A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 12, 2018 (Proper 14B)
Liturgically speaking, this is a tough time of year to be on the Atkins Diet. Every three years, amid the heat of the summer, the lectionary gods give us week after week of readings about bread. Maybe you’ve noticed. It started the last Sunday of July with the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish; it continued last week with Jesus talking about “bread from heaven;” today we hear Jesus proclaim, “I am the bread of life;” next week he’ll tell us he’s “living bread;” and the week after that he’ll say, “the one who eats this bread will live forever.” That’s a lot of carbs! I’ve taken to calling these five weeks Bread-a-palooza. Though that phrase doesn’t seem to have caught on in church circles
Bread is a major theme in the Christian faith. In addition to all these references, we pray in the words of the Lord’s Prayer to “give us this day our daily bread.” At the Last Supper Jesus takes bread, breaks it, blesses it, and gives it to his disciples with the words, “Take, eat, this is my body.” And each week we come to this altar and reach out our hands to receive “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”
It is impossible to separate bread from faith. Physically, it sustains us. Theologically, it nourishes us. Sacramentally, it saves us.
This morning, we get the first of the famous I Am statements from John’s gospel: “I am the bread of life.” Keep reading and you get a flurry of other, similar statements: I am the Good Shepherd; I am the light of the world; I am the true vine; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, the truth, and the life.
These are metaphors, of course. Ways of highlighting Jesus’ identity in familiar terms; methods of connecting Jesus’ divinity to images we can relate to. Jesus is not actually made up of wheat and yeast. But when we believe in him, when we come to him in faith, when we feed upon his Word, and ingest his body through sacramental bread, we no longer go hungry. We are nourished and sustained, able to grow into the full stature of Christ, as we claim our identity as followers of Jesus.
But these I Am statements, like “I am the bread of life,” also transcend metaphor. Remember when Moses encountered God in the burning bush? God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and set his people free; and before Moses agrees he says, “But what is your name? Who should I tell the Israelites will lead them out of slavery and into the Promised Land?” And God says to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” Which is confounding and confusing, at least at one level. “‘I am sent me.’ What does that even mean?” Yet it at another level, it makes perfect sense. Because how could you possibly define the God and Creator of the universe? God just is. “I am who I am.”
So these I Am statements of Jesus connect back to this I Am statement of God. Jesus can say I am the bread of life and I am the Good Shepherd and all the rest. He can simply say, I am. Because he is.
These I Am statements are to be taken both metaphorically and literally. Which is an unusual linguistic scenario. Physically and spiritually speaking, Jesus is and is not bread. When we feed on him by faith with thanksgiving in the sacramental bread of the Eucharist, he is fully present. This bread is not merely symbolic of Jesus’s life. When we receive communion, we do this in memory of Jesus, yes, but it’s more than that. It’s not just a way to remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; we receive the Eucharist in a way that makes Jesus present, right here and right now.
There’s a fancy word for this that, while it’s mostly tossed around in seminaries, is critical to understanding our Eucharistic theology. Anamnesis is a Greek word meaning “memory,” but it transcends our own understanding of the word. When we think about memory, we use it as a way of recalling past events. Something that happened years ago, like being forced to drink powdered milk in the woods at summer camp, may be a distant memory. Remembering that you had chicken quesadillas for dinner last night would be a recent memory. But the powdered milk and quesadillas are both events firmly rooted in the past. They happened, they’re done, hopefully no one will make you drink powdered milk in the future.
In some, more Protestant traditions that’s what people would say happens at communion. The minister says some words, people share bread and wine, or grape juice, and it’s all about remembering a past event, the Last Supper. “Do this in remembrance of me” is said as a way of keeping Jesus’ memory alive today, but it’s still memorializing an event that took place in the past.
Our theology is slightly different. Through the concept of anamnesis, we remember in such a way that the past event is actually made present once again. So up at the altar we remember the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, but we also join ourselves to it now, at this moment, in a very real and tangible way. It’s not merely something that took place in the past, but also something that continues in the present. It makes present again what took place in the past so that our celebration around the altar becomes a living memory. Not a distant memory or a recent memory but a living memory that continues to shape our identity and draw us together as a community that worships both with Jesus and in Jesus’ name.
That can be a tough concept to wrap your mind around, like reflecting on the never-ending universe or the theory of infinity. This idea that the historical sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifice of the Eucharist, that will happen in a few moments, are both part of a single event is mind-blowing. But that’s precisely what happens when we gather together to share this bread of life, this bread of heaven, this living bread.
And it doesn’t help that the Greek word is basically untranslatable in English. When you see words in the Eucharistic prayer like “memorial” or “commemoration” or “remembrance,” they really mean anamnesis. In every single one of our eucharistic prayers there is a line that liturgical scholars refer to as “the anamnesis” — it’s an integral part of the consecratory prayer said over the bread and wine.
For instance, during the summer we’ve been using Eucharistic Prayer A. Here’s the line I want you to listen for when Father Noah says it, “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.” What this means, at the deepest level, is that we celebrate the anamnesis, this re-presenting, of our redemption in this act of communion. And that, as we make present again, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer these gifts of bread and wine.
Perhaps the clearest articulation of this concept takes place at the Eater Vigil — the holiest and most ancient, and certainly the most dramatic, liturgy of the church year. You know, the service I’m always nagging you to attend, if you’ve never been before. The one where we offer a champagne and jelly bean reception afterwards as an added enticement — because it’s so awesome! In a darkened church, a fire is kindled, the paschal candle is lit, and the cantor sings the Exsultet with the refrain “This is the night.” “This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life…This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”
Jesus is passing over from death to resurrection not just in the past but also right here, right now, on this night. This is the night. That’s anamnesis defined. An articulation that these events have happened in the past, are still happening in the present, and will happen in the future. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That’s the kingdom into which Jesus beckons us; that’s the power of the cross; that’s the glory of the Christian life.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018