The readings for Year B Proper 15 continue to prove the bread of life (no half-baked measures) in the Gospel according to John, while 2 Kings and Ephesians share their wisdom.
Solomon was wise and discerning. The Ephesians are bidden to live as wise, not as unwise people. And the crowd following Jesus around the Galilean countryside continues to struggle with the meaning of his proclamation that he is the bread of life.
In all of our wisdom, hindsight, foreknowledge of the Sacrament we are about to receive, do we understand it any better than they did?
When I was a child, and I first started attending church by myself, drawn to it by the stories of the Bible and the prayer that Jesus taught us, the prayer we learned at school; while the church welcomed me, I was given to understand that I was too young to receive the Sacrament, and unconfirmed. I was an undocumented Christian, my paperwork was insufficient, and my ability to assimilate, to integrate, held suspect.
Even so, I was welcome. I was welcome to pray, and to stay, and even to approach the altar for a blessing, which was, truly, a blessing; but when I returned to my pew, and we began the post-Communion prayer, I knew that my words of thanksgiving for the body and blood of Christ were hollow, and worse, hypocritical, because in the silence of my mind I was saying, “But you didn’t give it to me. You left me out.”
I got Confirmed as soon as I could. I was too young to understand what I was getting myself into. None of us understands the fullness of God’s mercy, God’s providence, God’s unfathomable love. If we did, then we, too, would be gods. But I knew, in my body and in my soul and in the core of my being that what was offered at that altar was something I needed, something I wanted, something I could not live without. I still can’t quite explain it; I still know that it is true.
The people, in the gospel, are still asking for a sign, but they have all the signs that they need. Only yesterday, Jesus fed five thousand of them with five loaves and a couple of fish. Like the manna in the wilderness, Jesus dispensed signs of God’s providential care for God’s beloved creatures, the crowd of humanity, feeding their bodies and soothing their hungry and anxious souls. But one meal is one meal, Jesus tells them, and it will not sustain you forever. A person lives not by bread alone, but by the living will and word and breath of God. And that Word made flesh, that living, ever-living sign of God’s mercy, is Jesus.
In the Eucharist, we re-member Jesus. In physical and concrete form, in solid bread and sweet wine, we rehear, we rehearse his words from the last supper with his friends, when he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, shared it out, giving of himself, giving of God’s mercy and providence, pouring out his blood like wine, his spirit like sweetness, his life like water for the world. We re-member him in the bread, and we invoke his life, his death, his resurrection, and all that is yet to come since his ascension. We re-member him, reconstructing him in bread, and then we break it open all over again, because it is not a museum piece, not a relic, but a living memorial and reminder of God’s continuing mercy, our daily bread, the perseverance of God’s passion for us. We participate in the mystery of the Incarnation. We consume God’s grace. We are resurrected by real food for faint bodies, wine for poor spirits.
We ask the Holy Spirit to make us one with Christ, with one another, because it is not enough to remember; because it is not enough to make private and prayerful connections with the relics of Christ. Because we celebrate in community and as a microcosm of the world, the crowd on the hillside, the people, the children whom God has called into being in order that God might provide for them, in grace, in mercy, in love. Because this bread, the flesh and blood of Jesus, the Incarnation of all that we know of God, is given for the life of the world.
In The Imitation of Christ, classic devotional most often ascribed to medieval monk Thomas a Kempis, he wrote
Thou must take heed of curious and useless searching into this most profound Sacrament, if thou wilt not be plunged into the abyss of doubt. … God is able to do more than [the human] can understand. (XVIII,1)[i]
In other words, when the people tried to pry too hard into Jesus’ meaning, taking apart his flesh, his family, dissecting his words as though they were a recipe, a formula, rather than poetry, a prophecy of God’s grace; their graceless curiosity, their ungracious questioning caused them to fall into grumbling and to fall away and to end up taking apart his very flesh, and dividing his clothing by lots.
There is a Graham Greene short story[ii] in which a baker tries to persuade an altar boy to smuggle him a piece of the consecrated Host, which he dare not approach for himself, but which he longs to examine. It is the tragedy of his life that his hunger is to prove God wrong, to counter Jesus’ claims to be with us, to feed us, to love us.
Still, and without fanfare, without failure, without fail Jesus shows up at the altar, and on the hillside, at gatherings in ancient Galilee and churches in Ohio; bread for the world, unspoiled, incorruptible. We have heard this week of the signal and foul failings of the church, the holy, catholic, and apostolic church of which we are also part; how the body of Christ was abused and desecrated in unmentionable ways. It is a tragedy, and a travesty, and it makes a mockery of our sincere and heartfelt prayers of confession, of hunger, of praise. It damages the soul. It harms the body. It hurts.
Still, and without fail Jesus shows up; bread for the world, unspoiled, incorruptible, inviting us to participate in the healing of our own souls and bodies, in the healing of the world, not ignoring its hunger or hurt, but echoing the incarnation of love with which God has approached us.
The world did not understand Jesus. The world would not accept his self-sacrifice, preferring to keep to its own power, its own wisdom, its own discernment instead of recognizing the foolishness of God which is wiser than human understanding.
None of that stopped or slowed or forestalled or diminished Jesus’ work of salvation. He gave his flesh for the world, his Incarnation to feed the world with God’s mercy, his life to seed the world with the gospel of God’s grace towards all that God has made. He knew what he was doing.
The Imitation of Christ concludes,
Go forward, therefore, with simple and undoubting faith, and draw nigh unto the Sacrament with supplicating reverence. And whatsoever thou art not enabled to understand, that commit without anxiety to Almighty God. …
For faith and love do here especially take the highest place, and work in hidden ways in this most holy and excellent Sacrament. God who is eternal and incomprehensible, and of infinite power, doth great and inscrutable things in heaven and in earth, and His wonderful works are past finding out. If the words of God were of such sort that they might easily be comprehended by human reason, they should no longer be called wonderful or unspeakable (XVIII,4-5)[iii]
Wonderful, unspeakable, and yet so simple. There is bread, and there is wine, and there is Jesus with us. And the mercy of God endures forever.
[i] Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, via the Gutenberg Project http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1653/pg1653-images.html
[ii] Graham Greene, “The Hint of an Explanation,” in Collected Stories (Viking Press, 1973)
[iii] A Kempis, op cit