July 26, 2015 Eighth Sunday After Trinity
We Become What We Receive
St. John 6:22-58
Kid preachers have it easy. They could stand in the pulpit and declaim for hours without missing a beat. Come to think of it, some of them do. George Bernard Shaw got it right: Youth is wasted on the young.
A geezerly preacher such as I, on the other hand, must pause now and again to lubricate the pipes. You’ve noticed as much, of course, but here’s something I suspect you have not noticed: I never drink water following communion. I don’t need it.
The wine provides enough relief to my scaly old vocal cords to take me through the post-communion prayers, “Gloria in Excelsis,” blessing, recessional hymn and dismissal.
The wine, of course, has been consecrated, and thus it has become the blood of Christ. Has it ceased to be wine? It seems not, for it retains all the qualities of wine, including that of lubricating my pipes.
The wine has become the blood while remaining wine; the bread has become the body while remaining bread. How can these things be?
In His encounter with the woman at the well, we heard our Lord refer to Himself as living water. When His disciples returned from their shopping trip and heard that He had eaten, they assumed someone else had provided Him food.
Jesus was in fact speaking about the spiritual nourishment He derived from obeying His Father’s will. This exchange recalls His 40 days of fasting in the wilderness before He endured Satan’s tempting. He was stronger in the spirit because in His depleted physical state He had leaned harder on His Father and grown closer to Him.
Now, in our present passage, we find Jesus once again using physical food as an icon for spiritual sustenance. We have come to the Bread of Life discourse.
“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you . . .”
Oh, right, we know about food of this sort . . . bread. When our ancestors had no food, Moses called down manna from heaven.
No, no, no. “For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
And He is the One we not only celebrate in the Holy Communion . . . but consume. For His presence in the bread and wine is real. We, the church, the body of Christ, eat and drink the body of Christ, and we take His life into us and His life is eternal.
As St. Augustine said, “We become what we receive.”
This is a topic that has generated more animated discussion over the centuries than even the Broncos’ Super Bowl prospects . . . if that’s possible. Some say the elements become the physical body and blood and cease to be bread and wine.
Some say, with us, that Christ is spiritually present in those elements, which remain bread and wine. Still others say nothing happens, really; they are simply remembering the sacrifice the Lord made for them.
What Jesus said was, “This is My body . . . this is My blood . . .”
How literally are we to take those words? Was the bread, in the moment, His body? No, He was using that very real body to hold the bread. Elsewhere He says, “I am the vine.” Clearly, He was not speaking in a woodenly literal way.
So, then, can He not be present in the elements in any real sense? I must answer that question with a couple of questions:
Could He really be both God and man, inhabiting one body? When a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, can he and she really become one while remaining two? Can the Holy Spirit really dwell at the same time within you and you and you and me?
There’s a Greek word, “theoreo,” that means to look at something, consider it and come to a conclusion. John used it in chapter 4 when he quoted the woman at the well, who said to Jesus, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet” (v. 19).
We consider a thing and we theorize about it. We look at it, we form hypotheses about its form and character, we test those hypotheses. This is the scientific method, by which we reach conclusions about God’s creation and its component parts.
And so we should, for God gave us the creation to observe, study and enjoy. Trouble comes like angry black clouds rolling in off the horizon when we train our methods for forming opinions on the creation on its Creator. Then we have the rationalistic impulse run amok.
Man sits in judgment of God and concludes that because He cannot be proved He cannot exist. Or, if He does exist as a disinterested Creator who sits back and theorizes about this world He has wrought He certainly does not engage in such tomfoolery as turning wine into blood or bread into flesh.
Man has run aground on the sharp-edged shoal of relativity. In his pride, he has denied the infinite, yawning gap between the Creator and the creature.
When my friend Matthew was in town a week ago, he and I trekked up to Hillcrest Golf Club in search of glory. The starter put two others with us, Steve and Danny. Steve is a former high school golf coach. We were discussing the Open Championship then in progress at St. Andrews, Scotland, and the consummate skill of those who play at the highest level of the game.
Steve told us that he coached a youngster who as a schoolboy carried a scoring average of 65-point-something. I don’t recall what followed the decimal because I was gasping for breath at the thought of shooting, on average, seven strokes under par.
For a far-too-mortal golfer such as I, such a thing is inconceivable. Yet, Steve went on, the young man tried six times over six years to qualify to play on the PGA Tour and each time he was examined he was found wanting.
At last he gave up, resigned to the rigor of life in a real job. And so we see again that there’s good and there’s good and there’s great.
If I could shoot 65 as I negotiate the spiritual course of this life, Jesus would shoot one – one booming shot from the first tee that drops into the hole and then erupts from it to land in the second hole and the third and the fourth and the fifth and . . .
God gave His creation to man to observe, study and enjoy . . . but none of those is its primary purpose. Its primary purpose is to reveal. To reveal its Creator. When man arrives at this appreciation he enters into the Eucharist.
The underlying Greek word, “eucharisteo,” means, “I give thanks.” To understand the world as God’s gift to man is to know God through His world. To see this world as a token of God is to offer up thanks not only for what He has done but for who He is.
The Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote:
“The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God – and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him.
“The world was created as the ‘matter,’ the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.”
We are not philosophers. We do not – in our Christian life -- inhabit some lofty plane of abstraction. Our faith is the faith of a child . . . accepting, learning, trusting, growing. Giving thanks.
He who will not give thanks will not avoid the snare. He will examine the cosmos and demand of it answers that deny the Creator. When manna falls from heaven he will bless Moses, not God, for providing it.
The worldview that sees the Creator present within the cosmos – for our culture, the old view – was at bottom sacramental. The world revealed its Maker. Its natural processes reflected the divine character and will.
The worldview that regards the cosmos and denies the Creator – the new view – makes man sovereign over nature . . . and over the God who unfurled it. One who feels attracted to those of the same sex may overrule the divine order and appease his appetites.
One who feels uneasy in his assigned gender role may surgically transform it. One who refuses to know God as the giver of life may wrench a life from the womb and harvest its parts to barter for profit.
I am elaborating the meaning of sacrament so that you might see that Jesus Christ, too, is a sacrament. Hebrews 1 expresses the relationship of Son to Father with these words: “the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person” (v. 3). Like the world, the Christ represents the Father to us.
In the bread and wine of the Eucharist are the body and blood of Christ and His presence in them is real, as real as the Holy Trinity, the incarnation and the resurrection. How do we know? We know from the plain language of Scripture and the historic understanding of the church.
God’s truth assures us. Because His world is real, He is real. Because He says He is in the sacrament we consume, He is present. Because He is present, we become what we receive.
Bp. Ray Sutton delivered a talk on the real presence recently and I will take excerpts from it to lay out the case.
Beginning at His birth, Jesus is presented as the bread of life. He lies in a manger, a feeding trough.
In our text for today, the Jews demand, “’How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ 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 you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day.
“’For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.’”
The “faith” language of “abiding” does not admit an interpretation of simply believing in Christ in some remote sense. Rather the qualifier in the verse fits with the context of belief in the Christ who is living bread of flesh and blood.
He says, “he who believes has eternal life.” Then He adds, “I am the bread of life.” The exchange with the Jews specifies that Jesus is speaking of partaking of bread that is flesh and blood, which He restates at the Last Supper: “This is My body . . . This is My blood.”
He might have dialed back His earlier statement; if anything, He intensified it.
The sacramental nature of Jesus’ self-offering comes through when we look at His work on the cross in relation to Adam’s espousal to Eve. Adam’s side was opened and Eve was made of his body, specifically his rib. Christ’s bride would be made from His side as blood flowed from the wound.
Adam declared, “This is now bone of my bones” (Genesis 2:23). This language became the language of covenant when Israel accepted David as her king (2 Samuel 5:1-3). Jesus would declare, “This is My body . . . This is My blood of the covenant,” language of the covenant of oneness.
Part of Adam was used to make all of Eve. She became an image of him. Part of Christ is conveyed through the Eucharist to remake all of us. We become an image of Him in the true sense of the meaning of the Greek word for sign, sumbollo, which means to participate in the reality of what is signified.
The realist language of the gospels as clearly understood in the Epistles, combined with the realist terminology throughout the New Testament, explains why from the earliest days the Church confessed that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, through a holy mystery. The Greek word translated “sacrament” is musterion.
The early church understood the Lord’s presence as real. Justyn Martyr wrote in the middle of the second century:
"This food we call the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us
“For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God's Word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus."
In the fourth century, St. Athanasius wrote:
“You shall see the Levites bringing loaves and a cup of wine, and placing them on the table. So long as the prayers of supplication and entreaties have not been made, there is only bread and wine. But after the great and wonderful prayers have been completed, then the bread is become the Body, and the wine the Blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .”
A short time later Theodore set forth the doctrine of the real presence, using the language of “transformed” and “spiritual”: “At first it is laid upon the altar as mere bread and wine mixed with water, but by the coming of the Holy Spirit it is transformed into body and blood, and thus it is changed into the power of a spiritual and immortal nourishment.”
I could multiply examples but I am not so foolish as to compete with lunch. Likewise, I will refrain from giving a long list of Anglican divines who have addressed the subject and note only that Bp. Lancelot Andrewes, who headed the committee that translated the King James Bible, said of the sacrament, “as the Fathers elegantly express, it (is) to be adored by faith, not examined by reason."
Viewed within the Scriptures or in the context of church history, the real issue is not the reality of the presence but the mode of the presence.
Within the church, our internecine sniping and squabbling over the mode of the presence serves us ill. If we could all say that Christ is present in the bread and wine and we can say no more because His presence is a mystery we could present a united front to a lost and hurting world and move on to other matters.
What prevents us? At our best, a desire to know our Lord more intimately and His gifts to us more passionately. At our worst, our pride. We want to demonstrate our intellectual superiority, our hermeneutical skill, our theological understanding, our impassioned belief.
Rather than disputing, let’s close as Bp. Sutton ended his presentation, with the prayer of Edward Osler, who wrote “O God, Unseen Yet Ever Near”:
O God, unseen yet ever near, Thy presence may we feel;
And thus inspired with holy fear, before Thine altar kneel.
Here may Thy faithful people know the blessings of Thy love,
The streams that through the desert flow, the manna from above.
We come, obedient to Thy word, to feast on heavenly food;
Our meat the Body of the Lord, our drink his precious Blood.
Thus may we all Thy word obey, for we, O God, are Thine;
And go rejoicing on our way, renewed with strength divine. Amen.