St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Lord, to whom can we go?

Lord, to whom can we go?

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, 14th Sunday after Pente­cost, 26th. August 2018

Read­ing: John 6. 56–69

“This teach­ing is dif­fi­cult; who can accept it?”

The con­text for this pas­sage read as our Gos­pel this morn­ing is Jesus’ teach­ing fol­low­ing the feed­ing of the five thou­sand. Jesus used the feed­ing of the crowd as a launch pad for an exten­ded dis­course about the bread of life. In the course of this con­ver­sa­tion, some of which takes place in the syn­agogue in Caper­naum, Jesus makes sev­er­al remark­able claims. He declares: “I am the bread of life.” He tells the crowd that he is the liv­ing bread come down from heav­en, and that who­ever eats of this bread will live forever. He also says that the bread that he will give for the life of the world is his flesh. In say­ing these things, Jesus has claimed that the food he offers is super­i­or to that which Moses offered in the wil­der­ness because his food endures for etern­ity. But Jesus doesn’t stop there he con­tin­ues by say­ing that “My flesh is the real food and my blood is the real drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

To most of us this is a dif­fi­cult pas­sage: two thou­sand years after these words were uttered we still wrestle with them and we can sym­path­ise with the fol­low­ers of Jesus who said, “This teach­ing is dif­fi­cult, who can accept it.”  But in fact the state­ment, ‘this teach­ing is dif­fi­cult’ was not a com­ment on how hard it was to under­stand but rather how dif­fi­cult it was to accept. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, ‘It is not the parts of the Gos­pel that I do not under­stand that cause me dif­fi­culty – it’s the demand of that which I do under­stand.’ That was the prob­lem for Jesus’ first hear­ers and remains a prob­lem for many today.

The lan­guage Jesus uses in these verses is strange and con­front­ing to us but would have been less strange to a first cen­tury audi­ence, famil­i­ar with anim­al sac­ri­fice. Sac­ri­ficed anim­als were not usu­ally burnt in their entirety. Although the whole anim­al was offered to the god only a token part was burnt on the altar. Part of the flesh went to the priests and the rest went to the wor­ship­pers to make a feast for them­selves and their friends with­in the temple pre­cincts. At that feast the god him­self was thought to be a guest. In fact, once the flesh had been offered to the god, it was believed that he or she had entered into it, so that when the wor­ship­per ate it he or she was lit­er­ally eat­ing the god. So when Christ spoke of eat­ing his body and drink­ing his blood this would not have seemed so for­eign espe­cially to Gen­tile hear­ers.

So how are we to under­stand this pas­sage today? As usu­al in John’s Gos­pel these verses can be under­stood in more than one way. At one level the flesh of Jesus is his com­plete human­ity. John in his first let­ter, spells it out: “Every spir­it that con­fesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God and every spir­it that does not con­fess Jesus is not from God.” John’s pro­logue also makes it clear: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” In Jesus we see God tak­ing human life upon him, enter­ing into the messi­ness of our world, exper­i­en­cing our joys, sor­rows and tempta­tions. In Greek Ortho­dox Chris­to­logy, it is affirmed that Jesus dei­fied our flesh by tak­ing it on him­self. To eat Christ’s body is to feed on the thought of his human­ity, to know that he has gone before us and under­stands what it means to be human.

Jesus also said that we are to drink his blood. In Jew­ish thought the blood stands for the life and one of the best known Jew­ish food laws was the pro­hib­i­tion against con­sum­ing blood. The aim of kosh­er killing of anim­als was to ensure that no blood remained in the anim­al so that there could be no risk of eat­ing or drink­ing it. The reas­on for this law was made clear in Levit­i­c­us where it was stated: “the life of every creature – its blood is its life; there­fore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; who­ever eats it shall be cut off.” (Lev.17.14) The Jew­ish people believed that God was the source of all life, so life was sac­red, holy. The life force of the creature was its blood, so blood was regarded as holy and was not to be con­sumed but giv­en to God.

When Jesus said ‘You must drink my blood’ he was say­ing you must take my life into the very centre of your being. How do we do that? It hap­pens when Jesus moves from being an extern­al fig­ure to be stud­ied and dis­cussed and becomes part of our life. He moves from the head to the heart. To drink his blood is to receive the bene­fits of his sac­ri­fice: it is to allow Christ’s life to fill our own lives and we then are the recip­i­ents of his etern­al life.

As Chris­ti­ans when we read John chapter 6 we are inev­it­ably reminded of the Euchar­ist. Alone amongst the Gos­pel writers, John gives no account of the Last Sup­per. John has Jesus meet­ing with his dis­ciples on the night of his betray­al and wash­ing their feet. The con­text for John’s Euchar­ist­ic words is the feed­ing of the five thou­sand – the pic­nic on the hill­side where a small boy provides the five loaves and the two fish. For those who believe, for those who recog­nise that Jesus is the liv­ing bread there is a sense in which every meal is a sac­ra­ment. John refuses to lim­it the pres­ence of Christ to the right eccle­si­ast­ic­al envir­on­ment and the form­al litur­gic­al ser­vice. Every meal, how­ever simple, espe­cially when eaten in the com­pany of oth­er believ­ers reminds us of Christ’s pres­ence with us, the liv­ing bread come down from heav­en.

Very early in the his­tory of the Chris­ti­an com­munity it became the prac­tice for Chris­ti­ans to break bread togeth­er and drink wine whenev­er they gathered togeth­er. Some crit­ics of Chris­tian­ity thought this a weird prac­tice which smacked of can­ni­bal­ism but believ­ers were undeterred because they hung on to the words of Jesus, ‘This is my body giv­en for you. Do this in remem­brance of me’ They believed those words to be true. Aqui­nas wrote: “What God’s Son hath told me, take for true I do, truth him­self speaks truly or there’s noth­ing true.” Today the sac­ra­ment of Holy Com­mu­nion, or the Euchar­ist or the Mass or the Lord’s Sup­per whatever term we wish to use remains one of the rituals which all Chris­ti­ans have in com­mon even though our dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions offer a vari­ety of explan­a­tions for what we are actu­ally doing. At the risk of being simplist­ic let me sug­gest three things we do when we obey the words of Jesus, “Do this in remem­brance of me.”

First of all, we remem­ber. We remem­ber the night when Jesus died and he met with his fear­ful dis­ciples. He told them to drink the cup of wine because it was his blood of the cov­en­ant which was poured out for many for the for­give­ness of sins. He also said that he would not drink that cup again until that day when he would drink it new with them in his Father’s King­dom. On the night when the world was about to plunge into dark­ness he offered hope. So when we eat the bread and drink the blood we remem­ber what Jesus did for us. He died so that we might be for­giv­en and our rela­tion­ship with God could be restored.

The second thing we do is to feed on Christ. In a mys­ter­i­ous way that no theo­lo­gian has ever been able to adequately explain, when we eat the bread and drink the cup we are spir­itu­ally fed. We take his liv­ing bread into our bod­ies and we are nour­ished by it. By par­ti­cip­at­ing in that act of eat­ing and drink­ing we show that we abide in him and that Christ is the source of our life. Com­mu­nion gives us strength for the jour­ney. In the Euchar­ist we enact who we are and open ourselves to God’s pres­ence.

The third thing we do is to look for­ward. We look to that day when we shall be gathered with all God’s people to feast with God in his king­dom, when the new cre­ation is brought to per­fec­tion. The earthly feast is a fore­taste of the heav­enly one. In Luke’s account of the Last Sup­per, Jesus prom­ises his fol­low­ers that in his com­ing king­dom they will eat and drink at his table.

Some 70 years ago, Dom Gregory Dix wrote a now fam­ous book called The Shape of the Liturgy. Speak­ing of the words of Jesus, ‘Do this in remem­brance of me’ Dom Gregory wrote:

Was ever anoth­er com­mand so obeyed? For cen­tury after cen­tury, spread­ing slowly to every con­tin­ent and coun­try and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every con­ceiv­able human cir­cum­stance, for every con­ceiv­able human need from infancy and before it, to extreme old age and after it…Men have found no bet­ter thing than this to do for kings at their crown­ing and for crim­in­als going to the scaf­fold; for armies in tri­umph or for a bride and bride­groom in a little coun­try church; … one could fill many pages with the reas­ons why people have done this and not tell a hun­dredth part of them. And best of all week by week and month by month on a hun­dred thou­sand suc­cess­ive Sundays, faith­fully, unfail­ingly, across all the par­ishes of Christen­dom, the pas­tors have done this for the holy com­mon people of God.

We are fed in the Euchar­ist but this sac­ra­ment­al feed­ing is also a tan­gible remind­er of our need for con­tinu­al spir­itu­al nour­ish­ment. Jesus said: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.’ John uses the word ‘abide’ to express the ongo­ing nature of our rela­tion­ship. Abid­ing with Jesus is a life- long pro­cess which involves learn­ing to trust him and walk with him. And on those occa­sions when fol­low­ing the way of Jesus seems too dif­fi­cult and we are temp­ted to walk away, we remem­ber the words of Peter, “Lord to whom can we go, you have the words of etern­al life.”

Philip Brad­ford