(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, August 12, 2018)
It doesn’t look like bread, does it, the little wafer we hand out? It is, of course, but it looks almost like a simple disc of some unknown substance. Not quite cardboard, certainly not bread you’d get a sandwich on. More like a Necco wafer, if your remember those, than what you think of when you think of bread.
But it is bread.
It’s made from unleavened wheat flour and water. The bread most Episcopal churches use is made by Cavanagh Altar Breads, a secular baker out of Rhode Island that provides altar bread to C.M. Almy, which sells it to Catholics, Protestants, and those of us in between.
Apparently, Cavanagh’s bread has something like 80% market share, and its popularity was enough to put the Poor Clare Nuns of Bernham, Texas, out of the business. A few orders of nuns have stopped competing and started distributing as retailers, so there’s a whole distribution chain in which these wafers travel.
When we give it to you, we remind you what it is: “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.”
But how can something that barely qualifies as bread be the Body of Christ? And does the recurring liturgical formula, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” become so rote that we don’t hear it, don’t take it in?
Because if you think about it, “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” is not an easy teaching. The Eucharist, which we share, which is central to this service, is one we don’t reflect on often.
[That’s strange because, in breaking with Roman Catholicism, the Church of England in the Thirty-nine Articles rejected the traditional 7 sacraments taught in that faith, holding instead in Article 25 that “[t]here are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord. The other five were denied the status of sacraments on the ground that they were more properly viewed as “states of life allowed in the Scriptures”, such as marriage, or holy orders, or else they are the result of “corrupt following of the Apostles”—extreme unction, Penance, or Confirmation.
Now, we’ve moved away from the 39 Articles and, since the success of the Anglo-Catholic movements of the 19th Century, we have welcomed back confirmation, anointing of the sick, and Confession.] (Bracketed paragraphs omitted in delivery).
But, for all the quarrels about the sacraments that have marred Anglican Church, the two sacraments on which the most Low Church and High Church partisans have always agreed on are baptism and “the Supper of the Lord.”
So the Eucharist—the eating of bread and drinking of wine in commemoration of the death of Jesus—is at the core of our liturgy, at the core of our worship.
Normally, we just do it, and don’t grapple with the language Jesus uses. But today, I don’t think we have a choice in the matter—we have to listen to what Jesus says, and try to understand the emotionally-laden language he uses.
Which means that this week and next, we’ll be facing some of the harder to bear language in the Fourth Gospel, in which Jesus talks at length about what it means to say that Jesus himself is the Bread of Life.
So it’s our duty to wrestle with this Gospel and next week’s, each part of the same conversation, but broken up in our weekly reading so that this week we get to think of Jesus as the bread that comes down from heaven, so that whoever eats of it shall not die, and not just let it sail over our heads.
A nice metaphor. Jesus is like manna from heaven—a phrase that nowadays can mean simply a great gift, unexpected and welcome, life-enhancing.
Not too threatening yet, right?
We feed on Jesus, and, since we are still in the more abstract part of the Gospel today, we can think of it as Jesus nourishing us with the Spirit, or by his teachings.
But then this Gospel reading has a sting in its tail. Jesus then tells is that “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
And we, like the crowd, do a double take. He can’t mean it literally, can he?
Next week it gets a little frighteningly concrete. The crowd is murmuring “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
And here’s where Jesus really does an un-Episcopalian thing: crosses the line of good taste and discretion. Jesus says to them
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 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.”
Archbishop William Temple in his Readings in St. John's Gospel (First and Second Series) reminds us that these words were especially shocking to Jesus’s Jewish audience because to consume the blood of sacrifices was a grave offense under the Law.
Not to mention what Raymond Brown, the great scholar of the Fourth Gospel, calls “the Jewish repugnance at the cannibalistic thought of eating his flesh.” Brown asserts that these words led to claims that the early Christians were in fact cannibals and blood-drinkers, and the Roman historian Tacitus says that Nero “fastened the guilt” for the great fire of Rome “on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.” (Annals, 15:4)
Even today these words can draw strong reactions when they aren’t cushioned by routine, safe in a church. These last few verses disturbed the writer Alan Ryan enough that he wrote a story, called “Following the Way,” about a young man who, over a period of years, keeps meeting a Jesuit priest who repeatedly invites him into the order, only for him to discover at the end that the chalice which promises eternal life is not filled with wine.
Mind you, I graduated from a Jesuit college, and I’m not taking any bets about their induction ceremonies.
But just as Ryan found in these lines fuel for a Gothic fantasia, the Gospel itself tells us that “because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” In fact, only the Twelve remained—and one of them, as Jesus rather pointedly observes, is a devil.
So why did Jesus choose such provocative, such offensive, language?
Quite possibly because it was the only language that came close to doing the job. Temple reminds us that to eat something is to take it into ourselves and to use it as the basic building blocks assembling our bodies; we make Jesus’s full humanity—his flesh—his mortality—a constituent element of who we are. We make our own the dying of Jesus.
Likewise, the book of Deuteronomy tells us, “The blood is the Life”; (No, I didn’t recognize Count Dracula was quoting Scripture until I read Temple either. Apparently Shakespeare was right to warn us that the “Devil can quote Scripture for his purpose”).
By drinking from the cup, Archbishop Temple tells us, we accept the life of Jesus into ourselves, the resurrected life.
Temple urges us to see a synergy in the eating of the Bread and the drinking from the cup, that each requires the other.
Or, as Temple puts it, by eating the bread, we receive the power of self giving and self-sacrifice; by drinking the cup, we receive, through that self-giving and that self-sacrifice, the life that is triumphant over death and united to God.
Which is beautiful and eloquent Eucharistic theology—but what does it mean here, today, this minute?
Let me try a translation:
We Christians believe that we are called to lives of service, not of selfishness. By eating the bread, we make part of our very physical being a perpetual reminder of that calling. We literally take it into ourselves and let it become a part of our anatomy.
By drinking of the cup, we claim that the love of God, the deathless and unkillable love of God is so much a part of the redemption of Creation that that love flows through our very arteries and veins. We acknowledge that we are called to love, and that love literally pervades our being—again, our physical being.
We ourselves claim the blessing and assert that the love of God surges through us, is that of which we are made.
So how can we refuse to love, to forgive, to care for others? How can we allow ourselves to let that love become just a dry routine, instead of a call to arms?
But not to literal arms, not to violence, or triumphalism. We are called to the much harder task of building bridges to those with whom we disagree. To those who have hurt us, or, even harder, to those whom we have hurt.
We are called to a life in which we pray and try to live the beautiful words of St Francis:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, joy;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
And how can we, knowing our own faults and weaknesses, our own moments of anger and unkindness, even hope to achieve this?
We eat the bread of life, we drink from the cup of love.
It’s in our muscle memories, our own sinews, our very DNA.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.