Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 16 August 2015
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
Today, as we near the end of the Bread of Life discourse, one of the landmarks of John’s Gospel, we feel a sense of pedagogical frustration in the air, as Jesus seems to be leading his listeners to a place where they can’t follow.
Throughout this teaching he is playing with ideas of life and existence: really of meaning. The Manna of the Exodus story was provided by God for the people’s physical survival. It was a temporary measure; it could not be kept from day to day; sufficient was always provided; the provision ceased when it was no longer needed. It was a daily bread of life in the most literal sense, bread which guaranteed continued physical existence; and it was ‘from above’, from God. But now Jesus is talking about being himself the bread of life –
Not like that which your ancestors ate and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.
As I suggested two weeks ago he is saying that the true food of life is the Word of God – himself; that this nourishment is as crucial to us as bread. As Fr Alan reminded us last week, there is a double appropriation of images going on here, because the ‘bread’ imagery also refers to Scripture, especially to the Wisdom tradition which is laid out for us succinctly in our first reading from Proverbs and illustrated on the front of your Order of service:
Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars….
she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.
He is the one who has come ‘from above’, as did the gift of the Manna: but that was transitory, while this, his gift of himself, is eternal, which means not just everlasting, but deep, essential, worthy, LIVELY.
We sense that he is not getting his point across. He pushes harder, equating consuming the the bread and wine with eating his flesh and drinking his blood, an uncomfortably concrete image for Jews, to whom it doesn’t suggest just cannibalism, but human sacrifice, which is practiced by neighbouring non-Jews (and into which Jews are sometimes tempted to apostasize).
Human sacrifice is, of course, precisely what Jesus is talking about, though in a new and unique mode, the sacrifice of himself. This gift will be perpetuated in the gift of the Eucharist which is also present in the background throughout this passage, the new unbloody sacrifice, the offering of a gift to God which becomes his gift to us, linking us eternally to the once for all sacrifice on the cross. Thus both the new sacrifice and the new Manna are in every way superior to the old; God is now always with us sacramentally as a reminder and nourishment of the faith in which we truly live.
So the Lord, in today’s Gospel, really is comparing his incarnate self, his human bodily life, with the Manna which fed the people of Israel in the wilderness (and with the Wisdom which sets her table and invites us to feast); and it is a sacrament, not merely a metaphor:
51 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.” …….
58 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.”
The new heavenly food and drink are the communion with God of his people, a new and intimate relationship.
There are two aspects of our celebration of Mass which fill out these scriptural pointers: one about the sacrament itself and the other about ourselves in relation to it.
First, what we do here is about Christ among us: he comes to meet us, like the father to the prodigal son, hallowing us, conferring blessing like Melchizedek, a presence in our midst, himself approaching us, not demanding that we climb a high mountain or strive to enter a particular temple before he will deign to be present for us. It is all so much simpler and more generous than that: choosing the simplest staples of life, bread and wine, he comes to us. And he comes again and again, even if we are lukewarm or indifferent.
So, first, he comes to us. Second: this is a reminder of how the incarnation, Christ becoming a human person, changes our personhood. When a priest adds the water to the wine at the altar, this prayer is said:
By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
Just as Christ took our humanity with him to glory in his resurrection and ascension, so when we become members of God’s family in baptism there is a change in us, as there is in the bread and the wine of the sacrament. We remain flesh and blood, people of the human species, but we are inwardly joined to the death and resurrection of Christ, marked for ever as his own brothers and sisters. As the bread and wine are the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of the body and blood of Christ, so are we signs of the life of God. That should make us think about what sort of sign we enflesh.
This gift of Christ’s presence, God-with-us in the Eucharist, represents our life as well as God’s gift: our true life, as Paul says, is hid with Christ in God, but our life in the world (which is equally ‘ourselves, our souls and bodies’, as Cranmer put it) is gathered up and offered to God in this sacrament, to God who loves us and gives us back himself in communion.
The paradox is that the once for all sacrifice of the cross becomes God’s endlessly repeated gift of life, his life, eternal life. It is not a commodity as the world understands things, not a gift once received to be held close or jealously guarded; nor is it just ‘for the day’, as the Manna was. The Eucharist is (and makes) a relationship between God and us, which makes us (and our daily living) a sacrament of the life of God, which we too must sacrifice and give away.