St James, Calgary
Almighty God, you have broken the tyranny of sin and sent into our hearts the Spirit of your Son. Give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that all people may know the glorious liberty of the children of God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
May the words of my lips, and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Our Old Testament reading from Proverbs is thematically tied to our Gospel Reading. From Proverbs, Wisdom is understood to be Jesus himself and two interpretations arose of Wisdom’s house and the seven pillars. Either they were understood to represent Christ’s incarnation in a truly human body, in opposition to those who claimed Christ only appeared human, and the seven pillars as the Holy Spirit or the house is Christ’s Church which he built upon the pillars of the seven sacraments.
This second definition ties in well with our reading from St John’s gospel in which Jesus makes a famous and important claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’”
The Bread of Life?
How do we respond to Jesus’s claim? The Jews who heard Christ’s teaching reject it. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” It is the concern those who hear him raise because such a practice, even just the drinking of animal blood or consumption of it through uncooked meat and so on, was strictly forbidden for believing Jews.
Jesus responds by repeating himself: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” He doesn’t say, “no, no, you don’t understand, that was all just a metaphor.” He says, apart from me, you have no life in you. My body, given for you, is the means of eternal life.
Jesus continues in the next verse and says, “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” Believing Jews would likely have recognized this as a reference to the Prophet Isaiah who wrote,
Jesus doubles down and proclaims, “I am the fulfilment of God’s promise for food that satisfies every spiritual hunger.” It is freely given, just as my body is freely given for you. It is freely offered by his mercy and love, at no cost to us, and every cost to himself.
Jesus concludes this section of his discourse with further repetition to hammer home the point by making another reference to Scripture when he says that their, “ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live for ever.” There was the common concept in Jewish understanding of God’s relationship with his people that whenever God did something, it suggested that he would do it again, only on a greater scale or in a more magnificent way in the future. Christ is this greater fulfilment of God feeding his people during the Exodus.
The Challenge Today
Christ is being very clear to all of them through this: his words are not meant to be mistaken or taken lightly. This is made all the clearer by the fact that two times now, Christ has been challenged by the crowds over things he has said. Last week we heard how they asked him how he could claim to come from heaven because they know his parents. This week they ask incredulously how he can give them his flesh to eat.
The Jewish response might be a bit weird for us today given our Christian heritage, and our familiarity with talking about things like the Body and Blood of Christ. Indeed it wasn’t particularly controversial for Christians for over a thousand years, but that has changed in the last five-hundred years. At the time of the continental Reformation, Christians began to debate what Christ’s words mean.
Underlying this debate and underlying the challenges of the crowds when Jesus initially spoke these words, was a two-fold question. What do I get, and what do I have to do to get it?
When the crowds ask how Jesus can claim to have come from heaven if they know his parents, they are essentially saying, “this whole Bread of Life sounds great, but can you really deliver on what you’re talking about? What will I really get from this?” When they ask how he can give them his flesh to eat, they’re reacting against the prohibition against the consumption of human flesh and asking, “what do you expect us to do to get what you’re promising? Do we really have to do that?”
They are getting focused in on the question of what Jesus means when he says that the Bread of Life is his flesh. Does he mean the Bread of Life is his flesh or does he mean that the bread of life is metaphorically his flesh?
That is the question the Church has become hung up on in the past few hundred years. From the one end of the spectrum seeking complex narratives to describe how Jesus here, and at the Last Supper, was speaking metaphorically, to the opposite end where it wasn’t enough to profess that it is Christ’s body, but needed to explain how the bread and the wine become the Body and Blood. In both cases, the is a deeply, and honestly held conviction about what Christ means.
It was in this context that the English Reformation happened, and the English Church was forced by those circumstances to take a stand. Our liturgy and doctrines tend towards the spectrum of saying, “yes, it is Christ’s body,” which is why the Eucharist is so central to our public worship and is so reverently celebrated compared to a Christian tradition that disagrees on the question of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and so chooses to honour and worship Christ in other ways.
There is a little verse, attributed to Queen Elizabeth I, which neatly sums up the Anglican perspective:
Essentially saying, I trust in Scripture and I trust Jesus and I’m a little less worried about the exact details than I am in being obedient to his will and accepting the Bread of Life he offers. I think this approaches a bit more what Jesus is getting at in this discourse on the Bread of Life.
The Real Challenge
I’m going to illustrate this with a controversial statement, as if I haven’t said anything in the least bit contentious so far.
Last year was a very difficult time for me. I went through the death of a friend and mentor, my mother’s health declined significantly, and I had a whole bunch of other stressful situations going on at school and in the Diocese that really took a lot out of me.
Recently, an Eastern Orthodox priest who is a friend of mine sent me the gift of a box of tea with this note: “The famous Elder Saphrony of Essex said: ‘stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little and have a cup of tea.’” His note continued saying that although he couldn’t do much to help me, given the circumstances he knew I had been going through, he could supply me with tea. It was very much appreciated.
But here is my controversial statement: Elder Saphrony is wrong. There are some challenges which simply go beyond tea. For a tea lover such as myself this is quite a controversial statement.
All joking aside, I am sure I am not alone in experiencing these kinds of challenges. We live in a fallen humanity beset by evil, sin and death. It is these challenges that Christ is getting at when he makes his statement that he is the bread of life.
Our preoccupation with the nature of the Eucharist is a preoccupation with what we are receiving. When we look at the text, though, the emphasis isn’t so much on that as it is on Christ himself. He’s saying I’m giving up all of myself for all of you, so that you in turn can give all yourself to God and to others.
A somewhat famous Anglican apologist and children’s novelist once wrote that Christ says,
In the Eucharist, Jesus gives us the unobtainable solution to the greatest challenge that afflicts us. We are to take seriously Christ’s words in Scripture. We are to take seriously every word in Scripture. There are times where there can be ambiguity in Scripture and room for debate, but, dear friends, we cannot allow that ambiguity to become our focus. We are called less to ask what and how Christ does this, and ask instead a bit more of why Jesus is doing it and how we are to respond.
Many of the followers of Jesus cannot accept this teaching and fall away, but it is the Apostles who perhaps demonstrate best the response we are called to today. When Jesus later asks them if they too are caught up in these questions about his teaching and will leave him, they answer plainly “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Archbishop Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury has noted that in the parables that Jesus gives us, he leaves us with the question, “who are you in this story?” I would invite you now to consider what it might be like to be in the presence of Jesus as he teaches this. Where do your thoughts go? Do you focus on yourself, or do you focus on Christ?
Christ offers us the Eucharist. Whether we believe Christ means he is physically present or he means a spiritual presence, the first thing we must acknowledge is that Christ is offering eternal life.
William Holman Hunt has a famous painting called Light of the World, which depicts Christ standing at a door knocking based on Revelation 3:20. That is the picture I have of Jesus in the Eucharist. He’s standing at the doors of each of us and knocking, ready to give us the light of life.
St Ambrose of Milan exhorts us to,
Dear friends in Christ, we live in a world that is fallen, and in which we face sin and death. Jesus Christ has the words of everlasting life, words we have read in the Gospel today. We are gathered here today to honour Christ in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in acknowledgement of that. In it, we are offered the grace of God. That is why Jesus came down from heaven. Not just to teach. Not just to reveal. He came down to offer all of himself. To empower us with the grace of God so that we might unite ourselves with him, in service to God the Father, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. I ask you, then, when you receive the Eucharist in a few moments, how will your heart be oriented? Will you accept his words?
May we, by faith, ever open our hearts to the gifts of grace offered to us by our Lord Jesus Christ whose Body and Blood are given to preserve us, body and soul, unto everlasting life.
 Cf. Isa 11:2 7 Spirits of God (in the LXX and Vg, 6 in others); St John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Proverbs of Solomon 9.1
 St Bede, Commentary on Proverbs 1.9.1; St Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job 4.17.43
 St Jn vi. 51
 St Jn vi. 52b
 St Jn vi. 53b-54
 St Jn vi. 55
 Isa lv. 1, 3a
 St Jn vi. 58
 St Jn vi. 41f
 CS Lewis, Mere Christianity 4.8.4 (105)
 St Jn vi. 68
 Rowan Williams, Being Christian 2.2.5 (26)
 St Ambrose of Milan, Explanation on Psalm 118, 12