Sunday 8th August 2021
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
John 3.35; 3.41-51

The core of the Gospel of John is a massive discourse which begins part way through Chapter 5 and, with brief intermissions, continues to the end of Chapter 11. Its overall theme might best be summarised as the relationship between Jesus and The Father which, significantly, also forms the core of the other great Johannine discourse covering Chapters 13-17. The launching pad for this first great discourse is the miraculous feeding which, significantly, is one of the few incidents, outside the Passion narratives, which appears in all four Gospels. There is something about this feeding which the Evangelists particularly valued. John's construction on the foundation of the feeding, concerns bread and, to sum up, here are the quotations that run to the end of our Gospel reading today:

"It is my father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. ... I am the bread of life ... This is the bread that comes down from heaven, whoever eats of this bread will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

Scholars rightly point out that there is not an account of the Institution of the Eucharist in John's Gospel but by the time this Gospel was written the celebration of the Eucharist was widespread although its ritual was not, according to Paul Bradshaw*, uniform; what people needed, it seems, was a theology of Eucharist at a time when hardly anybody could remember exactly what happened and why.

There are three initial points to note about what Jesus has already said by this point in the discourse.

first, this giving of bread, first in the manna and now in this new form, connects the gift with the Exodus, just as the Institution by Jesus of the Eucharist is inescapably bound up with the Exodus. Whatever the nature of this gift of bread might be, it is liberating. We might take this idea in different ways: we might understand the liberation in terms of the new freedom we enjoy in fellowship with Jesus. We might, following liberation theologians, think of the Exodus/Eucharistic nexus as speaking to the agenda of the liberation of the poor from injustice and degradation, an interpretation which for some time fell foul with conservative Roman Catholic theologians but was honoured at the Second Vatican Council, an interpretation which Anglicanism, even in developing countries, has tactfully ignored. But whichever way you look at it, I think that the invocation of the Exodus takes the Eucharist out of the realm of pure private piety, a subject to which I will return.

Secondly, this bread which was initially given to YHWH's liberated people in the desert is for the whole world. There was no orthodoxy test on the way into the grassy space where Jesus taught and distributed the bread; and Christianity is, by its nature and vocation, universal; but without us, the followers of Jesus baptised to forward his mission, that universality will be impaired. There is, however, a dreadful irony embedded in this proposition because a current fashion in English Christianity for church plantings without the Eucharist at their core means that we are passing on an impoverished inheritance to those we attract; we who are fed with the bread of life somehow don't think it's important to feed all Christians.

And thirdly, there is a sense in which Jesus associates himself with this gift of bread, saying that this bread is his own flesh, a point which he will elaborate further on in the discourse. The central question which is raised by this final point is whether the whole discourse, and indeed the Last Supper, is a massive metaphorical construct which means that God through Jesus provides us with some kind of spiritual nourishment mediated by the Holy Spirit which, for shorthand, we might call grace; or whether what Jesus instituted at the Last Supper was a vivid invocation of Exodus which we must continue to remember as a foundational narrative; or whether the broken body of Jesus is in some way present in the bread and wine as a re-enactment of the process at the Last Supper. On this point Western Christianity has been in a state of turmoil since the 11th Century and notably in the 16th and, sadly, theological controversy has rather tainted the Eucharist which should be our living and continuous source of unity. More often than not, somewhat confusingly, disputes in the Western Church have not been about what happens in the Eucharist but how it happens which is always, in the nature of mystery, going to be a futile dispute. As the Eucharist is a Sacrament, it follows that the Priest in invoking the Holy Spirit at the Consecration is the channel by which Jesus is present in the consecrated elements. The extent to which that assertion is controversial is the extent to which our solidarity is impaired.

Important though our Scripture and Creeds may be, what identifies us as followers of Jesus is our Sacramental initiation in Baptism and our Sacramental nourishment in the Eucharist; we are identified not by what we read or say but by what we do. Returning to the theology of Eucharist before the revolution began in the 11th Century: We, the Body of Christ of which he is the Head, are united in his gift of his very self in Eucharist such that, in summary, the Body of Christ is maintained by the gift of the body of Christ. Amen*.

*Bradshaw, Paul: Eucharistic Origins