Sermon at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 16 August
16 August 2009 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon of Westminster
John 6. 51 - 58
The gospel of John is the only gospel that has no account of the last supper that Jesus had with his disciples, yet, paradoxically, it is the gospel with the most advanced theology of the Eucharist, part of which we have just heard. Indeed the whole of chapter 6 of the Fourth Gospel can only really be understood against the background of the church’s experience of the Eucharist, which is why many New Testament scholars think that the words we have just heard were not words spoken by the historical Jesus himself, but were interpretative words put into the mouth of Jesus by the writer of the fourth gospel.
And if we needed any persuading that these words are not to be taken literally we can find it in the very last verse of our reading: ‘he who eats this bread will live for ever’. Clearly if we take those words simply at their face value we shall not.
But what the author is saying is that here the life of eternity penetrates the life of time. In this very service what we are doing and partaking of later on in bread and, at least normally if not at the moment, wine is what another early church father described as ‘the medicine of eternity’. It demonstrates and makes real the values in Christianity that are inherently eternal rather then temporal, as we bind ourselves to Christ in this service in the most literal way, and so bind ourselves to live out those eternal values in the daily lives we live in the rest of the week. Here we encounter God, here time and eternity meet and intersect in bread and wine.
And this food that God gives us in the Eucharist is not to sustain us in the way normal food does, there is not enough of it for that, but it is here to sustain the life of the spirit and soul. Earlier in chapter 6 the author compares this food to the manna that tradition has it God gave the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. But there the manna sustained them for a day; here the food he offers sustains us for eternity.
And the author of the Fourth gospel uses some very crudely literalistic words in the process of describing it: ‘the bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh’ and a few verses later ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you’. It sounds almost like cannibalism, until, that is, we remember the opening passage of St John’s gospel when his prologue culminates in the words ‘and the Word became flesh.’ That is the flesh that we partake of here, the Word of God, incarnate in Jesus Christ and made real for us now in bread and wine.
And what lies at the heart of this and of every Eucharist is the sacrifice Jesus made at Calvary. In his own body he shows us what God is like, and shows us at what cost that revelation was made. He shows us that the God who lies at the very heart of our universe is not an unfeeling and distant creator, but a God who feels for us, a God who suffers for us, a God who reveals to us his ultimate nature in this man whose body is broken on a cross. And in this service by participating in this Eucharist and eating the bread we bind ourselves to that God and to his sacrifice, as we literally take him into ourselves.
That great Roman Catholic teacher and Archbishop, Cardinal Basil Hume, was once asked what he thought his job was and he replied ‘to make God real for people.’ It was, of course, a deliberately double edged answer, to make God real in the sense of explaining what believing in God might mean in ways that touched people in their daily lives, but also in the sense of classic Catholic theology to make God real through the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
Now while that sacramental ministry might be focussed in those of us who are ordained, the wider meaning of those words is certainly not priests’ exclusive preserve. To make God real for people is the task of the whole church, clergy and laity together.
And while here it is focussed for us in this service in the form of bread and wine, it is not done just for our personal benefit, but it is done so that we can make God real for others as well. The medicine of eternity is not just for us to keep for ourselves, but it is there to help us all, clergy and laity alike, to make God real for those around us, by what we say, by what we do, by what we are, as we embody that sacrificial living that was shown in Jesus by taking him into ourselves.
And our prayer this morning must surely be that this ‘medicine of eternity’ that we are about to share might do that for all of us in the rest of this day and for the coming weeks.