Bread of Heaven, Sermon

Bread of Heaven
Homily preached at St. John the Evangelist
By the Rev. Neil Elliott
“The bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
For the last four Sundays we’ve been listening, in the Gospel of John, to a single long speech by
Jesus. —You may recall Jered getting a little confused last week when he started the second week’s
reading and should have started the third; listening to him, I got confused, too, because, I thought
he’d skipped ahead to today’s reading. That’s typical of the Fourth Gospel: long, intricate speeches
that twist around so that the reader may begin to feel they’re getting lost in a thicket of words. One
modern scholar says that’s just the point: this Gospel builds a hedge out of language, to keep
outsiders out and insiders in. If you have to ask what something means, you only show that you’re
an outsider and not capable of genuine understanding.
This Gospel scene began (a few Sundays ago) with Jesus’ miraculous feeding of thousands of
people with just a few loaves and fishes. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that’s a miracle amazing
enough to stand on its own: it demonstrates that Jesus is the Messiah who can feed the hungry
multitudes—just as Moses fed the famished Israelites in their journey across Sinai.
But in John, as so often, things are different.
• Jesus miraculously gives bread to the multitudes: check, all four Gospels.
• The next day, the crowds find out Jesus has left them and crossed the Sea of Tiberias by
boat so they follow him, on foot, around the seashore: only in John.
• When they catch up with him, Jesus scolds them for following him to seek mere bread—which is
just what he gave them the day before: only in John.
It’s typical of this Gospel that every act, every word of Jesus is an occasion for Jesus to point to
himself and his divine glory: he is the “bread of heaven,” he and the Father are one. There is no
suspense here (as in the other Gospels) around who Jesus is. Those destined to be his disciples
know from the first moments that he’s the Son of God. But if you’re like poor Nicodemus, coming
to Jesus with a list of earnest questions, you show you’re from below, not from above: you simply
can’t understand the things of the Spirit.
For many Christians, those distinctive themes make this their favorite Gospel; for others, it’s just
irritating. I remember a friend—an official in the Presbyterian Church—who feared he was falling
away from Christianity because of his difficulty with this Gospel. “I hate John’s Jesus,” he would say,
shaking with anger. “‘Me! Me! Me!’ All about him! That’s not my Jesus.”
• Only in John does Jesus speak, to the crowds on the Tiberias seashore, about being “the
bread of life.” Only here does he declare, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood
you have no life in you.”
We know that as Eucharistic language, the language of the Last Supper in Matthew, Mark, and
Luke, a Passover supper that evoked the rich themes of the people’s ancient redemption and
promised another redemption soon to be revealed to all the world.
• But in the Fourth Gospel, there is no last supper.
• There is a meal, but it is not the Passover;
• No one eats food except Judas, who reveals that he is the betrayer;
• Jesus says nothing at that table about bread and wine being his body and blood;
• There are no “words of institution” in John’s Gospel, no command to “do this in
remembrance of me.”
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• There is a long speech (it goes on for five chapters) in which Jesus talks about himself—he
is the Vine; he is the true Son—and declares that from now on he will be revealed not to
the world but only as he dwells, with the Father and the Spirit, within the disciples
(chaps. 13–17).
Those are amazing differences in one of the most important scenes in the Gospels. What’s going
on here?
From the beginning, Christians recognized there was no way to harmonize these very different
Gospel accounts. In the second century, Clement of Alexandria suggested that there must have been
a sort of apostolic meeting to delegate tasks: Matthew, Mark, and Luke would tell Jesus’ story in a
“natural” way, but John would provide the spiritual Gospel. That implies, of course, that Matthew,
Mark, and Luke were somehow telling a less spiritual story. And it doesn’t explain why John contradicts
their “natural” accounts at a number of key points.
Scholars today prefer a different explanation. We know from the First Letter of John that the
church that produced this Gospel had suffered a tumultuous history. There had been early
controversies with Jews outside their circle: If your Jesus was really the Messiah, why did he leave a world
filled with hungry people? What kind of Messiah is that? Then later, a terrible division, a parting of the ways
within the church itself. If Jesus is Spirit and if flesh is so different from Spirit, then Jesus cannot have come in the
flesh and died in the flesh—or if he was flesh, then he was not really the Son of the Father in heaven. The language
about the bread being his body can’t be taken literally. The division was bitter; some Christians left; and
John declared that those who “went out from us” proved that “they did not belong to us.” He called
them “antichrists.”
His church responded not with dialogue but with dogmatic assertion. They wrote a Gospel
unlike any other, in which Jesus speaks as they had come to understand him; and they wrote their
own traumatic history back into Jesus’ story. Now Jesus tells everyone that if they do not eat his flesh
they have no life in them. Now many of Jesus’ own disciples are “scandalized” and abandon him.
Only the true believers stay behind, those who accept that his words—hard as they are—are eternal
life.
Sincere inquirers need not apply.
Did the Johannine community suppress the Last Supper because it was too traumatic for them
to imagine gathering around the table with those they considered antichrists, enemies, betrayers?
People who “got Jesus wrong”?
Over the centuries, Christians have gone to war over what this meal means, and how we are to
approach this table. Is the substance of the bread really miraculously transformed into the flesh of
Christ, the wine into his blood? Or is that only figurative language? Is the meal profaned if the priest
has been exposed as corrupt? Can only a priest speak the words that make Christ’s body present, or
is that the prerogative of the priesthood of all believers? Is this a sacrament so profound, so
precious, that only the baptized should be allowed to approach it? (That’s the way our Prayerbook
reads.) Or is it yet another channel of attraction through which Jesus draws to him any who would
come to him? (That’s our practice here at St. John’s.)
Within five miles of this table, there are Episcopalians who practice the adoration of the
sacrament and others who consider that idolatrous. Some Episcopalians prefer to dip the wafer into
the wine; others prefer to take it and eat it; some Christians have been taught that touching the wafer
with their own hands is presumptuous. Some Episcopal churches insist on using fresh baked bread
instead of wafers. (“The challenge,” one famous liturgist said of our communion wafers, “isn’t
believing this is the body of Christ; it’s believing that it’s bread.”) Some churches use white wine
instead of red, perhaps because they don’t want the “blood of Christ” language to be taken too
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literally; others wonder, should we then say this is “the plasma of Christ”?
I learned years ago as a priest that bread made with gluten can make some people violently ill. So
many churches offer gluten-free communion bread (as we do here at St. John’s). I also learned that
some churches prohibit gluten-free bread: Jesus used wheat, so we had to use wheat, and if that
made you sick, well, you’d have to stay away from communion.
Those are churches where getting it right is more important than nourishing the faithful.
I want to make two points this morning about that choice.
It seems to be a perennial temptation for Christians to insist that our way of doing things is right,
that we are following the original blueprints given by God, and everyone else is mistaken or deluded.
But we have different sets of blueprints. The Fourth Gospel shows us, I think, that from the very
beginning Christians disputed who Jesus was and what his words and actions meant—and those
disputes shaped the Gospels themselves. I don’t know of any way to open up the Bible and prove,
beyond doubt, that I know which version “really happened,” or what Jesus’ words “really meant,”
and you don’t. But why would I want that? Is that desire—to get it right—about following Jesus, or
about wanting to prove that we are better than our neighbors? Perhaps humility is a more important
virtue.
But that doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands in helplessness. My second point is that we
have to take responsibility—compassionate, real-world responsibility—for living out our faith as
best we can.
A friend who has worked for years to organize communities of poor people in our cities says
that she faces the greatest obstacles when she speaks in churches. “Within five minutes of any
presentation,” she says, “someone will start spouting scripture against me: ‘the poor you will always
have with you.’ ‘Man does not live by bread alone.’” And the language from the Gospel of John: “do
not seek the bread that perishes.” She calls these “the stopper passages” because they stop
conversation before it can begin. We could take these passages as the biblical pretexts for moral
indifference. Are the poor hungry? Let them take communion.
We are called to know better. I’m very grateful for Emma Grundhauser’s remarks in our latest
newsletter about the discernment she observed at General Convention. One of the strengths of our
church, I believe, is that our faith is grounded in the Bible, but not limited to what we find there. We
discern, prayerfully, the work God gives us to do, but we don’t sit back waiting for someone to
prove, finally, incontrovertibly, that the Bible tells us to do this and not that. Those “stopper”
passages don’t stop us. So we understand, for example, that feeding the hungry is part of our
responsibility. We support Episcopal Relief and Development; in our Diocese, Episcopal
Community Services; in our parish, the Kayoro Village clinic and the Fields and Families program—
and all the other ways we work, as a congregation and as individual members, day in and day out.
These commitments express a mature understanding that as human beings we all are
interconnected; that we all depend upon each other’s toil; that what is required of us is to love
mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly before God. It’s a way of hearing something else in John’s
Gospel, a different emphasis to Jesus’ words: “The bread that I give is my own flesh,” Jesus declares,
“for the life of the world.”
Perhaps the call to us is to open our hearts in the direction of those words, to realize that “the
life of the world” is the true horizon of God’s purpose—the only limit of our mission. May we be
nourished and renewed in our commitment to that work.
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