+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
So, those of you who were here last week will remember that I left you with a teaser. I know how frustrating that can be. So, as promised, here is part the second.
But first, a reminder of the ground we covered last week. A large crowd had just been fed by Jesus and decided they wanted to make him king and would do it by force if need be. They had misunderstood the message Jesus intended to communicate by feeding them. Instead of promising to feed people with regular old bread as their earthly king, Jesus meant to communicate that as the King of Heaven he would provide heavenly food, spiritual sustenance, to all who would believe in him. The difficulty the crowd had—and that we have—is in seeing past our immediate temporal concerns in order to focus on enduring spiritual matters; and the question I left you with was about how we might attain the sort of focus and vision which permits us to see things through the lens of eternity.
So that’s where we are, and that’s obviously where the crowd remained at the beginning of today’s Gospel. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus addressed them, “you are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” And then he gives them the same charge I mentioned last week: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” In other words, try to see past your immediate concerns to that which will sustain you forever.
Now, when we think about someone who we might think has achieved this shift in focus, this appreciation of things eternal, we might be tempted to envision a caricature, and think that this is the ideal, an ideal we’ll never reach. I envision some old monk living as a hermit, totally detached from the world, spending twenty-four hours a day meditating on the divine mysteries. In fact, this caricature does not have a solid touchstone in the Christian tradition, because even those few who become hermits do so after spending years in a community with other monks, and they still rejoin that community regularly for Mass.
In any event, it does not seem to me that this is the proper method for focusing on enduring, heavenly things (at least for the vast majority of us) and I don’t think that this is what Jesus is getting at. The Christian worldview is not world-denying or body-denying. It does not reject the physical world as something we have to get beyond so that we can float about in a disinterested state. Rather we are saved in the world, and it is through our ordinary, physical, contingent existence that we find the sustaining savour of heavenly, spiritual, enduring things.
And there is one gift which we are given in the midst of this old world which more than anything under the sun accomplishes this shift in focus, and ultimately the transformation of our whole lives, that we might be a holy people. And it is found in ordinary, physical, contingent stuff. Bread and Wine. Nothing can be more common, more ordinary. On their own, just plain bread and wine sustain us and gladden our hearts. But when we raise them up before God the Father, when we give thanks for them and for the gift of His Son’s Crucifixion and Resurrection, they gain a whole new power to sustain and gladden in a very different way. They become the Body and Blood of Christ—not just in a manner of speaking, but truly—and they give us a taste, quite literally, of all that matters, of all that endures.
We have many gifts from God, many things for which to be thankful, some of them miraculous. The children of Israel were miraculously given manna in the wilderness, but in today’s Gospel Jesus said it gets even better than that. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus puts it even more bluntly: “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.” Though the children of Israel ought to have been thankful for the manna, though we must remember to be thankful for all the gifts, small and great, which we receive from the beneficent hand of our Lord, the gift for which we may be most thankful is the gift of the Eucharist, for its power to sustain is eternal.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” When I administer Communion and say “the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life” I’m not using a complex metaphor. I think most of you know that I’m not opposed to complexity or metaphors. I’m not a literal thinker or a fundamentalist by any stretch of the imagination. But on this matter, I’m being pretty direct, because I think it’s a matter on which Jesus was being pretty direct and the Church throughout its long history has until fairly recently been pretty consistent in affirming that. And of course, you’re welcome to disagree and I’m sure we can maintain the fellowship of enjoined on us by Christ in spite of it. Anyway, when I say it’s the Body of Christ, it’s because I think it is (and, of course, because that’s what the prayerbook says to say it), and when I say “keep you in everlasting life” it’s because I live in the hope that the sustenance we gain from regular reception of the Holy Communion really does have the power to preserve us, Body and Soul, into eternity.
But in addition to its mystical power to sustain, the Eucharist, if we will receive it worthily and mindfully, does succeed in refocusing our attention to heavenly things, to things which endure. This is because in eating the Bread and drinking the Wine we are partaking in the heavenly banquet. As one friend of mine put it, probably more verbosely than he needed to do, “at the altar, we receive a foretaste of the eschatological convivium.” For all the wordiness of that phrase, it simply means that in the midst of this life we are given a taste of the life of the world to come every time we eat this Bread and drink this Wine. If we are attentive to this fact, I strongly believe that our weekly or even more frequent reception of the Eucharist will help us to “pass through things temporal so that we lose not the things eternal” as last week’s collect put it. So, may we all be thankful for Christ’s greatest gift to the Church, the Eucharist, and may we be as eager to receive of its benefits as the crowd that day on the shore of Galilee who said “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Let us pray.
Soul of Christ, sanctify us
Body of Christ, save us
Blood of Christ, inebriate us
Water from Christ’s side, wash us
Passion of Christ, strengthen us
O good Jesus, hear us
Within Thy wounds hide us
Suffer us not to be separated from Thee
From the malicious enemy defend us
In the hour of our death call us
And bid us come unto Thee
That we may praise Thee with Thy saints
and with Thy angels
Forever and ever