Sermon, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 19, 2018)

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)
 
Not out of necessity or because of choice, but simply by preference and taste, bread is my absolute favorite thing to eat. May it be a hard-crusted Chicago roll, soft and sweet white mountain bread, a savory croissant with ham and cheese, or a fruit-filled muffin – I love it all. And yes, in case you were wondering, the Great British Baking Showindeed is the best thing I have seen on TV in a long time. If you are still catching up, I am not going to say who won last Friday’s grand finale. So, when the lectionary invites us to talk about Jesus’ “bread of life” statements in the Gospel according to John, I should be excited. And I am, even if it seems a bit too much of a good thing to stretch out one single ‘bread of life’ teaching over three weeks, leading us all to reflect on the same statement this week, last week, and the week before. But, maybe, this is exactly the point. Jesus takes something as ordinary as a piece of bread to proclaim the greatest mystery of God’s incarnation – Eternal God entering human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This deserves some real time for us reflect upon.
 
Now, God has been reaching into human history from the very beginning, “through prophets and sages,” the Eucharistic Prayer of the Church reads, (BCP 370) and Jesus, in his teaching following the feeding of the five thousand, explicitly recalls the saving deeds of God in the Exodus, when God’s chosen people are freed from captivity and slavery in Egypt. These people, freed by God, are fed and nourished by manna in the desert, as they journey to a better future, a promised land. And though God leads them and feeds them, they still die in the wilderness. (John 6:58) God indeed is our true companion, but this does not mean that we are immune to hardship, suffering, or death. God’s love for us is without limit, but we do not have limitless life to respond to it. Or so it seems. 
 
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.  (John 6:58) 
 
Jesus takes the well-known and well-loved memory of God nourishing the ancestors in the desert with bread of heaven, and expands this memory with reality altering consequences: I do not bring you bread from heaven, as Moses did; no, instead, Jesus says, I amthe bread of life, coming from heaven. Anticipating the Eucharistic community, this is my body, this is my blood, Jesus proclaims the lasting union of God joining humanity, and humanity being joined to God. All this happens in something as simple and basic as a piece of bread, the product of both God’s bounteous harvest and the human mastery of baking.
 
It is perhaps telling that the Gospel according to John does not contain a Last Supper. The scene where Jesus shares a final meal with his disciples before his betrayal, arrest, torture, trial, and execution, which we remember on Maundy Thursday, and each time we celebrate the Eucharist. John does not include this scene in the Gospel, but instead talks about washing the disciples’ feet, and commanding those who follow in his footsteps to do the same. 
 
This is not to say that John doesn’t include the Eucharistic within his Gospel. We have just read it. We know from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:14-22) that the earliest Christians indeed celebrated a Eucharistic meal, based on, or modeled after, the Last Supper. This letter was written in the year 55, and is one of the oldest documents of the New Testament, pre-dating the Gospels as we have them today. Whereas the synoptic Gospel of Mark, Matthew, and Luke ground the Eucharistic experience of the Church within the final days of Jesus’ life, John gives us the theology of the same, in a teaching by Jesus following the feeding of the 5,000. Though the gospels and letters may describe things differently, they don’t contradict each other, but amplify central experiences of the Christian community, in its earliest days, and still today.
 
The Eucharistic understanding of the Church has always been broad, from a memorial meal to sacramental real presence. For some of us, holiness seeps down into the very crumbs of the bread, while others experience it as a temporary and fleeting sign. On one hand, we know the example of the medieval church, where communion happened for most lay people by simply gazing at or adoring the consecrated bread. On the other hand, in the early years of the Anglican reformation, remnants of the Eucharistic meal were sent home with the priest to feed him and his family. To this day, Eucharistic practice is broad and varied in different churches, from receiving communion weekly or daily to receiving it only once a quarter.  Wherever you are in your understanding of the Eucharist, something significant happens when friends and strangers gather for prayers around simple bread and wine. In faith, we trust and belief that the God who proclaims this bread to be his flesh (John 6:51b), is really present with us, among us, and within us.
 
What does it mean for us to celebrate the Eucharist week after week after week? Here are some thoughts. This is not all there is to say about the Eucharist – no single sermon could ever do that – but still some thoughts that shape my own experience, and hopefully may inspire you too.
 
First, the Eucharist connects us. Obviously, it shapes us as a single community gathered in this space, but it also connects us to all the other communities gathered today in other places, countries, and continents, to share in the same celebration. The Eucharist also connects us to the generations who have come before us, and to the generations, we hope and pray, are to come after us, celebrating the same Eucharistic meal. Ultimately, the Eucharist connect us to the life and example of Jesus of Nazareth, who instituted this meal through his teaching and in a last supper shared with his followers.
 
Second, beyond a mere historical recollection of Jesus’ example, we believe, true to Jesus’ words, that Christ is indeed present here and now, in and through the consecrated bread and wine. Again, we may not agree on how this exactly happens, but we do agree that it does happen. The sacraments of the new covenant are not just available to those lucky few who knew Jesus in his historical time and place, but he is equally present to us. Though separated by time and space, we believe that in our holy meal we indeed share a communion with Christ himself.
 
Third, like any meal that strengthens our body and nourishes our soul, we believe that this sacramental meal of bread and wine also impacts our life. In the words of Eucharistic Prayer C, we believe that each time we come to this time, we not only receive solace, but also strength; not only pardon, but also renewal.
 
Finally, in our communion meal, we receive bread that is broken, in remembrance that Christ’s own body was broken on the cross, and in recognition that our own lives our broken. God’s holy meal does not exist to honor perfect sainted people, but to nourish broken people like you and me.
 
In holy communion, we eat what we are, broken, and we behold who are called to be, holy.
 
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.(John 6:51a)