Sermon for Sunday 8 August 2021
Trinity 10 Preacher: Fr Michael Bowie
Food and drink, as well as being the most basic human need, is about relationships. Our Lord, fully God and fully human, offers us communion and fellowship (two words that are the same word in Greek): he is with us; he nourishes us; he is truly the Bread of Life. It is surely no accident that in our faith, which uniquely proclaims that God became one of us to bring us back to him, our primary act of worship is, in origin, a communion sacrifice, a transformative ritual meal.
Sharing food and drink, table-fellowship, is always a sort of communion. So, although food and drink are not always the Eucharist, the sharing of food and drink always has something Eucharistic about it when we thankfully share together. My father had to make a rather sudden enforced exit from his missionary posting in China, because he and fellow missionaries had become unwelcome in Mao’s brave new world. He and his fellow escapees were, like Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt, in a bit of a hurry. They had neither bread nor wine, only rice cakes and tea, but, Catholics and protestants together, they shared fellowship that he said was surely Eucharistic. They shared what they had giving thanks to God; they knew that Jesus was with them as the two or three were gathered together in their slightly hazardous shared journey. We can always and everywhere cultivate thankful consciousness of the presence of God.
In today’s Gospel a crowd asks for food. These are the people who, as we heard last week, ate to their heart’s content the previous day when Jesus offered them a shared meal. They’ve now followed him to Capernaum and they’re not only hungry again but complaining about it: they whine that they know who Jesus is, that he’s no better than he should be, so he can’t be from God. ‘Just keep feeding us,’ they clamour ‘and we’ll believe you’. As we heard him say them last week: ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’
In our first reading we heard a different sort of complaining from Elijah: having exhausted himself with prophetic rage (and his bloody slaughter of the prophets of Baal), he’s in trouble with Jezebel, on the run and very fed up. He falls asleep under a juniper tree only to be awakened by an angel with some takeaway, who tells him to get up and to get on, but first to have breakfast.
This story is sometimes depicted in art as a ‘type’ or figure of the Eucharist. But Elijah’s life and ours are not just endlessly repeated analogues of some pure truth: they are the pure truth at that moment, just as the Eucharist, ‘new every morning’, is not just a figure or type: the presence of Christ in it is real and the nourishment in it is for life, not a theological idea.
I wrote in this month’s Parish Paper about S Alberto Hurtado and the connection between Our Lord as the Bread of Life in the Mass and his extraordinary transformation of daily life for many poor and homeless Chileans. That’s the enacting we need to do, works of charity motivated by the Gospel which include food banks even today in our rich nation.
Today I’d like to add another modern saint, Peter Julian Eymard, whom we celebrated on Monday; a saint who calls us back to the primary feeding which those corporal works of mercy enact. S Peter Julian was a French Marist priest who founded the Blessed Sacrament Fathers. He was canonised in 1962 and just down the street from my home church in Sydney so there was a huge modern church dedicated to him, offering perpetual Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in a giant monstrance.
For me, as a missionary priest’s son, church attendance was a given from birth; I was confirmed, aged 13, with a large group of bored suburban contemporaries, most of whom saw confirmation as a graduation out of church. But for me it was a passport to the exotic urban delights of Christ Church S Laurence and its RC neighbour, S Peter Julian’s. It was the Mass and Eucharistic adoration that formed me as a Christian.
The Christianity I’d known in the suburbs was of the deeply respectable Sunday-best variety. But in these two city churches I saw proper unfiltered life: a disreputable bunch of disparate and sometimes borderline-mad people who were united at the altar of the Lord, people to whom this gathering together really mattered. It also mattered to them how it was enacted on Monday in care for the homeless and hungry. But they knew they needed the bread of life on Sunday to nourish them for that.
This was my breakthrough moment to conscious faith: Bible study and prayer meetings and conferences and groups are all very well for the literate and the leisured, but the Eucharist is for everyone. We may not all be able to read or construct a theological paradigm, but we all need to eat and drink; that’s what Jesus understood and taught; that’s why he gave us the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Communion with God is not, first, about what goes on in our heads, it’s about a deep need in our very being to be fed in fellowship, to be loved, to be wanted and to be unconditionally accepted. And when he calls us to the altar that’s what the Lord says to each of us.
S Peter Julian wrote,
The Eucharist is the life of the people. The Eucharist gives them a centre of life. All can come together without the barriers of race or language …. It gives them a law of life, that of charity, of which it is the source; … it forges between them a common bond, a Christian kinship. All eat the same bread, all are table companions of Jesus Christ who supernaturally creates among them a feeling of togetherness. Read the Acts of the Apostles. It states that the whole community of the first Christians, converted Jews and baptized pagans, belonging to different regions, “had but one heart and one soul”. Why? Because they were attentive to the teaching of the Apostles and faithful in sharing in the breaking of the bread.
The Mass happens, thanks be to God, independently of how holy I feel that day; the gift is always given. We need to be here as often as we can to receive it.
A personal challenge follows from this realisation: how does this nourishment change me? What will the rest of life now be like, a life in which I have to learn how I, as the person I am, with many limitations and some talents, can live as a Eucharistic person in the world. How can I enact it? The Mass, like the Gospel is not a theory in a book; it is local, personal and particular; it happens.
The personal challenge it makes is how to be a blessing, not necessarily a success. How to learn faithfulness and move beyond failure (from the cross comes resurrection; in the communion sacrifice of the Sacrament we participate in both). How to be changed, transfigured, to shine like our Lord on the mountaintop with the resurrection light; how to be, at last, made whole, in Christ, that one day, changed from glory into glory, I can join in the heavenly banquet at which I pray you’ll all be guests as well.