A Homily for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: St. John 6:51-58
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Bread of Life. Amen.
Let’s pretend, just for a few seconds, that while we might be familiar with some or most of the stories in the Hebrew Bible, we’ve never read any of the Gospels or the Epistles. We’ve gone to worship at the Temple, where we’ve sacrificed animals and consumed their flesh, but we’ve never celebrated Holy Communion with bread and wine.
And so it is that we arrive, with a few thousand of our closest friends, around a wandering Nazarene preacher who miraculously feeds the entire crowd with only a few loaves and fish. Just like Moses! And Elijah! And Elisha! Surely God is at work!
And then he starts to speak: Whoever comes to me will never go hungry! Will never go thirsty!
For people familiar with hunger – whether in first century Judaea or twenty-first century Macon – that is quite a promise! No wonder people flocked to Jesus! Not only did he promise that his followers would never go hungry, he also demonstrated his ability to keep that promise!
No wonder the crowd responded, “Lord, give us this bread always.”
But then comes the twist. It’s the twist we see coming because we’re reading this after Maundy Thursday, after the Church took this teaching to heart, after we made this teaching “the source and summit” of our weekly worship. But to the crowd that day? Oh, to the crowd that day, this twist is among the most shocking things they’ll ever hear:
Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh….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; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
Put this in context – not the context we know now but the context of Jewish life during the first century.
The audience’s reaction? Abject disgust and confusion.
Dietary laws, guiding what to eat and not eat, and how to prepare food, were an important way to distinguish Jewish identity from their pagan neighbors. Most famously, we know that these laws – what we now call “keeping kosher” – prohibit the consumption of pork. If you have Jewish friends, you might also know that shellfish is unclean, and our Jewish kin don’t combine dairy and meat, based on the prohibition against boiling a young animal in its mother’s milk. Less notable, though, is the prohibition against consuming blood – spelled out in Genesis and at least three places in Leviticus. (And this, by the way, is the history of “kosher salt” – the large flakes, beloved by home cooks everywhere, are used to draw out the blood from a cut of meat, making it clean for consumption. But that’s mostly beside the point.)
And the concept of eating human flesh? This is such a universal taboo, both in our modern era and the ancient Roman Empire, that the Romans – known for their own depraved cruelty – accused Christians of cannibalism. Allegations of consuming human flesh were a bridge too far for the people who regularly crucified their enemies.
So you’re standing next to a miracle worker who says, I am giving you my flesh to eat and my blood to drink.
How do you respond?
St. John’s Gospel doesn’t include a story about the institution of the Lord’s Supper – and this is odd because so much of that Gospel takes place during the Last Supper – and even stranger because we read from St. John’s Gospel on Maundy Thursday when, among other things, we remember the very institution of that Blessed Sacrament. But so much of John’s Gospel assumes that we’re familiar with the other stories, that we are reading through with the entire narrative in mind.
Today’s lection assumes that we come to it thinking about the night Christ handed over the teaching, saying, “This is my body, given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me….This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me.”
We can only respond to this teaching – and indeed, we can only properly understand all of Christ’s miracles and teachings around food – if we keep in mind the promise that Christ is present with and for us at the Altar for the forgiveness of sin.
And yet Christ’s words today touch on one of the central mysteries of the Christian life. What does it mean to consume the Body and Blood of our Lord?
Next week, we’ll hear the disciples say, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” Indeed, this teaching is difficult. It demands that we confront a difficult reality.
The Church has expended a lot of energy over the past two thousand years trying to understand and explain how Christ is present in the Eucharist, drawing on any number of philosophical resources. Perhaps we might use Aristotle? That while the accidents – the outward appearance – remains the same, the substance – the metaphysical reality – changes? Or maybe Christ becomes present consubstantially – that is, the bread stays bread and the wine stays wine, but Jesus is present alongside it. Or maybe Jesus is only spiritually present, because how could he have physically ascended into heaven and by really present in the Sacrament? Or maybe this is all just metaphorical and nothing more, a cognitive act rather of remembrance rather than a metaphysical reality?
What does it mean for us to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his precious blood? That we gnaw on him the same way we might chew on a steak? That he might feel every bite of the teeth? Or that this is only some sign pointing to a thing beyond itself?
And when exactly does the change take place? Is it when we say the magic words, “This is my body….” (Which is the origin, by the way of the words “Hocus pocus” – a misunderstanding of the Latin translation of Christ’s words, “Hoc est enim corpus meum” – but much like kosher salt, that’s a story for a different time.) Or maybe it’s when we ask the Father to pour out the Holy Spirit on us gathered here and on these, God’s own gifts of bread and wine, that they may be for us the Body and Blood of Christ? Or maybe it’s not until we sing the Amen at the end? Maybe that’s the only way to be sure.
Dear friends, the Eucharist is not a math equation to be solved but a mystery to ponder. To be certain, it is worthwhile to reflect on it – to write hymns and odes and poems, to draw works of art, to sing about the glorious mystery, and yes, even to spend time thinking about it deeply. Thanks be to God for theologians who have dedicated their careers to exploring and explaining the intricacies of this Blessed Sacrament and to the liturgists who have shaped how we celebrate at this Holy Table. But the mystery of Christ’s presence is meant all the more to be a source of nourishment.
It is a means of grace for us, a way in which Christ fulfills the promise to be with us and to strengthen us for ministry. It confers grace to us all, whether or not we believe it, whether or not we understand it. Let it confound you. Let it shock you. Hear the words that this is true flesh and true blood with fresh ears and be amazed. It is the true Body and Blood of Christ. How can this be? Miraculously and mysteriously.
Here is Christ. Really. Truly. For you. To forgive.
May this sacred meal strengthen you and keep you in the true faith unto everlasting life.