that the grave will be shattered, the tomb will be empty, and Christ will arise victorious.
It’s that knowledge that brings us all here today to participate in that same ritual, to celebrate that same Sacrament, to eat that same feast, to receive that same Risen and Victorious Lord.
But this teaching is difficult.
In a few minutes, we’ll elevate the Host and the Chalice. We’ll eat a meal that looks like normal food.
Actually, no – no no no no. We’ll eat something that, after centuries of ritual development and “expediency,” barely tastes like bread and drink something that would never be described as “fine” wine. And such small portions!
It’s difficult enough for us to accept the Eucharist as normal food, hard enough for us to consider it a meal, let alone a “feast” and even more difficult still to accept it as the Body and Blood of the Living Christ.
For all of the theological treatises written on the topic, for all of the devotions and prayers, for Saints Matthew, Luke, Mark, and Paul to all include an account of Jesus’ words of institution in their writings, for Saint John’s long discourse on the Bread of Life, for five weeks of bread in the lectionary, this topic is still so difficult to understand.
And how much more difficult is it to believe, to accept!
We might recognize that Christ has the words of eternal life, but we are hesitant to confess that his Body is here for us.
Surely, Zwingli and our Baptist kindred have a logical point: this makes no sense. The Eucharist is difficult. And if we’re willing to believe the Bible is metaphorical about so many other things, why believe that Jesus is present here at this Altar?
As Jay so eloquently put it last week, “Communion reveals a union.” Here, around this Table, we meet our Lord – not merely metaphorically, not as a representation, but in very fact. Here, Jesus is present for us. Here, we are united with him. As we consume him, digest him inwardly, as his presence becomes infused into our very cells, he becomes part of us, and we become part of him. And through our union with Christ, we are united to each other – I with you, and you with me, and us with y’all, and all of us with the saints across many miles and many ages. Here, we feast together with the entire Church, united into Christ.
This union with God is possible only through our Lord Christ’s very real presence in this most Blessed Sacrament.
Preaching to the newly baptized on Easter morning, the North African bishop Saint Augustine took up this very topic some 1,600 years ago. And since he is a doctor of the Church, one of the greatest theologians in history, and the teacher whose writings have so deeply shaped both the Catholic and Lutheran traditions, and I, for comparison’s sake, am a young pastor just back from vacation and nursing scores of mosquito bites, because he represents the Church’s very best work on the matter, I’m going to let Augustine carry us the rest of the way through this series on bread. He writes:
Inside each of you, thoughts like these are rising: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, we know the source of his flesh; he took it from the virgin Mary. Like any infant, he was nursed and nourished; he grew; became a youngster; suffered persecution from his own people. To the wood he was nailed; on the wood he died; from the wood, his body was taken down and buried. On the third day (as he willed) he rose; he ascended bodily into heaven whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. There he dwells even now, seated at God’s right. So how can bread be his body? And what about the cup? How can it (or what it contains) be his blood?”
My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit. So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.”
If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.”
Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! But what role does the bread play? We have no theory of our own to propose here; listen, instead, to what Paul says about this sacrament: “The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.” Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. “One bread,” he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were “ground.” When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread.
So too, what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. In the visible object of bread, many grains are gathered into one just as the faithful (so Scripture says) form “a single heart and mind in God.” And thus it is with the wine. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew.
This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated. All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them. So let us give God our sincere and deepest gratitude, and, as far as human weakness will permit, let us turn to the Lord with pure hearts. With all our strength, let us seek God’s singular mercy, for then the Divine Goodness will surely hear our prayers. God’s power will drive the Evil One from our acts and thoughts; it will deepen our faith, govern our minds, grant us holy thoughts, and lead us, finally, to share the divine happiness through God’s own son Jesus Christ. Amen!