Monday, August 17, 2015

The food come down from heaven

Sermon notes for Proper 15B (8/16/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

For generations in the Episcopal Church, members would receive Holy Communion only after they were confirmed, sometime around 13 years old. It was thought that by this age individuals would be well prepared and were suitably old enough to claim the faith for themselves, thus ready to comprehend the deeper meaning of eating the holy meal of the body and blood of Jesus. Some, however, wanted communion earlier and began to adopt the Roman Catholic “age of reason,” thus offering the first communion at age seven or eight. This view recognized that children of such an age could perhaps understand enough about the Lord’s Supper for it to have meaning for them. Others still believed in the rightness of the Orthodox tradition where the baptized, even babies, received communion upon their baptism. What is the proper age? When is old enough really old enough?

A story from a friend of mine might prove instructive (at least it was for me). A priest in the Roman Catholic Church, Peter abided by his bishop’s directive to give communion to children only after they reached first grade, when they and their parents had received adequate instruction. Every Sunday, Peter’s five-year old nephew would come with his parents to Peter’s church. Every Sunday, his nephew would come forward to the altar at communion time, with his hands cupped and lifted to receive the body of Christ. Every Sunday, Peter would reach his hand down, touching his nephew’s head for a blessing.

Now, one day as Peter was reaching down his hands, his nephew pushed them away. Defiance on his face, the child shook his fist at him, “You give bread to everyone else! Why not me?”

I learned a lesson from that story when I heard it. You see, Peter’s nephew was able to understand that he was being excluded. Now, since he was old enough to sense the exclusion, imagine the understanding and sense of inclusion he would had being fed by Jesus along with the rest. I think that this might give credence to those who desire to open the table to all who come, to anyone who wants to eat of the bread life and drink from the cup of salvation. I think it’s the same theological perspective as baptizing infants: It’s not about what we initiate but what God initiates in us.

I think that feeding children the bread of heaven at the earliest age is a wonderful way to know the love of God and to feel the inclusion of the Christian community. It’s powerful to imagine children who have no memory of when they did not eat at the table of the Lord. It’s like the reality of a good parent’s love, the absence of which a child should never experience.

As to what children understand or when they are able to understand it, who knows? But I do know this, if we communicate children early, when the time comes they will understand – the sacrament of inclusion and belonging, the sacrament of love and self-giving. 

Jesus told us earlier in this monologue on the Bread of Life in John chapter 6, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

Over the centuries, the “food that endures for eternal life” has been taken on a number of interpretations:

First, the food has come to be understood as “knowing God’s word.” When Jesus went into the wilderness, after fasting forty days and forty nights, Satan tempted him to turn stone into bread to feed his incredible hunger. Jesus responded, “It is written, ‘One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). This means that we must strive to know and understand, to treasure and put into practice all the words that come from the mouth of God.

Second, stemming from the first, the food has come to mean “doing God’s will.” Responding to his disciples who demanded that he eat, Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Therefore, just as we must strive after knowing the word of God, we must also strive after doing God’s word, i.e. doing God’s will. That’s why it’s not surprising that just a few verses earlier in the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus announces, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day” (John 6:38-39).

Finally, the food that has come down is the Eucharist. This is the food prophesied by the daily miracle of the manna during the Exodus. God rained down manna each day to feed the people of the covenant as they wandered in the desert before coming to the Promised Land. God now rains down Jesus, the Living Bread come down from heaven, our spiritual food in the Eucharist.

All three of these interpretations, of course, go hand-in-hand in the celebration of Holy Eucharist.

We begin our Holy Eucharist, of course, with God’s word, uniting our story with the story of God in the sacred scripture. We hear the story. We learn the story. We enter the story. We become the story. It’s not really about any particular story or any particular combination of words. There is a lot more that could have been told but was left out, at least according to John (20:30). No, it’s not about the particular stories or words – those are important lessons but the real impact comes when we see the deeper connection with the Word that flowed from the mouth of God at creation, that was spoken to the prophets, and that came down from heaven, sent by the living Father, to be born of Mary. This is the Word that we must know, the words of sacred scripture will help lead the way.

Our Mass ends with a sending, reminiscent of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go therefore…” (Matthew 28:16-20). We are sent to do the will of God: making disciples (Mathew 28:16-29), sharing stories and breaking bread (Luke 24:13-35), washing each other’s feet (John 13:1-20), loving our neighbors (Luke 10:25-37), and loving our enemies (Matthew 5:44), among much more. From beginning to end, the Bread of Life Discourse resonates with the tones, subtle and obvious, of Passover and Eucharist. Indeed, there is great and undeniable significance found in the promised abundance of abiding and eternal life, found through Jesus, shown in his life and death, offered for us and to us. But there is equal significance in the needed appropriation of that gift, the ways in which and by which the life and death of Jesus are woven into our own being in the world. 

The lesson from Wisdom today demonstrates some of that by showing a deeply inviting hospitality. Lady Wisdom prepares a great feast, setting her table, available to all those who seek insight into her ways and paths. The picture awakens in me the hospitality of Abraham by the terebinths of Mare, when he laid out a feast for the angelic visitors in the desert. It was there, in the midst of their hospitality, that Sarah and Abraham were made the promise of their inheritance – their eternal life through their son Isaac. It wasn’t because of their hospitality that the covenant was made and it’s not because of our hospitality that eternal life is given, but hospitality sure makes it easier to see the Lord and hear the promise.

The banquet of Wisdom and the scenes of feeding and giving in John 6 haunt us haunts us their abiding hospitality, allusions to God’s gifts and declarations of God’s love. The manna in the wilderness, God’s hospitality to the Israelites on the long journey through the inhospitable places, is where the People of God came to terms with their departure from Egypt and their deliverance and the invitation to freedom. The inhospitable desert is where they learned new things about God’s hospitality and looked forward to life in the world to come of the Promised Land.

May all our Eucharists show forth to ourselves and to others the hospitality of our God in the long journeys of life. May our lives grow ever deeper into the self-offering of our Savior Jesus, so that we can offer ourselves and the fruits of our lives and labors to others in his name.

And finally, after the Word is spoken but before we are sent, the Eucharist is made and shared. It is our Manna, our Bread of Life. The second century church father, Irenaeus, said it this way: “The word of God, Jesus Christ, on account of his great love for mankind, became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.”

Feeding on the body and blood of Christ is life-sustaining nutrition, food for the soul. By faith, we eat the bread and drink the wine, thus enabling the process by which Christ penetrates our beings and nourishes our lives. We are what we eat. And so In this sacrament, God’s very life comes to us and in us. We have union with God, re-called to the truth that this union with God through Jesus, the Christ, is the connecting link for us with all that is good and true and holy.

It is here that we have the awesome privilege of receiving the Word made Flesh, God’s daily spiritual manna, in the Eucharist. We become one body with Christ in the Eucharist, restoring us and making us one with the Word and able to accomplish his will. United with Christ our head, we become his hands, his feet, and his heart in the world.

In the end, the living bread that sustains us should always be our quest: Jesus, whose prayer, mind and deeds show us what to do – Jesus whose flesh and blood instill new life within us – Jesus who lives in us that we might live forever.

 “Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work and to follow in the blessed steps of his most holy life.” (from the Gathering Collect, Proper 15, BCP 232).

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