John 6: Bread of Eternal Life

Sunday 19th August 2012
Year B, The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
John 6:51-58

It is always dangerous to make comparisons because the sharp eyed critic will overlook the broad similarities and focus on what makes two things different; but I will take the risk by saying that there is a broad similarity between great music and the Sacraments. More on this later.

Meanwhile, at the heart of any consideration of the Eucharist lie two  inescapable issues, the nature of Sacrament and the nature of eternal life.

Much of the Medieval theology of the Eucharist, centred on Saint Thomas Aquinas who characterised himself as a clumsy craftsman rather than the sublime systematic theologian of  his canonisation, was concerned with  the nature of Sacramentality and there was widespread agreement at least, as with most theology, on what took place but there was, inevitably, much more dispute about 'how'. What we all implicitly believe about sacraments is that they signify what they effect. Confining ourselves to the two 'Dominical;' Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, we say that when the water is poured over the Baptismal candidate to signify cleansing, that person is, at the same time, cleansed by the Holy Spirit; and when we are nourished by the consecrated bread and wine at the altar,  we are spiritually nourished by the presence of Christ within us. And it follows from this sacramental reading that we are not so much cleansed  and not  so much fed if we are not sacramental participants. We infer, without being impolitely specific, that God is with us in Sacrament in a special way which means that God is not with other people who lack our commitment or the good fortune of having heard the Word of God. Sacraments are, as I noted in an earlier sermon, points of Christian commitment; we are initiated into Baptism and only thereafter can we be initiated into the Eucharist. But, of course, in a history of Christian commitment that has lasted for 2000 years, matters cannot be that simple. Some Christians - in the Eastern Orthodox Church - receive the Eucharist as a consequence of Baptism before a further initiation ceremony; the relationship between Baptism, the Eucharist and Confirmation is far from settled; and many people regard marriage as a sacrament quite independent of other sacramental initiation.

Now it seems to me, as I remarked in the sermon on the  mass feedings by Jesus, that there is something at least suspect, if not downright perverse, about sacramentality being characterised by exclusive initiation. Jesus, after all, did not die for Christians, he died for us all and it might be inferred from this that we do not receive Baptism and the Eucharist on our own, personal behalves, but receive them as gifts of the Spirit on behalf of the whole world. What  I am saying is that just as the life and death of Jesus are indivisibly universal, so sacramentality is also indivisibly universal; and it follows from this that neither Baptism nor the Eucharist are initiation rites which are a necessary  precondition for eternal life; and it follows from this, therefore, that Baptism need not be a necessary precondition for Eucharist, let alone Baptism in one church rather than another; if Baptism is  the unique mark of the Christian, then that ought to be an adequate precondition for participating in the Eucharist in any Christian church but, as I have said, I would go further than that. We might quite properly argue that the better instructed we are in the meaning of sacramentality in general and the Eucharist in particular we might better understand what we are about; but Christianity is not a religion primarily of of understanding but, rather, as Saint Anselm put it, understanding is employed within the context of faith. Those who have been taught to understand the structure of classical music might smile or tut at the way in which a sonata is constructed and we might argue that their appreciation of the music is thereby much deeper; but nobody is shut out from the concert hall because they have not passed an examination in music theory. Just as the music is for us all, so is sacramentality, so is the God of eternal life.

Which brings us to my second topic. To say that the bread of Christ's flesh is the bread of eternal life might be understood in two quite opposite though not contradictory ways: the bread of eternal life is the bread of God's eternal life. And it is also the bread of our eternal life. This pair of statements may - indeed, ought to be - puzzling or mysterious but, reverting to what is now a familiar theme in these sermons on Chapter 6 of John, it is not the reality, the "what" which is puzzling but simply the "why", the mechanics.

On this subject we might usefully make a generalisation, that Christians are divided into two sorts: those who emphasise human closeness to the divine and those who emphasise the distance between the two. We, in the Church of England, the broad church born of political expediency, are torn between the two tendencies but that is not unique; apparently much more theologically coherent denominations, including Roman Catholics, are likewise brought up sharply by the contemplation of our own shortcomings and the glory we have been promised, but what resolves this apparent contradiction for  us is a proper understanding of sacrament as a unity of the human and the divine. We are not, after all, solely a church of The Word nor solely a church of invocation. We are a sacramental church because an incarnate God, in the form of Jesus, gave the earth which God created the gift of his sacramental church, a sacrament in itself and a dispenser of the sacramental gifts of the Spirit. And we in the Church of England which serves all of God's people, believing or otherwise, should recognise more easily than other Christian denominations that Christ's sacramental Church is a gift to the whole world to serve the whole world, and we within it are privileged to serve the whole world and to be imitators of Christ in carrying upon our shoulders the cares of the world to signify to all people that all will be saved.

WE, as the chosen people of god, as contemporary disciples, fired in Baptism and sustained in the Eucharist, are Christ's vessels wrought on the world's wheel, to carry and to be broken, to be loaded and to be vulnerable, to shine in artistry and to be dashed in disgust. We are not the triumphant elect who will be rewarded for our piety with eternal life while the benighted sceptic and the unfortunate heathen are consigned to outer darkness, but we are, rather, the world's ambassadors, the singer of the song, on behalf of all God's people, of the sacrament of God for the whole world.