Did you notice we’ve had about 6 weeks in a row of Gospel readings about bread? Maybe not if you’ve been on vacation a bit this summer, but thematically you haven’t missed much in John’s gospel. This long passage is called the Bread of Life discourse.
It starts out with feeding of 5,000. Now there’s a story about bread. And the people loved it, after Jesus fed them they followed him around, huge crowds were trailing after him, hoping in no small part for more free food, because they were hungry and poor.
Today he tells them, you’re not quite getting it. It’s not just about free food, and not even just about feeding the hungry. It’s about me, Jesus, I’m the bread of life, you have to eat and drink me.
I’m going to give my flesh, my life, for you. This sounded at least as weird, probably more so, to 1st Century residents of Palestine as it does to us.
In the Eucharist we enact what we hope for the world – that all are gathered in community, praising, rejoicing, being fed, sharing. Here, for a brief time, God’s kingdom is come. We do this because we believe that even in this small way making that be true, God’s kingdom come on earth, it makes a difference. In the end, the Eucharist is about mission. About our willingness to follow Jesus in self-sacrifice and being empowered by his spirit within us, as we take this bread and wine -- his body and blood-- within us, giving us the power to continue his mission in the world. We are his body now, his body given to the world.
Jesus saying they are not quite getting two things: about eating and drinking and living Jesus, and about death and sacrifice. Do we get these things? Are they what we think of when we share the bread of life each Sunday?
The Eucharist clearly has many, many meanings we can put on it. We can interpret it in a multitude of ways. Sometimes interpretations are put on something after the fact. For example, I remember being told as young acolyte that the white cardboard card that covers the chalice was called pall because it covered the body of Christ the way a pall is draped over a casket. Really, its whole reason for existence is to keep the flies out of the wine. We can make up meanings that are meaningful to us, and they are not necessarily wrong.
But with the Eucharist, it’s worth thinking about, what did this originally mean to those who started it? Why did Peter and James and John and all the reset keep doing it, keep reenacting the Last Supper they had experienced? Why was the whole bread and wine thing so important to those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, because they after all, are the ones who started it and handed it down to us?
It meant, I think, two central things to them, these two things that Jesus is saying the people looking for free food are not quite getting.
The first is sacrifice. Jesus said, eat my flesh and drink my blood. Gross, right? But Jesus, who in addition to being called the Bread of Life in John’s Gospel is also called the Lamb of God, knew that his hearers would remember the temple practice of animal sacrifice, meat sacrificed to God to be a gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness. And that they also might think of the blood of the Passover lamb that was put on the doorposts in the Exodus story. Christ our Passover, sacrificed for us, we say. Jesus’ sacrifice, Jesus’ willingness to take the place of the lamb, to give himself to bring us finally and completely into right relationship with God, was in some ways the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
The second is the idea of being close to Jesus. An intimate relationship with Jesus was key to early church’s understanding of Eucharist. In eating and drinking bread and wine, early church members felt drawn closer to Jesus and to his mission, empowered by his spirit within them to continue his work. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” Jesus said. “whoever eats me will live because of me.”
Our practices of worship come out of these underlying understandings of the meaning of the Eucharist. It includes self-offering, and it includes being drawn close to the heart of Jesus so we can be empowered for God’s mission in the world. Did you know even in those early days, in the first decades of the church, they passed the collection plate like we do today? It’s a bit hard to believe, but if you go back and read Acts and Paul’s letters, they are constantly talking about taking up collections to help out the poorer members of the church in this or that city or to feed the widows and orphans. It was part of Christian worship from the beginning, because of need to include some kind of self-offering, self-sacrifice, self-commitment, in Eucharistic worship. If we come to be fed only, to take only, we aren’t getting it. Some portion of giving, whether that’s just a commitment to doing something for someone else, or a giving of what you have, also needs to be present for it to be Eucharistic worship. We continue in the self-offering of Jesus.
And we also re-enact and remember the intimacy and friendship of that early group of disciples, the close relationship they had with Jesus. One thing about the early Eucharist was that it was hugely important that they did it together. They totally could have chosen to have the commemoration of Last Supper be some private experience, done in secret. The early church did exactly the opposite. They knew Jesus is really present when we gather together and invite others to join us. It was always a public party, the more the merrier, something that outsiders noticed and wondered about. Who are those people feasting and eating and drinking? What are they celebrating? Why are they so happy? This is how the church grew—by hosting great parties. Always everybody welcome at the table. The bread of life was freely given to all.
And you know, both of these things, self-sacrifice and being close to Jesus, really feed into the other – we can’t sacrifice ourselves unless we are fed by Jesus, being close to Jesus and resting in his love and nourishment for us means we have the energy and ability and power to follow him in self-sacrifice. It’s a cycle, right?