John 6: Reprise

Sunday 19th August 2012
Year B, The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
St John The Baptist, Clayton
John 6

Chapter 6 of Saint John's Gospel from which we have just heard an extract, is an essay about bread, it is 'bread talk': curiously, about bread un-baked; miraculously about bread multiplied out of bread; dramatically about the flesh of Jesus as the bread of life; mysteriously about bread blessed, broken and given as the flesh of Jesus; and triumphantly as the bread of our eternal life.

As often with John, there is a story which is the precursor to a theological discussion. In this case, we find Jesus in a field, about to enact a miracle so significant that it is recounted in all four Gospels; Jesus feeds thousands of people from the slender resources of a few loaves and fishes; but I was very careful to characterise this feeding as a bread incident, although many would argue that it is actually a massive, graphic pre-figurement of the Eucharist which is a lovely idea in its way but it does present us with a problem: If the mass feeding by Jesus can be held to be in some way Eucharistic, what justification do Christians have for making the reception of the Eucharist subject to religious initiation rites and also subject to the recipient's moral standing, as defined by human beings who cannot possibly know what God knows about why we do what we do. And, as it turns out, the people in the Christian denominational family who are most likely to see the mass feeding as a Eucharistic event are also the most likely to set initiation and moral rules; indeed, the Roman Catholic hierarchy still believe that baptised Anglicans are unfit persons to receive the Eucharist consecrated by a Roman Catholic ordained priest; so you might think it would be prudent for the Roman Catholics to put less emphasis on a mass feeding as Eucharistic when there were no entrance gates, no theological or moral enquiries and a general air of relaxed good humour.

The Chapter then goes on to describe a very different mass feeding but one which would have struck a strong chord with those on the good end of the loaves and fishes. When the Chosen People were wandering in the wilderness they were supplied with manna every day with which they baked simple cakes, a far cry from their artistic bread making in Egypt. They had already been knocked down to the unleavened variety at Passover and now, in the manna, their absolute dependence on God was underlined. No wonder they frequently longed for the flesh pots of Egypt, for the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic (Numbers 11.5).

And it would be good to remember at this pint how important water was to the wanderers and how Moses struck a rock that it might flow; and how fire led the bewildered, wanderers through the wilderness at night. This was a journey of fire, water and spirit but not a journey of earth, the element through which humanity exercises its vocation from the time of its expulsion from the Garden (Genesis 3.19.).

I wonder how many of those that had been fed were present when Jesus, preaching at the Feast of Tabernacles, of water and light in Jerusalem, heard Jesus call himself the bread of life, saying that if people ate his flesh and drank his blood they would have eternal life. This can be no slip of the pen as it is repeated within the Chapter.

It is important at this point to grasp what Jesus says and to reinforce this by what he is reported to have said at the Last Supper (Matthew 23.26-29; Mark 14.22-24; Luke 21.19-20; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26). He does not say in some allegorical or analogous way to the crowd that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life; and he does not invoke allegory or analogy at the Last Supper, so Protestants who are instructed by their leaders to take the Bible literally and to construe it by its plain meaning are in a bit of a jam if they want to say that the Eucharist is simply a re-enactment and not a Sacrament; and this problematic readings presents that part of Christianity with quite as severe a problem as Catholics face with initiation rites and moral barriers.

Not unnaturally at the Reformation, there was a tendency by extremists to parody Medieval Eucharistic practice but some of that period's greatest theologians, Anselm of Canterbury, Giles of Rome, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham wrestled not with what actually happened which was settled but, rather, wrestled with the mechanics: of how Jesus was present in the consecrated bread and wine in a different way from God's omnipresence; of how the reality of God and Bread coexisted in the same stuff; of how the Priest's sacramental consecrAting relates to our reception of Christ's body and blood and the Grace they bring. This last point turned out to be critical in the Reformation when there was a polarisation between Catholic, priestly Transubstantiation on the one hand, parodied by extremist Protestants as magic, and a theory that the Sacrament was only effective through our sincere reception. Our Book of Common Prayer nicely finesses the point but postmodernism can help us to understand that when the Priest consecrates the elements, the summoning of the Holy Spirit on our behalf relies both on the Sacramental call and upon our sincere reception; the priest could not call down the spirit if he or she were representing a sceptical congregation.

Perhaps the best way of seeing the Eucharist is to begin with the Incarnation whereby God became a human being in the person of Jesus; that being so, that Jesus is present in bread and wine is hardly a radical step although it is, like the incarnation, a  mystery. That God became a human being in Jesus and died for us in solidarity with our necessary imperfection is beyond our capacity to absorb, let alone explain.

And that brings me back to where I began this 'bread talk'. Christ died for us all that we all might be saved; and Christ gave himself in bread and wine for the whole world, not just for the initiated; so how does that work in a world where so few are partakers in the sacred mysteries? I believe that we as committed Christians receive Baptism and share the Eucharist on behalf of the whole world and, that being so, the joy it brings should be so great that we are tireless in spreading the good News of Jesus. We are not the triumphal recipients of a special gift but are, rather, the humble ambassadors going out into the highways and byways to bring the whole world into the heavenly banquet of which the Eucharist is not an anticipation but is an actual foretaste of the divine.