The sermon for Sunday, August 15 was preached as a response to John 6:51-58. The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews, vicar of the congregation, wrote the sermon. In his absence due to illness, Senior Warden Gavin Smith read the sermon. The sermon was based on the below manuscript.
In John today, we have the recast of what we heard last week. Last week, if you’ll recall, Jesus talked about being the true bread, the bread that persists rather than perishes. The first half of Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse, what we heard last week, was a lecture on one of John’s main themes: everlasting life coming through belief in Jesus.
Remember that for John, belief in Jesus is not simply saying you believe, acknowledging it in the creed or your head. Whenever John writes about belief, there’s the expectation of putting one’s whole heart, faith, and trust in Jesus. For John if you believe in Jesus your life changes because you’ve committed to following Jesus and doing your best to living like him — with God’s help. For John if you believe in Jesus, you look to him as God Become Human through whom all things shall be well.
Today Jesus recasts much of what he’s already said. The passages from last week and this are very, very similar, though this week undeniably is about Eucharist. Jesus is preaching near the time of the Passover, perhaps at a synagogue. He says, “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.” He’s been called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and now teaches that eternal life comes through eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
As Raymond Brown says, “The stress on eating (feeding on) Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood..cannot possibly be a metaphor for accepting his revelation. To eat someone’s flesh appears in the Bible as a metaphor for hostile action…the drinking of blood was looked on as an horrendous thing forbidden by God’s law…if Jesus’ words in verse 53 are to have a favorable meaning, they must refer to the Eucharist.”
Just as we’ve gotten used to Eucharist again, we’re having a break today. There’s no teaching moment here. There’s no lesson to be learned except that sometimes people get sick on Saturday night and can’t make it on Sunday, no matter how much they want to.
This week Jesus gives one of his most difficult teachings for both us and those hearing it at the synagogue. It’s always worth remembering that Jesus himself was a Jew, and John’s reference to “the Jews” is about those who do not believe in Jesus and those who, by the time John was written, had expelled Jesus-following Jews from their synagogues.
I’ve said why the passage was difficult for the first hearers, but it’s difficult for us, too, after the Reformation and centuries of commentary and exporation about what the Eucharist means or does. Transubstantiation, consubstantiation, Real Presence, Just a symbol, there are so many layers of what we’re doing, and what this bread and wine do for us.
On top of the theologizing to infinity, we are faced with death. Death and disappointment surround us. The reinstated mask mandate is a result of increased COVID spread and is an attempt at staving off death. We eat this Bread of Life for eternal life, life that doesn’t end, and yet we see life end. As we long for the day when Christ returns in final glory, after 20 years of war, we see the Taliban retaking Afghanistan almost entirely, and in such short order. The Diocese of Haiti is one of the largest in The Episcopal Church. And they have been crushed by another earthquake, whose damage we won’t know for days or weeks.
“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.” These are Jesus words of assurance and promise that he gives to his followers and John records for sharing among the church. Yes, this passage is probably written a little later than what we heard last week, but it’s written to reflect not only what the church John cares for believes, but also what they’re experiencing.
Even after Jesus had died, been resurrected, and ascended to heaven, the Body of the Incarnate Christ is present in Eucharist bread. Jesus is with us always — not just in our hearts and minds as we believe, but in our hands and bellies as we eat of his Flesh and Blood. The point of this passage is not the phrase, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” especially on a day that we ourselves aren’t having Eucharist!
As a Christain text, written for Christians to encourage and form their ongoing belief in the midst of actual persecution, Jesus through John is talking to the Church as well as those outside who are making it suffer and shunning them. This is a difficult lesson for them. Jesus is making clean — eating his flesh and drinking his blood — what has always been unclean. And Jesus really means eat! The eating he’s talking about from the beginning of today’s passage is usually translated gnaw or munch, including in other gospels. THis is about truly feeding to truly be fed.
Facing persecutions Jewish and Gentile Christians hear Jesus say, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Those of us who are struggling right now with seeing 20 years of war proving in real time to have been fruitless; struggling with anxiety about the Delta variant — and anger and frustration at those who continue to refuse to be vaccinated; struggling with just utter sadness about the people of Haiti facing another setback after centuries of struggle we all have hope.
We have hope here and now as Jesus is united to us in this Bread and this Cup — even if not today actually! We have hope here and now as Jesus dwells in us and we in him whenever we consume his flesh and blood, whenever we know the whole person of Jesus who has come to give life to the world. We not only have hope here and now, but hope for the last day, when all shall be made well and we’ll be raised with Jesus. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
On this Altar, not being used today, Christ comes to us in Bread and Wine and makes himself known to us: in the smell of the orange oil in the bread, in the burn of the wine on our throats. Christ makes himself known to us in each other’s faces as we join ourselves to him and to one another in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Amen.