For many months the first wave of pandemic lockdown prevented us not simply from coming to church, but from coming to church for a particular purpose – namely to celebrate the Eucharist together. As we returned last summer to experience a new outdoor setting for worship, I had a sense that we returned with a heightened sense of our need for the Eucharist – a need discovered during its absence from our lives.
Sunday worship was no longer the gathering of the community at which we celebrated the Eucharist together by way of a default. Instead, worship had become a need to gather as a community in order to celebrate the Eucharist together by choice. At first sight this might seem a fine distinction but on closer inspection it is a distinction of some significance.
As Episcopalians we are a Eucharistic community – meaning the Eucharist lies at the center of our worship life. This gives our worship life a different feel and flavor from that of our Protestant neighbors. While we share the primacy of Eucharistic worship with our Roman Catholic neighbors – differences of history and culture place Episcopalians in that odd place known historically as the via media or middle way. Our theological outlook – shaped by the Reformation – we nevertheless preserve the historic ministry of bishop, priest and deacon together with the sacramental understanding and worship practices of the ancient Apostolic and Catholic faith. This can be a confusing place to be – often leaving us feeling in the US context neither fish nor fowl and misunderstood or dismissed by both. All this leads to the question – why does the Eucharist lie at the heart of our worship lives – and what does this mean?
Referring to today’s gospel from John, the short answer is because Jesus said: For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.
But this is not much help for many of us, I suspect. Such language can only deepen the quandary. What on earth can this language – which taken at face value suggests cannibalistic overtones – mean for us?
In her novel The River Flannery O’Connor intriguingly observes:
In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.Flannery O’Connor The River
Can this be a possible explanation for Jesus’ teaching in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel?
Jesus spoke about himself in the Passover language of bread and wine. The crowds who flocked to hear him, including his disciples well understood this reference but were a little surprised at Jesus’ bodily identification with the Passover elements of bread and wine. The crunch comes when he moves beyond mere Passover images into a shockingly new imagery – of the eating of his body as bread and the drinking of his blood as wine. There were many, John tells us, including some disciples who could not take this teaching – thinking him probably delusional. Many seem to have left him at this point.
Chapter 6 contains three I am statements, each statement more controversial than the last:
- I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never go hungry.
- I am the bread of life, come down from heaven.
- I am the living bread, and this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
Just when the disciples must have been signaling to Jesus to dial it back a bit, he declares:
For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.
In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.
His disciples complain that Jesus’ teaching is too hard to follow – it is too difficult to accept – they protest. It’s not difficult for us to see that it’s the overtones of cannibalism that trouble them as well as the blasphemous identification with the Moses and the elements of Passover. In a vulnerable moment, Jesus asks them if they too will leave him? There now follows one of those magic moments when Peter breaks through the limits of imagination to tell Jesus:
Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!
Behind this characteristic Johannine declaration, we can hear Peter saying: Lord, we don’t really understand any of this, but coming this far with you we have nowhere else to go.
It’s interesting that it’s only John’s gospel that records this extended bread of life teaching of Jesus. We are so familiar with John’s presentation of Jesus’ bread of life teaching that we miss that John had a particular need to present this material. It all makes sense when we remember that John is teaching against a background of a growing movement of Jesus denial – that is denial of the importance of Jesus himself in preference to a Spirit inspired personal connection with God that does an end run around Jesus the historical figure.
This Jesus denial group came to be known in Christian history as the Gnostics. They eventually split from the Johannine community making way for the assimilation of the remnants of John’s community into the wider church – bringing with them their preserved Jesus, the bread of the life of the world, teaching. It’s this teaching – unique to John that becomes the basis of the Apostolic Church’s eucharistic theology.
We can understand the tension in John’s community very much in contemporary terms. It’s the same tension which today we encounter between those of us who claim to be Christian and the many others who say they are spiritual but not religious – or with those who say you don’t have to go to church to be Christian. John’s answer to this contention is to emphasize that without a communal incorporation into Jesus as the bread of life – the life of the world, there is nowhere else to go.
Being spiritual but religious is better than not being spiritual at all. Those who recognize a higher spiritual plane are a force for good in the world. But being spiritual on your own is not the same as being a member of a community called Christian. Being Christian is to be Jesus-centered and an active participant in a community that celebrates Eucharist together.
In the Eucharist, as we celebrate the bread from heaven given for the life of the world we also in the same moment make our ethical commitment to the life of this world. The spiritual bread of the Eucharist is also the physical bread of food, shelter, and justice– made available in the everyday world through our actions of service and truth witnessing.
The great Episcopal lay theologian, William Stringfellow who lived the latter part of his life on Block Island and was a towering figure and friend to many in this diocese, wrote of celebrating the Eucharist:
As a transcendent event, [collecting] all that has already happened in this world from the beginning of time and prophesies all that is to come until the end of time.Keeper of the Word PP 125<<
Here, Stringfellow is articulating the cosmic significance of the Eucharist as an action of taking the flow of time – past and future – and folding them into the present moment – when and where:
The [Eucharist] is also a contemporary event, involving these particular persons gathered in this specific place and in this peculiar way
While keeping Flannery O’Connor’s wry observation in mind, William Stringfellow most clearly offers us the answer to the earlier question about why Episcopalians are a Eucharistic people – placing an open and welcoming celebration of the Eucharist at the heart of our communal life.
Stringfellow uses a dramatic term for celebrating the Eucharist. He calls it a political event.
The very example of salvation, it is the festival of life that foretells the fulfillment and maturity of all of life for all of time and in this time. The liturgy is social action because it is the characteristic style of life for human beings in this world.
Keeper of the Word