Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: John 6:35, 41-51
11Pentecost, Proper 14, Year B
“Bread of Life”
Do you know that two successive triennial General Conventions have to approve the words of any hymn that is included in an Episcopal hymnal? They don’t have to approve the music, you understand, just the words, to make sure we aren’t singing any heresies. True fact!
Did you notice that we didn’t sing verse three of our gospel hymn today? Let me read you the words, approved by two Episcopal General Conventions and sung in Episcopal Churches since our 1982 was published:
Unless you eat of the Flesh of the Son of Man,
and drink of his Blood,
You shall not have life within you,
you shall not have life within you.
Do you believe this? I know from Bible study this week that some do, and some don’t. If taken literally, this verse could mean that unless we receive Communion, receive the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, we “won’t have life within us,” whatever THAT means.
Now I happen to believe that the sacrament of Holy Eucharist IS life-giving. But will we really die without the literal Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, either in this life or in the next? Let me assure you that there is plenty of room in our church for differing perspectives on this question.
Whether you believe this hymn stanza or not, though, you might have noticed that the hymn comes from chapter 6 of John’s gospel, from which today’s gospel lesson comes. And our lesson today is week three of five in Jesus’ “Bread Discourse” that began two Sundays ago with Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000.
Speaking in highly metaphorical terms, once again Jesus declared that HE is “the Bread of Life,” and that he is the “Bread that came down from heaven.” Here and for the past two week’s gospel lessons, Jesus likened himself to the manna that God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness. In the wilderness the manna provided for the people’s physical sustenance, but here Jesus seems to be speaking more what we need for the spiritual journey of our lives.
Or was he? At the last meal Jesus shared with his friends, he instructed his disciples—instructs us—“Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you.” And he 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.” In each case, Jesus’ instruction ended, “Do this for the remembrance of me.” Even here, though, the purpose of the Great Meal is not clear: forgiveness AND remembrance.
So let ME be clear: Jesus’ giving his life for us on the cross is how our sins can be forgiven. In our passage today Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” So the mechanism, the vehicle, of us living forever with God—no matter who we are or what we have done in the past—is tied to our believing, not to some magical or even mystical transformation through this bread and wine of our bodies into eternal beings.
And yet, why DO we come to this altar, if not to remind ourselves, to remember, to participate in this life-giving miracle? Our gospel lesson today answers this question, as well. Jesus said, “no one can come to me, unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”
This is as good an answer as I’ve ever heard:
- “It’s habit,” you might say, or
- It just makes me feel good,” or
- “Somehow I’m a better person if I do.”
These are all signs that the Father is drawing you to his Son, right here at this altar. Notice that the Father calls everyone, although not all come.
For those who DO come, though, our church insists that there are two aspects of Jesus’ Body and Blood that we receive during Communion, the actual elements that we literally put into our bodies, and the spiritual reality that the elements represent. Because the spiritual reality is life-giving, incorporating Communion into ourselves regularly is life-giving also.
So, too, Jesus’ words today. Jesus was not LITERALLY bread. He likened himself to food from heaven, spiritual sustenance. He was both a historical person and an eternal spiritual being. Just like the bread and wine you will receive today is both literal food and drink, and eternal sustenance.
At this point, I’m reminded of an observation made by Richard Hooker, the first Anglican theologian, when Christians in the Reformation Age were arguing about the nature of Communion. Hooker observed, in my loose paraphrase, that the important thing is that we receive Communion, rather than understand how Communion “works.”
Our Old Testament lesson today suggests what the heavenly bread is FOR. This story about the prophet Elijah gives us the purpose of the spiritual food we eat: this heavenly bread is meant to sustain us on our pilgrimage to the holy mountain, the “mountain of God.” There the advice of the angel was for Elijah to “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” So, too, OUR journey of life. Regular food might sustain our bodies, but what will sustain our souls and remind us regularly of what Christ Jesus did for us?
One more observation before I end: Because our Bishop has invited us to celebrate the Civil Rights martyr Jonathan Myrick Daniels next Sunday, we will miss part four of Jesus’ five-part bread discourse. There, in John 6 verse 53 Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Notice that this isn’t “SHALL not have,” as in the hymn, and it isn’t “You WILL not have life within you.” This isn’t future tense, but rather in the present
tense. In other words, we need to place Jesus within us, however we do that, here and now, and Jesus will sustain our lives, and raise us up on the last day.
However you do it, fill yourself up with Jesus; don’t settle for manna.