“Really”

  1. Jn. 6.51-58

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

The words of today’s Gospel are familiar to regular churchgoers. They are repeated in one form or another every time the bread and wine of the Eucharist are shared.

Yet to someone hearing them for the first time, these words could be shocking. “Jesus said, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven…the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The context of this passage is a discussion Christ is having with Hebrew leaders about the nature of his mission. They hear his words and they’re shocked! The leaders ask the common sense question: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

But Jesus sticks by his prediction: “Very truly, I tell you,” he says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

And to be sure the point is made, Jesus goes on to say, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.’’

These images certainly get our attention. They’re puzzling. They’re disturbing. But I don’t think they’re a challenge to faith.

On the contrary: these words are intended to deepen our faith. For Christ is giving us a way that we can get closer to God. The bread and wine remind us that we can actually share the life of the divine.

St. Paul said that we “live in Christ;” he claimed that Christ “lives in us.” We are part of a community united by the Spirit of Christ. In fact, the unity we find is so strong that we can think of ourselves not just as one in the Spirit of Christ but part of the Body of Christ. Which is precisely what Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel.

The vivid language Jesus uses has another purpose. It reminds us that Christ’s spirit comes to us in the bread and the wine of the sacrament. These “elements” of the rite, as they are called, are a unique way of coming to feel the shared life of God’s Kingdom.

Over the centuries, of course, Christians have tried to dig deeper. They have asked what the Eucharist means in philosophical or theological terms. Our Anglican tradition explains the sacrament by the doctrine of the “real presence.”

This understanding was formulated in reaction to the theological controversies of the English Reformation in the 1500’s. When the Church of England broke away from the Pope, it attempted to combine the best ideas of the Roman Catholic Church with the most useful concepts of the Protestant churches.

The split between Catholics and Protestants had originally occurred in part because of a disagreement about the Mass. Catholics claimed that the substance of the bread and wine changed into the substance of Christ’s body; this doctrine was called, “transubstantiation.”

Protestants like John Calvin, on the other hand, felt that the Eucharist had become too prominent in the church’s life. People became so obsessed with it that a lot of magical thinking revolved around it.

Protestants thus felt that the best thing was to see the ritual as a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus died once on the Cross. The Holy Communion is only a reminder of that original sacrifice, not a new sacrifice.

The doctrine of the Real Presence aims to keep the strengths of each position. Like the Protestants, Anglicans recognize the dangers of superstitious belief in the Eucharist. So we purposely leave the metaphysics vague. We don’t get specific about “what happens” at the Lord’s Table.

But, like the Roman Catholics, we do believe that something happens. We believe that when the rite is properly celebrated, there is a unique divine presence—the spirit of God that was incarnate in his Son Jesus when Jesus was on earth also comes to us, today. God-in-Christ is present. Really!

Now if you’re still perplexed about the meaning of the Eucharist—well, don’t be surprised that you’re perplexed! After all, the communion service is referred to as the “holy mysteries.”

I have sometimes pointed this out when I talk with parents about their children receiving communion. Children can come to the altar rail so long as they are baptized and the parents agree they can receive.

But some parents have asked me, “What if my child doesn’t understand the doctrines associated with Communion”.

My answer is that no one completely understands this ceremony! Bishops, theologians, saints—no one can comprehend how the Almighty God, the creator of all things becomes present to us in ordinary food and drink.

No wonder, then, that individual responses to the sacrament can vary quite a lot. At the communion rail, some of us think of the man, Jesus, and his compassion for all human beings.

Others of us sometimes have a general feeling of divine love. Others of us will have a less defined experience–yet we will often leave church with an awareness that we have been fed. Our spiritual hunger has been satisfied.

Whatever we feel, our Anglican view of sacraments is valuable. As we say, a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward grace.” So, in rites like the communion service or baptism or marriage, God always acts.

The failings of the priest or the imperfections of the worshippers don’t matter. When the outward signs are present—the bread and wine of communion, the water of baptism, the wedding vows–God will deliver the inward grace. That’s the reason for the bold language. God is a real presence.

Now in our culture today, the term, “real” is supposed to be a guarantee of authenticity—like cookies made with “real butter.”

But “real” is a tricky word. For example, what does it mean to say that some food has “real butter flavor?” Does the food have butter in it or not?

When people ask the question, “Really?” they’re wondering if something is what it claims to be. For the Christian, what’s really real lies beyond the material. It is in the spiritual that we find the deepest reality.

I believe the spiritual was present in our Assembly Hall on Friday, when the Vacation Bible School students had their closing communion service. There were many non-Anglican children there who were receiving Christ for the first time. They couldn’t have been able to describe the doctrine of the Real Presence. But they were able to realize they were in the presence of something beyond the ordinary. Something Spiritual. Something Holy. Something Real.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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