A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on August 24, 2006.
Based on John 6:53 -59 (Proper 15, Year B).
You can understand the accusations of cannibalism. Hearing all this talk from John’s gospel about eating flesh and drinking blood, it starts to make sense. Cannibalism was among the accusations leveled at the early Christians. Now part of it was an overt attempt to slander this growing new faith – one that refused to pledge allegiance to the cult of the Roman emperor. But this new-fangled movement was also shrouded in mystery. The liturgical rites of the early Christians were not open to the general public; only those baptized into the faith could participate in worship.
So the odd worship practices of the early church, their refusal to participate in emperor worship, and their strange beliefs about someone named Jesus who was both divine and human all contributed to a general bias against them. And in this climate the rumors of eating human flesh and drinking human blood quickly fueled suspicions of cannibalism. It reached such a degree of popular belief that the early Christian apologists wrote letters publicly refuting the claims of cannibalism.
So we’ve established that we’re not cannibals. But it still leaves us with what to do with this particular passage from John. It is pretty graphic. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” And while this passage is a statement of eucharistic theology – about what we do each week at the communion table – it’s about much more than mere doctrine. Doctrinal statements don’t lead to eternal life; we are raised up on the last day through communion with Jesus Christ. And I mean communion in the broadest sense of the word – it is relational, it is sacramental, it is an abiding presence of intimate indwelling.
Because the body of Christ is the bread of heaven; the blood of Christ is the cup of salvation. And the eucharist is at the heart of what we do; the climax of Sunday morning worship. When we pray over the bread and wine, it’s not just a quaint remembrance of something that happened 2,000 years ago; it is about the living bread that sustains us on our earthly pilgrimage.
When I go for long-distnace runs, I use these energy gels after about an hour or so. They’re packed with carbohydrates and electrolytes and they’re designed specifically for endurance athletes. They come in various flavors, everything from vanilla to strawberry-banana to tangerine (which is absolutely revolting). The best ones even have caffeine for that extra boost. Unfortunately, nothing can hide the fact that the consistency is basically like toothpaste. But once you choke it down and start running again, they really do give you a burst of energy that helps carry you through the next five or six miles.
For me the eucharist is kind of like a spiritual energy gel. It keeps me going for the week. And I always think of that wonderful line in Eucharistic Prayer C, the one we usually use for “Mass on the Grass,” that says “deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” Jesus bids us to receive communion for strength of spirit and renewal of relationship. Jesus is the bread of life, not in a metaphorical way, but in a tangible, real, and incarnational way.
We’re not cannibals. But we do feed on Christ. Jesus came into the world as God in human form and we receive him into our hearts and souls through the body and blood of the eucharist. We must eat and drink to live. It’s as important as breathing. And if we are to live in right relationship with God, we must eat and drink that which is set out for us by Jesus Christ. To receive the body and blood is to be fully immersed in the life of Jesus. Which is precisely God’s desire for each one of us. That’s what this is all about. To accept Jesus’ offer of eternal life, we can’t just have a casual relationship with Jesus; we must be totally immersed in Jesus. And the sacrament of his body and blood is the invitation to total immersion.
Now it’s hard not to hear this without thinking about the misunderstood concept of transubstantiation. The Episcopal Church doesn’t teach us that the bread and wine literally turns into body and blood. But we do proclaim the doctrine of real presence. Christ is truly present in the bread and wine of communion. Precisely how, is part of the sacramental mystery and it’s really not worth trying to explain it as much as it is to simply experience it.
In the midst of the great debate over the meaning of the eucharist in the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth uttered the following on the subject, “Twas God the Word that spake it; He took the bread and brake it; and what the Word did make it; that I believe, and take it.” Her words wipe away all the fanciful philosophical deliberations. It’s all about Jesus, bread, and us. When we receive communion, we experience the risen Christ. That’s the point and it’s why we return to this table week after week for strength and renewal.
Eating flesh and drinking blood is radical language. But the call of Christ is a radical call. It suspends our preconceived notions of what it means to be in relationship with God. So we come here, we eat flesh and drink blood, and we celebrate and live into Jesus’ parallel promise of resurrection to eternal life.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006