Something happened to the bread and wine
Today’s gospel reading contains strongly Eucharistic language. Living bread. Eternal life. Eat and drink.
My earliest memories of church were of the Eucharist. Every Sunday, my mother brought my brother and me to our Roman Catholic parish on the outskirts of Baltimore.
The church was a large cavernous space, built with a 1960s aesthetic and a circular floorplan. Now, admittedly, as a very young child, I spent much of the service with my back to the altar, sitting on the kneeler, using the pew as a table for my coloring book and crayons.
But every time the Eucharist started, I was pulled in. I watched our priest raise his arms in the orans position. I listened to him recite ancient words, words that barely made any sense, but I knew somehow, innately, that something important was happening. I was mesmerized. I sensed that something mysterious was taking place even though I couldn’t begin to fathom what it was.
In the early years, my mom would leave my brother and me in the pews while she went up to the altar rail to receive Communion. If you are familiar with the Catholic church, you’ll know why we were left behind in the pews.
First Communion is an important tradition for Catholic families. Boys wear suits and ties; girls wear white dresses and veils like little brides. Gifts are presented and families throw parties for this momentous occasion.
Baptized children receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time only after a period of preparation and instruction, and after receiving the sacrament of First Penance and Reconciliation. Typically, this happens around age 7 or the second grade. A child must have at least two years of catechesis in order to have sufficient knowledge of the Eucharist and to be able to distinguish the Body and Blood of Christ from ordinary food.
So, in my early years, I did not really understand the Holy Eucharist. But I wonder, can any of us really understand this bread of heaven, this bread of life?
Chapter 6 in John’s gospel begins with Jesus feeding the crowd of 5,000 with only five barley loaves and two fish. He fed them with real, actual bread that filled their empty stomachs. He provided them the calories they needed in that moment.
Then Jesus lectures the Judeans on a different kind of bread. Bread which he refers to as living bread. For the first four Sundays in August, we hear Jesus make a startling claim that whoever eats this bread will live forever. And he claims that he is the bread of life. The bread he gives for the life of the world is his flesh.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus becomes more explicit. This bread which will bring eternal life, is his very flesh. He tells his followers they must eat his flesh. They must drink his blood. This is gruesome, cannibalistic language.
The Judeans hearing this directive don’t understand. They ask, “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (6:53) Now, keep in mind that unlike us, they are hearing these words from a man standing before them in the flesh. So, yes, these words about flesh-eating probably were jarring.
Next week, we will hear the disciples exclaim, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” (6:60) I can hardly blame them. This teaching is difficult.
But then, in the middle of this passage Jesus offers absolutely beautiful, reassuring words: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (6:56)
They will abide in me and I am them. Comforting words. But what do they mean to us?
The Holy Eucharist—or Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper—is a sacrament. Over time, four different theological understandings of the Eucharist have developed within Christianity. These are: transubstantiation, the real presence of Christ, consubstantiation, and the memorial of the Lord's Last Supper. Each of these understandings makes a sacramental claim on the celebration and reception of the bread and wine. Each claims insight into the nature of the physical matter—the bread and the wine—as a consequence of the Eucharistic prayer. Each of these theologies has an honored place in Anglican history and the life of the church.
Do you need to understand each of these theological perspectives? Do you need to pick the “right one”? Do you even know which one is the right one? Does it matter?
I don’t know... maybe what matters most is that you are open to perceiving the Eucharistic mystery that is happens right here in this place and time.
In a few minutes, after I deliver this sermon, after the creed and the prayers of the people, after we greet each other in peace, Tim will set the table with cruets of water and wine, and wafers of bread. Then Christie will stand behind the altar and begin the Eucharistic prayer. She will recite the Words of Institution, which echo the words of Christ at the Last Supper. Words that go something like this: “Take, eat, this is my Body” and “Drink this, all of you: this is my Blood.”
Watch Christie’s hands as she touches the vessels containing the wine and the bread. She will invoke the Holy Spirit to bless and sanctify the wine and bread. This part of the Eucharistic Prayer is called the Epiclesis. And then… something, something will happen to the wine and bread.
You don’t need to understand how, but if you believe that Christ is present in the bread and wine—and I mean really present, bodily or spiritually or both—then taking the bread into your hands, and the wine into your mouths is the most intimate Christian act you can do. And then something happens to you.
I love Catholicism—its rich liturgical tradition, its sacramental theology… And I am grateful that my early years were spent in the pews of my Roman Catholic Church. And, yes, First Communion in the Catholic church is a big deal. But now I’m going to tell you the story of how my path veered in a different direction.
Every summer my grandparents came down from New York to visit us.
My grandfather was a life-long Episcopalian. He was an every-Sunday kind-of guy. And he wasn’t just a Sunday-only kind of guy. He was active. He served on the vestry and many committees and programs over the decades. My grandmother, on the other hand, was an-every-Sunday kind of Roman Catholic. Nana was as involved in her church as Poppie was in his.
They supported each other’s faith. Every Sunday morning, Nana and Poppie parted ways and went to their respective churches. Vacations were no different.
I remember one particular summer Sunday when I was perhaps 6 years old and my grandparents were in town. Nana and my mom headed off to our Catholic church. On that day, however, I accompanied my grandfather to the little Episcopal church in our town.
St. Christopher’s occupied a small stone church built in the 19th century. Very different from what I was used to. I sat down next to Poppie in on an old oak pew. At Communion, he went up the rail near the chancel and kneeled. Not wanting to sit alone in a strange place, I followed him and knelt next to him. [You know where this is going…] He extended his hands over the rail. I watched and did the same. The next thing you know… Bam… I had received my First Communion. No white dress. No party. ;) I told Mom what had happened when I got home. She smiled. But she also leaned in and conspiratorially whispered, “Do not let either of your Roman Catholics grandmothers know about it.”
The joke in my family now is that I was destined to become an Episcopal priest with that accidental “First Communion” in the Episcopal church. The joke is centered around the idea that a simple moment of eating a piece of bread dipped in wine while kneeling next to my grandfather could possibly have changed the trajectory of my life.
But what if that’s exactly what happened?
What is something real happened in that moment? And not because I was present in an Episcopal church but rather because Christ was present with me.
Jesus said: “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” This word “abide” has such a rich meaning in the original Greek. Abide means to remain, to not depart. To continue to be present. To be held, kept continually. Abide means to continue to be, not to perish but to last and endure.
If Christ is describing his abiding relationship with us this way, I am reassured. When we receive communion, Christ is abiding with us, assuring us of his continual presence. In this sacramental act, Christ remains and doesn’t depart. Who wouldn’t want in on this living bread?
Fifty years after my accidental first communion, I stand humbly before you ordained in apostolic succession, with a Master of Divinity in hand, and yet… I still cannot fully fathom what is happening during the Eucharist. I have studied it in from an intellectual perspective, but always I experience it emotionally and spiritually.
The Eucharist for me will always be a holy and deep mystery which brings Jesus in our present moment and place, so that we will abide in Christ and Christ will abide in us.