Today is Sunday and technically it is not part of Lent, but a day off our Lenten observance. However, when I decided to blog my Lenten experience, I felt I needed to include something for everyday. As a result, Sundays will be included and will be entitled whatever day Saturday is (yesterday was Day Four) plus an S (for Sunday after) and will be included in the Lenten category listing. So today is the first posting for a Sunday in Lent. I hope that is not too confusing.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I have left my previous church and am waiting on God for a new direction. Until I get a new roadmap for my Christian walk, my wife and I are visiting with my Daughter who is a member of Covenant Life Church in Gathersburg, MD. I tell you this because some people have expressed concern that I am not attending anywhere during this waiting period. While I know that Covenant Life is not where I will end up, it is a wonderful oasis in my current desert.
I bring up Covenant Life because this morning they had communion, and I must admit that despite the good teaching, preaching, and singing (there is something to be said for joining with 3,000 people in spirited hymnody), I miss the Anglican Eucharist, with its deep spiritual context most dearly.
Let me explain. Eucharist has been a study area of mine for several years and the last sermon I preached at St. Timothy’s, the Episcopal Church I attended for 27 years until the ordination of Eugene Robinson made that untenable, was on the Eucharist. It is not possible to go too deeply into the issue of the Eucharist on this blog. It would take a long series of postings and I am woefully behind on both my death penalty and Knowing God series. But there is one thing I can do. I can introduce you to the scripture context that changed my understanding of whole issue as I dealt with its significance over the last several years. It is located in the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel and it centers on Jesus’ response to the crowd who has followed him across the lake after the miraculous feeding of the five thousand.
Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal. John 6:27
Jesus tells them to seek food from heaven, the food of eternal life, rather than just another miraculous meal of regular bread. This is important because it sets the context of the discussion in the realm of real food, albeit food that is more than bread, food that has spiritual power. The crowd responds by asking him to prove it to them.
What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform? John 6:30
In response, Jesus speaks about what we call the Eucharist, the consumption of what as Christians we call his body and blood. But before we look at that, I need to make a point, one that I made in my sermon. When dealing with historical occurrences such as this interaction, I normally attempt to get the congregation to imagine themselves as being right there, in that moment. For this exchange they needed to be first century Jews, people who were following Jesus in the hope that he might be the promised Messiah. I wanted them to remember that they were talking with Jesus right after he had just performed the miracle of giving them spiritually multiplied bread and now they were asking for a sign to validate his last statement that he had even better bread, bread that brings with it eternal life. You have to understand this context to understand the crowds eventual response to Jesus’ very difficult words.
Jesus says to them.
For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world. John 6:33
Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” John 6:34
Having just been fed with spiritually multiplied bread and then having been offered by Jesus the bread that gives eternal life, naturally they want it. Jesus then engages them in a dialog over he himself being “the bread that came down out of heaven.” He contrasts the manna that the Israelites ate in the wilderness (real spiritually supplied food), but food that did not prevent their death with his bread that will cause them to live forever.
So far so good, the crowd is with him. But then he says something that changes everything. Not just for those first century Jews listening to him, but for everyone, everywhere for all time. He lays out a massive stumbling block right in front of them.
…and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh. John 6:51b
Remember, you are a first century Jew, believing that you are possibly following the long-awaited Messiah and he has offered you bread that brings with it eternal life. Your hopes are high, but then he says that this spiritually given bread is not a new form of manna, but his own flesh. Your first thought is disgust. It sounds like he is suggesting some form of cannibalism. This would be instinctively abhorent to you. An argument breaks out in the crowd (surprise, surprise) with everyone wondering how is it possible that this Jesus, this possible Messiah, is offering to have them eat his flesh. I can even see some of the crowd spitting at the ground in revulsion.
Let me be very clear at this point that the context of their discussion has not been symbolic food, but real food. That is why the crowd reacts so strongly to his words. Furthermore, Jesus says nothing to disabuse them of their understanding, instead he reinforces it.
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” John 6:53-58
I must admit that to this day, I too have difficulty with these explicit words of Jesus, especially when I consider the context of the discussion, the crowd’s understanding, and Jesus’ plain meaning within those events. Even his disciples had problems with what he said saying, This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?”
So, does Jesus, as he has done when uttering previous hard to understand sayings, explain to them the deeper meaning, something that will take it out of the context of the upset that has spread across his followers. No, he does not. He merely asks them if his words cause them to stumble and after most of the crowd deserts him he asks the twelve a very important question.
So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?”
Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus attempts no additional explanation and the subject is not brought up again until the Last Supper, where even then he does not explain any way around the original upset.
In closing there are several points that need to be remembered:
1. The ongoing context is that five thousand have been spiritually and physically feed and that sets the framework for the entire discussion.
2. Jesus moves from the previous bread to bread that brings eternal life and he contrasts it with manna, which while spiritually supplied by God, is real food, just like the bread they had just eaten.
3. He says that this food that brings eternal life is him, his flesh and blood, which he calls real food and real drink.
4. He never corrects the crowd’s understanding that he is suggesting some form of cannibalism, instead he reinforces the image.
There is much more that could be said, but this is what has formed the basis of my understanding of the Eucharist to this day. I too, like the disciples have always felt this to be a difficult statement. I still feel that way, but like Peter I also say, “Lord, to whom shall I go?”
I hope this gives you something to think about. Grace and the peace of Christ be with you all.