Saturday, August 18th, St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Elyria, Ohio
“The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”
Often in John’s Gospel, when the Jews do not understand what Jesus is trying to tell them, or they object to the way that he speaks of himself, of God, of their shared history, we get the distinct impression that the author would like us to disapprove of their ignorance, obstinacy or indifference. Not this time: here, we feel quite sympathetic to them. They are thoroughly bewildered by Jesus’ statement that the bread of life that he has been talking about for the past few Sundays; the bread which is better than manna in the wilderness, more sustaining than that which sustained Moses and his people in the desert, the bread of life is none other than his own flesh, his own body.
And when the Jews dispute among themselves, arguing over what he could possibly mean, instead of explaining himself, Jesus adds blood to the equation, and to their confusion: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Here’s a fun fact about the Gospel according to John: in John’s Gospel, there is no institution of Holy Communion by way of the Last Supper. Not like there is in the other gospels. There is a meal that Jesus shares with his disciples right before his arrest, and there is talk of betrayal and there is bread, but instead of blessing it, and breaking it, and giving it to his disciples, teaching them and us to forever associate bread and wine with the body and blood of Christ, with his memory, with his commandments, with his presence; instead, in this gospel, the only one with whom Jesus explicitly shares his bread is Judas.
Is that shocking? John tells the story that he has been given to share differently from the others. It doesn’t mean that he is more right or wrong than they are: only that his focus is on different things. For John, the institution of the Eucharist comes not only out of that last supper, but out of every meal that Jesus shared with his followers, and especially important to John is the feeding of the thousands, which is where all this talk of bread started; a meal which was shared with a multitude, where there was enough for everyone; a meal which, at the end of the day, even Judas was invited to.
Because whatever the disputing Jews worked out about what Jesus meant by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, it is quite clear to us, looking back through the lens of history and the church, that he is talking about Holy Communion.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” says Jesus. We are joined together intimately, indissolubly, when we come together in Communion with Christ. We are invited into a relationship closer than table companions, closer than marriage, as close as one heartbeat is to another, one heartbeat and another from the same heart, in the same body, sharing the same life. We are invited into the life of God, the life that does not die, the bread that does not perish or go stale.
Like the Jews, we might ask, “How does that work? How can it work?”
Because as faithful as we might be in receiving the sacraments, in prayer, in trying to do our part to live into that consummation, that relationship with God, there are times when we do feel stale, when we do feel a little dead, when we fail to feel alive. There are times, when we are lost in grief, or worried about our families or our friends or our finances; when we are consumed by need or want – there are times when there doesn’t seem to be room for this bread, this life, something as huge as the life of God in our lives.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” How can God be everything to us that God has promised? How does it work?
I’ll be honest: I don’t really know. I don’t know exactly how God plans on fulfilling God’s promises to us. I don’t know exactly how the mystery of the Eucharist works. I believe – I know – that it is a means of God’s grace to us, not only a sign and symbol but a real and living working of God’s presence with us and within us. I know this because I have experienced it; because when I do not receive it for a while, I go hungry, and when I do receive it, I am fed, sufficiently. It is not only eternal life bread, it is daily bread, bread for keeping one foot in front of the other. Bread for life as well as bread of life.
One of the mysteries of God is that as well as being the most expansive and all-encompassing thing, being, we can imagine – beyond our imaginations, filling time and space and beyond – God is also present in the smallest grain of a crumb of bread, in the smallest corners of our lives, the parts that are so small and deeply hidden that we barely notice them ourselves. God, who alone is holy, is also present in the most mundane areas of our lives – in our bodies, in our appetites.
There is a notion in scientific explanations of the way in which the world came into being called “the Goldilocks principle;” the recognition that this planet is so situated and composed as to be ideal for the evolution of life; it was not too hot, not too cold, but just right, as the old story goes. God is involved in the minute measurements which cause a world to develop and sustain life, which if they were marginally different, would not exist. God is involved in the details of our souls which cause them to be able to enter into eternal life, to share in the life of God. We might never get to the bottom of understanding all the details of how and why; our selves are sometimes as mysterious to us as the Big Bang or life on Mars – although we have the ability always to learn more. But God knows every detail, intimately.
Part of the need to understand how it all works is our need to feel in control. It’s almost as though we don’t trust God to get it right unless we’ve looked over the plans and approved them. In fact, our need to believe that there is a plan, a detailed, step-by-step instruction manual for our own lives, is based in our need for control. But we have free will in our lives. We are not walking through a digitally programmed game, avatars on a screen with an unseen player directing our every move. We have the wherewithal to make choices, to come and join the feast around Jesus, or to walk away, worried that there won’t be enough bread to go around, accidentally missing out. It’s an awesome responsibility, and an amazing opportunity. We have the ability to leave the table and alert the authorities to the presence of Jesus the rebel in Jerusalem. We have the invitation to stay, to be with him through the most amazing events that any of us could ever witness. We have the resources to invite others to share in the food for the journey, the food for life that Christ shares with us, and there is enough for everyone, for thousands of people; for the people who arrive two thousand years late to the party; even for Judas.
Solomon, the king renowned for his wisdom, didn’t ask to know exactly how everything would work or work out. He asked for the wisdom to know right from wrong, to put one foot in front of the other in confidence that he was walking with God, and leading his people in the direction that brought them closer to God. And God said that it was good.
I’m certainly not advocating ignorance, nor am I suggesting that faith is or should be blind. But I am, I think, suggesting that true wisdom involves seeking God first, seeking first the life of God which God shares with us; walking with God before working out exactly what shape that walk will take. Because God will help us work that out.
And a most profound way that God has given us to walk with God, to work out a way forward in the footsteps of Jesus, is to command that we regularly and together celebrate the life of God as Jesus Christ, the life of God among us, with us, as one of us, in Holy Communion. That we remember, regularly, bodily, and together, that God became flesh and blood, like us, in order to redeem us, to restore us to the life God intended for us, one closer to God than our own heartbeats to our own hearts.
God has given us a way to hold on, literally to hold on, to that promise of life, the life of God that Jesus offers.
So how does it work? How can this man, this God, give us his flesh to eat?
One of the greatest Anglican theologians of the Reformation said this,
“Let it there be sufficient for me presenting myself at the Lord’s table to know what there I receive from him, without searching or inquiring of the manner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enemies to piety, abatements of true devotions, … let them take their rest … what these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, O my God, thou art true, O my soul thou art happy?”*
In other words, let it be sufficient to know that Christ has promised us his life, his body and blood and his eternal life, and receive it with happy gratitude.
Richard Hooker, in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, compiled by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams (Oxford University Press, 2001), 171-2