I Am the Bread of Life – A Difficult Teaching

A Homily for the Thirteenth 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 Bread of Life. Amen.

A man, let’s call him Rob, walks into his pastor’s office one day. “Pr. Linda, I’ve got a question. Every Sunday, you say that bread has become the Body of Christ, but how…”

Pr. Linda excitedly cut him off. “Rob, that’s a great question – one Christians have been debating for almost our entire history.” Pr. Linda, being something of a scholar, gives Rob the whirlwind tour of Eucharistic theology throughout church history.

It’s a great tour; she hits all the high points – Ambrose and Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Zwingli and the Marburg Colloquy, Calvin. She makes sure to start with Aristotelian metaphysics before delving in to the Synoptic Gospels and I Corinthians and checking in on the relevant liturgical texts from the Didache, Saint Justin Martyr’s First Apology, the Apostolic Tradition of Pseudo-Hippolytus, the Apostolic Constitutions, and the Anaphora of Addai and Mari all the way through to the Roman Missal promulgated after Vatican II, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and of course Evangelical Lutheran Worship. She quotes extensively from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession and both the Small and Large Catechism. She even mentions Berengar of Tours and Paschasius Radbertus! When was the last time you heard a pastor cite to Berengar and Paschaisus?

Pr. Linda ends with a beautiful reflection on the mystery of Christ’s real presence at the Altar. What’s more, she did it in such a way that Rob was engaged, asking questions, following along, both informed and entertained, and by the end, he was moved emotionally, wiping away tears at the beauty of her words and the reality that God loves the world so much to nourish us with Christ’s Body and Blood through the Sacrament of the Altar. Truly, Pr. Linda has a bright future ahead of her, either in the parish pulpit or behind the seminary lectern.

Rob thanks her for her time, bids her good day, and gets up to walk out of the office, but he stops at the door. “Oh, one more thing, Pr. Linda. I never got to ask my original question. How can you call that white piece of tasteless Styrofoam ‘bread’?”

As countless seminary professors have joked, it might be easier to believe that Christ can be present in, with, and under bread and wine than to believe that the Host – flat, crunch, and tasteless as it is – is really bread. This teaching is, after all, difficult. Who can accept it?

For the past six weeks, we have been crawling through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel – taking up first the feeding of the multitude and Christ’s casual stroll across the water – before diving deep into overlapping readings of a looooong discourse about the way in which Christ nourishes us with his Body and Blood the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. And today, we come to the end – when even the disciples turn to Christ and say, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”

Every week, we gather to celebrate the Sacred Mystery of Christ present at this Altar, and it raises so many questions. What does it mean that we are consuming Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood? Does that make us cannibals? And how is it that Jesus is present at the right hand of the Father but also here on this Altar? How is Christ present here but also at the Altar of Faith Lutheran in Warner Robins, or Riverside UMC down the road, or at St. Peter’s in Rome, or St. Philip’s Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta? Just how is it that Christ is present? What does “presence” really even mean?

And these questions about what God does to the bread and wine come before we even start to consider what this Sacrament does to us: How can it be that we, through consuming the Body of Christ, are consumed into the Body of Christ? And if the Church is the Body of Christ, as Saint Paul says throughout his writings, are we also somehow consuming each other? How is it that such a meal unites us with each other but also with other Christians across both space and time? What is the benefit of such eating and drinking? How is it that eating and drinking brings about such radical grace?

And this before one even begins to consider the real-but-often-hilarious practical considerations, like whether a donut can be used in place of plain bread, which I assure you, have answers that have been fiercely debated. Or, more relevant to most parishes, what is bread? Do these flat, tasteless wafers really count, or do they merely represent bread?

Contemplating the Eucharist is kind of like hiking: as you crest one ridge, thinking you’re approaching the pinnacle, suddenly your perspective shifts, revealing that you must keeping moving further up and further in. Consider one aspect, and as you come to what might be an answer, there is suddenly a new, loftier question to be pondered, and as you approach a conclusion about that, suddenly another question demands your attention.

As we ponder this blessed mystery and wrestle with the difficulty of this teaching, as we ask harder and harder questions, we find the complex beauty of basic answers: that Christ is here. For us. To forgive.

In this meal, Jesus meets our most basic need: food and drink. 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 mutter, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” while others, like some of the disciples, simply cannot accept the mysteries of the faith and “turn back, and no longer [follow Christ.]”

But where else could we go? Christ has the words of eternal life. Despite our own doubts and arguments, Christ assures us that we are united through this meal into his Body. We have his 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 holy mystery, but we have Christ’s word 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.

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, we 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 raises question after question after question after question, 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 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.

Amen.

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