Taste and See

Sunday 13th August 2006
Year B, The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Psalm 34:1-8
John 6:35; 6:41-51

The great Canadian economist, J.K. Galbraith remarked that behind every raving dictator there was the musing of a philosopher. What he meant was that the work of philosophers, passing through the minds and hands of interpreters and propagandists, was moulded for very different purposes from the original purpose of the philosopher. A good example of this is the Darwinist theory of how evolution works which was manipulated into the 'Social Darwinism' of the Nazis which used Darwin's name to justify the extermination of supposed 'inferior' races or kinds of people.
Christianity, of course, has not been immune from this kind of distortion. The Bible has been interpreted afresh many times, sometimes in a gradualist way but sometimes in great revolutionary movements such as the Reformation. at that time one of the key issues was the nature of the Eucharist, the meaning of today's Gospel where Jesus enjoined the people of His own generation to eat His Flesh in order to attain everlasting life.

What precisely does this mean? Well, there are those, as the result of the Reformation, who think that when Jesus asked us to eat His flesh that He was simply speaking figuratively; but these are the same people who tend to believe that accounts of creation in Genesis are not to be taken figuratively but literally. Conversely, there are many who accept the literal meaning of what Jesus said who interpret the creation stories in Genesis not literally but figuratively.

In the Church of England our inheritance is precisely that dualism which I have just described; but where did it come from? First of all, Henry VIII, the political founder of the Church of England, went to his death believing that Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist, that in participating in the Sacrament we were truly eating His flesh; the religious founder, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, on the other hand, believed no such thing. Martin Luther, the first great Reformation figure, believed in what we call in shorthand the 'Real presence' of Jesus in the Eucharist, as did the Reformation's great theologian, John Calvin. It was only Zwingli of the great early reformers who denied the 'Real presence' and it was his radical stance which Archbishop Cranmer adopted. And so, reverting to my opening remarks, many in the Church of England quite incorrectly attribute the denial of the 'Real presence' to Luther and Calvin.

It is really important to understand what the doctrine of the 'Real Presence' means; and what are the consequences of its denial.

Above all else, the 'Real presence' affirms in our Christian lives the absolute bond between the spiritual and the physical. Jesus might have told us simply to say the Lord's Prayer which he taught and to say it through Him as mediator between us and the creator. He might have appeared like a wraith to the men of Galilee. He might have proclaimed the Kingdom of God through prophets with a radically more urgent message; but He did none of these things. He came in flesh and He under-wrote His physical nature through the institution of the Eucharist. he scandalised the Jews when he spoke to them in today's Gospel but there is something immensely tranquil about accounts of the Eucharist in all four Gospels and in St. Paul. What made the difference was the trauma of sacrifice in the Passion of Jesus transformed in the Resurrection. Eat my flesh and you will have eternal life is a strange and stark injunction; remember me by eating my flesh is equally strange and stark; but seen through the Passion and Resurrection the injunctions are part of a holistic theology: You must not only remember me in your hearts, you must live through my physical presence with you; I can guarantee this physical presence which I told you of at the Last Supper because I overcame the Cross and rose again. I am not an idea of God in your head I am a physical God that is with you now.

On the other hand, the denial of this physicality takes Christianity out of its mysteriously but marvellously synthesised position into being a religion of physical beings worshipping an invisible God. This is the pattern of the Old Testament and it brings about a form of Christianity which says that the point of the Incarnation was the Crucifixion. At the Reformation this theological controversy centred on a dispute about the nature of the Eucharist. Theologians like Zwingli denied the Sacrament of the Eucharist because they said that as Jesus had made His sacrifice "Once for all" upon the Cross, it could not be claimed that the Eucharist was a repetition of that same sacrifice. As with Transubstantiation, the technical theology got in the way of the essential difference between some Reformers and tradition. Whichever came first it is difficult to work out, but the extreme reformers believed in the utter corruption of the physical and so they concentrated on the Cross as the symbol of the salvation of fallen humanity; in other words, they emphasised the fundamental difference between the physical and the spiritual, between humanity and God. The traditional Catholic view, concentrating on the Resurrection as the end point of the Incarnation, saw the Eucharist as a uniting of the physical and the spiritual, thus emphasising how the human and the divine were the same, concentrating, in other words, on risen man rather than fallen man.

For us, today, this distinction in doctrine might seem obscure but it is crucial. As Christians, worshipping a God both human and divine, both in and out of history, we are confronted by what is loosely called 'new age spirituality' which radically separates the spiritual from the physical. Some descendants of the Reformation today think that there is some kind of deal to be done with this new, amorphous, highly abstract form of spirituality. By keeping God at arms length, as a purely spiritual phenomenon, Christianity, they think, can be put on the shelf of the spirituality supermarket along with the rest.

This is a grave mistake. Christianity is unique because it refuses to accept this dualism. God took flesh in Jesus the Child; and Jesus the adult left Himself in the Eucharist that we might feed upon Him not as an intimation of the divine but as an actual sharing in His divinity. We are a church both of Word and Sacrament. That is why, for all its virtues, remembering Jesus in Word alone, in services like Matins, is not enough.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I profoundly disagree; that aphorism is meant to comfort the separated. It is easier to love the ideal of the distant but true love depends upon the real presence of the beloved for whom we make space so that otherness can flourish. O taste and see how gracious the Lord is!