The Bread of Life – How Can It Be?

A Homily for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: I Kings 19:4-8; St. John 6:35, 41-51


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Bread of Heaven. Amen.

A few months ago, a genre of video made the rounds on the internet: “Everything is cake.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: a person cutting into everyday objects to reveal that, surprise, it’s cake. Mashed potatoes? No, cake. Hamburger? No, cake. Glass of water? No, cake. Basketball? Salad? Remote control? Rainbow trout? Pile of Legos? Glass of water? Foot in a sandal? No, cake.

It was the world’s most repetitive magic trick. Everything in the video turns out to be cake. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Oh, come on. Surely that’s actually a plate of raw chicken. It even looks slimy like the pre-wrapped chicken at the grocery store. It’s not going to also…oh. Ok, yeah, that’s also cake.

How can this be? What appears to be spaghetti and meatballs, or a cell phone, or a human hand, is actually cake? What sort of magical craftsmanship?

Cake certainly cannot take such forms, but with enough fondant, food dye, and skill (and, let’s be honest, probably a low-resolution camera) you can make a cake look like just about anything.

If I may shamelessly misuse Saint Augustine, “One thing is perceived, another is to be understood.”

At the feeding of the multitude, one thing was perceived – that Christ offered miraculous food, like Moses and the prophets before him. But another was to be perceived – that Christ feeds us not only with food that perishes but with himself, the Bread of Heaven, which endures unto life everlasting.

Every week, when we gather to celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar, we behold a mystery – we see bread and wine on a table, but when we come forward, we receive something entirely different. It is no longer bread and no longer wine but the very Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this mystery, we see “forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation are given to us….”

It’s almost the exact opposite of those surprise cakes, which were baked and hidden away to obscure the reality of what they are – but they always were, and always will be dessert. The Blessed Sacrament, though, starts out as bread and wine. Nothing more, nothing less. Not even fancy bread – just flour, water, and heat. The wine is merely the fermented fruit of the vine. We offer it, along with our praise and thanksgiving, to the Lord; then we break the Host and drink from the Chalice – but there is no surprise hiding beneath the surface. The Host still looks, tastes, smells, feels exactly the same: like bread (and not particularly good bread, at that). The stuff in the Chalice tastes just like it did when it came out of the bottle. Suppose we took it to a food sciences lab and ran it through a series of tests, what do you think we would find? What divine mystery could we unravel? Absolutely nothing. Results would show that the bread is still nothing more than flour and water, that the wine is nothing more than the fermented fruit of the vine.

And yet, in a very real way – but in a way that is beyond human perception – it is made for us into the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior. Christ is fully present in that which appears to be bread. Christ is fully present in that which appears to be wine.

Some around Jesus asked, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” We might very well ask, “Is this not the wafer we just pulled out of a plastic bag, purchased at the cathedral bookstore in Atlanta? And was this not a bottle of Taylor port, from the bottom shelf at the grocery store? How then can it be for us the Body and Blood of Christ?”

And yet! And yet it is the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation! And yet it is the presence of Christ for the forgiveness of sins! And yet it is that which preserves us in the true Faith unto everlasting life!

In the Small Catechism, Luther puts plainly the question we all have: How can bodily eating and drinking do such a great thing?

Eating and drinking certainly do not do it, but rather the words that are recorded: ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.’ These words, when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state…[that is,] forgiveness of sins.

Or, to revisit Augustine, “One thing is perceived” – we see ordinary bread and wine – but “another is to be understood” – what we take in faith is actually the real presence of our Lord and Savior as promised by the very Word of God.

How can this be? What sort of transmogrification took place to make it so? It’s not about that. The Eucharist isn’t about the exact metaphysical process by which ordinary food and drink become the extraordinary presence of our Lord. It’s about that which our Lord offers to us in faith.

Here is the Bread from Heaven. Here is Christ. For us. To forgive. Here is that which brings us eternal life.

And it is this Most Blessed Sacrament that nourishes us that we might be the Body of Christ for each other and the world. When we were Baptized, we were baptized into the Body of Christ. In this Bread of Heaven and Cup of Salvation – we are sanctified, that is, made holy – in order that we might be who we were made to be.

Not individually. Not in isolation. This is no mere fast food, consumed alone in a car. It cannot be done at a distance, over a phone line or a Zoom connection. It is embodied, a physical sign of physical presence of the Lord Christ who took on the most physical aspects of our humanity and meets our most basic physical needs. Here is a family table, a thanksgiving feast, where we share together that which sustains us in our life together, where we are continuously united with each other and the entire communion of saints into the Body of Christ. On this Altar, we meet our Lord and all who are joined to him.

“One thing is perceived” – a group of people in Macon meeting in a building – “but another is to be understood” – the Body of Christ joined with the saints from across the ages.

So come, beloved. Come after our long fast and take your spot at the Feast. Come commune with all the saints. Come, gaze upon the Body of Christ. Come. “Be what you can see, and receive what you are.”

Amen.

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