Sermon – Year B, Proper 15, 2018
Have you ever been talking with someone, or listening to a public speaker, and really liking what they are saying? Feeling deep down that this person must be tapped in to a greater wisdom or a clearer understanding of life, or perhaps talking to you about ways to change life that seem so wonderful and right? And then that person says something incredibly ludicrous and it brings you up short, thinking ‘wait, what? What did they just say? No thanks. They can sell their crazy elsewhere.’
Well, that’s very much what the scene looks like in today’s Gospel. Jesus is teaching the multitudes, talking to them about metaphorical bread of life and how he is that bread to the people. This makes some sense to the people gathered. After all, Jesus did just have the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, it’s near the Passover, life is really quite terrible at that time, and the people could very easily begin to see Jesus as their new Moses to lead them against a contemporary ‘Pharoah’, Herod their king. In the midst of this discourse though everything comes to a screeching halt. Jesus says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” I can just imagine a small gasp going up from the crowd, and everyone looking around at each other as if to say, “did he really just say what I think he said?” Jesus continues to press the point, “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Even his disciples aren’t so sure about this anymore. Not only does the concept of literally eating the flesh of a person and drinking their blood stand as inconceivable taboos in our modern sensibilities, to the first century Jewish people it is a gross violation of their purity laws. If such a thing is inconceivable today, it certainly wouldn’t even be spoken of then.
Jesus does not back down on this. He reiterates it several times. And notice that he says his flesh is the bread of heaven. He’s not just saying ‘my body’, but ‘my flesh’. That word is so much more visceral, so much more descriptive. John’s Gospel wants to be very explicit here, wants no doubt about what this means, and what Jesus said. This explanation is found in all of the Gospels at some point; in the Synoptic Gospels it is more poignant in the story of the Last Supper. This description becomes the cornerstone of the principal act of Christian worship, and continues from the earliest days to today. Regardless of theology or belief, this doesn’t change.
The emphasis changes. I remember growing up in a nondenominational evangelical church. When we took communion once a month, the emphasis was always with the words, ‘do this in remembrance of me’. The Roman Catholic church is firmly rooted in its doctrine of transubstantiation…a long word to say that through a process not quite understood by human minds, the bread and the wine are completely changed into the body and blood of Christ. They no longer contain any substance of bread and wine. This theology is very much rooted in Aristotelian philosophy, but is where in the Western Christian Tradition, the different branches begin. During the Protestant Reformations different reformers have varied explanations of what the bread and wine are. Some say it is a memorial, like a token you keep of a departed loved one to remember them by. Others say it is like an ember from a fire. It is not longer the fire, but it still glows hot with the heat from it. Others strip it down to a simple act of communal eating.
As technology advances in the modern world, so too theologians have to continue to rethink real presence. From the idea of transubstantiation comes Transignification. Modern Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx uses the term to discuss the presence of Christ in the bread and wine in light of modern understandings of reality and physics. In the Anglican tradition we often hear the term ‘consubstantiation’ even though it’s not official doctrine. This says that the bread and the wine are indeed the body of blood of Jesus Christ, but are still of also the substance of bread and wine.
Hang in there with me…don’t go to sleep…this all does lead somewhere. Let’s check in on our Orthodox brothers and sisters. By the Declaration of the Synod of the Eastern Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem in 1672, “[Jesus is present] truly and really, so that after the consecration of the bread and of the wine, the bread is transmuted, transubstantiated, converted and transformed into the true Body Itself of the Lord, Which was born in Bethlehem of the ever-Virgin, was baptized in the Jordan, suffered, was buried, rose again, was received up, sits at the right hand of the God and Father, and is to come again in the clouds of Heaven; and the wine is converted and transubstantiated into the true Blood Itself of the Lord, Which as He hung upon the Cross, was poured out for the life of the world.” They are very, very clear that the bread and wine is only body and blood. But the thing about this is there has never been a theological definition of how that happens. That, my friends, is left to be a mystery of the most High God.
Now, Martin Luther wanted to make sure it wasn’t confusing and went so far as to say that when Jesus says, “my flesh” that this is not, “the sort of flesh from which red sausages are made,” “not flesh such as purchased in a butcher shop or is devoured by wolves and dogs” Luther taught that if you believed this was actually the body and blood, you had missed the point. But then there is St. John Chrysostom; one of the early Church Fathers coming out of the 5th Century. He wrote that is for those Christ feeds to, “fix their teeth in His flesh and to be commingled with Him.” In the early years of Christianity, one of the charges leveled against Christians during the persecutions was that they were cannibals, based in what reports were coming back about all this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood.
So what about today. Here in this church. When we stand around that table and say the Eucharistic prayers, we remember, through the words of institution, ‘On the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.” We use language which has its foundation in the crafting of the 1662 prayerbook, to balance out both Protestant and Catholic doctrines. We say ‘take them in REMEMBRANCE that Christ died for you, and FEED ON HIM IN YOUR HEARTS BY FAITH. We walk a line between the two because what this comes down to is a simple truth: every person sitting in this room needs to decide how they approach this altar and what it is they are receiving when they come for communion. In our tradition we will not tell you one or the other. We will not decry that one is correct and the other heresy. There are some Anglicans who have a very high theology of real presence to the point where they partake of the adoration and benediction of the blessed sacrament. A service of prayer and adoration before a consecrated host wafer that you don’t touch or eat, only revere as the actual presence of Christ in your midst. I have participated in that type of service. I’m not sure it’s quite for me, but I have my own personal beliefs around the presence of Christ in the bread and wine.
I have intentionally been a bit overboard this week with quoting erudite sources on matters of Eucharist doctrine. I wanted to show you the breadth of what exists and how far some people go to explain what is truly a mystery. No matter what your belief is around the bread and wine, the most important thing you can latch on to is that God’s love, through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is physically remembered by us on a weekly basis when we sink our teeth into these little wafers. Whether this is wafer or flesh, it is our weekly affirmation of our baptism, of our salvation, of our community. This is the one moment in which we touch the divine like no other time in our day to day life; where we are at once fully reconciled with God and with those gathered around us for just a moment. It is our momentary brushing up against the future Kingdom of God, the already and not yet. So whatever your Eucharistic theology or piety, what matters is that you come to the table, you seek the sacrament of communion, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to take a little vision of God’s love out into our broken world once more.
The Rev. Kevin Gore, AF