|Image: Steve Baxter|
“When…his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult – who can accept it?’ But Jesus…said to them, ‘Does this offend you?...Do you also wish to go away?’”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I was raised in a vaguely Quaker,
but essentially non-religious household. The Eucharist wasn’t a part of my
family’s life. Not only were we infrequent attenders at the Raleigh Fr
iends Meeting, but even if we had been, Quakers don’t do sacraments, at least not in the way we think of them.
So when I first heard about communion when I was probably eight or nine, and the concept that Christians, and particularly Catholics, were consuming the body and blood of this Jesus Christ fellow, I was pretty grossed out.
I have company in my squeamishness.
Among the various difficulties the early Christians faced, trying to practice their faith in the hostile Roman Empire, was the accusation that they were cannibals.
The accusation had its roots, of course, in the practice of the Eucharist, in which Christians asserted that once consecrated on the altar, bread and wine truly became the body and blood of Christ.
It isn’t altogether clear whether Christianity’s detractors believed that the words of institution were actually effective at turning ordinary food and drink into actual human flesh, but really, the efficacy of the prayers wasn’t the point. What mattered was that Christians intended to eat Christ’s flesh and blood, whether or not they in fact managed to do it.
Objections to this body and blood stuff didn’t come to an end when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Written in the mid-1500s, The Thirty-Nine Articles, a foundational document of the Church of England that defined Anglican teaching in opposition to both the Roman Catholic church, as well as certain strains of Protestantism that challenged the social order and the supremacy of the state, asserts that transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic teaching that the bread and wine are truly changed in the Eucharist, “is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”
In 2014, the Association of Raelian Scientists published an ethically dubious study wherein they surreptitiously acquired consecrated hosts from a few different Catholic churches and tested them to see if they contained human DNA. Never mind that the Catholic church doesn’t actually teach this, so it’s no surprise that they didn’t.
This outcome, however, the authors assert, proves the falsehood of Catholic teaching – and is evidence for their point of view, namely that extraterrestrials created all life on earth, and that humanity will be saved when the United Nations gives UFOs special diplomatic status and some brave country builds a UFO embassy that must include a landing pad for a flying saucer, a conference room capable of seating no fewer than 21 people, and a swimming pool. But I digress.
What today’s Gospel shows us is that it wasn’t just ancient and contemporary detractors of Christianity or Elizabethan reformers who get squeamish about what Jesus says about his body and blood. It’s his disciples, too. Is what he says about the connection between eating his flesh and eternal life true? Do they even want it to be?
Not all of them, clearly. John tells us that “many of [them] turned back and no longer went about with him.”
And as for the twelve, Peter swallows hard and says, “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That answer has a sort of, “We don’t know what this means, but we trust you, Jesus” vibe, which come to think of it isn’t a half-bad attitude to have.
Now before I go any further, I should say a word about what The Episcopal Church officially teaches about all this. Our catechism says that the Eucharist is the sacrament in which “Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself,” and that “by faith” we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. So something serious is going on, and we believe that Jesus is somehow really involved and present, but we don’t try to put too much definition around what is essentially a mystery. Or as my friend Holli succinctly puts it, Episcopalians don’t believe in transubstantiation, but they don’t not believe in it, either.
The few paragraphs we read this morning more or less wrap up the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. If you read the whole thing you’ll find it to be an extended discourse on bread. And in this time when we’re still only receiving the bread when we take communion, we might as well focus on it.
The chapter starts with an account of the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes for a hungry crowd. The next day members of that crowd follow Jesus across the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus observes that they have followed him because they were hungry people who had eaten their fill the previous day. He advises them not to follow him for the perishable bread that grows stale and molds, but instead to seek the living bread, the bread that endures eternally. Eat the living bread, he tells them, and they will never hunger or thirst again.
And when they ask how to do this, Jesus tells them that he himself is that living bread that has come down from heaven, which leads us to this climactic moment, where Jesus finally says that to inherit eternal life, his followers must feed on his flesh and blood.
And it’s at that point the disciples are like, “Whoa there, Jesus, you’ve gone too far! This is a hard teaching – who can accept it?”
Hearing Jesus in the moment, his followers don’t yet have the context of the Last Supper, let alone the accumulation of millennia of tradition and theological contemplation. It’s no wonder they’re confused, or that some give up and walk away.
A challenge of being a human trying to have a relationship with God, or, I suppose, a challenge of being an omnipotent, infinite, and incomprehensible God in love with your finite and mortal creation, is that it is so hard for us to understand one another. God uses objects and symbols we can comprehend to tell us who God is. Things like bread and wine.
Jesus uses the miracle of multiplying a young boy’s five loaves to feed the crowd by the seashore to communicate something about himself. He, the eternal Son through whom all things were made, is the very source of their mortal life. And then he asks us them – and us – to take a leap of faith, to follow him not to satisfy the hunger of their perishable bodies, but to find in him living bread to satisfy the yearnings of their imperishable spirits to be eternally united with their creator.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood,” Jesus say, “have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” This teaching resists reason, but to those who can accept it, it rewards participation. Within the challenge of this claim is Jesus’s great promise to us.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul asks us to “put on the full armor of God,” as protection against all the evil powers of the world that seek to divide us from God and one another. Some commentaries note discomfort with the militaristic tone of this passage, with its shields and swords and bucklers, but I think in these days of violence and rage, whether at Kabul airport or a local schoolboard meeting, and as the pandemic continues to rage, we can appreciate the value of a good defense.
In the sacrament we receive today, Jesus promises to be truly present with us, as protection and shield against all assaults of the enemy, and to be with us always, even to the end of the age.
Preached at St. David's Episcopal Church - Bean Blossom, IN on August 22, 2021
Readings: 1 Kings 8:1-6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Ps. 84; Eph. 6:10-20; Jn. 6: 56-69