Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51-52
As a eucharistically focused worshipping community we reference these words of Jesus very frequently…in our hymns, in the language of our liturgy. We have the conversation about the Body and Blood of our Lord so frequently it is easy to forget how shocking and uncomfortable it was for those first hearers when Jesus first began to explain the deeper principals of his new theology. In his life and his words, Jesus offered a completely new perspective on God’s relationship with humanity and the effect it was to have on the life of the believer.
Up until this point, even the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples were just beginning to accept the possibility that he was indeed God’s promised Messiah …the “great deliverer” foreseen by the prophets…the one who would come and free God’s people from their oppressors and bring into reality the kingdom of God. For thousands of years, the Jewish faithful had been formulating their ideas about who the Messiah would be and speculating about the wonderful things he would do. As Jesus began to clarify his message it became clear that if he was indeed the Anointed One his identity and his purpose were not what was expected.
In this unsettling metaphor of consumption, Jesus was using language that was incredibly difficult for his hearers to understand and even more difficult for them to accept. The Jews had very strict dietary laws; the blood of animals was a big don’t and the idea of consuming human flesh was completely unfathomable. Jesus’ words were so confusing and disturbing it was difficult to move past what he said to get to the deeper truth he was trying to share.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” No longer would the practice of one’s faith be rooted in behavior. In the sacrament of his body and blood, we seek to become as Jesus is not just to do as he did. While good works are most certainly important and Holy Scripture tells us that we will be known by the fruit we bear, good or bad, it is the internal motivation arising from our inward likeness to Christ that reflects our relationship with God. As we eat so we become.
All living creatures require some sort of food to survive and when we eat our bodies incorporate the basic components of our food…the chemical compounds that constitute the substance of what we eat become an inseparable part of what we are. In the Mystery of the Blessed Sacrament, we consume our Lord’s body and blood and it too becomes incorporated into our very being…inseparable making him a part of us and us a part of him and by association also a part of one another.
In our Eucharistic theology, we believe that in some mysterious way the elements of bread and wine become the hosts for the Real Presence of Jesus. While there are some Anglicans who, like our Roman and Orthodox Catholic brothers and sisters believe that in the consecration the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ, most Episcopalians shy away from the belief in transubstantiation. They do however accept that the bread and wine are changed in some fundamental way and have become holy items through which we have access to the Real Presence. Because of this the consecrated bread and wine are treated with reverence. We consume them with respect and are careful to treat, even the leftovers as sacred to be consumed or carefully stored for later use.
When Jesus was first teaching his disciples they had an extremely difficult time getting their minds around what he seemed to be asking them to do. They were horrified by their literal interpretation of his metaphorical language. In the early days of the Protestant Reformation, some of the theologians and religious leaders were also unable to move beyond their horror at the image and softened the theology into something more palatable. The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ became a symbolic act only….a memorial meal…a ritual done in remembrance because Christ had commanded it. The sacred elements were reduced once more to only bread and wine and in the interest of temperance, juice was substituted for wine.
I do not doubt the sincerity of our Christian brothers and sisters who understand Holy Communion in this way, as I myself did for many years having been raised in such a tradition. However, I freely confess that for me the gift of the Real Presence of Christ made accessible to us in the Blessed Sacrament continues to stir my soul and strengthen me in body and mind in ways I never imagined. In the gathering of the community of the faithful united in our desire for intimate communion with our Lord I find solace for those things that trouble me, insight into what I am called to do in the world as a servant of Christ and a deep reservoir of support and strength arising from my relationships with fellow believers.
In using the language of food and consumption Jesus was reminding his listeners that this relationship with God through Jesus Christ was necessary for life and health…both in body and spirit. Jesus is the food for our souls…the sustenance for our eternal life. Of course, the disciples did not truly understand what Jesus was trying to say to them and they would not be able to conceive of it until after his death and resurrection. In the gift of the Holy Spirit that came upon them in power and fire at Pentecost, the disciples began to understand that to truly follow Christ one must be transformed into his likeness. In our baptism, we bury the old self and rise as new creatures made in the likeness of our Lord. Each time we come to the Lord’s table we feed this new creature on the bread of heaven…the precious body and blood of the Lord. This is the sustenance necessary to keep this new creature spiritually healthy and able to carry the message of God’s love into the world in word and action.
Brothers and sisters do not deprive yourself of the food our souls need…make time and effort to gather at this table with the Community and to partake of the heavenly bread. Here you will find healing for our deep spiritual wounds and strength for the ongoing journey of our lives. Here we connect with one another and bask in the Real Presence of the one who loved us and gave himself in sacrifice for us.
It is doubtful that we will ever understand the true meaning of this sacred communion…of what it is and what it does but we can experience it….its power to transform us into the likeness of the Christ we serve. For now, the experience is enough. In eternity we will see clearly and understand fully the gift that we have been given.
Behold the home of God is among mortals….he has come to dwell among his people and he feeds them with holy food and drink of his own self. This is the bread of life….the food of transformation…the foretaste of the heavenly banquet where with the saints in light we will all eat and be filled…we will know as we are known…and we will finally truly understand the depth of God’s love for us and for all that he has made.