2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; John 6:1-21
True Confession Time: Preaching is not easy – not the actual preaching, but figuring out what to say:What do the scriptures say about what is going on in our world, and/or in the life of St. Paul’s? This puzzle is complicated by the fact that the scriptures are proscribed—as I think about what needs to be said, I also have to find the connection to scriptures chosen long ago for this day.
As you may know, we follow a rota of readings for each Sunday—scholars and liturgists have created several different schedules of readings to take us through the Bible in a systematic way. We follow what is called the Revised Common Lectionary – it was created in the 1990s by North American Roman Catholics in tandem with the mainline denominations. This means that the majority of Christians here in the U.S. and Canada read the same scriptures each Sunday in worship.
The readings are divided into three years, labeled A, B, and C. Each of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke are grouped together under this title because they follow roughly the same outline—each of these gospels is the focus of a year. Year A features reading from the Gospel of Matthew; Year B (that’s what we’re in now) has readings from the Gospel of Mark; and Year C has reading from the Gospel of Luke.
Of course, that means that the Gospel of John does not have its own year. This is remedied by readings from John in Eastertide each year, as well as one-offs in appropriate moments throughout the church year.
And there is one other exception. Here in the middle of ordinary time in Year B we take a five-week detour into the Gospel of John. Specifically, into the sixth chapter of John.
This chapter has a theme: Jesus as the Bread of Life. This is a big idea, isn’t it? There is a lot of symbolism in this metaphor—if that is even the right thing to call it. Jesus is our bread—as vital to our souls as the food that sustains our bodies.
And yet, five weeks is a long time to talk about one metaphor – one way of understanding our relationship to God through the person of Jesus. If a preacher isn’t careful, he or she could easily paint his or herself into a homiletical corner! What I thought we would do instead is use this as an opportunity to examine more closely our most central symbol of this relationship: the Eucharist. Over the next three weeks I’d like to examine the Eucharist through the lens of this sixth chapter of John, helping us into a conversation about the meaning of this powerful ritual that is at the center of our worshipping life.
It is interesting to note that, while the synoptic gospels each tell the story of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, John does not. Rather, he delves into the meaning of the Eucharist; what it means to understand that Christ gave himself as living bread. And you can’t miss the Eucharistic symbolism in today’s reading from the beginning of chapter six. In verse 11 we read, “Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them.” The allusion could not be clearer.
And, of course, the entire story of the feeding of the multitude is filled with Eucharistic symbolism. Our liturgical practice has become so ritualized that we have largely separated it from its origins in a meal. Looking at today’s story through the lens of the Eucharist helps us better connect the story of the Last Supper to our regular practice of sitting down to eat a meal.
A crowd has gathered to be at the feet of Jesus—to hear his words, and to receive his healing touch. They are in a remote place, so there is no ready source of food. Jesus begins to worry about how all of these people are going to eat. Or is he really worried? The text says his words were a test for Philip. Jesus seizes this “teachable moment.” Philip notes that there are so many people present that, even if there was a place to buy bread, they could never afford to buy enough for everyone. But Jesus seems to be unfazed by this pronouncement. When Andrew notes that there is a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus goes to work. He asks that the people be assembled, he breaks and blesses the bread, and begins to pass it out. Sounds very Eucharistic, doesn’t it?
And then, when all is said and done—that is after everyone has had enough to eat and the leftovers are gathered, it seems that there is actually more left than they began with! Twelve baskets of fragments of bread are gathered. Of course, there is no accident in that number – twelve – it represents the twelve tribes of Israel, symbolizing that there is enough left for everyone.
So, what seemed impossible (feeding 5,000 people with only five loaves and two fish) is not simply accomplished; Jesus actually exceeds the mark, providing far more than enough! This lavish feeding—this abundance—is more than possible through the grace of Christ’s actions. And we see that this is a symbol—a sign—that the gift of God’s own son in a death like ours will be much more than enough for us.
That brings me to the Eucharistic theme in this story that caught my eye – in verse two we read, “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick,” and in verse 14, “When the people saw the sign that he had done.” Signs. Jesus is one who uses signs to point to bigger things – or perhaps more accurately, to the invisible things, to the hard to explain things.
Of course, our ritual of Holy Eucharist is all about sign and symbol. But what is the nature of those signs? This question historically has been a point of great contention. What are we doing when we consecrate bread and wine? This is about transubstantiation. To quote Wikipedia:
Some High church Anglicans, especially those considered to be Anglo-Catholics, hold beliefs identical with, or similar to, the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. It was first promulgated by Scholastic theologians in the Middle Ages and understands the Eucharist to be a ‘re-presentation’ of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, with the elements transubstantiated into Christ’s physical as well as spiritual Body and Blood. Low church or Evangelical Anglicans, expressing a view similar to that of the Reformed churches, deny that the presence of Christ is carnal or can be localized in the bread and wine. Instead, they believe that Christ is present in a ‘heavenly and spiritual manner’ only, with the faithful receiving Christ’s presence by faith.[i]
Whatever we believe happens in the Eucharist, the act is filled with signs—that is, “a motion or gesture by which a thought is expressed or a command or wish made known,”[ii] as the dictionary defines the word. In three Sundays we will have an instructed Eucharist, when I will talk about the many signs and symbols of our worship. I hope that it will help you better understand what we are doing in worship, and hopefully find new meaning in this ancient ritual.
For now, as we turn from the liturgy of the word to the liturgy of the table—from talking about who God is and the nature of our relationship to God, to the intricate dance of the Eucharist, in which we remember through words and actions the gift of God in Jesus Christ—for now, focus on the ritual anew. Think about the ways that you have changed your own understanding of this central rite. Think about the ways you have changed your observance of it. And think about what new meaning might be found in gift of bread and wine, as sign—or as actual presence—of the gift of the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, assuring us eternal life.
I invite you to hear the words, and see the actions, and take the bread and wine, as though it was your first time. Think about what it means to you and how you might understand the mystery of this act. Wherever you find yourself in all this, know one thing: Always remember that the Eucharist is an important sign of an absolute truth: God’s love for you is so great that God would give even God’s own son in death for your life. God has more than enough to satisfy your needs. You are loved by God. Thanks be to the Almighty for this gift of grace. Amen.
[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglican_Eucharistic_theology, accessed 7/28/2012.