Sunday, August 12, 2018

The bread of life: a sermon on the eucharist

Recently I posted a couple of times on the eucharist (here and there) and promised to post on Brant Pitre's book on Jesus and the Last Supper which remains a sin of omission.

Below I post today's sermon, focused mostly on the gospel passage, John 6 and the bread of life. I don't normally post sermons I have preached. That is mostly because I write them on the back of envelopes. The sermon below is unusual: I actually typed it out on my laptop. I think the sermon below is worth a post, on two grounds.
1. While not directly citing Brant Pitre, my reading of his book is definitely influential on what I say below. I am - of course - responsible for what is written below; Pitre is not responsible for the sermon.
2. I was struck, while preparing the sermon, by the neat way in which 6:41-43 illustrates how the bread of communion can be simultaneously the body of Christ. Your feedback [bad pun] will be gratefully received. I am sure what I write below is entirely unoriginal, but it is a new-to-me insight from this passage.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2 and John 6:35, 41-51:

If we want to live we need to eat the bread of life.

How often should we have communion?
That simple question has had varied answers through Christian history.
From once or twice a year to quarterly to monthly to weekly to daily.
The New Testament, which faithfully reports to us that Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me”, doesn’t actually say how often we should do this.
Indeed the NT, perhaps to the surprise of Christians who put a lot of emphasis on regular communion, devotes very few words to the subject of “holy communion”.
But among those words are the words we find in John 6 as we read from this chapter over five Sundays – this is week three – if you have lost track.

John 6 – bread from heaven
Five Sundays on the bread, someone once complained.
But what bread it is to spend five Sundays on – the bread from heaven, the bread of life, the bread that gives eternal life.
Eat this bread, Jesus says, and you will never be hungry again.
Now we know, when someone talks like that, but our stomach tells us we are hungry, that this is not the bread we buy at the supermarket or cook in our bread makers.
What is this bread from heaven? Is it metaphorical – bread as a metaphor for spiritual union with Christ?
To be sure, there is an element of metaphor.
What counts is the life of Christ in us and our lives lived in union with Christ. We live this life 24/7, whether we share in communion that day or not.
Yet what Jesus says is very specific about eating him – eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
His flesh is the living bread, his blood is true drink. Jesus says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (53).
It has been impossible for the church not to join this teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum with the later Last Supper –
the supper in which Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples; shared a cup of wine in the same way.
So, alongside the element of metaphor is an element of material reality.
To eat bread given thanks for, broken and shared among followers of Christ, is to eat the body of Christ.
To drink wine given thanks for, shared around followers of Christ, is to drink the blood of Christ.

The bread from heaven is that bread which we eat together in communion.
And whoever eats of this bread will live forever.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (56)
At times in our Anglican history we have had long seasons in which communion was (and in some parishes still is) an optional extra (10 am Mattins and 11.15 am Holy Communion for those who stayed).
I don’t think that approach is faithful to John 6 and its connection to what Jesus did at the Last Supper and commanded us to continue doing in remembrance of his death.
If we want to live, really live, to live the life of Christ in the world, we need to meet, to break bread and to eat it and to share the cup and to drink it.
Thus the spiritual life of Christ comes to us through the material reality of bread and wine:
in this way we eat Christ’s body – his crucified, risen and ascended body – and we drink Christ’s blood – in which the life of Christ comes to us,
the life which was given up for the sake of the world.
As the last words of our Ephesian reading puts it, urging us to love with the same love Christ has for the world,
“live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (5:2)

John 6 – bread from heaven = Jesus, son of Joseph (6:41-43)
We may wonder – as many Christians have wondered – how bread and wine from the earth can convey the heavenly body and blood of Christ.
Fascinatingly there is a strong clue in our gospel reading today.
Jesus says he is the bread come down from heaven.
The Jews who hear this complain: this man is no bread from heaven, this is Jesus the son of Joseph. We know his Mum and Dad.
As readers we know that Jesus is both.
He is the bread come down from heaven:
he is Son of Man and Son of God, come to us from the Father, descended to us from eternal, heavenly intimacy with God his Father.
He is Jesus, son of Joseph.
An ordinary and very material/physical human being.
Same as you and me.
Simultaneously, Jesus is heavenly and earthly, divine and human.
No scientist could have done a blood test and found Jesus to be from heaven.
No theologian, hearing the witness of the Jews who were Jesus’ audience that day, could have denied Jesus to be from earth.
The bread we eat today and the wine we drink cannot be taken to a lab at the university and be found to be the heavenly body and blood of Christ.
And no matter what we believe about the body and blood of Christ which we partake at communion, it is simultaneously bread and wine.

John 6 – the wrap up
If we want to live we need to eat the bread of life.
We should not be vague about this and think of Jesus being all metaphorical.
We can be concrete, specific:
we should come – as we have done today – to communion – to eat the bread of life
– to be nourished and strengthened by Christ through the bread and the wine of communion.
And how often?
I am going to answer that question with another question ...
Can we ever have too much of Christ?


Father Ron Smith said...

Dear, Dear Peter, I may be accused of plagiarism here - but I'm not worried, these are the words of Jesus (more or less); "Peter, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven". Now this is a paradox. The best theologians have come to understand that that, for us Christians, God is a Trinity of Persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore, when Jesus was speaking here, he was - in his human state - deferring to the Father as source of all being who had revealed (by the Third Person of the Trinity) the true identity of Jesus as the Son of God.

The 'Body and Blood of Jesus' in the Eucharst is both spiritual and material - in the same way that Jesus, Himself, was both God and man. Only in this wy could we possible understand the 'Mystery' of the 'Real Presence' of Jesus in this Holy Common-union.

When I was a full-time parish prest, I knew that I had, daily, to receive Jesus in the sacrament he has left for us - in order to take his presence into the world I had been ordained to minister. The Bread of Life in the Eucharist was the food that was designed for our nourishment - to eternal life. Now, in semi-retirement, I receive Jesus in this wonderful sacrament as often as I can, in order to keep up the relationship with Jesus that he gave me many years ago. "Christ in us the hope of glory".

Peter Carrell said...

THanks Ron
It is another part of the reflection that we ponder the regularity of feeding.
Daily is attractive but hard to sustain.
I would not think Jesus is less with/in me for only partaking weekly.
In other words, I continue to value a daily quiet time with Jesus through Bible reading and prayer!

Father Ron Smith said...

Dear Peter, I know there can be a problem in the area of - 'familiarity' breeding contempt. And I know that, for most people, even Anglo-Catholic clergy - daily reception of the life-giving power of the Eucharist is not always possible. I do not, for instance, receive Christ every single day. I just go often enough to feel that I maintain the same sort of loving family relationship with Christ and fellow Christians - as I have with my nuclear family. At the age of 89 I am increasingly aware that my mental, physical and spiritual health and wellbeing are intimately connected to my frequent reception of Christ in the Eucharist.

Bryden Black said...

Wonderful to see you’re getting into Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Last Supper, Peter. One of the better books I’ve read these past couple of years. Informative, and not a little provocative - in a good way naturally! All of that said, a few things need to be also followed up.

Sure; not a few folk down the years have got hung up on the frequency with which we might enjoy Table Fellowship, and so receive the bread and wine in Holy Communion in order to enjoy Jesus’ body and blood and gain his benefits. (At this stage I merely use traditional language.) But that, I sense, is not really the point - actually!

Far more to the point is to gain a better appreciation of history, not least of the Latin West, and notably of the debate surrounding “the communication of grace” which began in earnest 9th C and climaxed at Lateran IV, 1215, with the promulgation of transubstantiation. Nor is that all - by a long way! For the more important background goes deeper still. JA Jungmann termed it the anti-Arian backlash. This effectively pushed Jesus’ mediatorial role to the side, leaving a mediatorial vacuum. Just so the terms of that very debate begun in the 9th C and its conclusion.

TF Torrance and entire Torrance clan have been writing about all this for years, BTW! It forms the basis of my chapter 8, “Deconstruction”, in The Lion, the Dove, & the Lamb. For what is at stake is this. We have put our sacramental and sacerdotal cart before the triune God’s own mediatorial horse. For in effect, to use Pannenberg’s language now, the Trinity is in himself a “field of relations”. And what the Incarnation, the Cross and Resurrection and Ascension, followed by Pentecost, have all achieved is to set up God’s own Trinitarian mediatorial field. Just so, one key feature of an operational Trinitarianism. It’s obviously in this complex context that the Magisterial Reformers conducted themselves - and we mostly still conduct ourselves.

What Brant has now also done for us is to enable a full return to the NT context, and debate the Last Supper and so the Lord’s Supper in explicitly Jewish terms. Just so now my own summary on p.73 and the table there of God’s Address—Living with the Triune God: A Scripture workbook ...: ‘Sacramental expression/response - continuation: “Do this to remember Me” - New Passover rite celebrating koinonia in the Mediator of the New Exodus and the New Covenant, in the midst of the New Temple.’

Bryden Black said...

When Cranmer takes up the language of John 6 at the conclusion of the Prayer of Humble Access re “mutual indwelling”, we need to join that with Paul’s language of 1 Cor 10:16-17. And NB, who effects this koinonia and how? The HOLY SPIRIT! Who is the last feature of any due operational Trinitarian theology and praxis. So; the Eastern Church has it clearly over the West at this point; we need to beef up (even after our recent liturgical ‘revisions’) the epiclesis wholesale! For the Spirit is the singular Paraclete of the Upper Room discourses, the setting for which is the Last Supper NB, Jesus' Passover Meal. And lastly, just as the Son Incarnate is the ‘vehicle’ of the Father in John, so too is the Spirit the ‘vehicle’ of the Glorified Son of the Father (with NB “glory” in FG = both crucifixion and resurrection).

Just so, to conclude: when Jesus initiates us into his person-and-work by baptizing us with the Holy Spirit into himself (Rom 6, 1 Cor 12, Col 2), he similarly effects “ongoing communion and mutual abiding” via the rite of the Lord’s Supper, when we “take, bless, break and distribute/receive” [yes; hat-tip G Dix] bread and wine, those features of the New Passover Rite now re-labelled by Jesus. No longer “the bread of affliction our fathers ate”, it is “my flesh for the life of the world”; no longer the (probably fourth) cup but “this cup is the new covenant in my blood”. And finally the act of “remembering” is, as Brevard Childs said years ago in Memory and Tradition, not some existential anamnesis (a weak 20th C term) but classically a Jewish zikkaron ala Ex 12 and 13, now fulfilled exactly as Brant suggests.

Bottom line: what we need to accentuate is not exactly the elements and especially their ‘nature’ and/or their adoration, let alone “frequency” debates. It is rather the entire box and dice of what the triune God has himself set up via Jesus and the Holy Spirit. To enable, firstly, initiation into Jesus (via repentance and faith, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit - Acts 2:28-39, which threefold cord church history has rent asunder; we need to re-thread them all together again), and thereafter due maintenance of that communion (just so, the likes of 1 Cor 11:17ff rightly sits with 11:23ff: once more that threefold cord needs to be bound together, so that Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal emphases find each other again).

Bryden Black said...

Oops! Typo: Acts 2:38-39

Glen Young said...

Hi Peter,

Bryden sums it up perfectly for me in the last paragraph of his 12.55 PM. blog; thanks Bryden.

Jean said...

I am with you on your intrerpretation of this one notwithstanding we are encouraged to take communion ‘often’ and I believe the taking of it aids our human inclination for forgetfulness..

Bryden Black said...

You’re welcome Glen. Now enjoy!
Jean; you’ve hit the nail on the head with your word “forgetfulness”. You might like in particular to trawl through the book of Deuteronomy, noting the words “remember” and “forget”. They each perform key roles. Have fun and enjoy the insights!

Glen Young said...

Hi Peter,
Jesus said:"Sabbath was made for man,not man for the Sabbath." Mark 2:27.
Likewise, the Eucharist was made for man,not man for the Eucharist.I do not see anywhere in the Scriptures that God has revoked the two great commissions He gave man :"Be fruitful and multiply" and "Replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over ..."Gen 1:28. Did God make man to sit around in Churches all day telling other people, that they are so BLESSED, that they can partake of the Eucharist seven days a week? or are we here to obey the original COMMISSIONS? I see that "institutionalized religion" including the ASCANZP has become everything the second Temple of Jerusalem was.
Two sad indictments on institutionalized became public today: [1] The death of John Smyth, where the Anglican Communion should hang it's head in shame;
[2] the release of the report of the Grand Jury in Pennsylvania on the cover up of sexual abuse in that Dioceses, by the Bishop right through to the Vatican. Please explain to me why the Eucharist dispensed by such people is so necessary to my "SPIRITUAL LIFE". I think a glass of wine and a sandwich, had in the garden, recognizing that it is only by the "GRACE OF CHRIST" that I am doing so ,is more relevant. Was it not in a GARDEN that Christ choose to spend His last night, and not in the Temple.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Glen
We are free in Christ to read the Scriptures and to draw from them guidance and instructions for us as we seek to follow Christ. In that freedom the church has followed the instruction to "do this in remembrance" and it has been guided by John 6 and other passages in working out the meaning of the bread and wine of communion. That working out has led to confidence that communion nurtures us; indeed, that we ought to have communion rather than not have communion. In turn that has raised a question of frequency of reception. I think that a reasonable question to ask (and, Bryden, if you are reading this, much as I appreciate your Trinitarian insights re communion, so long as you think we ought to receive communion, it is right to ask, how often? (The parallel question re baptism has yielded the answer, Once only in a lifetime. No one I am aware of has ever argued that answer also applies to communion).)

That some ministers, ordained and lay, have been abusers of others, does not change the freedom we have to explore the meaning of communion. Indeed it heightens the importance of a true understanding because communion properly understood should always equal us at the foot of the cross and de-power those who preside at communion and mistake that role for status.

Jean said...

Hi Bryden

I shall put that on my list of ‘homework’ ... : ) .. also reading your book ‘The Lion, The Dove and The Lamb’ since it comes up so much in your comments. It was a great revelation for me when I learnt and experienced more of the Holy Spirit, and yet that went side by side with discovering more of and about scripture; such is I have come to value Christianity in practice where worship is both in Spirit and in Truth. Incorporating as it does the whole of the Trinity you so obviously are passionate about.

All the best

Bryden Black said...

Re frequency, Peter, seeing you ask directly the question.

1. I am aware of that tradition, exemplified by Ron’s branch of the church, who see daily mass as a reflection of the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. And I get it - though I also see it as a bit of a stretch ... for ... [see now Brant Pitre as well!]

2.1 The Lord’s Day: it is pretty clear the NT Church switched from Sabbath keeping (Friday 6:00 pm to Sat 6:00 pm) to celebrating their gatherings together on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, in commemoration of the resurrection.
2.2 The pesach was a domestic affair (annually), even if it required the Temple etc to have a lamb to eat. YET now as per 1 Cor 5:7-8 the Lamb is not only slain, once for all, but now reigns amidst the entire heavenly host, as per Rev 5 etc. And it was on the Lord’s Day that John saw many of his vision(s), 1:10; and the Apocalypse is through and through about the Eucharist and NT worship.
2.3 The cup of blessing which we bless (1 Cor 10:16) is most likely to be the Fourth Cup of the Seder. And the domestic element of the Last/Lord’s Supper most easily sets it up as the NT domestic churches shifting their Jewish Sabbath-keeping to their Sundays.
2.4 If the Fourth Gospel is also anything to go by, with its central section of the Book of Signs, chs 5-10, being about what worship in Spirit and truth looks like (Jn 4) now that all those feasts are fulfilled and transcended in Jesus the Lamb + Temple, then chs 20 and 21 suggest pretty strongly again that the Lord’s Day sees the Church gathering to feed and be fed, in preparation for their mission.

3. Answer: once a week. [There is also a host of literature I am aware of that nails this answer; but not for a blog ...!]

Unknown said...

"Did God make man to... partake of the eucharist seven days a week, or to obey the original commissions (to be fruitful and multiply; to replenish the earth, subdue it, have dominion over it)?"

Glen, are you suggesting a seven day sex week, a seven day work week, or both? Seems "the Sabbath was made for man," as the Pharisees understood, because a (wo)man-- even an Anglican one-- surely needs a day off now and again...


Bryden Black said...

Dear Jean, may you survive your purchase! Thank you. Amusingly, since our God has a great sense of humour - and mostly at our expense - I think you might find the second book easier. God’s Address - Living with the Triune God: A scripture workbook in the style of manuduction to accompany LDL. Don’t panic: that delightful word “manuduction” is chosen for good reason and explained in the Intro! For the entire workbook is Manuduction - enjoy!

Father Ron Smith said...

A 'not-too-serious comment from me for Glen:

Contemplating your last question on the subject of frequency at the Eucharist: How many times did Jesus actually tell his followers to go out and make babies? (He never gave any evidence of his own sexual activity, so this seemingly was not a 'salvation issue').

On the other hand, did he not instruct his followers to "Take, eat, this IS my body"; and "Take, drink, this IS my blood". Jesus even implied that unless they did this they would have no life in them!

So, the example of Christ in his teaching about the necessity to receive his life in the Eucharist was pretty impressive, don't you think?

For those of us who take this seriously: "As often as you do this, you remember me until I come again", we need that constant reminder in our own experience. Some maybe do not. I do not try to offer any judgement on other people's practice. I know that I need the more frequent practice of 'The Presence of Christ' in the Eucharist. After all, that's why Jesus took the trouble to give it to us on the night before he died. He knew we would need it to cope with daily living.

Glen Young said...

Hi Ron,
To me, institutionalized religion has fallen prey to same temptation as the Temple did.Can you give me the Scriptures validating the formality and pomp of the Eucharist? I see it as an occasion where Jesus was reminding His Disciplesnot to forget the very "cause of their existence"; that when He was no longer with them, they would take their eyes of Him. I am not denying the that every time we eat or drink, both the physical,emotional and spiritual nourishment is of the God. Deut. Chs 4 and 8 ["When thou hast eaten and art full,then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God for the good land which He has given you"]8/10.
How much more should we forever be aware of the "precious gift" He gave us with His ultimate sacrifice. But institutionalized religion has turned, [as did the Temple],a beautiful GOSPEL into a money machine; where only "ordained priests can dispense the Eucharist.I would rather have as glass of wine and some food with people whose values I respect, in a garden, recounting our need for Christ.

Bryden Black said...

A delightfully radical interpretation of JAJ’s thesis Glen! With all the insight of deconstructing human “power”. If the latest USA grand jury indictments are anything to go by - frighteningly necessary.

My only kick-back would be Paul’s own request for “order” (1 Cor14). As well as that powerful Greek word in Eph 4:11-12 re καταρτισμὸν, “the knitting together/repairing ....” For it was the paterfamilias who led the Seder at Passover - AND the Mother at the Sabbath Meal.