Two Sundays ago we concluded our series of Gospel Readings from the 6th chapter of John, the long discourse on Jesus as “the Bread of Life.” I’ve never understood how any Christian, or Christian community, can read that chapter and have anything less than a very high view of the Eucharist…and of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist!
I mean onr Sunday the text read: “Jesus said to them, ‘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.” And the next Sunday he says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (selections from John 6:51-58). You can’t have a much higher view of the Eucharist than that!
Of course, it’s never been easy to believe! Even some of Jesus’ first disciples said, in response to all this, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? But Jesus…said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”
I think what Jesus is saying is that all of this really depends on who you think he is! If the claim of the early Church, the New Testament, and the Creeds is really true…if Jesus really is “…the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God…” if Jesus really is (in ways quite beyond our ability fully to understand) “God Incarnate,” then the rest of this stuff is easy to believe! It’s the “small stuff” compared to the Incarnation!
I mean Jesus’ wisdom, the miraculous signs he gave, the sacramental realities of Baptism and the Eucharist, they simply follow from the basic fact of who he really is! And the fact that God uses the “stuff” of this world to become known to us – flesh and blood, the laying on of hands and human touch, water, bread, wine, oil – all of it! It’s called the “sacramental principle” and it just means that God comes to us in real, material ways sometimes.
This was not absolutely new in Jesus (although it reached its pinnacle there). In our Reading from the First Book of Kings today Solomon has completed his oversight of the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem and they take great care to have the priests, and other community leaders, bring the so-called “ark of the covenant” (that “tent” or container which they had carried with them all through the desert time with the Ten Commandments and other symbols in it)…they brought this ark of the covenant into the new Temple so that it could be enshrined there.
And this portion of the Hebrew Bible says that, “the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place…and when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house…” (I Kings 8 passim)
Now here is a people who refused to make any kind of “graven image” or even picture of God, who were horrified by anything that looked like the worship of idols or representation of God who nonetheless write in their sacred scriptures of enshrining this tent in the “holiest place of the Temple” and – in the doing – experience the Presence and the Glory of God filling that Holy Place!
It was simply unavoidable! They had to record the experience! This formless, spiritual Reality – the name of whom they would not even pronounce out loud except one a year– this Hidden God nonetheless becomes present to them in some very visible and tangible ways!
Well, we need that sometimes. And even though Jesus also says in the Gospel that “It is the spirit that give life; the flesh is useless,” he also says, “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” It is in the joining of the Spirit and the “stuff” of this world that God comes to us in what I’ve called the Sacramental Principle.
We say that sacraments are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” When you come forward to receive Holy Communion in the Eucharist, you won’t be eating flesh and blood, you’ll be eating bread and wine. But that Bread and Wine will have been “consecrated” (prayed over, blessed) and because of that the Holy Spirit has acted and you will be receiving into your self, the Very Being and Life of Christ. Spirit and life! Spiritual food and drink!
Why do we do this every Sunday? Because you and I need spiritual food for spiritual strength. The Epistle to the Ephesians says this morning, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness…” (Ephesians 6)
Yes, that’s our struggle all right. Whether it’s against temptation and sin, against suspicion and fear, against poverty and disease, against hatred and violence, we need “the whole armor of God.” And, for catholic Christians like ourselves, part of that “armor” is the sacramental life. The sacramental system – baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, ordained ministers, confession, marriage, and healing. It’s all part of the package. The “whole armor of God.”
And it’s why we need each other. And why we need the Church.